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  • Árna saga biskups as Literature and History
  • Haki Antonsson

Árna saga biskups is the first saga to relate events that occurred after the termination of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262/64.1 The work, which dates to the first quarter of the fourteenth century, is, along with the annals, the primary source for the political and ecclesiastical history of Iceland (and indeed Norway) during the episcopacy of Árni Þorláksson of Skálholt (1269–98).2 This period in Iceland's history was distinguished by the introduction of new laws and forms of administration, as well as a determined effort by the Icelandic episcopacy to gain control over major church farms (the so-called staðir), which for generations had been held by the landed elite.3 The saga terminates in 1290, seven years before the Treaty of Ögvaldsnes (Avaldsnes), a concordat between Church and Crown that in some respects laid the foundations for the powerful late-medieval Church.4 It cannot be established with certainty whether the original Árna saga ever extended to the bishop's death, though the most recent analysis of this issue indicates that it did not.5

Árna saga biskups offers insights into aspects of late thirteenth-century Icelandic society, such as Church administration, the nature of lay piety, and the conduct of the political game in a time of constitutional upheaval and uncertainty. Of especial value is the saga's inclusion of otherwise lost letters and administrative documents. For instance, when in 1276 a [End Page 261] farmer complained about the overbearing actions of Þorvarðr Þórarinsson, a powerful representative of the Norwegian king, Árni dispatched an admonitory letter to the royal official, which is cited in the saga.6 The saga also features an extract from Þorvarðr's missive to the Norwegian king in which he protests about the bishop's involvement in matters outside his brief.7 Arguably, the saga's ample inclusion of administrative documents and annalistic entries has led to its neglect by literary scholars, and a common perception of its style as being "mostly dry."8 With few notable exceptions, the saga's narrative art has hitherto attracted surprisingly little commentary.9 But, as I hope shall become apparent, Árna saga biskups possesses a distinctive narrative voice that has hitherto remained largely underexplored and certainly unappreciated.

The original manuscript of Árna saga is lost, and its medieval survival is limited to five fragments. Three of these derive from the late fourteenth century (and only partially preserved) Reykjarfjarðarbók, which, in its original form, contained a version of Sturlunga saga, the great compilation of thirteenth-century contemporary sagas. The better part of Árna saga biskups, however, has been preserved in postmedieval copies of Reykjarfjarðarbók.10 It is evident that Árna saga concluded Reykjarfjarðarbók, and thus it brought the historical narrative of Sturlunga saga beyond the Commonwealth period.11 Though lacking the violent conflict that so marks Sturlunga saga proper, Árna saga, like the "secular" sagas, relates disputes between Icelandic men of authority where the perspective shifts between domestic politics and the Norwegian court. In other words, the saga was perceived, at least in the closing decades of the fourteenth century, as a testimony to Iceland's history.

Árna saga biskups can be read as both a biography of bishop Árni Þórhallsson of Skálholt, and a history of Iceland between 1269 and 1290. The fusion of episcopal gesta and Iceland's broader history was scarcely a novelty in early fourteenth-century Iceland. Indeed, in his ĺslendingabók,12 [End Page 262] composed sometime between 1122 and 1133, Ari Þorgilsson presents the two bishoprics, Skálholt and Hólar, as constituent parts, and indeed organic continuations, of Iceland's peculiar historical development.13 More specifically, Ari associates Iceland's elite with four main developments: the settlement, the establishment of the Commonwealth, the conversion to Christianity, and the foundation of the Icelandic Church. In this manner Ari shows a seamless continuum not only in Iceland's history but also in the providential role of the country's leading families. A comparable interpretation is offered in Hungrvaka, a short episcopal gesta of Skálholt composed round around...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-662X
Print ISSN
0363-6941
Pages
pp. 261-285
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-26
Open Access
No
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