Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

L'histoire et les nouveaux publics dans l'Europe médiévale (XIIIe-XVe siècle)

Jean-Philippe Genet

IV. Nouveaux publics, histoire et pouvoir

Oratory and Politics in the Sagas

Sverre Bagge

Texte intégral


  • 1 For a discussion of the kings' sagas from this point of view, see Sverre BAGGE, Society and Politi (...)

1The Norwegian and Icelandic kings' sagas form a prominent example of the revival of historiography in the High Middle Ages. From a literary point of view, the use of the vernacular was earlier and more widespread in Norway and Iceland in the Middle Ages than in most other countries of Europe, and the saga writers developed a very characteristic style, which is simple and terse, while at the same time aiming at maximum dramatic effect. This effect is achieved by "letting the events speak for themselves", i.e. by giving a concrete and vivid representation of events, while the author remains in the background, very rarely giving his own comments. As for the content of the kings' sagas, their narrative shows a very acute understanding of politics and human motives, in this respect surpassing most historical works from the rest of contemporary Europe. Without in anyway rejecting Christianity and the supernatural, the saga authors are mainly interested in explaining the events in rational terms, as the result of conflicting individual interests and the degree of political and military skill on the part of the protagonists.1 The sagas' "impersonal" style requires the authors to present these analyses in an indirect way, by their arrangement of the story of events, and by speeches and dialogues. An examination of their use of speeches would seem to be a good way of understanding the sagas, as literature as well as history.

  • 2 There has been no very extensive research on oratory in the sagas. The most important works so far (...)

2In the following I shall try to give a clearer picture of the function of oratory in this historiographical tradition. This topic can be treated from different points of view.2 I shall focus on two aspects, first, the arguments used in the speeches, and second, the way the speeches are integrated in the saga, i.e. whether they mainly form part of the narrative of events, or they serve as a kind of authorial comments or expressions of general truth. My conclusion will be that there is a significant shift from the former to the latter in the course of the thirteenth century, i.e. that the strong monarchy of the mid-thirteenth century introduced a more explicitly "ideological" kind of historiography than the one found in the "classical sagas" in the beginning of the century.

  • 3 Frederic AMORY, "Saga Style in some Kings'Sagas", Acta Philologica Scandinavica, 32, 1979, pp.67-8 (...)

3Despite the fact that the use of oratory in the sagas resembles that of the historiography of other European countries, in Antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, I shall not attempt a comparative treatment-I hope to do so on a later occasion. It is definitely possible that the saga authors were influenced by Roman historiography, which was known in Norway and Iceland, or by contemporary European authors. However, their rhetorical style does not bear very close resemblance to these works,3 and the content and function of the speeches can at least partly be understood in the context of contemporary Norwegian and Icelandic society. I shall confine myself to this context in the present article, reserving the question of literary models or sources for later treatment.

How to gain Adherents

  • 4 There has been an extensive discussion on the line of division between the two parts, see Theodore (...)
  • 5 For analyses of the speeches of Sverris saga, see Gustav INDREBØ, ed„ Sverris saga [=SS], "Innleii (...)

4The main example to be discussed in the following is one of the earliest - possibly the earliest - of the kings' sagas, Sverris saga, the first part of which was written between 1185 and 1188 by the Icelandic abbot Karl Jonsson under Sverre's own supervision, and the second and larger between 1202 and 1230, most probably around 1215-20, by an unknown author4 Sverris saga is the saga of a warrior hero. Sverre was one of the pretenders in the struggles for the Norwegian throne during the troubled years 1130-1240 ("the civil wars"). Starting in 1177 as the leader of the remains of the defeated army of the previous pretender, about seventy men, he fought his way to the throne, defeating and killing, first the Earl, Erling Skakke, until then the real ruler of the country, in 1179, and then his son, King Magnus Erlingsson, in 1184. During the rest of his reign, he had to put down several rebellions. He was gaining the upper hand, but had not finally defeated his enemies when he died in 1202. Sverris saga is very vividly told and considered one of the masterpieces of Old Norse literature. Sverris saga, particularly its second part, is also one of the sagas which contains most speeches. As the saga mainly deals with warfare, the great majority of its speeches are battle speeches.5

