All the King’s Men: Icelandic Skalds at Scandinavian Court
Simplicissimus: The Harvard College Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol.1:2 (2013)
In the Eddic poem Rígsþula, the god Heimdall – disguised as a traveler called Rig – visits households of three very clearly defined social strata and sires offspring with the matriarch of each household. A son called “Thrall,” with dark hair and dull eyes, is born to the lowest order; “Karl,” meaning free, common man, is born to a working household; and “Jarl,” with fair skin and bright eyes, is born into the highest level of society – the nobility. A clear emphasis in the lay is unsurprisingly on family, in the context of inherited social status. Each of Heimdall’s children marries his equal in physical attributes and social standing, and has tellingly-named children. Jarl and his wife Erna end up producing a youngest son Kon, whose name is etymologically related to ‘king’: konungr in Old Norse. This anonymous lay is unique in the Poetic Edda for its explicit treatment of social classes, and for its explanatory style describing the origin of classes, something akin to a Kipling Just-So story. It may have reflected existing conditions in the Old Norse world, or may have conceptualized an ideal class order. Whether or not the three-tiered society outlined in the poem was so clear-cut in actuality, Rígsþula is evidence that the concept of social hierarchy clearly had deep roots in Scandinavian society. As one translator of Rígsþula points out however, scholars seem to agree that its societal concepts reflect mainland Scandinavia – Denmark or Norway, possibly even Old Ireland – rather than Iceland, which, with its quasi-parliamentary Althing, was something of a different case.
Spanning the gap between Iceland and mainland Scandinavia and sitting somewhere between freemen and nobility on the social scale were Icelandic court skalds, who frequented courts on the mainland throughout the Viking Age. Following the settlement of Iceland in the late ninth century, skaldic poetry seems to have flourished in Iceland, and Icelandic skalds outstripped their Norwegian counterparts over the next century. By the 11th century, skalds at courts on the Scandinavian mainland were overwhelmingly from Iceland or the Orkney Islands. These poets occupied a special place in societies overseas, as foreigners infiltrating a stratified society, and as craftsmen skilled in a specialized, highly valued, and powerful craft. Through a closer look at Icelandic poets moving through foreign courts, we can begin to construct a picture of a society in which social status (as function of family and inheritance) was of utmost importance, but which also valued a quick wit and poetic skill, such that humble origins of Icelanders could be overlooked if their tongues were quick enough. This essay will consider several cases found in the Íslendingasögur and especially in the þættir to assess the power and social position of Icelandic skalds in foreign courts.