We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Find using OpenURL

Rent from DeepDyve Rent from DeepDyve

Beware of Norwegian Kings: Heimskringla as Propaganda

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 455-468 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

We don’t know what Snorri Sturluson’s (1179–1241) intentions were as he set out to compose Heimskringla in the years between 1220 and 1235 because he does not discuss such matters in the Prologue to his work, in which he is only concerned with the problem of how to arrive at the truth. What scholars have unearthed over the past century or so, however, is a set of different thematic strands that clearly bind the work together. Among those most often discussed are Snorri’s interest in Scandinavian politics, in ancient customs, in different types of kings, in folklore, in the supernatural—both magic and miracles—and in the fate of Christianity in Norway and elsewhere, to name only a few. In the pages that follow, I would like to propose a strand that has not been suggested before as far as I know, namely that Heimskringla is also a work of propaganda, a warning to Snorri’s Icelandic audience to stay clear of the Norwegian royal house.

Most scholars who have written about Heimskringla have addressed the question of Snorri’s attitude toward Norwegian kings; but in a historical work as long and convoluted as Heimskringla, it is no surprise that different answers have been suggested. The authors of recent studies such as Ármann Jakobsson, Theodore Andersson, and Sverre Bagge all maintain that Snorri harbors no animosity toward the Norwegian royal family (Ármann Jakobsson 1997, 283; Andersson 1994, 71, 77; Bagge 1991, 130–1), whereas other scholars, as for instance Marlene Ciklamini and Björn Þorsteinsson, have disagreed (Ciklamini 1978, 65; Björn Þorsteinsson 1953, 291). As to the reason for Snorri’s supposed dislike and distrust of Norwegian royalty, Ciklamini mostly emphasizes the insatiable expansionism of the Norwegian crown that comes out quite clearly in Heimskringla, whereas Björn Þorsteinsson maintains that Snorri as a historian disliked royal power in general. However, it should be noted that it is actually impossible to assign a clear-cut view on this matter of “like” or “dislike” to Snorri, because throughout Heimskringla there is always a certain degree of ambivalence in his discussion of individual kings. But now to the subject of this essay, which is the interference by Norwegian kings in Icelandic affairs, their behavior toward their own subjects, family, and neighbors, as Heimskringla describes it, and the question of whether Snorri’s treatment of these issues can be construed as propaganda.

Because recent studies of Heimskringla so often place it in a European context as a history of kings—Sverre Bagge’s Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (1991) and Diana Whaley’s Heimskringla: An Introduction (1991) are good examples—it is easy to forget that Snorri’s work is primarily composed for an Icelandic audience in the atmosphere that characterized the early decades of the thirteenth century.1 When Snorri began his work around 1220, tensions were running high between Iceland and Norway over trade. Various Icelandic chieftains had assumed the right to regulate the prices of Norwegian goods in their regions, much to the annoyance of the merchants involved. This trade dispute then escalated into an armed conflict with people being killed on both sides; an embargo was placed on trade with Iceland from Norway (1219), and a military expedition against Iceland was prepared (1220). As it happened, it fell to Snorri, who stayed in Norway at the royal court between 1218 and 1220, to mediate in this dispute and secure continued trade between the two countries. In Iceland, however, these events were seen as signs of the aggressiveness and expansionist tendencies of the Norwegian crown.2

This brings us to the question of Snorri’s objectivity in writing his history of Norwegian kings. Was he immune to the rather hostile sentiments that many of his fellow countrymen harbored toward the Norwegian monarchy at the time? In the literature on Heimskringla, the answer to this question has been a resounding yes, as scholars have lavished praise on Snorri for his objectivity and avoidance of bias or propaganda of any kind.3 To some extent this is true, but not entirely. Snorri seldom comments directly on people or events that he is describing, but...

You must be logged in through an institution that subscribes to this journal or book to access the full text.


Shibboleth authentication is only available to registered institutions.

Project MUSE

For subscribing associations only.