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

Jens Ulff-Moller, "A Norse-Gaelic Settlement in Western Iceland and its Impact on the Christianization of Iceland and Greenland"

A large part of the population in Iceland had an Irish or Scottish ancestry. Most of them belonged to the lower classes and therefore they were rarely mentioned in the Icelandic family sagas or the Landnámabók. The latter text registers about 3,000 settlers and their descendants only. Among them was a group of Norse-Gaelic settlers headed by Auðr en djúpauðga that settled in the Dalir sysla in North-West Iceland. They brought with them Celtic Christianity along with their Norse-Gaelic culture. At present, Celtic Christianity has not been described in the church history of Iceland. The aim of my paper is to uncover vestiges of Celtic Christianity and to demonstrate that it may have played an important factor in the conversion of Iceland.

Auðr and her followers, who settled the entire Dalir syssel at the bottom of Hvammsfjörðr, appear to have been Irish or Hebridian Christians. They figure prominently in Icelandic genealogies that appear in the most important Icelandic family  sagas, such as Laxdæla Saga and Eiríks saga rauða. Furthermore, the Landnamabók also lists the families of prominent settlers. Auðr settled in Hvammr, which was later the home of  Hvamm-Sturla Þórdarson (born c. 1115), the founder of the Sturlung dynasty that dominated the Icelandic Commonwealth in the mid-thirteenth century. Also, the collector of saga manuscripts Arni Magnússon grew up at Hvammr. These settlers intermarried and were also related to other settlers who had a Celtic background, such as Helgi magri, Örlygr Gamli.

Auðr brought other Christian settlers whose background would indicate a relation to Celtic Christianity.They were both followers and slaves, which she gave freedom. Among them were Höskuldr the father of Olafr Pá, who was a Christian settler in the Laxádalr. Oláfr´s daughter married a Christian farmer in Vatnfjörðr, where there exist an early Christian circular graveyard – which may be an indication of a Celtic graveyard custom.

In the Haukadalr, lived the mother of Þjódhild (Vatn), who married Eiric the Red (though he was a pagan). The oldest Church in Greenland, at Brattahlid, was a constructed by Þjodhildr. Her great-grandmother was Rafertach (Rafarta) Mac Cerhall Kjarvalsdottir born c. 830, in Ireland. Her father was Kjarval, king of the Irish. (The Saga of the People of Laxardal, 1).

The freedman Erpr as well as Vifill (Vifillsdalr) was the father of ­Þorbjörn, the father of Gudriðr, the wife of Thorfinnr Karlsefni, who settled in Vinland – were Christians. Guðriðr is also an ancestor of two later bishops and saint Jón.

A genealogical study shows that the people mentioned in the sagas such as Eric the Red’s wife Þjóðhildr, Vifill, Guðriðr and Þorfinnr Karlsefni, Egil Skallagrimson and Óláfr Pá, and Snorri goði (Gísli, p. 262) were all related to Hvamm-Sturla Þórðarson. The Celtic immigrants (in particular the families of Björn Burna and Auðr en djúpauðga, (Gisli, p. 77) were almost all ancestors of the Sturlungar; they brought the Celtic variant of Christianity to Iceland, which was not recognized by authors of histories recounting the Christianization of Iceland, probably because they would not acknowledge the importance of the Christianity that was connected to inferior families and slaves.

The Celtic population in Iceland may have played a greater role in the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity than has previously been recognized.

A number of bishops and saints were of Norse-Celtic origin, such as Sholto, Nial, Saint Thorlákr, Saint Jón of Hólar, Stephen, and Ceartan. Sholto and St. Thorlákr were decended from an Irish settler.

The oldest Churches in Iceland and Greenland show signs of Irish influence, according to the Norwegian archaeologist Christian Keller. He pointed out that the cemetery enclosures were circular, unlike the Norwegian pattern. The circular cemeteries were common in the northern parts of England, as well as in Ireland and Scotland.

I suggest that Christianity in Iceland was at first mainly introduced through Irish and Scottish immigrants, and maybe in particular through women of Celtic origin, rather than through missionary activity, or the activities of priests or saints.

 

Last modified: Oct. 13, 2009
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