5The appeal to enlightened self-interest is the dominant theme in these speeches. The men fight for themselves, to win material as well as immaterial gain (honour). Sverre's battle speeches are intended to make the men fight as bravely as possible, and the essence of his message is that it is in their own interest to do so. They have much to win, which is easily demonstrated to the poor men in the beginning of Sverre's career, less easily on later occasions, when they are more "established". In the latter case, however, S verre shows that the consequences of flight or retreat will be even worse than those of fighting. Normally, Sverre's battle speeches also contain fairly detailed descriptions of the tactics the army is to follow. By contrast, no ideological or political cause is ever mentioned, and when Sverre expresses his trust in God's support - which he does fairly often - the point is not that he and his men are fighting for justice or the right order of the world but that they have the mightiest ally on their side.

6In addition to the appeals to self-interest, the speeches give a vivid picture of the speaker himself and his familiarity with his audience. One of Sverre s most distinctive marks is humour and irony. He uses verses and proverbs in a humoristic fashion to underline his points, as when characterizing the attitude of the peasant levy on the enemy side by quoting a verse from a man who desires "Ingunn with the rosy mouth", whatever happens in the encounter between Sverre and Magnus (SS ch. 47: 51). Sverre's way of adressing his men is adapted to each particular situation and he is always sensitive to his men's reactions. There is a sliding transition between speeches and dialogues before and under the battle. The men's reactions to the speech are always registered in the saga. Before the battle of Nordnes outside Bergen in 1181 Sverre starts by asking for advice, though also giving his own opinion, which is that they should fight. The response is lukewarm. Sverre then goes on with a strongly emotional battle speech, pointing to the better quality of his men compared to the enemy, urging them to trust in God and the saints and expressing his own feeling that they will win. This time he succeeds, the men are convinced, acclaim him as the most successful of all kings and declare their full trust that he will lead them to victory (SS ch. 51). The battle speeches of Sverris saga form evidence of a great leader with a thorough knowledge of his men and their strengths and weaknesses and a great variety in rhetorical skills: solemn religious appeals, demagogic tricks, emotional appeals, humour and rational arguments. Thus, the picture of Sverre emerging from the speeches also constitute an emotional appeal to his men: they are led to fight for him, not only by rational calculation but by trust in Sverre's skill and fascination with his personality.

  • 6 On the question of the historicity of Sverre's speeches, see KNIRK, Oratory, pp.l 14-23 with refer (...)
  • 7 BAGGE, From Gang Leader, pp.21-25.

7Although it is unlikely that the author of Sverris saga had exact information about what Sverre had said on various occasions,6 the arguments he attributed to him make sense in the light of what we know of actual conditions at the time. No permanent ties of loyalty or authority existed. A leader had to attract adherents by convincing them that it was in their interest to follow him, while at the same time demonstrating his charismatic personality. Sverre and other leaders at the time were not military commanders in the modem sense. They had to persuade their men to fight; they had no authority to command them.7 Consequently, their Personal performance, including their ability to convince their adherents, was of crucial importance.

  • 8 LIE, op. cit., p.104 f., cf. pp.85-105.
  • 9 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp.98 ff.

8Thus, the battle speeches of Sverris saga are likely to reflect actual agitation at the time. They also contain arguments similar to the ones used in the speeches of other sagas, first and foremost the other masterpiece among the kings' sagas, Snorre Sturlasson's Heimskringla, usually dated to around 1230, or probably slightly later than Sverris saga. The difference is that the most interesting and elaborate speeches in Heimskringla occur in political and not in military contexts-the battle speeches are usually dull.8 The political speeches very often deal with conflicting claims and are intended to argue for the speaker's rights. However, the main point of the speech is to get the audience on the speaker's side, and this aim is achieved by appeals to their own interests.9 Like in Sverris saga, these appeals are given a form which serves to emphasize the personality of the speaker, so that enthusiasm for a great man and leader are combined with rational considerations.

