Weather and Ideology in Íslendinga saga: A Case Study of the Volcanic Climate Forcing of the 1257 Samalas eruption
By Adam Bierstedt
MA Thesis, University of Iceland, 2019
Abstract: The middle of the thirteenth century was a period of dramatic change in medieval Icelandic history. Politically, the Icelandic Commonwealth ended between 1262 and 1264 CE, as the leading men in Iceland swore allegiance to King Hákon IV of Norway and his surrogate, Gizurr Þorvaldsson. Ecologically, the Medieval Climate Anomaly gave way to the tumultuous weather of the fourteenth century and the so-called Little Ice Age. This border was punctuated by a massive volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. This eruption, which took place in 1257 at the Samalas caldera in Indonesia, caused a cooling effect across Europe until 1261, as the sulfur emissions from the volcano encircled the globe.
This thesis explores the interaction between these two moments of crisis within Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga. The saga, by and large, does not describe any weather events in the years after the Samalas eruption, up to and including an eruption of Katla in 1262. I treat the saga as a literary text, and analyze weather events in the saga along the same lines as previous scholarship has analyzed weather events in the Íslendingasögur. By so doing, I establish a framework for how weather is used for narrative purposes throughout Íslendinga saga.
Then, I analyze the other Icelandic documentary material that discusses the five years after the eruption, particularly the Icelandic annals, and reveal the exclusion from Íslendinga saga of many weather events found in the annals. Close examination of the end of the saga, focusing on these excluded weather events, reveals the narrative focus of Íslendinga saga, and some of its biases. The analysis of the weather supports interpreting the saga as warning against the civil strife that was a risk at the start of the fourteenth century.
Top Image: Seljalandsfoss waterfall – photo by Richard Rydge / Flickr