The Saga of the Confederates: Historical Truth in an Icelandic Saga
By James Patrick Mulvey
Master’s Thesis, North Carolina State University, 2006
Abstract: The Saga of the Confederates, written anonymously in the thirteenth century, tells a story that takes place in eleventh century Iceland. The saga presents an opportunity to examine Iceland’s unique political and social systems during the Middle Ages, both during the time of the story and also during the author’s lifetime. While elements of the story reflect society in the eleventh century, the attitudes and values of the anonymous author can also help us understand the thirteenth century. The purpose of this research is to examine the medieval Icelandic sagas as historical sources, with The Saga of the Confederates as a case study. While many characters and their situations within the Icelandic sagas may be completely fictional, the ways in which the saga authors relate their subjects to their readers provide insight into the true makeup of medieval Icelandic society at large from the Settlement to the submission to Norwegian rule in 1262 CE.
Introduction: “We do not know for sure whether these accounts are true, yet we do know that old and learned men consider them to be so.” So begins the introduction to Heimskringla, the master work of thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson. With those words is highlighted perhaps the most contentious point in medieval Icelandic history and the fundamental stumbling block for historians ever since our collective interpretation of the Vikings changed. Archaeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries had completely repainted the established view of the Norse from uncouth barbarian raiders to members of a complex, vibrant society as rich as any on continental Europe. Snorri’s admission of uncertainty has, at different times and for different purposes, been used to “prove” that the Icelandic sagas have no value as historical sources; for instance the notion that the Icelanders had no original, pre-existing oral tradition and instead relied heavily upon the literary influences of continental Europe to produce their works. Some scholars have contended that the tradition was in fact Norwegian in origin and simply transplanted to Iceland after the settlement of that harsh and beautiful land, while others argue that the sagas are nothing more than popular narrative art that ultimately make no difference to the history of Iceland whether they are true or not.
This thesis will argue that the true values of the Icelandic sagas are to be found in the social context from their time of creation. They are “stories by a medieval people bout themselves” and in that sense retain the same historical value applied to them by Snorri in the thirteenth-century. What a community believed happened to them in the past is just as valuable as what actually did happen to them, because both contribute to a greater overall understanding of their history for a modern reader. The Saga of the Confederates is a prime example of this contention. The saga provides an interpretation of both the past, as the action takes place in the eleventh century, and a social commentary on the anonymous writer’s contemporary thirteenth century present. It ties together centuries of medieval Icelandic history in the pages of a short story. With a greater understanding of the sagas as a comprehensive body of work and how they played a role in Icelandic society, the modern historian can see how one medieval Icelander viewed the changes that had swept through his society over the span of centuries.