30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Adam J. Oberlin, "Contemporary Kings’ Sagas and Fundamental Interdisciplinarity: Toward an Assessment of the Historico-Literary Approach in Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar"

Two foundational studies on Hákon IV’s biography by Sturla Þórðarson in the 1990s and 2000s, Sverre Bagge’s From Gang Leader to the Lord’s Anointed (1996) and Ulrike Sprenger’s Sturla Þórðarsons Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar (2000), cast light on a text rarely studied or commented upon in the 19th and the greater part of the 20th centuries. However, both consider the saga largely from the historical and literary perspectives established in a 1967 article by Narve Bjørgo and a 1972 monograph by Knut Helle, as well as by a similar historical treatment in a 1995 article by Ólafía Einarsdóttir. Although the Kings’ Sagas, as with all other types of literature, elicit responses from multiple disciplines, Hákonar saga seems to have produced in scholars the desire for a broad historical perspective anchored in diplomatics, ecclesiastical history, and the various sources employed by Sturla.

Alongside scholarship on Hákonar saga are the relatively recent editions of significant texts produced by or for Hákon’s court, including the Konungs skuggsjá, Strengleikar, and the several translated romances such as Tristrams saga and Möttuls saga. In this developing field of 13th century Norwegian literary history recent approaches have both progressed and obstructed the analysis of the period’s central royal biography. Since the concept of a ‘contemporary’ saga is essentially different in composition – to say nothing of authorial attitudes – than those looking further into the past and holds importance in Norway rather than in Iceland, it is necessary to continue to examine the use of sources within the saga itself and from outside to corroborate or challenge its associated historical events.

The Diplomatarium Norvegicum, the Diplomatarium Islandicum, Latin and vernacular hagiography (i.e. beyond the obvious parallels with Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar), Hákon’s Fürstenspiegel, the Frostaþing laws, and other types of literary and historical texts present far more possibilities for the study of composition and influence than the political and literary analyses of the past few decades have shown. In this way the saga is not only significant for what it considers important, for example the accurately described ordeal ritual, but also for what it does not, such as the unusual, complex, and rarely-discussed history of planned but unfulfilled crusades in Norway. These comparative developments broaden our understanding of the literary processes of royal biography in the North as well as the history of 13th century Norway (particularly in the areas of state consolidation and ecclesiastical development), but perhaps more importantly, if continued, may redefine what composition signifies to medieval authors and modern scholars.


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