The Sagas of Icelanders as a Historical Source
By William R. Short
The Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders), sometimes called the Icelandic family sagas) are a valuable resource in the study of society and culture in the Viking age. However, for a variety of reasons, one can not depend upon the sagas as historical fact. This article provides an introductory look at using the Sagas of Icelanders as a historical source. The Sagas of Icelanders are comprised of about two score longer narratives and a larger number of tales (pattr). The stories are unique among medieval literature in that they focus not on kings or saints or mythological heroes, but rather on the farmers and chieftains who settled Iceland during the Viking age. Theyíre stories about plain folk in the pursuit of honor, while engaged, for the most part, in their normal, everyday activities. Additionally, the stories are unique because they were written in the vernacular, old Icelandic, rather than in Latin.
In the main, the stories are set in Iceland in the 9th through 11th century. This is the period in which Iceland was settled, primarily by Norwegians, and the time in which the Icelanders set up their commonwealth form of government.
Some of the stories focus on a single individual, while others cover a family for generations. The action is dominated by conflict and feud, and ultimately, its resolution. The narrative tends to be complex, with interwoven plot strands that are taken up and dropped until they all come together at the end of the story. The facts are reported clearly and succinctly by a third person narrator, who never speaks to the reader.
The stories were written down in the 13th and 14th century, during and after Iceland’s turbulent Sturlunga era. During this time, Iceland’s centuries old commonwealth government broke down, leading to Iceland’s loss of independence, and submission to the crown of Norway.