Place and Space in the Christianisation Sagas

I recently completed the Sagas and Space – Thinking Space in Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia course through Coursera. With the course over, I have posted my final class essay on the role of place and landscape names in connecting events to an historical context.

Landscape and place names play different roles in Íslendingabók and Kristni Saga, two different accounts of the Christianisation of Iceland. In Íslendingabók, the Book of the Icelanders, Ari uses place to provide historical context to the events of the conversion. In contrast, the anonymous author of Kristni Saga, the Book of Christianity, place names are witnesses, as Faulkes and Finlay term it, to the events described. These differing approaches lead to changes in tone and character of each history.

In Kristni Saga, the narrator accompanies the historical characters on their individual journeys and at each stage explains the location, without an associated historical context. Instead, location is provided to set the immediate context of the event, especially when the narrator is describing a journey with multiple places. The author’s approach was common in the Icelandic sagas, but does limit the story’s ability to be other than in the moment. In one example, chapter IX, the author describes the killing of Skeggbjorn, following Þangbrandr and Guðleifr as they travelled across Iceland, consistently setting the location of each moment described.

This is different from the role of landscape descriptions and place names in Ari’s Íslendingabók, the report on the Christian conversion of Iceland. Faulkes and Finlay argue that distinguishing features of the land are used only rarely to set the context of events in Íslendingabók. This is in line with other differences in Ari’s approach to writing, focusing on providing objective history and explanation of facts on the ground, and less than on traditional believes and folk wisdom. At the same time, Ari often uses place names and physical features to set historical background. That is, place names are used to establish that something happened in the past. For instance, in chapter VI, Ari outlines the settlement of Greenland using place names as appropriate, but these events preceded Christianisation.

These different methods of establishing the physical setting of the events provide alternative methods of telling the history of Christianisation. However, these methods are complementary in that they can be taken together to provide a more complete picture of the events described. The people of Iceland, when reading these sagas, should be presented with a history providing physical description that is supported by their knowledge of of the landscape at the time of reading. The collective effect is to connect the historical events, distant in time, to the current place and provide the reader with a social and emotional connection to their history.

Landscape and place are used by different saga authors to emphasize different parts of their sagas. The authors can use local identification to look backwards, connecting the events described to the prior history associated with that event. Or they can use local identification to look forwards, connecting events to the future readers of the saga. Taken together, the different approaches provide a full spectrum of the historical contexts associated with the events described.

Image by Klaus Nahr/Flickr.