Narrative or General Arguments?

9We shall now turn to the question of the function of the speeches within the general context of the sagas. Are they mainly a part of the narrative of events or do they express the author's own opinions on general questions? Evidently, these two functions cannot be sharply distinguished. In a certain sense, everything in a historical work is part of the narrative. The author may also use the narrative, including the speeches, to illustrate general principles, and, more generally, the arguments used in speeches will always bear some relationship to what is generally regarded as truth in a given society. In many cases, it makes little difference whether we choose the one or the other of the alternative interpretations. The appeal to self-interest will for instance be equally relevant in the concrete historical situation and as a general observation of human behaviour. Consequently, the battle speeches may both be regarded as the author's attempts to recreate as vividly as possible a situation in the past, and as his own analysis of politics.

  • 10 Heimskringla, ed. F. JONSSON, vol. 1, Copenhagen 1893-1901, pp.189 ff.; cf. Heimskringla: History (...)
  • 11 Heimskringla, vol. 2, pp.476-78, cf. HOLLANDER, pp.505-07.
  • 12 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp. 181-86.

10On some crucial points, however, our choice between these alternatives will make a very great difference. When treating the christianization of Norway, Snorre Sturlasson occasionally lets the pagans defend the old religion with considerable eloquence.10 Before the battle of Stiklestad, in which the national saint of Norway, King Olav Haraldsson, was defeated and killed by his enemies, the magnates of Norway and their followers in alliance with King Cnut the Great of Denmark and England, Snorre lets the Danish bishop Sigurd deliver a passionate appeal to the enemy army, depicting Olav as a Viking and robber and reminding his audience of the wrongs he has done to them, for which they now have the opportunity to seek revenge.11 There is nothing in the speeches themselves to suggest that Snorre does not share the opinion expressed in them, although this is fairly obvious, partly on a priori grounds, partly because of the context. Arguments in favour of the pagan religion were unlikely to have been taken seriously in the thirteenth century, and Bishop Sigurd's appeal marks a sharp contrast to Snorre's previous description of how Olav, after his exile from Norway two years before, was transformed into a saint, who was preparing himself for the heavenly kingdom.12 Snorre's purpose in composing these speeches must therefore have been to give a vivid picture of a concrete situation in the past, not to deliver arguments that might be relevant to a present situation. The examples mentioned here are fairly easy to deal with, but the general problem they pose has far-reaching consequences: how can we discover the author's own attitude when he makes such efforts to give a plausible presentation of arguments which he himself regarded as absurd? I cannot enter into a full discussion of this problem here; I shall confine myself to the remark that the solution is largely to be sought in the narrative as a whole: later events will often show whether the arguments presented in a particular speech were considered reasonable or not.

11Sverris saga partly poses the same problem. Admittedly, there is no doubt that Sverre is the hero of the saga, that he is normally in the centre of the narrative and that his actions and decisions are almost always proved right, in contrast to Heimskringla, where Snorre clearly expresses his sympathies and antipathies but rarely shows consistent preference for one particular person or faction. However, Sverre's position as the hero of his saga does not necessarily mean that his speeches express what the author regards as correct opinions on controversial questions, while his adversaries are always in the wrong. We are still left with the problem where to draw the line between speeches serving to characterize a particular situation and those containing arguments of general relevance.

  • 13 SS ch. 104; BAGGE, Front Gang Leader, pp.71-74.

12The clearest example of the latter is Sverre's speech against drunkenness and the German merchants, which the author sets in Bergen in the summer of 1186, in a period without very great events. The background in the saga is quarrels and violence among Sverre's men and the townspeople, caused by excessive drinking of cheap wine, imported by the Germans. In this case, however, the content of the speech is clearly of greater importance than the situation, and Sverre is shown as a king concerned with morality, the dignity of man, économic policy, and the hierarchy of society.13 This is one of the few occasions where Sverre steps out of the narrative to deliver a message of general importance.

  • 14 SS ch. 11-12, 117, 121-22; BAGGE, "Ideology and Propaganda in Sverris saga", Arkiv for nordisk fil (...)

13To some extent, the discussions between Sverre and his adversaries also contain general principles. Towards the end of his reign Sverre had a dramatic conflict with the Archbishop and the Church over a number of important issues, during which both parties set forth their view on the general relationship between the two powers in some detail.14 Once more, it is difficult to deduce from the speeches and dialogues referred in the saga which of the parties was considered to have the better right. The conflict is also treated very briefly in the saga. In particular, the author confines himself to a few issues: advowson, the fines due to the Church, and the number of retainers in the Archbishop's service, while we know from other sources, stemming from both parties in the conflict, that the conflict was also about Sverre's demand for coronation and the question of episcopal elections and ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

14It is difficult to find an explanation of the author's selection of issues in terms of their intrinsic importance or the author's wish to hide unpleasant facts. The most likely explanation is that the author, in a fairly arbitrary way, picked a sufficient number of issues to create a story. He starts with some clashes between the Archbishop and the Birkibeinar, ending with his exile and the pope's support for Sverre. The verbal encounters between the protagonists taking place in between are not intended as a full account of the disagreement between them, nor as a discussion of general principles that might also be relevant at the time when the saga was composed. They are dramatic scenes, showing how the conflict is escalated and leading the story to its final climax, the Archbishop's exile.

15While Sverre's conflict with the Church is a fairly isolated episode in the saga, his conflicts with other pretenders, first and foremost Magnus Erlingsson, form the main theme of its narrative. To what extent does the author use the speeches delivered during this conflict to give a general presentation of the political ideas of Sverre and his adversaries, and to what extent do these ideas correspond to principles that were relevant to the author himself and his audience? The main ideological difference concerns the succession to the throne. Magnus, who descended from the royal family through his mother, claimed that he was the legitimate king through his unction and coronation, while Sverre based his claim on being a king's son, although illegitimate, declaring that royal descent through the female line did not qualify for the throne. These claims are expressed in speeches and dialogues, in Sverre's speech after the death of Erling Skakke in the battle of Kalvskinnet (1179), then in a discussion between Sverre and Magnus during a meeting in 1181, and finally during the speeches before and after the decisive battle of Fimreite, where Magnus was killed.

16The discussion between Sverre and Magnus in 1181 is the resuit of Sverre's suggestion that they should divide the kingdom between them (SS ch. 60). The two kings consider various ways of making such a division, until the negotiations break down and they start to quarrel. During this discussion, they also state the basic arguments for their right to the throne. There is nothing in the discussion itself to indicate that Sverre is in the right and Magnus in the wrong.

17Before the decisive battle of Fimreite (1184), where Magnus was defeated and killed, the author lets Magnus deliver a speech to his men, which may form a parallel to Sverre's speech against drunkenness, not in the sense that it is concerned with general principles, but in the sense that it does not fit in with the context in which it is held. Magnus begins and ends in a fairly normal way, by outlining the tactics and encouraging the men. But the rest of the speech contains a retrospective glance at Magnus' career from he was elected king at the age of five to the present day: his reign has been a burden for himself as well as for the people. He now hopes that the battle will lead to an end of the war in either way and thanks all his faithful men who have supported him (SS ch. 89). This is hardly the way a leader would speak before a decisive battle. Moreover, the speech suits neither this particular leader, whom the author in another context characterizes as a strong, healthy and cheerful young man, popular with his friends and a lover of drink and women (SS ch. 98), nor the situation, which, according to the saga, was that Sverre was trapped in a desperate position, so that Magnus and his men were sure of victory. The speech must rather be understood as a prophecy regarding the outcome of the battle - similar to the crows gathering around Magnus's ships, mentioned earlier in the saga (SS ch. 86: 93) - an expression of the author's evaluation of Magnus' reign, and a final comment on the tragic fate of this great enemy of Sverre.

  • 15 "pa hefir mic sva mikit til costat pesa nafns oc rikis er nu hefi ec. oc sva morg valc oc vandkvae (...)

18Sverre's two great speeches after his victories over Erling (1179) and Magnus (1184) form the counterpart to Magnus's speech before his last battle. Sverre addresses the townspeople of respectively Nidaros and Bergen, including the adherents of his dead enemies (SS ch. 38, 99), presenting himself as God's instrument in fighting His enemies, who in the second speech are classified with the great rebels against God in The Old Testament. Sverre's war against Erling and Magnus therefore forms a parallel to the great wars of sacred history. In mentioning Saul as the last in his series of rebels, Sverre clearly alludes to the man God appointed instead of Saul, David, who is presented as a parallel to Sverre in other contexts in the saga. The author clearly favours Sverre in letting him express himself more fully and with greater eloquence than Magnus. But there is nothing to suggest that Magnus is the loser in the discussion. If the author regards Sverre's arguments as right and Magnus'as wrong, which seems likely, he expresses his opinion by showing Sverre's military victory and Magnus' defeat. We may then ask: in what sense is Sverre right and Magnus wrong? Were the arguments presented by Sverre relevant in other situations, for instance when the saga was written? The situation in 1217 and the following years, when Sverre's grandson, Hakon Hakonsson, succeeded to the throne, presents a clear parallel to the beginning of Sverre's reign. Hakon was also the illegitimate son of a king, while his rival, Skule Bårdsson, was legitimate but not the son of a king. However, the author does not present Sverre as being consistent in his attitude to these issues. In his discussion with Magnus, Sverre is willing to divide the kingdom, thus seriously weakening his argument for God's vocation and for being the only right heir to the throne. From this point of view, Magnus is more consistent, in rejecting Sverre's right to the throne and explicitly pointing to his own vocation and his vow to rule and defend the country. Sverre shows curiously little understanding of the responsibility attached to kingship according to contemporary ideology. He regards kingship as his own personal right, or as a prize to be won through toils, suffering, and military skill. He expresses the same attitude shortly before, when another potential pretender, Eirik, demands to prove by ordeal that he is also the son of Sverre's alleged father, Sigurd Munn. Sverre allows him to do so but refuses to share the kingdom with him, because "the name of King and the realm I now possess have cost me so dearly, so many worries, perplexities, and grave dangers".15 Moreover, after Sverre's coronation in 1194, the author makes one of his former adherents who wants to return to his favour, acclaim Sverre as the only lawful king, in the right of his coronation (SS ch. 153).

  • 16 SS ch. 97, see also BAGGE, "Ideology", pp.6 ff.

19In the case of Magnus' speech before the battle of Fimreite, the author in a certain sense lets the speaker step out of the context. His aim is therefore not to keep as closely as possible to what Magnus actually said on this occasion. If the author was concerned with legitimate succession, he might have used Magnus' speech, in connection with his defeat and death as a warning against trusting in the wrong principles. There is nothing, however, to suggest that he takes a negative attitude to Magnus; he even quotes some favourable words by Sverre about him.16 Magnus emerges as a kind of tragic hero, destined to lose against Sverre's superior skill and intelligence and divine support, and Magnus' last speech is intended to give a kind of overall interpretation of his reign before his death.

  • 17 Torfinn TOBIASSEN, "Tronfolgelov og privilegiebrev", Historisk tidsskrift, 43, 1964, pp. 181-273.

20Sverre's two speeches after the death of his greatest adversaries no doubt express general truths which may be considered relevant after Sverre's death, as his successors' legitimate claim to the throne depended on that of Sverre. However, the absence of almost any other idea of contemporary relevance is even more striking. Sverre's only reference to the king governing on behalf of the people, in the speech after the death of Magnus, is intimately linked to the idea of his right to the throne: he has saved the people from being governed by men who were not borne to rule. Neither Sverre in his speeches, nor the author in the rest of the saga makes any attempt to demonstrate the negative consequences for the people of this injustice. Quite the contrary, Sverre continues his speech by describing the people's hatred of himself. He gives no promises of ruling justly, and no general expression of the principles of Christian kingship. This is surprising, not only against our modem background of promises in election campaigns but also in a medieval Norwegian context. The Christian idea of the rex iustus was set forth in considerable detail in the documents issued in connection with Magnus' election and coronation,17 and it was customary for a newly elected king to give promises to the people and even to change the law in their favour. A speech by Sverre along these lines would also seem entirely consistent with the attitude of Håkon Håkonsson, probably the ruler at the time when the saga was written.

