Civilizing the ‘Viking’
This paper examines the pedagogical strategies developed by the authors of two Norwegian thirteenth-century court books, The King’s Mirror and the Law of the Hird, in order to implement Western etiquette and rules of courtly behaviour at the court of the Norwegian kings. Inculcating new modes of behaviour, displaying self-restraint and courtesy to an aristocratic elite of a peripheral kingdom indulging in excesses of all kinds was challenging. In order to encourage Norwegian retainers to adopt new rules of speech, gestures, dress and table manners, our authors developed a threefold strategy emphasizing voluntary commitment and its beneficial character, and providing several highly practical advice easy to put into practice in many situations. The article concludes in stressing the decisive role of mediators of foreign culture into the Norse elite in underscoring their own knowledge and perception of both foreign and local cultures.
Mots-clés :cour, étiquette, culture courtoise, Hirdskrá, loi de la Hird, Miroir du roi, pédagogie, Scandinavie médiévale
Keywords :court, courtly culture, etiquette, Hirdskrá, Medieval Scandinavia, rituals, The King’s Mirror, The Law of the Hird
OutlineTop of page
- 1 Paris 1964, p. 45.
- 2 See Nordal 1998; Roesdal and Sørensen 2003, p. 132.
- 3 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 255. English translation: The Saga of Hacon, 1997.
- 4 Brégaint 2015, pp. 176–81.
- 5 Halvorsen 1973, pp. 17–26.
- 6 Barnes 1974; Kalinke 1981; Marti 2011; Irlenbusch-Reynard 2011.
1In 1247 the Capetian king Louis IX invited Hákon Haakon IV Haakonsson, King of Norway (r. 1217–63), to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. When the French king invited Haakon’s men to his kingdom, the Norwegian king expressed his embarrassment concerning the behaviour of northerners. Haakon described his subjects as quarrelsome, ‘impetuous and imprudent, impatient of any sort of injury or restraint’.1 Qualifying thirteenth-century Norwegians as ‘Vikings’ based on these qualities is not as preposterous as it seems. Contemporary saga literature readily depicts Norsemen as undisciplined, querulous, vindictive and easily indulging in excesses of all kinds (for example, brutality and drunkenness). These are characteristics traditionally associated with northern Viking culture.2 Indeed, thirteenth-century Norwegians suffered an execrable reputation abroad. For instance in 1247 when the papal legate William of Sabina, who had come to Norway from England in order to crown Haakon Haakonsson, said during the coronation banquet’s speech that, ‘it was told me that I should here see few men; but even though I saw some, then they would be liker to beasts in their behaviour than to men’.3 As Haakon Haakonsson’s response to Louis’s invitation displays, Haakon was fully aware of his men’s reputation abroad. His eponymous saga also shows that this reputation was rightfully earned. The king was constantly plagued by his hirdmen’s indiscipline, violence and drinking.4 However, Haakon and his successors actively strove to ‘educate’ their men by promoting cultivated behaviour and introducing rules of etiquette at their court. This enterprise aimed at strengthening the loyalty of the aristocracy and at channelling its excesses into service of the monarchy. These actions also follow the Norwegian court’s broader practice of emulating the great courts of Western Europe. An element of this programme was the royal patronage of nearly forty translations of Old French courtly romances into Old Norse.5 However, bringing foreign standards of conduct to the Norwegian court was challenging. Courtly ideals promoting temperance and self-control conflicted greatly with the local ‘traditional’ values and norms ruled by honour, action, political pragmatism, excesses in drinking and eating, and personal revenge. However, I will argue that the translators of courtly romances were sensitive to the cultural gap existing between the Norwegian and Western European courts. In their translations they emphasized plot and action, and edited out ‘foreign references’ to feelings and courtly love, as well as to religion, in what seems to be an effort to engage the interest of Norwegian courtiers.6
- 7 Elias 2000.
- 8 Konungs Skuggsía 1945. English translation: The King’s Mirror, 1917.
2In his seminal work The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias equated the adoption of new codes of behaviour within the precinct of princely courts with a process leading from rusticity to ‘civilized’ deportment.7 This process was also one of social and political control that favoured the domestication of an elite by the state power. The works examined here illustrate that this process was well advanced in the peripheral kingdom of Norway in the thirteenth century. In this paper, I will analyse two contemporary works displaying standards of courtly conduct and etiquette, the Hirdskrá and the King’s Mirror (Konungs Skuggsía).8 The Hirdskrá is the Law of the Hird, which was drafted between 1273 and 1277. It regulated the functioning of the hird, which in the thirteenth century equated to the court of the Norwegian kings. It describes the different offices at court, the duties and rights of hirdmen, and contains several chapters on good conduct at court. The King’s Mirror was written around 1250 and also addressed the elite. It was a princely mirror for merchants, members of the royal retinue and kings, all familiar with court. The work is presented as a dialogue between an inquisitive son and knowledgeable father. The book contains chapters on the geography, climate, and fauna of the northern regions. The several chapters touching on the conduct of retainers at the court of the Norwegian kings are relevant to the present discussion. I will argue that in order to promote the reception of courtly conduct at the Norwegian court, the authors of the two aforementioned works relied on a pedagogical strategy based on selecting themes that resonated in the Norsemen’s mentalities and aspirations, while using literary devices appropriate for an unsophisticated audience. Three elements are singled out in the present analysis: the formulation of practical advice, the creation of incentives for self-profit, and an emphasis on the non-compulsory character of recommendations.
