Why Include Snorri Sturluson?

Essays - December 4, 2021

The University of Iceland Centre for Medieval Studies held a seminar 2 December on my interpretation of Iceland’s most famous writer…

Many of my fellow Icelanders are somewhat surprised by the fact that I put Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson among the Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers on whom I recently published a book in two volumes. How can this thirteenth-century author of a book on Nordic poetry, Edda, a chronicle on Norwegian kings, Heimskringla, and an Icelandic saga, Egil’s Saga, be regarded as a conservative liberal, when this particular political position did not even exist at his time? One answer is that I also include another thirteenth-century writer, St. Thomas Aquinas, in my book, and indeed for the same reason: In the works of Snorri and Aquinas two important political ideas are expressed: that the rulers are under the law, not making it, and that if they break the law in a significant and serious manner, they become tyrants and can be deposed. These ideas were then transformed by John Locke into a theory of social contract, which he used to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. Locke was really the first fully-fledged conservative liberal, whereas Snorri and Aquinas were his important precursors. (It is a different story that I would agree with Edmund Burke that the social contract is written by history, which means that it consists of the general principles which enable us not only to survive, but also to succeed: private property, free trade, and limited government.)

The First Whig?

Born in 1179, Snorri Sturluson was brought up at an Icelandic centre of learning, Oddi, and had as a young man acquired a thorough knowledge of the literary tradition of the Nordic peoples, as is shown in his Edda, a handbook for aspiring poets, probably written before 1218. Snorri had also gained great knowledge of Icelandic law and he was therefore elected to the only official position in his country, that of a Lawspeaker, in 1215. Iceland, settled from Norway in 874–930, had developed a unique political system: there was no king but the law, as a German chronicler wrote admiringly. Once a year the 39 chieftains of Iceland met at a place called Thingvellir and passed judgements in individual cases and revised the law. The enforcement of judgements was however private. Every farmer had to belong to a chieftainship although he could choose between different chieftains in his region, and often the chieftains acted as the protectors of the weak. The absence of any executive power in Iceland therefore did not necessarily mean anarchy, lawlessness and the oppression of the weak. The original role of the Lawspeaker was to deliver the law orally at Thingvellir, one third each year, but after the law was written down and codified in early twelfth century, he was expected only to preside over the annual meeting of the chieftains, the Icelandic Parliament, at Thingvellir and to interpret the law if needed.

In Heimskringla, written between 1220 and 1237, Snorri Sturluson gave many examples of kings who violated the law and either had to amend their ways or be deposed. He described how the Swedish Lawman Torgny addressed his king in no uncertain terms when his subjects found him eager to wage a war against the Norwegians: ‘Should you be unwilling to accept what we demand, then we shall mount an attack against you and kill you and not put up with hostility and lawlessness from you. This is what our forefathers before us have done.’ In fact, Heimskringla can be read as an eloquent warning against kings in general: they are apt to abuse their power. This comes out clearly in a speech which Snorri puts into the mouth of an Icelandic farmer, Einar of Thvera, in 1024 when the Norwegian king asked the Icelanders to cede an island in the North to him: ‘So though this king may be a good man, as I firmly trust that he is, yet it will happen from now on as it has before now, when there is a change of ruler, that they turn out differently, some well, some badly. But if the people of this country wish to keep their freedom, which they have had since this land was settled, then it will be best to grant the king no foothold on it.’

The ancient conception of the law in the German tradition was that it was slowly evolving, somewhat like language, mainly by custom and precedents, with only slight revisions when necessary. It was a common heritage, not only a series of written statutes. Everybody was subject to the law, also kings and aristocrats. But in Snorri’s time a new conception of the law was being promoted: that it consisted in the will of a legislator, the king who reigned by the grace of God. It is clear that Snorri favoured the ancient conception of the law. A recurrent theme in Heimskringla is the contrast between the good kings who respected the law, kept taxes low, and maintained peace, and the bad kings who broke the law, violated ancient liberties, raised taxes and forced the farmers to participate in their military adventures. Snorri was Lawspeaker between 1215 and 1218 and then again between 1222 and 1231. In this troublesome period in Icelandic history he was the wealthiest and most powerful man in the country despite his reluctance to engage in battles with opponents. His political programme, as outlined in Heimskringla, was that the Icelanders should have friendly relations with Norway, their old motherland, but that they should not become subjects of the Norwegian king. Eventually, Snorri was in 1241 killed by a royal emissary. Two decades later the Commonwealth came to an end and Iceland became a tributary of the Norwegian king. Lord Acton once remarked that Aquinas was the first Whig, but Snorri preceded Aquinas by 46 years. Perhaps it is more accurate to call the author of Heimskringla the first Whig.

The First Individual?

Egil’s Saga, probably written by Snorri between 1239 and 1241, is also remarkable in that it is a celebration of individuality. Its chief protagonist, warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson, living in the tenth century, is a true individual, stepping out of the mist of family, tribe, and region, with a rich emotional life, defying both kings and gods, alternatively tender and cruel. As Icelandic scholar Sigurdur Nordal writes, Egil ‘is the first man in the history of the Germanic peoples who describes himself in his own words, from his outer appearance to his innermost thoughts’. Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt observed that individuality came into being in Renaissance Italy. Burckhardt added that ‘at the close of the 13th century, Italy began to swarm with individuality; the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved; and a thousand figures meet us each in its own special shape and dress’. But certainly, Egil meets us in his own special shape and dress, three centuries before Burckhardt’s Italians. Egil’s Saga is not only considered to be one of the best Icelandic sagas, but it is also one of the earliest ones. Snorri was therefore perhaps the founder of a literary tradition. In the chapter on Snorri in my book I suggest that it was  not a coincidence that most of the sagas were written in the twilight of the Commonwealth and in the early years of Norwegian rule. The Icelanders needed to reaffirm their national identity against the challenge from Norway, and the best way to do so was to tell stories about their forefathers in the first one hundred years after the settlement.

I presented my interpretation of Snorri at a lively seminar organised by the University of Iceland Centre for Medieval Studies on Thursday 2 December 2021. The commentator, History Professor Sverrir Jakobsson, agreed that liberal or at least anti-royalist sentiments could be detected in Heimskringla, but he questioned whether Snorri was in fact the author of Egil’s Saga, adding that in his lifetime Snorri did not really behave as an opponent of the Norwegian king. I responded that the main source on Snorri’s life, his cousin Sturla Thordson, was obviously biased against him. When I ascribed Egil’s Saga to Snorri, I was just following the lead of most experts on the Icelandic sagas. It should be recalled, also, I said, that Snorri was of course not hostile to the Norwegians. He wanted friendly relations with them, but not servitude under them. I added that Snorri had enough range and scope as a thinker to unite two apparent opposites, cosmopolitanism and patriotism. This should indeed still be our task: to be citizens of the world, while celebrating our local community, cherishing our national heritage.