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Outlawry in the Icelandic Family Sagas

Outlawry in the Icelandic Family Sagas

By Joonas Ahola

PhD Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2014

Abstract:The present study scrutinizes the outlawry and outlaws that appear in the Icelandic Family Sagas. It provides a thorough description about outlawry on the basis of extant law and saga texts as well as an analysis of referential connotations attached to it. The concept of outlawry was fundamental for the medieval Icelanders conceptions of their past. Indeed, understanding outlawry is essential for understanding many of the Family Sagas. Outlaws appear in saga texts in significant roles.

The Icelandic Family Sagas comprise a group of prose narratives that were written down in the 13th and 14th century Iceland. They are based on events and personae that belong to the 10th century Iceland. These narratives introduce many outlaws, out of which some 75 are named.

The Family Sagas are studied here as one corpus and special emphasis is given to those narrative features that repetitively appear in connection with outlawry and the outlaw characters. Therefore, the eventual objects of this study are the medieval Icelanders general conceptions of the historical outlawry as well as the variations of these conceptions throughout the period of saga writing. The medieval Icelanders general conceptions about the 10th 11th century, which are reflected in the Family Sagas, are here referred to as the Saga World. The Saga World is the historically based taleworld to which all of the Family Sagas refer.

The medieval law texts, which were derived from centuries old legislative traditions, reveal that outlawry meant banishing from the society and being denied all help, and that the outlawed person lost the protection of the law. In practice, outlawry was a death sentence.

However, outlaws occupy many differing roles in the saga narratives even in connection with recurrent narrative motifs. These roles reflect the social and spatial structures of the Saga World. The inspection of outlawry within these structures reveals that the definition of outlawry as it appears in the law texts is insufficient for understanding outlawry in the saga texts.

The social and spatial structures also provide a basis for the connotations of outlawry. In this study, these connotations are inspected primarily from the referential connections between outlawry in the Family Sagas and corresponding phenomena in other concurrent literature. This is done by studying the implementations of the basic elements of outlawry in the Family Sagas marginalization, banishing, rejection and solitariness within other literary genres and the taleworlds to which they refer. It is argued that these taleworlds reflect the same ideas that were associated with outlawry in the Family Sagas albeit in different forms and that these different forms reciprocally contributed to the conceptions of outlawry.

The variety of denotations and connotations of outlawry that is visible in the medieval Icelandic texts reflects the ambiguity of outlawry in the Family Sagas. This ambiguity may shed light to questions such as why an outlaw could be perceived as a hero in a literary genre that predominantly promoted law and order and why the same outlaw could be perceived as a villain on another occasion.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Helsinki

Top Image: Grettir the Strong, depicted in Icelandic manuscript AM 426 fol.79r, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

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