21Thus, the author does not exploit this possibility to present Sverre as a rex iustus by letting him express general ideas about how a king should rule. He rather seems to use Sverre's two speeches to characterize the situation after his two victories, and, ultimately, Sverre himself. This interpretation is supported by Sverre's statement in the speech after Erling's death that he has now become king, archbishop, and earl, i.e. Sverre seems to have believed that with Erling gone, the kingdom would be easily conquered. Actually, he had five years of hard fighting before him until he had defeated Magnus, and he was never able to unite the supreme temporal and spiritual power in the way he stated in the speech. Consequently, these words cannot be the author's own interpretation of the significance of Sverre's victory, but must either correspond to what Sverre actually said, or be an attempt by the author to regard the situation after the battle from Sverre's point of view.

  • 18 "oc kemr par at pvi sem mællt er. at sart bitr solltin lus" (SS ch. 99: 106).

22Furthermore, the two speeches are the greatest monuments in the saga of Sverre's eloquence, his ability to develop an argument with irresistible logic, his irony and humour, and his combining solemn religious appeals with pragmatism and humour. Thus, in the speech over Erling, Sverrir refers to Archbishop Eystein's promise that all who die fighting for Erling and Magnus will be received directly in heaven, exhorting the people to rejoice at the thought of so many men entering heaven on one day. Then he changes, uncovering the irony of the first half of the speech and turning to his favourite topic, Erling's sin in usurping the throne for his son (SS ch.38). In the speech over Magnus, having outlined the fate of the proud from Adam to Erling and Magnus and his own role in God's providence, "a little and low man from the outer skerries", he suddenly adds: "And here the saying applies: Ά hungry louse bites hard'".18 These two speeches have a different audience than Sverre's "normal" speeches, the battle speeches, i.e. an audience consisting of the townspeople of respectively Nidaros and Bergen, the latter clearly being hostile to Sverre. Sverre therefore does not have the same close contact with his audience as when delivering the battle speeches. Within the context of the saga as a whole, however, the speeches after Erling's and Magnus' death have a similar effect, giving a vivid picture of Sverre as a great and brilliant leader, not as usual, in direct action, but in the moment of triumph after two of the greatest victories of his career.

23Thus, oratory and dialogue in Sverris saga are mainly subordinated to the story-telling. These devices mostly serve to illustrate or make intelligible concrete situations and to move the action forward, not to discuss general principles. The battle speeches clarify the attitudes of the leaders and their men and outline the tactics, and the discussions and confrontations between the protagonists normally lead to some kind of political or military confrontation. In this way the speeches form part of the author's literary technique, allowing him to give vivid glimpses of dramatic events. But the speeches may also serve as analyses of situations, choices, and motives, in a similar way as authorial comments in other historiographical traditions. The battle speeches often contain fairly detailed analyses of the situation and accounts of tactical plans, and the presentations of alternative choices in these and other speeches may be intended to inform the reader of the motives behind particular decisions. Finally, the speeches may serve as portraits of great men, showing their leadership and demonstrating to the readers of the sagas how they succeeded in gaining adherents and defeating their enemies.

24This function of the speeches may illustrate how factions were formed and maintained and how politics was conducted in contemporary Norwegian society. The arguments in battle and propaganda speeches conform to what was probably the way of convincing people. Likewise, the scarcity of general principles and the relative "objectivity" of the presentation of people and their arguments fit well in with a society with "free competition" between faction leaders, in which loyalty and adherence were determined by self-interest and personal attraction, not by ideology, obedience to a particular authority, or social origin. Ideologies or general principles were simply not very important in the political struggles, consequently, they play a subordinate part in the oratory of the "classical saga. Already by the mid-thirteenth century, however, this "classical" saga tradition was undergoing considerable changes.