Fig. 1: Facsimile of The King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsiá). Copenhagen, The Royal Library, AM 243b a fol.
Fig. 2: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, the letter « M » with the king handing over a law code to a councillor. Detail from manuscript GKS 1154 2, the Hardenberg Codex. Copenhagen, The Royal Library, fol. 01v.
3Both the Hirdskrá and the King’s Mirror provide an abundance of information on what was considered as honourable behaviour at court. In the chapter concerning courteous and refined behaviour (chap. 28), the Hirdskrá deals with the moral foundation of courtesy, listing the bad habits and vices from which dishonourable conduct originate. The following chapter develops what the precepts of good conduct are, namely, moderation in drinking, in speaking and clothing. Furthermore, it includes general admonitions to behave properly (siðlatr … i ollum atfærðum þinum), to acquire refined manners (þu nemer … kurtesi), and to be moderate (ver goðu hofe fagryðr). The King’s Mirror, a far more extensive work in size, contains innumerable references to cultivated conduct, which are spread throughout the chapters concerning the court. Chapter 40 has a summary function, touching on the themes of courtesy in speech, clothing, gestures and table etiquette. These numerous calls for self-constrained behaviour and moderation take the form of an enunciation, sometimes contextualized, but which actually remain largely general and wide-ranging injunctions. Typically, courtiers were taught that:
- 9 ‘Þat er oc hovæska at kunna vita ner er hann þarf hændr sinar niðr firir sec at racna lata oc kyrra (...)
It is also courtesy to know when a man ought to let his hands drop gently and to keep them quiet, or when he ought to move them about in service for himself or for others; to know in what direction to turn his face and breast, and how to turn his back and shoulders.9
4On these topics the Hirdskrá and the King’s Mirror do not depart from similar contemporary Western textbooks of conduct, such as the Castilian mirror for princes, Las Siete Partidas, or other books of courtly manner (for example, Hugh of St Victor’s De institutione nivitiarum, Petrus Alphonsi’s Disciplina clericalis or the Morale scolarium by Johannes de Garlandia). Indeed, at some points, and as we will see later, our authors seem to have known these works and used them. Yet, the simple expression of these ideals does not appear to have been sufficient. What makes the Hirdskrá and the King’s Mirror unique is the particular pedagogical strategies their authors chose to make a Norse audience more receptive to these precepts.
- 10 ‘ris upp sem fyrst’ and ‘oc se uið mæst siðan i at falla’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 28
5Presenting the adoption of courtly manners as non-binding or compulsory to courtiers was a pivotal element in the pedagogical strategies developed in these two works. This aspect must be considered along the basic principle that the hird admitted only voluntary applicants. Indeed, on the death of the king, his men were completely released from their oaths. The new ruler, before being hailed king during the ritual of the konungstekja, had to receive a new personal oath from each of the hirdmen. In the same vein, these works depicted the embracing of new attitudes and conduct as an act of free will and of voluntary commitment, in order to encourage current or potential courtiers into submitting to a new standard of conduct at court. The Hirdskrá addresses the path that leads the sinner to virtue, or how to succeed at the virtues and the tenets of courtly behaviour. According to the author, bad customs and habits are not fixed and can be abandoned at any time. No matter how sinful a man is, he always has a possibility to start from scratch and to become virtuous. As a means to encourage a hirdman to undertake this major shift, the author goes to great lengths in exonerating the sinner from responsibility. The Hirdskrá notes, ‘it is common knowledge that most people are more eager to do what brings them discredit than what honours them’. Indeed, sin is presented as inherent to human nature: ‘one may fall due to human frailty.’ Freed from any accountability, the sinner is invited to commence on the path of virtue. The author acknowledges that a man may easily fall back into sinful vices, yet he is also encouraged to go beyond these momentarily failures to, ‘rise up immediately [and] do his best not to fall again’.10 Thus, everything is made to present the courtly initiative as a winning process where the candidate has nothing to lose.
- 11 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 24.
- 12 ‘er konongi vil mæð sœmð þiona eða sva oc hværir vist ero viðrsiannde. oc hamnannde æf maðr vil sið (...)
- 13 ‘æf þu villt sœmðar maðr heita mæðr konongum eða aðrum stor hofðingium’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, cha (...)
- 14 ‘æf maðr skal mæð konongom eða aðrum rikis mannum staddr væra oc þar sœmðar maðr heita’, Konungs Sk (...)
6The understanding of courteous conduct as an act of free will is illustrated in Chapter 25, ‘The rights and duties of skutilsveinar’. In this passage, the author insists on the fact that a man who wishes to be considered as a courteous man of honour should be constantly aware of his own conduct. However, a man who is not ready to make the effort, can still be at court, but should apply for offices and honours that do not draw attention to him.11 Thus we see that the author of the Hirdskrá portrays the adoption of new attitudes at court as almost risk free for the candidate. Indeed, the King’s Mirror followed this same approach, although not entirely. The overall tone of the King’s Mirror is based on voluntarism. The son’s interest for the royal court, which reflects any candidate’s interest, stems from his intention to apply to the hird. Throughout the work, the terminology reinforces the idea of integrating with the royal hird and adopting courtly conduct as an act of free will. Repeatedly, the author uses the Old Norse verb vil, want or wish, in connection to these themes: ‘if one wishes to serve a king with honour, as well as those which one who wishes to be reputed a moral man’;12 ‘if you wish to be known among kings and chieftains as an estimate man’;13 ‘if he is to attend on king or other magnates and wishes to be ranked among them as a worthy man.’14
- 15 ‘Ef þer værðr þæss auðit at koma til hirðar … ef þu vilt bæðe heita siðgoðr oc hovæskr’, Konungs Sk (...)
