Strangers in Icelandic Society, 1100-1400

Strangers in Icelandic Society, 1100-1400

By Sverrir Jakobsson

Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 3 (2007)

Hœnsa-Þóris saga, an Icelandic Family Saga composed around 1280, describes a merchant named Örn. He is said to have been a captain of a Norwegian ship which was bound for Iceland, ‘a popular man and a most honourable merchant’. Despite these admirable qualities he gets into a quarrel with the local chieftain (goðorðsmaðr) Tungu-Oddr, a person not known for even-handedness. The quarrel concerns the prizing of goods. A farmer in the vicinity, Blund-Ketill, knows this merchant as he had stayed with his father in his youth. For that reason he decides to go to the aid of the merchant, although this means incurring the wrath of the chieftain. This is the catalyst for a feud, in traditional saga idiom, which results in the tragic burning down of Blund-Ketil’s farm, Örnólfsdalr. This is a late tradition concerning well-known events from the tenth-century. Notwithstanding that, it also contains reference to contemporary issues, that is, from the late thirteenth century.

Before he is burnt to death together with Blund-Ketill, this austmaðr (literally, ‘eastman’) manages to play a crucial role in the feud, coming to the rescue of his host by using a handbow to shoot another man. The term austmaðr generally signifies a Norwegian and the use of handbows in battle seems to have been a Norwegian speciality when the saga was composed, in the thirteenth century. After his demise along with his host, the friends and kinsmen of Blund-Ketill manage to acquire the goods which caused the dispute.

The role of the merchant Örn in this conflict can hardly have been the stuff of oral legend for centuries. It is more reasonable to assume that this character is a stereotype, a type of person the audience would have recognized from their own environment. The tale of Örn thus has a general significance for the role of Norwegian merchants in Iceland. In it we find an illustration of some of the difficulties strangers coming to Iceland might encounter. A foreign merchant could get into trouble with a local chieftain because of matters of trade, a stranger who had Icelandic acquaintances could get drawn into their disputes with their neighbours and, because of his command of a military technique not practised in Iceland, he would be much sought after when it came to fighting.

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