29 July 2021

St Olaf and Orkney

Doorway in Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
Today is the feast day of Óláfr Haraldsson, king of Norway and saint, who died in battle, killed by his political enemies at Stiklestad, on this day in 1030. He soon became a popular saint in many parts of northern Europe and further afield, as can be seen in some interesting contributions on Twitter today (they tend to turn up every year on this day, and I have been guilty of some blog posts on this theme too). Thus, St Óláfr was venerated in England (Eleanor Parker and Francis Young), Denmark (Steffen Hope) and Ireland. So it is no surprise that he was an important figure in Orkney, too. The doorway pictured is what is thought to be left of a medieval church (possibly from the eleventh century) dedicated to St Óláfr in Kirkwall.

As an important saint and historical figure, Óláfr gets quite frequent mentions in Orkneyinga saga, the text I'm mainly working on these days. That he was considered to have a special bond with some of the earls of Orkney is also clear. Thus, in chapter 29, Earl Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason travels to Papa Stronsay to get some malt for the brewing of ale for the upcoming Christmas feast. While they were sitting by the fire there one evening, 
....he who was stoking the fire spoke about how the firewood was running out. Then the earl misspoke and said this, ‘We will be fully old when these fires have burned out’. But what he wanted to say was that they would then be fully warmed up. And as soon as he noticed, he said this, ‘I have not misspoken before, as far as I remember. What occurs to me is what my foster-father, King Óláfr, said at Stiklestad, when I heard him misspeak, if it ever happened that I misspoke, that I should prepare myself that I would stay alive for only a short time. It might be that kinsman Þorfinnr is alive.’ [my translation]

And indeed, Rǫgnvaldr's uncle and rival earl, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson and his men turn up and make short work of killing him to consolidate Þorfinnr's power.

South doorway
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
The earls of Orkney were often in the habit of killing their kinsmen to ensure their own grip on power. The most notorious example involved the feud between Þorfinnr's grandsons, the cousins Hákon Pálsson and Magnús Erlendsson. The former killed the latter on the island of Egilsay at Easter, creating another much loved Scandinavian aristocratic saint, to whom the very beautiful cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated, replacing the smaller church dedicated to St Óláfr.

Magnús' connection to St Óláfr is perhaps not quite as clear as that of his father's cousin Rǫgnvaldr, though the saga does connect their deaths chronologically, stating somewhat confusedly that the killing of Magnús happend 74 years after that of St Óláfr (ch. 51) - although we don't know the exact year it happened that is out by at least a decade.

As can be seen from the quotation above, Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason had been present at the battle in which Óláfr was killed, while Magnús in his turn became a saint like Óláfr, his cathedral sponsored by his nephew, also called Rǫgnvaldr, who was in his turn murdered by his political enemies in the interminable internecine warfare of those times. Despite his saintly powers, Óláfr could no more keep his Orcadian earls alive than he could keep himself alive, but it may have comforted these political martyrs that he was on their side. Certainly, through the powers of sanctity and the church they are remembered more than the kinsmen and compatriots who killed them.


03 April 2021

The Tale of the 'Holiday Shocker'


Christine Fell in 1965
from a photo
kindly provided by
Gillian Fellows-Jensen 
One of my most treasured possessions is my copy of Sigurður Nordal's scholarly edition (1913-16) of Orkneyinga saga, which has been my constant companion for over two decades now, ever since I inherited it from my former colleague and friend Professor Christine E. Fell OBE (1938-1998; you can read about her on pp. 214ff. of this link). I have treasured this volume for its mere existence, because this edition is not always easy to get hold of and it is essential to my work on this saga and on Orkney generally. As a result, it's started to get a bit battered. Using it regularly always reminds me that it was Chris who encouraged me to go to a conference in Kirkwall in 1987, celebrating the 850th anniversary of St Magnus Cathedral. It was my first visit to Orkney and so she can be held responsible for my subsequent obsession with the place. But, although I have always been aware that the book has an interesting history, I've only just recently started to explore that history in more detail through the clues in the book itself.

The book bears the mark of Weeks & Co. Binders. London. N.W.1., and it was when it was bound that the letter that explains the book's provenance was bound into it. Loosely inserted into the book (it's a miracle that I still have it) is a small, neatly written note that explains who that letter was from. More on the letter later, but first the note. It is signed (but not dated) by Edith C. Batho. The name rang a faint bell with me, so with the help of Wikipedia, I discovered that she was the Principal of Royal Holloway College of the University of London from 1945-62. There I thought I had a possible connection with Chris Fell, as she got her BA in English from Royal Holloway in 1959, and Batho was an English specialist. Chris Fell went on to do an MA in Old Norse at UCL, awarded 1961, and presumably her interest in the subject began during her undergraduate years. However I have not been able to find any evidence that the two met then, though it is quite possible - in the late 1950s, there were apparently fewer than 400 students in the college. There's a nice painting of Edith Batho in 1961 here and I would like to imagine that Batho had given Fell the book around then, but it could equally have been at a later date. I'm told by an authoritative source that Batho was a regular attender at meetings of the Viking Society for Northern Research until her death, suggesting that she was still interested in Old Norse topics even after her retirement. This could have been where they met if not before and it gives an extended window during which Batho could have given Fell the book, perhaps especially when Chris was the Society's President 1980-82. But I also know that Chris was an assiduous purchaser of secondhand books and had built up an impressive library before her own death in 1998, so she might have bought the book after Batho's death in 1986. At the same time, Chris was keen for her books to be passed on to people who would find them useful, which is how I and some other younger colleagues and students had the privilege of selecting items from her library after her death. I suspect that this attitude reflected her own experience as a grateful young scholar on the receiving end of important books, which is why I like to think she got it directly from Edith Batho, whenever that was.