A Novel Use of Oratory: Hákonar saga

25Hákonar saga is the official biography of King Håkon Håkonsson (1217-63), a great and successful king, who managed to end the internal struggles, create a strong and stable monarchy, and strengthen Norwegian influence in the neighbouring countries and the islands in the West. The saga was commissioned by Håkon's son and successor Magnus and written by the Icelander Sturla Tordsson shortly after Håkon's death, most probably before 1265.

  • 19 For a more complete analysis of Hákonar saga from this point of view, see BAGGE, From Gang Leader,(...)

26The use of speeches in Hakonar saga is very different from the earlier saga tradition.19 The speeches are more loosely connected to the narrative, and are not usually intended to bring the action forward. On the contrary, they express the opinion of the author and his employers on general issues. The saga contains few battle speeches, and even they tend to deal more with general principles than the ones in Sverris saga. The account of political events, inside as well as outside Norway, rarely contains any speeches, only a few short dialogues and statements in direct speech. The great majority of the speeches are to be found in two parts of the saga, in the discussions about the succession to the throne during the years 1217-23, and in connection with Håkon's coronation in 1247.

27Håkon's succession to the throne was long and complicated. His main rival was Skule, the half-brother of the late king, who was the leader of the king's retainers and had held an important position during the previous reign. Håkon himself was the illegitimate grandson of Sverre, was thirteen years old at the time and had no established position; in other words, his prospects seem to have been as bleak as those of Sverre in the beginning of his career. Like the author of Sverris saga Sturla explains his protagonist's ultimate success by God's support. But God acts in a totally different way in Håkon's case. Håkon does not fight his way to the throne; he or – mostly - his adherents convince the prelates, the magnates, and the people of his legitimate claim in a long series of speeches made at various meetings, the longest and most elaborate at the final meeting in Bergen in 1223. In contrast to earlier discussions and confrontations over such issues, including the one in Sverris saga, the personal qualities of the pretenders are of no importance. Nor does Sturla try to explain in political terms why Håkon is preferred to Skule, despite the latter's far stronger position. Håkon is the winner, simply because all men know, if they are truly honest, that according to "the law of St.Olav" he is the rightful king.

  • 20 Hákonar saga [=HH], ed. Gudbrandur VIGFUSSON (Rerum britannicarum medii aevi scriptores, vol. 88, (...)
  • 21 Sverre BAGGE, The Political Thought of The King's Mirror, Odense, 1987, pp.43-49.

28Similarly, during the discussions before the coronation in 1247, Håkon in two speeches rejects the bishops' demands for privileges in return for the coronation by pointing to his hereditary right to the throne, and States the general principle of the division of power between the monarchy and the Church and his own responsibility for maintaining intact the rights of his successors. Cardinal William, the papal legate sent to perform the coronation, then supports the king's point of view in another speech.20 Håkon's arguments on this occasion correspond very closely to the official royalist ideology as it was stated in greater detail in The King's Mirror, written slightly earlier, in the 1250s.21 In addition, a number of other speeches and dialogues deal with the royal office or the succession to the throne, or they show foreigners appreciating the culture and manners of Norway and the Norwegian court, e.g. the Cardinal in 1247 and a Scottish envoy in 1261 (HH ch. 310).


  • 22 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp.201-208.

29The change from the use of oratory in the "classical" sagas to its use in Hákonar saga may at first sight indicate a change from literature to ideology. No doubt, modem readers find Sverris saga far more entertaining than Hákonar saga, and contemporary readers may well have held the same opinion. One of the functions of the classical saga literature was to entertain, and elaborate speeches must have had a strong appeal to connoisseurs, whether their content corresponded to contemporary wisdom or not. But the dividing line between entertainment and political wisdom should not be too sharply drawn. Old Norse historiography most probably served a pragmatic purpose, so that the speeches as well as their contexts and the events in general may have been considered useful for students of "the game of politics".22

30By contrast, the king in Hákonar saga holds an office on God's behalf, in virtue of which he claims obedience from his subjects. These principles are expressed in the speeches, which are loosely related to the narrative as well as to the king's personality, while forming an integrated part of the royalist ideology at the time the saga was written. In this way, the change in the composition and narrative of the sagas, including their use of oratory, forms evidence of the change from a society of competing war leaders to one ruled by a strong, stable, and authoritarian monarchy.


