Monday, 17. June 2019, 14:10

Hákon jarl, Haccon princeps and Hacon comes: titles, texts and re-writing the early history of Norway

Paul Gazzoli

June 15, 2019 | Paul Gazzoli | HI Research Blog |

There is a considerable gap between working on Christian Europe in the period 800–1000 and the then still largely unchristianised fringes of Europe. For the former, we have a native and contemporary tradition of written sources, but not for the latter. Some valuable written sources stand out: Rimbert’s Life of Ansgar (brief plug: I have a new edition of it in preparation), written in the years following 865, gives an eye-witness account of missionary work in Scandinavia and reports on events there that had reached Ansgar and Rimbert’s ears; and Adam of Bremen’s Deeds of the Archbishops of the Church of Hamburg, written in the 1070s, provides the earliest written account of Scandinavia’s history approached in a systematic way, based on information received from the Danish king Svend Estridsen (r. 1047–1076) and missionaries active in Scandinavia at the time as well as documents kept in Bremen.

Aside from these and archaeology, much of the work on Scandinavian history of this period relies on later sources produced within Scandinavia and Iceland: historical texts were being produced in Denmark from the early twelfth century (the work of Ailnoth and the other material relating to St. Knud), and in Norway from around 1150 (the Historia Norwegie), while the earliest preserved work from Iceland (Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók) dates from between 1122 and 1133. The most substantial works, however, came later: Saxo Grammaticus completed his monumental Deeds of the Danes in 1216, while the compendium Heimskringla, generally but probably misleadingly attributed to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, took form around 1230.

As a general principle, we should prefer the earliest sources. But what do we do when we have very little information aside from what is in the later ones, as is the case for 10th-century Norway? At the extremes, there are two alternatives: either to consign the period to pre-history and accept that Norwegian history proper begins later (Sverrir Jakobsson 2002) or else to accept the later tradition in all its fullness, while applying critical judgement within this framework (Bagge 2002). This latter approach has largely guided most recent work on the period.

I would like to argue for a different approach: one that is in essence sceptical and thus closer to the former position, but nonetheless treats writing the history of 10th-century Norway as possible. Although I feel a far more sceptical approach is necessary when dealing with the later sources (and the possibly earlier poetry embedded within them), this is not to say that these sources are completely worthless. But oral tradition – on which these sources’ claim to accuracy has generally been based – has been shown by numerous studies to be frighteningly inaccurate and susceptible to manipulation, especially with respect to political history and royal genealogies (e.g. Henige 1974, Hutton 2003). Rather, a change in attitude is needed: the burden of proof should be placed on the idea that an account in a later source should be accepted, rather than on the idea that it shouldn’t.

This change in attitude inherently places a greater emphasis on the earliest sources – and although they are fairly scarce, there are earlier ones: although Rimbert has nothing to say about Norway (only discussing the Danes and the Swedes), Adam of Bremen was aware of some traditions about Norwegian rulers, which are markedly different from what we find in the sagas. I see no reason why these should not be taken at least as seriously as those presented in the later sources. The hitherto dominant attitude of preference for the later accounts from Norway and Iceland over Adam’s earlier one has partly been guided – or at least, reinforced – by lingering notions in Norwegian cultural nationalism about the superiority of Norse over foreign sources. All the more reason to seek an alternative!

As an example, I would like to take the case of Håkon, the Jarl of Lade (Old Icelandic: Hákon jarl). Adam writes of him:

          Haccon iste crudelissimus, ex genere Inguar et giganteo sanguine descendens,
          primus inter Nordmannos regnum arripuit, cum antea ducibus regerentur.

          This Håkon was very cruel, a descendant of the line of Yngvar and the blood of
          giants, and was the first among the Norwegians to seize the kingship (regnum),
          whereas before this they (the Norwegians) had only been ruled by jarls (duces).
          (My translation)

This differs from the later Norwegian and Icelandic traditions that developed, according to which the legendary Harald Fairhair first ‘unified’ Norway in the late ninth century. Most scholars now evince some scepticism about this claim, with Harald’s kingdom generally being restricted to what is now the west of the country (Krag 2000). The later tradition remembers Adam’s Håkon not as a unifying or founding figure, far from it: he is a usurper, the last gasp of a reactionary paganism (compared in Theodoricus’ Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagensium, from around 1190, to Julian the Apostate) that is swept aside by the two Christianising kings who came after him, Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldsson.

Adam’s account is often dismissed as garbled. However, what we read here is not as at odds with all the material from the Norwegian-Icelandic tradition. A verse in the poem Vellekla identifies Håkon’s rule as including all of Norway north of Viken (the Oslo area, in this period seemingly subject to the Danish kings), which the following verse implies was greater in extent than that of previous rulers. The view this poem represents runs counter to that presented by the later tradition, in which the legendary Harald Fairhair was the unifier; and unlike most of the poetry connected with the latter, it mentions the ruler by name and the poem in its surviving verses does fairly clearly seem to represent a whole; massively retrospective composition (a phenomenon which did occur, e.g. in the case of Rekstefja, a poem written around 200 years after the events it describes) from a period when this later tradition had taken hold thus seems unlikely.

The other material in this extract is also redolent of Skaldic poetry: the tradition of Håkon’s descent from giants is mentioned in a verse in the poem Háleygjatal, and the reference to the viking Yngvar (Ívarr) is, in my view, probably a misunderstanding of the name Yngvi, associated with the ‘Yngling’ line of kings, to which Harald Fairhair and his descendants supposedly belonged. There thus may have been older traditions in which Håkon was treated as an Yngling, before the genealogy was re-fashioned and became fixed in writing in the late twelfth century.

There remains the problem of Håkon’s title, however: the poetry resolutely refers to him as a jarl, even when describing him as having quasi-royal status, e.g. having other jarls subordinated to him. The solution may be that the difference between konungr and jarl was not so great at this period and particularly in the north of Norway, where the distance from continental, Christian Europe would have meant that the strict correspondence of these titles to Latin rex on the one hand and either dux or comes on the other would probably not have been firmly established yet. This may have already been causing confusion in the eleventh century, and may have been behind Adam’s use of the more generic princeps, a title which he also used of Slavic rulers. Indeed, the comparison to the Slavic world is useful: the Danish prince Knud Lavard, killed in 1131, had come into conflict with his uncle King Magnus of Denmark over his taking the title Knes of the Abodrites, a title which, according to the written accounts, Magnus interpreted as an assumption of royal status (hence a challenge to his authority), whereas Knud defended himself by saying a Knes was of lesser status than a king (Lind 2015, Vita altera Sancti Kanuti ducis; Saxo XIII.5.9; although contrast Helmold I.50 which clearly identifies Knud as a rex). The next-earliest source to discuss Håkon, the Historia Norwegie of c. 1150, simply says that he preferred to rule by the title his ancestors had held, comes (jarl).

Early Norwegian history is an area where new historical research that can challenge the traditional narrative is both possible and necessary. The example of Håkon here will be discussed more thoroughly in an article which I am currently just finishing, and even more thoroughly in the monograph which I will begin in the autumn. In the meantime, I hope this post can generate some discussion!