- 16 ‘æf þu vilt væra væl siðaðr’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
- 17 (þeir ero sumir er firi þvi vilia hældr væra mæð konongi en i heraðum’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap (...)
7Other formulations also strengthen the prospective dimension of being part of the court and to behave courtly: ‘if it should be your fate to serve at court … and you wish to be called courtly and polite’;15 ‘Now if you aim at good breeding’;16 ‘Some prefer being at court to living in the country.’17
8The choice of becoming a hirdman and of adopting courtly behaviour is thus entirely left to the candidate’s own evaluation and ambition. However, the author of the King’s Mirror can also be more persuasive.
- 18 See for instance Bagge 1991, pp. 146–91 and Bagge 2000, pp. 44–48.
- 19 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
- 20 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 27 and 28.
- 21 ‘fra ollu þui er unyt er’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 27.
- 22 ‘oc æighi at æins sik sealfa’, ibid.
- 23 ‘nytsamleghom raðum oc kenningum’, ibid.
9Chapter 28, which treats the honoured position of the king’s men, presents the son who seeks to understand why men would prefer to come into the king’s service rather than remain at home. This question greatly irritates the father for whom the choice is obvious: royal service is advantageous. This touches on another theme used in the pedagogy of these Norse authors – the notion of utility and profit. Icelandic sagas and the king’s sagas depict Norsemen as the paragons of pragmatism who determine their social and political strategies according to what they might gain from them.18 While generalizations should be avoided, extant literature portrays the men and women of Norway as following their own codes of honour; self-interest and practical gain seem to be the dominant features of thirteenth-century Norse mentality. It is no wonder, therefore, that these characteristics were employed as a powerful pedagogical tool to encourage northerners to adopt new rules of behaviour. The theme of utility and profit, nytsamligr, for courtiers is recurrent in the chapters on moral values and courtly behaviour in both the King’s Mirror and in the Hirdskrá. In the former, when the son asks his father about the various ways to enter the court, he is most eager to learn what is best and most useful, bæzt væri oc nytsamlegazt,19 thus establishing the foundations of what courtiers’ motivations and expectations could be. The terms for advantage and profit (snuð20) recur in the son’s questions concerning the practical gains for a man in becoming a hirdman. Similarly in the chapter on “The origin of the title of the men of the hird” (chap. 27) in Hirdskrá, the members of the hird are strongly advised to guard themselves against, ‘everything which is useless’,21 which the author pointedly finishes the sentence with ‘and not only to themselves’.22 Later, they are urged in their comportment to be a model for others, and to provide their comrades with, ‘sound advice, and beneficial counsel and instruction’.23 In the subsequent chapter touching on courteous and refined behaviour, the dangers of provoking God’s wrath by one’s habits and customs is defined in terms of utility (nytsamlegazt).
- 24 Nordal 1998; Sigurdsson 2008, pp. 86–87
- 25 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
- 26 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 29 and Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
10The utility of adopting good conduct at court may have remained somehow incomprehensible to courtiers. In response, the authors of the Hirdskrá and of the King’s Mirror illustrated this with practical and explicit explanations speaking to courtier’s concerns and expectations. Personal honour and reputation were fundamental ethical characteristics in traditional Norse culture. Fame was not only a decisive motivation for northerners in combat, but also in their daily life; bravery, but also magnanimity and generosity, were highly valued qualities that northerners wished to be appreciated for. Similarly, mockery and degrading accusations often prompted long-lasting feuds and even murders.24 It is not surprising then that at the core of their incentives these authors stressed the outcome of courtly conduct on one’s personal fame. In Chapter 29 the author of the Hirdskrá strongly advises men of the hird to be aware that their doings at court can have decisive implications on their reputation and status within the hird. A man wishing to enjoy a good reputation should always remain loyal to his lord. As the author warns, the memory of a man is the only thing that survives his death; consistent loyalty is thus profitable to their reputation. In doing so, the Hirdskrá restates a principle found in the King’s Mirror, that fame after death follows both good and bad conduct.25 This is also the case when both works state that, honesty and good behaviour, steadfastness and faithfulness in every respect, are said to be qualities directly beneficial to a man wishing to be considered a man of honour, a courteous and truthful fellow.26 We see clearly that the books of conduct at court present the adoption of courtly conduct in terms of direct benefit and practical gains for those ready to make the jump into the world of courtliness.
- 27 Bagge 2010, pp. 53–57.
- 28 ‘goðer siðer ihirð’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 26.
- 29 ‘hiarta pryðe oc hovæski oc þo hinir siðsamazto’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 29.
- 30 ‘á æigi mikillar sœmðar van af konongi siðan hann værðr hanum at usœmð þar sæm marger koma sœmðar m (...)
11The King’s Mirror broadens the impetus for embracing courtly rules of behaviour by luring courtiers with advantageous prospects. In a time of expansive royal authority, the quest for honours and revenues was a fundamental preoccupation for the aristocratic elite. Indeed, the period has been characterized by the progressive assimilation of the magnates and chiefs into the royal hird, the kings’ retinue.27 In the candidly titled chapter, “The Advantages Derived from Service in the King’s Household” (chap. 26), the father enumerates the rewards and privileges enjoyed by a member of the royal hird. First, membership was a source of security and protection. Whether a member was involved in quarrels or lawsuits, the king provided physical and financial assistance. Second and foremost, belonging to the royal court was a unique means of social advancement, since the king rewarded in loyal servants with honours and offices within the court and his administration. However, while fidelity and loyalty count as essential prerequisites for these distinctions, the author repeatedly stresses honourable behaviour’s decisive role for gaining honourable positions. Thus, irrespective of family background and lack of wealth, a courtier can join the court’s highest by showing ‘good deportment at court’.28 Later, although the King’s Mirror admits that wealth and family position can aid social advancement, it is only to stress that the king’s men ought to be perfect in everything, in particular ‘in nobility of mind and courtesy, but above all in conduct’.29 Finally, the author stresses the importance of manners and conduct for the courtiers’ social advancement when the Norwegian king is meeting other princes in public assemblies. At such meetings shame is brought on the person of the king through poor conduct and ‘if the service of the king’s apartments is not performed in a comely and proper manner’. The King’s Mirror notes that a hirdman ‘cannot hope for great honours from a king if he has at any time disgraced him where honourable men were assembled’ The consequences of ill conduct can even be fatal; it may lead the indecent man to ‘an ignominious death’.30
12Despite the fact that courtiers became acquainted with courtly culture through the reading of chivalric romances, courteous rules of conduct remained largely notional and abstract. Indeed, in the opening chapter on the hird and courtesy at court in the King’s Mirror, the son states that his inquiries are motivated by his wish to learn, as others also do, about ‘unfamiliar subjects’ (ukunna luti). This points to the texts assumption that knowledge of courtly conduct was not widespread among the Norse aristocracy. In order to meet the courtiers’ expectations and ease the implementation of courtly conduct, the King’s Mirror and the Hirdskrá propose a wide array of practical advice and recommendations, adaptable to many different situations. The necessity to provide courtiers with highly practical examples probably reflected the conduct practices current at court. The examples used also represent the author’s awareness concerning what empirical means were needed to achieve the text’s aims.
- 31 ‘lygilegh fagrmæli oc svæfn oc allan slenskap oc læti’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 28.
- 32 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 34.
- 33 ‘hærra minn latið yðr æigi firi þikkia at ec spyria hvat þer mælltur til min þvi at ec nam æi gorla (...)
- 34 ‘Nu kallar konongr a þec mæð aqvæðno nafni þa varazt þu þat at þu qvæðer hværki hu. ne ha. eða hvat (...)
- 35 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 32.
13Elegance in speech and eloquence were central elements of courtliness. The Hirdskrá compels members of the hird to avoid vulgarity, obscenities and all kinds of foul language.31 In the King’s Mirror, courtiers are required to observe temperance when they speak at court, especially in the presence of the king. They are strongly advised to show discretion and control in their conversations with their fellows, and to shun verbosity.32 Beyond the simple enunciation of these rules of speech, the author of the King’s Mirror provides practical advice for courtiers: in the embarrassing event that a member of the court missed the king’s questions, courtiers were urged not to say haa! (Eh!) or hvat? (What?). On the contrary, they were urged to use the honorific hærra (Sire), or the longer but much more refined, ‘My Lord, be not offended if I ask what you said to me, but I did not quite catch it’.33 In another chapter, the same subterfuge is advised, ‘If the king should call you by name, be careful not to answer by “Eh?” or “Hm?” or “What?” but rather speak in this wise: “Yes, my lord, I am glad to listen!”.’34 In the eventuality that a courtier wishes to hear the king’s remarks or questions, but is disturbed by another’s conversation, the King’s Mirror provides the former with a firm ready-made answer, ‘Wait a moment, my good man, while I listen a while to what the king says; later I shall be pleased to talk with you as long as you wish.’ If the disturber persists in speaking, the courtier is advised to ignore him until the king has finished.35
- 36 Qviller 2004, p. 53.
- 37 ‘Þar nest at þu giæter þin fra ofdryckiu. þui at af henne tapar margr hæilsunni bæðe oc uitinu. fe (...)
- 38 ‘laupir æi snæmma í át eða dryckiu um morna mæð þeim mannum er giomænn ero eða usiðar mænn’, Konung (...)
