Some observations on martyrdom in post-conversion Scandinavia

Some observations on martyrdom in post-conversion Scandinavia

By Hari Antonsson

Saga-Book, Vol.28 (2004)

Map of Scandinavia from 1467

Introduction: The Irish Cogadh Caedhal re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), composed in the early twelfth century, tells in an epic fashion of the battle of Clontarf which was fought in 1014 between the followers of Brian Boru, king of Munster, and the Vikings of Dublin and their Irish allies. The late thirteenth-century Njáls saga also tells in detail of the same encounter, possibly following here a lost Brjáns saga which may have dated from the late twelfth century. For a study of the two texts I refer to Goedheer’s monograph, but for the present purpose I wish only to draw attention to a single comparative feature: their presentation of King Brian’s death in battle.

In the Cogadh Brian stays away from the battle and instead occupies himself with prayers in his tent. There is no explicit reason given for Brian’s conduct although it is implied that he is kept from fighting by old age. Nevertheless, when Brian is attacked by the Viking Bróðir the king is still able to wield his sword. In the ensuing combat both Brian and his assailant are slain. Njáls saga, on the other hand, is more forthcoming about Brian Boru’s absence from battle. The king will not join the fight because the day is Good Friday; even when Bróðir has fought his way through the king’s shield-wall, Brian refuses to draw his sword. Instead he is defended by the young Taðkr, but to no avail; Bróðir’s sword slices through the boy’s hand and the same stroke decapitates the king of Munster. In turn, the Viking is killed by Brian’s retinue. Two miracles are noted: the king’s severed head re-attaches itself to his body and Brian’s blood heals Taðkr’s wound.

King Brian Boru’s death scenes in both the Cogadh and Njáls saga are clearly influenced by hagiography. In the case of the Irish work this is scarcely surprising, for it was composed, at least partly, with the purpose of bestowing an aura of greater legitimacy and lustre on his descendants, the kings of Munster. Brian Boru is presented as an heroic figure of an almost saintly status: like many a saint he foresees his own death and in the well-known eulogy he is compared to Moses, the Emperor Augustus and the heroes of antiquity. It is interesting to observe, however, that at no point does the Cogadh explicitly refer to Brian’s sanctity, although the so-called Debide scáilte, a poem which relies on the Cogadh, may hint in that direction when it says that angels from Paradise ‘carried away the soul of Brian without sin’. Njáls saga, in contrast, brings the saintly dimension to the fore with greater clarity. Emphasis is placed on the day of Brian’s death, Good Friday, which naturally evokes Christ’s passion, as indeed does his refusal to fight his foes on principle. Moreover, the posthumous miracles which the king performs leave little room for doubt that he has joined the ranks of the blessed.

Click here to read this article from University College London

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine