Trolls in the Middle Ages
When we think of trolls today, what automatically comes to mind? We think of two things: For most of us, we think of the ugly creatures that live under bridges ready to snatch the unwary passerby, like the trolls from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; brutish and vile, eating humans and turning to stone in sunlight. Lastly, in this internet age, we also use the term troll to denote that nasty individual who gets their kicks offending and upsetting people online. In essence, “troll” has never meant anything good. But where did trolls come from? What did medieval and early modern people think of trolls? How did the concept of the modern day troll evolve? Let’s look back at some of the earliest references to these creatures, shall we?
Trolls have a long and rich history amongst the Norse peoples in the Early Middle Ages. As early as the ninth century we can see them appearing in Scandinavian legends and tales, and their infamy was further spread by Icelandic sagas. In a book on the history of trolls, John Lindow recounts the first written example trolls in Scandinavian literature when Bragi the poet encounters a troll woman in the forest and she describes herself to him:
Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, giant’s wealth-sucker, storm-sun’s bale, seeress’s friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel, what is a troll other than that?
Everyone’s a Troll: The Origin of Trolls and How to Spot One
The word troll has many origins making it even harder to pin down an appropriate definition for these creatures. The meanings varied wildly from ‘to tread’, ‘to roll’, and ‘to enchant’. “Troll” could also be used to describe troublesome people, animals and even giants. The term caused even more confusion after the conversion to Christianity as the term now also encompassed ones’ dead ancestors and its growing association with witchcraft (from the Norse word trolldom, meaning witchcraft). What was known, was this: trolls were not human, they were dangerous, they were not helpful and they were most certainly evil.
So how do you spot a troll? Unfortunately, since the word “troll” had so many different meanings, a standard description of trolls doesn’t exist. Trolls could be women, or men, they could be old, they could be as tall as giants, they could be short and stout, and as small as children. There appears to be no hard and fast rule as to what a troll actually looked like. In one medieval Norwegian saga, The Saga of Grim Shaggy-Cheek, Grímr is captured by a hideous troll woman described as:
No taller than a seven year old girl…she was long and hard of face, bent nosed and bare shouldered, swarthy and gaunt cheeked, foul of appearance and bald in front. Her hair and skull were both black, and she wore a shrivelled skin cloak.
In the Illuga Saga, a female troll is appears as this:
Mucus was hanging down in front of her mouth. She had a beard but her head was bald. Her hands were like the claws of an eagle, but both arms were singed, and the baggy shirt she was wearing reached no lower than her loins in back but all the way to her toes in front. Her eyes were green and her forehead broad; her ears fell widely. no one would call her pretty.
Meanwhile, in the Icelandic Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), a man runs into a male troll the size of a giant: “This creature was sitting atop the cliffs named Drangar and was rocking his feet back and forth, so that they touched the surf, and he crashed them together to make spray.” These cliffs, known as Lóndrangar are 61m and 75m tall respectively, making the troll well over 100m tall!
What Did You Just Call Me?!: Trolls and the Law
Trolls weren’t just fairy tales used to scare children into good behaviour. During the Middle Ages belief in trolls was serious enough that it found its way into Norwegian law books. There were numerous law codes against consorting with trolls by night, against waking trolls or waiting for trolls in order to gain their knowledge. These particular regulations date to the Norwegian National Law of 1274. Scholars Gunnar Knutsen and Anne Riisøy note the fact that these stipulations made their way into the secular law codes demonstrates the belief in trolls, and their inherent danger to the general population, was relatively strong. Oddly enough, although they appear in law codes, to date, there are no surviving criminal cases were someone was implicated for any troll-like offences.
Not just calling on a troll was an offence, but calling someone a troll carried also a stiff penalty. Knutson and Riley remark, “Personal honour was taken very seriously, and to slander someone or spread false rumours could be expensive or even deadly”. In his book, Trolls: An Unnatural History, John Lindow recounts that calling someone a troll was considered vicious slander akin to accusing a man of bearing children, anally penetrating another man, or insinuating he was a mare, bitch, witch or whore. In The Saga of Finnbogi, Finnbogi’s young sons tease an old neighbour and call him a troll. The neighbour promptly kills them even though they are only aged five and three. This causes Finnbogi to take vengeance on the man and slay him. So remember, next time at the bar…thinking of calling that annoying drunk a troll? Just don’t.
As we moved towards the later Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, we see a decline in the belief in trolls from the nobility. By the seventeenth century, only local peasants and villagers believed in trolls. At this point, when trolls do pop up in the records, they do so only in witchcraft trials.
HELP! A troll ate my baby!
Amongst the general populace, the continued belief in trolls is evidenced by the belief that trolls snatched and swapped children. Unbaptized children were particularly vulnerable and there are admonitions for never leaving an unbaptized child alone. The troll children (‘changelings’) swapped for human ones were known as trollunger. Why would a troll do this? The changeling was the troll’s “in”, to the Christian community. How did you get your child back after a troll swapped it? You mistreated it so that the troll would hear its cries and return for it. Another option used by one set of desperate parents in 1687 was to go to the hill where the troll lived, and sit patiently outside in hopes it would come by and exchange it. Unfortunately, they had no such luck and to add insult to injury, they were brought up on charges of witchcraft for attempting to consort with trolls to get their baby back.
By the nineteenth century, the troll became associated with supernatural beings, entwined with mythology, and the stuff of local legends. Trolls (and creatures like them) were eventually left behind by serious historians. Trolls moved from history into fiction but still manage to captivate our imagination.