- 39 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
14Courtliness was sought during meals and banquets as well. Good behaviour and manners were revealed particularly during meals. Eating and drinking were crucial moments in the functioning of the hird as a group and in the shaping of its relationship to the king. Earlier I alluded to the problem of drunkenness among courtiers. In the pre-state/pre-court society, excess drinking and eating corresponded with standard norms and values.36 However, from a courteous point of view, excess drinking was considered a lack of self-control. Both the King’s Mirror and the Hirdskrá repeatedly and firmly condemn drunkenness and gluttony. Listing the seven sins, the Hirdskrá urges virtuous men to, ‘Be … on guard against drinking too much, for many persons lose both their senses, their property and their friends as a result of this; and finally, and what is worse, the soul also is lost when the drunk man is unable to attend to himself or to God or to good men.’37 Similarly, the King’s Mirror warns men of the hird against drinking bouts, getting drunk, and generally not to, ‘rush away early in the morning to eat and drink with greedy and unmannerly men’.38 In order to acquaint courtiers with table etiquette, the author of the King’s Mirror writes at length and with great detail about how one should eat and drink at the king’s table. Men of the hird shall go two by two to wash their hands first and then to their place. They shall take care not to speak loudly, ‘so that not a single word will be heard by those who sit on either side of the two who wish to converse’. Food shall thus be eaten with moderation, and as for drinking, men should frequently cast a look at the king, the queen and other prestigious guests so that they do not drink at the same time. In the case the courtier is about to drink when somebody of superior rank is, he is counselled to set his cup down.39 Aware of the problem that such strict observance could pose to men apparently accustomed to unbridled drinking, the author concedes that during meals with many distinguished guests this practice can be suspended.
- 40 Bumke 2000, pp. 130–32.
- 41 “‘Klæð þik væl oc þo sua at æigi virðizt oðrum mannum til ðrambs’”, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, (...)
- 42 “‘haga klæðum sinum bæðe at lit oc aðrum lutum sva”, ’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, Ch. XLchap. 40.
15Courtly etiquette also concerned physical appearance, the bodily attitudes and gestures that courtiers had to follow under specific circumstances. Indeed, the tailoring and colour of clothes were a central aspect of courtesy. The courtiers’ appetite for the perfect sleeve length or the right colour for events was often satisfied by poets who, thanks to the itinerant nature of their work, were well acquainted with the ‘new fashions’ and spread knowledge of them in lengthy and thoroughly detailed verses.40 Courtly literature was also an ideal vehicle for spreading ideals of proper dress. The works concerning the Matter of Britain, translated into Old Norse in the Breta sögur, contained long descriptions of the fabrics, colours and cuts of the clothes worn by the characters who peopled King Arthur’s court. Courtesy also preached self-control in gestures, and elevated the economy and precision of movements and postures to cardinal principles. How would northerners comply with these rules, they who were impetuous and coarse, and apparently behaved at the opposite of refinement and elegance? The Hirðskrá does contain precepts on dress codes, giving moderation as the rule. Hirðmen shall take care to be well clothed, but, ‘not the way other men can find it too ostentatious’.41 The King’s Mirror is far more loquacious on the subject, repeatedly referring to what was suitable to wear at court and in the king’s presence. In a general manner, the author cites an element of being courteous as knowing ‘how to select one’s clothes both as to colour and other considerations’.42 However, the dress code for the ceremony of applying for admission to the king’s service is much more specific. The author enumerates several considerations concerning the cut, colour and fabric of the coat and shirts that the candidate should wear. The descriptions, with their high degree of precision, provide the candidate with a list of indications for his tailor:
- 43 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 30.
For trousers always select cloth of a brown dye. It seems quite proper also to wear trousers of black fur, but not of any other sort of cloth, unless it be scarlet. Your coat should be of brown colour or green or red … . Your linen should be made of good linen stuff, but with little cloth used; your shirt should be short, and all your linen rather light. Your shirt should be cut somewhat shorter than your coat.43
- 44 Respectively ‘vel riettan þegar þu gengur þá ven þig gongu’ and ‘hinn hægri greipi spenni vm hinn v (...)
16The author’s advice also runs to the courtiers’ hair cut and style of beard. Remembering his own time at court, the author gives a detailed account of how courtiers trimmed their hair and beard, providing specific information on the length hair should be in the front and at the back of the neck, referring to the German style of beards and moustaches. Finally, well dressed and trimmed, the author does not leave anything to chance, explaining how the candidate should walk, ‘with your head up and your whole body erect’, and how to place his hands, ‘in such a way that the thumb and forefinger of the right hand will grasp the left wrist’.44 Thus we can see that northerners were not left alone in their quest for honour at court. Indeed, they were thoroughly guided through the rules of etiquette and courtly manners for every domain, receiving practical and applicable advice as to what to say, what to wear, and how to behave in different circumstances.
- 45 Green 1942, p. 488.
17The pedagogical approach of the authors of the Hirdskrá and in particular of the King’s Mirror rested on three pillars: practical advice, tangible incentives and a non-imperative tone. But what were the premises for this approach? Where did this pedagogy stem from? We know little about the author(s) of the Hirdskrá or of the King’s Mirror. The Hirdskrá was written slightly later than the King’s Mirror and it is rather obvious that its authors were well acquainted with the earlier work, probably drawing inspiration from it for the chapters dedicated to courtly manners and values. It can be assumed that the Hirdskrá’s author(s) were acquainted with Hugo of St Victor’s historical treatise, De tribus maximis, since they repeat the metaphor Hugo uses of the treasure chest as a receptacle for knowledge.45
- 46 Bagge 1987, p. 218–24.
- 47 Bagge 2010, p. 219.
- 48 Larson 1917, p. 10, and Eiríksson 1857, pp. 238–308.