But why did Edith Batho have this book in her possession? Well, she had a degree in English and, although Wikipedia only mentions her publications on Wordsworth and the Victorians, she also had an interest in Scottish texts. She published on James Hogg, the 'Ettrick Shepherd' (more on this below) and co-edited John Bellenden's 1531 translation into Scots of Hector Boece's Chronicles of Scotland for the Scottish Text Society. And she published an article on Sir Walter Scott and the sagas in the Modern Language Review for 1929. Well, that's more than enough to explain why she might want the edition of Orkneyinga saga, but how did she get it?

The answer is in the letter, which Edith's note explains is from Olivia Stuart Horner, 'my friend for 50 years'. While the note is not dated, the letter is, to '10.11.25', so the note cannot have been written any later than 1975 and could be quite a bit earlier. In 1925, Edith was 30, and Olivia a bit older (the note states that she married Sir Ernest Barker a year or two after writing the letter and the census records that she was baptised in 1891, though elsewhere it is suggested that she was born in 1894). Googling Olivia Stuart Horner certainly gave me a clue to what the letter says about the book. Olivia was the god-daughter of no less than William Paton Ker, a distinguished literary scholar usually known as W.P. Ker, who was himself Scottish and who wrote on both Old Norse and other medieval topics. Among his many achievements was the establishment of the teaching of Scandinavian Studies at University College London in 1917. Olivia was with him when he died on a walking tour of Italy, at a place called Macugnaga.

According to the letter, Olivia is sending Edith what she describes as 'W.P.'s "holiday shocker" as he called it in 1923 at Macugnaga'. The reason she had it was because 'it got among other paperbacked books' which she discovered as her family was moving house. Clearly Edith thought highly enough of this rough paperback (the original paper covers are bound into the back of my copy) to have had it bound in London, with the letter also bound in to indicate its provenance. Olivia notes that 'you are the right person to have it'. This is explained by the fact that not only did Edith get her degree in English from University College London in 1915, while W.P. was Quain Professor of English there, but her book The Ettrick Shepherd (1927) is posthumously dedicated to him. The preface makes clear that it is based on work she did for her MA, and one could surmise that he was her supervisor for it, but then perhaps these things worked differently in those days. I'm wondering if it was W.P. who introduced his promising student to his god-daughter.

W.P. Ker's literary interests were very wide, and when he wrote about Old Norse texts it was usually to place them in a broader literary context. Typical is his inaugural address when he became President of the Viking Society for Northern Research (then still known as the Viking Club) printed in its journal Saga-Book as 'Iceland and the Humanities'. He was very active in the Viking Club during the first two decades of the twentieth century and his obituary in Saga-Book notes that 'The thing for which he cared most was the study of what Scandinavia had given to the world' (p. 410).

Although Olivia Barker is less well-known than the other actors in this little saga, there's actually quite a bit more to say about her and her family, even if it is not especially relevant to my book and its history. She was born in Cheshire, but by the 1911 census was living in Surbiton, and may have spent time in the family's ancestral home of the Manor House in Mells, Somerset. At the time of writing the letter she was, on the testimony of the letter itself, still living in Surbiton but about to move to Sussex. One of her brothers, Maurice, was murdered in London in 1943, a murder that was never solved. Another, David, wrote a novel based on this murder and was the long-term partner of no less than Osbert Sitwell.

I still need to find out whether the Scot W.P. Ker had a particular interest in this 'Scottish' saga, or whether he was just omnivorous when it came to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. So far I have not discovered any specific references in his works (but there are very many!) to Orkneyinga saga, but maybe he was reading it for the first time on that fateful Italian holiday. After all, it had only quite recently been published. So there may still be more to be found out about my treasured book. In the meantime, I'm delighted to have learned a bit more about its adventures.

So it's wonderful to think that my copy of this book has been to northern Italy with W.P. Ker, sat on the shelves first of Edith Batho and then of Christine Fell, and here I've been bashing it about for 20-odd years. I really must take better care of it! And from a personal point of view, I am delighted that this book links three Past Presidents of the Viking Society (Ker, Fell and myself) and three women scholars (Batho, Fell and myself), and that it is all down to Olivia Stuart Horner's clearout.

08 March 2021

International Women's Day


For International Women's Day it is always useful to remind ourselves that, even in the Viking Age, women were approximately half of the population. There seems to persist an idea that both Vikings and everything that went on in the Viking Age were somehow entirely a masculine domain. Naturally, I have been trying to nuance this picture for at least thirty years (this year being the anniversary of my Women in the Viking Age (1991), still to my amazement in print after all this time. I suppose it is still useful to people though I hope my ideas have moved on a bit since then.

Although I haven't been publishing on this topic too much recently, I still often get asked to talk about it, or write in a popular context. So here are some links to what I have said or written about women and other female figures in the Viking Age during the last few years:

  • 'In Praise of Queen Astrid' 10-minute talk from the British Academy (March 2021)

[the image above is how the late nineteenth-century artist Christian Krohg envisaged Queen Astrid's speech at the Swedish assembly, public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

  • ‘Inghen Ruaidh, the Birka Grave and Viking warrior women’ podcast on Not What You Thought You Knew with Fern Riddell and guests (September 2020)

  • ‘Valkyries: Fierce women of war’ on BBC World Service, Forum with Bridget Kendall and guests (July 2020)


  • 'Viking women at home and at war', History Extra (March 2019)



For those particularly interested in shield-maidens, I do have an article forthcoming in the journal Viking