By David Ashurst
Paper given at the 11th International Saga Conference (2000)
Introduction: First a look at evidence for the shape of the world as it was imagined by audiences of Alexanders saga, the mid-thirteenth-century account of Alexander the Great which is a translation of Walter of Châtillon’s Latin epic, the Alexandreis. Simek has listed a small number of texts which indicate that Old Norse audiences of the thirteenth century, at least in ecclesiastical and courtly circles, were familiar with the belief that the earth is spherical. This idea had been an integral part of scholarly learning in Europe since the Carolingian renaissance of the eighth century, and from the twelfth century it was being taught to most clerics; by the thirteenth century it had found its way into popular literature. Evidence for the familiarity of this belief at the very start of the thirteenth century in Iceland can be found in a passage from Elucidarius, where the teacher explains to his pupil that the head of Man was given a rounded shape in the likeness of the world: Hofofl hans vas bollot ígliking heimballar. Being so brief, the explanation could not have made sense unless the idea of a spherical world was taken for granted. In mid-thirteenthcentury Norway, by contrast, the writer of Konungs skuggsjá makes his wise king take the trouble to discuss the shape of the earth at some length, and to clinch his argument with the famous image of an apple hanging next to a candle, where the apple represents the earth and the candle is the sun. The use of this image is rather confused, but the conclusion is perfectly clear: Nu skal aa flui marka at bollottur er iardar hrijngur.