- 49 Larson 1917, pp. 9–10.
18The author of the King’s Mirror is also unknown, but scholars agree that he must have been a prominent man within the hird.46 It is commonly acknowledged that, contrary to many coetaneous authors of medieval specula, our author did not display the same level of erudition.47 In general, there is no doubt however that the pedagogical foundations of the King’s Mirror partly relied upon a variety of Western European didactic works. Thus, the use of dialogue between a master and disciple was a well-used form in many didactic works from the Middle Ages and before. The method was used in particular in the Elucidarium of Honorius of Autun, a manual of theology that had been translated into Old Norse, and which our author seems to have been particularly well acquainted with.48 Laurence M. Larson has also pointed to some resemblance between the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi and the King’s Mirror, particularly through the common use of the dialogue form, and the ‘desire to become acquainted with the customs of the royal court’.49
- 50 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 28.
- 51 ‘þeir se hværn dag firi augum ser’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 34.
- 52 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 29.
- 53 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
19The pragmatic character of the author’s pedagogy, however, is to be found somewhere else. It stems essentially from his own experience and knowledge of the Norwegian royal court and of its courtiers. On several occasions the author alludes to his time at the Norwegian king’s court, for instance when he refers to the court’s customs in regards to hair and beards. The origin of the author’s familiarity with courtly ideals and conduct cannot be traced with any great certainty. Did he become acquainted with such customs while abroad, for instance as the king’s envoy to foreign princely courts, as this practice is mentioned in the King’s Mirror?50 Nothing is less sure. Rather, it seems that his experience with courtly culture was local and sprang from his careful observations at the court of the Norwegian kings. This is indeed a quality that he repeatedly stresses. In Chapter 29, ‘proper attention’ (hug alæggia) is said to be the best means to acquire knowledge as to what is accounted good manners in royal circles. Later, the author suggests that proper conduct is learnt from the conduct of good and courtly men who ‘they see daily before their eyes’.51 He too may have built up his knowledge from meetings with foreign kings, where he could witness how courtly rules were observed.52 Moreover, from his court experience he was able to distinguish courtiers who behaved honourably and according to court etiquette from those who failed to entirely comply with these rules or wished not to do so, whom he names ‘simpleton’ (lausi), ‘ignorant’ (ufroðr maðr) or ‘stupid men’ (usnotrer mænn).53 From their examples, and in particular from their failures, the author was able to identify not only the cause and the consequences of their disgraceful behaviour, but also to formulate the strategies to cope with them.
- 54 See Bagge 1996, pp. 35–57.
20As Northerners themselves, their ability to make this new courtly conduct appealing to their Norse kinsmen can be assumed. Northerners’ aspirations for higher social status and the direct advantages to be derived from it (such as protection and honour), as well as the desire for fame and recognition, were consciously exploited by our authors as a means to having the foreign ways of conduct adopted. As men whose learning about appropriate behaviour was empirical, the simple enunciation of ideals and norms for honourable conduct was not considered as sufficient for a Norwegian audience to implement them. The Norse context demanded practical information, with ready-made advice that was directly applicable to specific situations and circumstances. One should also bear in mind that the audience was not only composed of hirdmen who were resilient to change, but also of aristocrats genuinely interested in and demanding foreign courtly culture. Concrete advice was meant to satisfy the eagerness of the latter as much as to provide simple tools for the former to save face at court. Finally, the very concept of voluntarism developed by our authors is also intimately connected to the notion of ‘individualism’ in Norse culture, a feature that comes forth in the sagas, and which seems to be emphasized more strongly than in contemporary European literature. The protagonists of sagas are portrayed as individuals, masters of their destiny, relying on their own actions, and on their personal psychological and physical aptitudes to succeed in life. This may indicate that Northerners were more ‘individualist’ than their Western contemporaries, and to a greater extent freed from Divine schemes and from social stratification.54 This made the process of courtization one of persuasion rather than of imposition. As we have seen, the tension between self-restraint and the ‘natural’ drives of Norsemen was probably high, rendering ineffective the use of binding measures. The success of the approach lay in presenting the project as an opportunity that candidates were able to seize or not.
- 55 Elias 2000, pp. 52–60.
- 56 Seip 1940, pp. 36–37.
