Hawkers, beggars, assassins and tramps : Fringe characters in the Íslendinga sögur
Sagas and Society, No.6 (2004)
A society is defined not only by the people at its centre, the wealthy and influential and the masses, but also by those people who are on its fringes, neither fully included in that society nor beyond its boundaries. This paper will look at the figure of the göngumaðr in the Íslendinga sögur. A great many sagas utilise one or more such characters to advance their plots. Sometimes salesmen, beggars or even outlaws, they rarely have significant family bonds or support. While they might have some financial wealth, they are invariably without influence or social standing and are almost never presented in a positive light. However their very marginality allows them to move between different social groups; a fact which they attempt to use to their advantage.
The paper will identify a number of different types of vagrants portrayed in the sagas and their varying roles within saga plots. It will consider the extent to which the social breakdown endemic in saga narrative can be blamed on such characters. Beyond this, the paper will begin to consider whether these characters might have represented genuine social concern regarding such figures among the thirteenth century Icelandic readership or whether they were merely convenient plot devices.