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

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, "Annals and Sagas: Historiography, Politics, and Culture in Medieval Iceland"

Medieval Iceland is justly famous for its saga literature, a great deal of which consists of historical narratives such as the biographies of the kings of Norway found in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla or the account of the Icelandic chieftains’ disputes found in Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga. Less well known are the medieval Icelandic annals. The present paper explores the implications of annalistics for our understanding of medieval Icelandic textual culture. First, it appears that it was the Icelanders’ own idea to begin keeping annals, for the annals are compiled from an assortment of earlier works, not from a single earlier set of European annals. Although the first annals in Iceland were clearly clerical productions, the earliest extant set of annals is in fact associated with a layman, none other than Sturla Þórðarson. Moreover, several other laymen wrote or commissioned annals, and in at least several of these cases, it can be argued that their purpose was to present histories in which they or their families played a part. Their appropriation of a clerical form of historiography in preference to the native sagas says a good deal about the cultural environment in which these justiciars and wealthy landowners operated. It would also seem to imply that sagas had come to be regarded as a less effective form of historiography, whether because they were considered provincial or because their truth-value was potentially compromised by their literary conventions. This hypothesis will be tested by analyzing the cases of three Icelanders who were involved in the production of both sagas and annals: Sturla Þórðarson, Einar Hafliðason, and Jón Hákonarson.


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