21Through pragmatic and detailed advice, the court literature examined in this study provided new models for language, gestures and dress that Norwegian courtiers were able to comply to. However, behind the adoption of these ‘outward’ forms for conduct lay the internalization of new forms for socialization that aimed at enhancing not only the social elite’s power and prestige, but also new structures of power that sought to strengthen royal supremacy over the aristocratic elite. Thus, the etiquette so ‘gently’ proposed to the courtiers of the Norwegian royal court was part of a state-making process defining a new order and new ways of social control, modelled on the mores of Western monarchies. We should also keep in mind that Norway’s introduction of etiquette principles was not an isolated process, but coincided with the diffusion, instituted by the kings, of translated courtly romances. Whereas these offered their audience new courtly ethical norms and values, behavioural sources such as the King’s Mirror and the Hirdskrá provided concrete rules that enabled courtiers to live up to their new models. This complementarity truly made the adoption of courtly culture more effective in Norway, and more generally must be considered in our approach to etiquette in the Middle Ages. Finally, in his work cited earlier, Norbert Elias points to the fact that precepts of courtly conduct, despite some local variations, were standards common to every Western European medieval court.55 This picture of unity in courtly conduct is largely corroborated by our two Old Norse sources. There are no elements of courtly manners that appear to be particular to the Norwegian medieval court. Yet the manner through which these precepts were taught to a Norse audience witness a great variety of experience and processes in courtesy’s diffusion in medieval Europe. The transfer of standards of good behaviour was highly determined by the politico-cultural premises active in the receiving context, that is its local customs, norms and values. Considering cultural transfers, Norwegian historiography has oscillated between theses that emphasize local factors and external influences for being decisive in the formation of high medieval culture in Norway. Through a metaphorical argument, Jens Arup Seip notes that the soil (local culture) was more important than the seed (foreign cultural impulses).56 Re-applying the metaphor, we could say that the present study has highlighted the role of the gardener, or the mediator of foreign culture, on the Norse elite. The mediator is at the crux of the transfer processes and operates as a liminal being. His action, as far as we can consider it successful, implies a good understanding and working knowledge of both foreign and local cultures. By way of conclusion, it is instructive to return to the Norwegian court and its effort to adopt Western etiquette. Consideration of the mediator, their socio-politico and cultural origin, their strategies and motivations for participating in the promotion of Western etiquette, along with how this might be received by locals, are all a precondition for fully understanding how thirteenth-century Norwegian ‘Vikings’ might possibly become, according to contemporary standards, ‘civilized’.
Bagge, Sverre, ‘The Individual in Medieval Historiography’, in The Individual in Political Theory and Practice, ed. by Janet Coleman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. 35–57.
---, From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom. State Formation in Norway, c. 900–1350, Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010.
---, Mennesket i Middelalderens Norge, Oslo, Aschehoug, 2000.
---, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Berkely: University of California Press, 1991.
---, The Political Thought of The King’s Mirror, Odense: Odense University Press, 1987.
Barnes, Geraldine, ‘The Riddarasögur: A Literary and Social Analysis’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Department of Scandinavian Studies, University College London, 1974.
Brégaint, David, Vox regis. Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway, Leiden, Brill, 2015.
Bumke, Joakim, Courtly Culture, Woodstock, Overlook Duckworth, 2000.
Diplomatarium Norvegicum I–XXI, ed. by C. C. A. Lunge et al., P. T. Malling, Christiania and Oslo: 1849–1995.
Eiríksson, Magnús, ‘Brudstykker af den islandske Elucidarius’, Annaler for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 1857, pp. 238–308.
Elias, Norbert, The Civilizing Process,Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishing,  2000.
Green, William M., ‘Hugo of St Victor: De Tribus Maximis Circumstantiis Gestorum’, Speculum, 18, 1943, pp. 484–93, doi:10.2307/2853664.
Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar etter Sth. 8 fol., AM 325 VIII, 4° og AM 304, 4, ed. by Marina Mundt, Oslo, Norsk historisk kjeldeskrift-Institutt, 1977.
Halvorsen, E. F., ‘Norwegian Court Literature in the Middle Ages’, Orkney Miscellany, 5, 1973, pp. 17–26.
Berge, Lawrence G., ‘Hirdskrá 1–37: A Translation with Notes’, unpublished master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1968.
Irlenbusch-Reynard, Liliane, ‘Translations at the Court of Hákon Hákonarson: A Well
Planned and Highly Selective Programme’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 36, no. 4, 2011, pp. 387–405.
Kalinke, Marianne, King Arthur North-by-Northwest: The matière de Bretagne in Old Norse-Icelandic Romances, Copenhagen, C. A. Reitzels Boghandel, 1981.
Konungs Skuggsía, ed. by Ludvig Holm-Olsen, Oslo, Kjeldeskriftfondet, 1945.
Marti, Suzanne, ‘Kingship, Chivalry and Religion in the Perceval Matter. An Analysis of the Old Norse and Middle English Translations of Le Conte du Graal’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Oslo, 2011.
Nordal, Guðrun, Ethics and Action in Thirteenth-Century Iceland, Odense, Odense University Press, 1998.
Keyser, Rudolph, et al, Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, Christiania: Trykt hos C. Gröndahl, 1846–95.
Qviller, Bjørn, Bottles and Battles, Oslo, Hermes Publishing, 2004.
Paris, Matthew, Chronica Majora, vol. 7, ed. by H. R.Luard, Wiesbaden, Longman & Co. 1964.
Roesdal, Else and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, ‘Viking Culture’, in The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, 1, ed. by Knut Helle, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 121–46.
Seip, Jens Arup, ‘Problemer og metode i norsk middelalderforskning’, Problemer og metode i norsk middelalderforskning, Oslo, Gyldendal, 1940, pp. 51–133.
Sigurdsson, Jon Vidar, Det norrøne samfunnet (Oslo: Pax forlag, 2008).
The King’s Mirror, trans. and intro. by Laurence M. Larson, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1917.
Thordarson, Sturla, The Saga of Hacon: And a Fragment of the saga of Magnus, with Appendices, trans. by George Webbe Dasent, Felin Fach, Llanerch Publishers, 1997.
1 Paris 1964, p. 45.
2 See Nordal 1998; Roesdal and Sørensen 2003, p. 132.
3 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 255. English translation: The Saga of Hacon, 1997.