1 For a discussion of the kings' sagas from this point of view, see Sverre BAGGE, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, Berkeley etc., 1991 and From Gang Leader to the Lord's Anointed, Odense, 1995.

2 There has been no very extensive research on oratory in the sagas. The most important works so far are Hallvard LIE, Studier i Heimskringlas stil, Oslo, 1937, pp.85-115, and James KNIRK, Oratory in the Kings' Sagas, Oslo, 1981.

3 Frederic AMORY, "Saga Style in some Kings'Sagas", Acta Philologica Scandinavica, 32, 1979, pp.67-86.

4 There has been an extensive discussion on the line of division between the two parts, see Theodore ANDERSSON, Kings'Sagas, in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide, eds. C. CLOVER and J. LINDOW, Ithaca, 1985, pp.197-238. The most widespread opinion today is that the first part Gryla only dealt with the first two years of Sverre’s career, until 1178. For the question of date and authorship, see also BAGGE, From Gang Leader, pp. 15-19.

5 For analyses of the speeches of Sverris saga, see Gustav INDREBØ, ed„ Sverris saga [=SS], "Innleiing", Oslo, 1920, pp.lxvii-lxxi, and KNIRK, op. cit., p.99.

6 On the question of the historicity of Sverre's speeches, see KNIRK, Oratory, pp.l 14-23 with references.

7 BAGGE, From Gang Leader, pp.21-25.

8 LIE, op. cit., p.104 f., cf. pp.85-105.

9 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp.98 ff.

10 Heimskringla, ed. F. JONSSON, vol. 1, Copenhagen 1893-1901, pp.189 ff.; cf. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, trans. with intr. etc. by Lee M. HOLLANDER, Austin, 1967, p.109.

11 Heimskringla, vol. 2, pp.476-78, cf. HOLLANDER, pp.505-07.

12 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp. 181-86.

13 SS ch. 104; BAGGE, Front Gang Leader, pp.71-74.

14 SS ch. 11-12, 117, 121-22; BAGGE, "Ideology and Propaganda in Sverris saga", Arkiv for nordisk filologi, 108, 1993, pp.10 ff. and From Gang Leader, pp.74-80.

15 "pa hefir mic sva mikit til costat pesa nafns oc rikis er nu hefi ec. oc sva morg valc oc vandkvaedi oc storar mNhættur" (SS ch. 59).

16 SS ch. 97, see also BAGGE, "Ideology", pp.6 ff.

17 Torfinn TOBIASSEN, "Tronfolgelov og privilegiebrev", Historisk tidsskrift, 43, 1964, pp. 181-273.

18 "oc kemr par at pvi sem mællt er. at sart bitr solltin lus" (SS ch. 99: 106).

19 For a more complete analysis of Hákonar saga from this point of view, see BAGGE, From Gang Leader, pp.89-155.

20 Hákonar saga [=HH], ed. Gudbrandur VIGFUSSON (Rerum britannicarum medii aevi scriptores, vol. 88, 1-2), London 1857, repr. 1964, ch. 247, 252; The Saga of Hakon and a Fraqment of the Saga of Magnus with Appendices, transl, by G. W. DASENT (Rerum Britannicarum Medii aevi Scriptores, vol. 88, 4), London, 1894, repr. 1964. References are to chapters, which are the same in the original and the translation.

21 Sverre BAGGE, The Political Thought of The King's Mirror, Odense, 1987, pp.43-49.

22 BAGGE, Society and Politics, pp.201-208.

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1997

Conditions d’utilisation :