Honor, Verbal Duels, and the New Testament in Medieval Iceland
By Valentine A. Pakis
TijdSchrift voor Skandinavistiek, Vol. 26 (2005)
Introduction: In an article on preaching and insults in medieval Iceland, Siân Grønlie makes two excellent points: first, admonishments against the “potentially dangerous character of human speech” are common to both biblical and Old Icelandic literature and, second, Christian Icelanders, at the time of the conversion, were no less prone to slinging insults than their “heathen” opponents. In the end, however, Grønlie implies that it is Christian speech that “redeems” and heathen speech that “destroys,” and thus supports the conventional pagan-Christian binary that underlies a great number of studies. At the heart of both the “romantic” and humanist schools of saga scholarship, as Vilhjálmur Árnason notes, has lain the idea that Christian values were incompatible with the Icelandic ethos of honor and vengeance, and the notion of conflict also appears in works, old and new, of a more anthropological or historical sort. Here we read, for example, that the Icelandic sense of courage and manliness (drengskapr) is “bestimmt kein christliches Ideal,” and that medieval Icelandic society was “under strain,” “rifted,” or “facing a dilemma.”
Though such conflict doubtless existed, it might be an exaggeration to describe it in these terms. The stereotype that sets the peaceful new religion against the violent ethic of the pre-Christian faith is, as Eric J. Sharpe puts it, “evangelical.” Andreas Heusler dispelled a part of this stereotype when he wrote, nearly a century ago, “Unter den Laien hat die Vorstellung, daß Rache und Christenglaube sich widerstreben, kaum irgend Wurzel gefaßt.” More recently, William Ian Miller and Jesse Byock have stressed the ease with which the native Icelandic social system accommodated certain Christian demands, especially that for peacekeeping: “Peacemaking was not something that had to be learned from Christianity, despite rather facile observations to that effect in the scholarly literature.” Before them, Lars Lönnroth mentioned what is more obvious, namely that certain Christian writings allow for violence: “The old ethics of revenge could also be legitimized by the Augustinian doctrine of the Rightful War […] and by the numerous examples of honorable deeds of revenge found in the Old Testament.” Below I intend to offer a more synthetic approach to the problems surrounding the Northern confrontation with Christianity, one that takes into account the anthropological findings of scholars such as Byock and Miller, as well as the issues of Christian doctrine touched upon by Lönnroth.