4 Brégaint 2015, pp. 176–81.
5 Halvorsen 1973, pp. 17–26.
6 Barnes 1974; Kalinke 1981; Marti 2011; Irlenbusch-Reynard 2011.
7 Elias 2000.
8 Konungs Skuggsía 1945. English translation: The King’s Mirror, 1917.
9 ‘Þat er oc hovæska at kunna vita ner er hann þarf hændr sinar niðr firir sec at racna lata oc kyrrar hafa eða ner er hann ma sinar hænndr rœra til æinar hværrar þionosta annat hvart sialfum ser eða aðrum at væita eða hvært hann skal andliti sinu snua oc briosti eða hværsu hann skal snua baki eða hærðum’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 40.
10 ‘ris upp sem fyrst’ and ‘oc se uið mæst siðan i at falla’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 28.
11 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 24.
12 ‘er konongi vil mæð sœmð þiona eða sva oc hværir vist ero viðrsiannde. oc hamnannde æf maðr vil siðar samr væra’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25 (italics added).
13 ‘æf þu villt sœmðar maðr heita mæðr konongum eða aðrum stor hofðingium’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 40.
14 ‘æf maðr skal mæð konongom eða aðrum rikis mannum staddr væra oc þar sœmðar maðr heita’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 40.
15 ‘Ef þer værðr þæss auðit at koma til hirðar … ef þu vilt bæðe heita siðgoðr oc hovæskr’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
16 ‘æf þu vilt væra væl siðaðr’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
17 (þeir ero sumir er firi þvi vilia hældr væra mæð konongi en i heraðum’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 26.
18 See for instance Bagge 1991, pp. 146–91 and Bagge 2000, pp. 44–48.
19 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
20 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 27 and 28.
21 ‘fra ollu þui er unyt er’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 27.
22 ‘oc æighi at æins sik sealfa’, ibid.
23 ‘nytsamleghom raðum oc kenningum’, ibid.
24 Nordal 1998; Sigurdsson 2008, pp. 86–87
25 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
26 Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 29 and Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
27 Bagge 2010, pp. 53–57.
28 ‘goðer siðer ihirð’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 26.
29 ‘hiarta pryðe oc hovæski oc þo hinir siðsamazto’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 29.
30 ‘á æigi mikillar sœmðar van af konongi siðan hann værðr hanum at usœmð þar sæm marger koma sœmðar mænn saman’ and ‘hæðiligr dauðe’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 29.
31 ‘lygilegh fagrmæli oc svæfn oc allan slenskap oc læti’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, chap. 28.
32 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 34.
33 ‘hærra minn latið yðr æigi firi þikkia at ec spyria hvat þer mælltur til min þvi at ec nam æi gorla’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 32.
34 ‘Nu kallar konongr a þec mæð aqvæðno nafni þa varazt þu þat at þu qvæðer hværki hu. ne ha. eða hvat. amoti Tac hælldr sva til ordz Ia hærra ec hœyri giarna’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
35 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 32.
36 Qviller 2004, p. 53.
37 ‘Þar nest at þu giæter þin fra ofdryckiu. þui at af henne tapar margr hæilsunni bæðe oc uitinu. fe oc felaghum. oc þui siðarst sem mæst er at salen er oc tynd þar sem drukkin maðr ma æi sealfs sins giæta oc æigi guðs ne goðra manna’, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, Ch. 28.
38 ‘laupir æi snæmma í át eða dryckiu um morna mæð þeim mannum er giomænn ero eða usiðar mænn’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
39 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 37.
40 Bumke 2000, pp. 130–32.
41 “‘Klæð þik væl oc þo sua at æigi virðizt oðrum mannum til ðrambs’”, Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar 1977, Ch.chap. 29.
42 “‘haga klæðum sinum bæðe at lit oc aðrum lutum sva”, ’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, Ch. XLchap. 40.
43 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 30.
44 Respectively ‘vel riettan þegar þu gengur þá ven þig gongu’ and ‘hinn hægri greipi spenni vm hinn vinstra vlf lid’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap 30.
45 Green 1942, p. 488.
46 Bagge 1987, p. 218–24.
47 Bagge 2010, p. 219.
48 Larson 1917, p. 10, and Eiríksson 1857, pp. 238–308.
49 Larson 1917, pp. 9–10.
50 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 28.
51 ‘þeir se hværn dag firi augum ser’, Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 34.
52 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 29.
53 Konungs Skuggsía 1945, chap. 25.
54 See Bagge 1996, pp. 35–57.
55 Elias 2000, pp. 52–60.
56 Seip 1940, pp. 36–37.Top of page
List of illustrations
|Title||Fig. 1: Facsimile of The King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsiá). Copenhagen, The Royal Library, AM 243b a fol.|
|Title||Fig. 2: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, the letter « M » with the king handing over a law code to a councillor. Detail from manuscript GKS 1154 2, the Hardenberg Codex. Copenhagen, The Royal Library, fol. 01v.|
David Brégaint, « Civilizing the ‘Viking’ », Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [Online], Articles et études, Online since 19 October 2016, connection on 25 March 2017. URL : http://crcv.revues.org/13719 ; DOI : 10.4000/crcv.13719Top of page
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