19 August 2023

One Day Towards the End of Summer

The following is an extract from something I am working on at the moment - an analysis of the killing of Earl Rǫgnvaldr of Orkney, as reported in chapter 103 of Orkneyinga saga, on the 20th of August, in 1158 (all translations my own):

Replica of a statue possibly of Earl Rǫgnvaldr, Kirkwall, Photo © Judith Jesch 

It was one day at áliðnu sumri 'towards the end of summer' that the two joint earls of Orkney, Rǫgnvaldr, originally called Kali Kolsson, and Haraldr Maddaðarson, sailed over to Caithness to go deerhunting. By the end of the following day, the 20th of August, or five nights after Assumption Day as Orkneyinga saga has it (ch. 103), Rǫgnvaldr was dead and Haraldr was in sole charge of the earldom. For Haraldr, this was the beginning of a very long period of rule which is given rather short shrift in the saga. As for Rǫgnvaldr, it was some 34 years before his holy relics were taken up, ostensibly after some miracles and with the Pope's permission, and he was sanctified, though there is no official record of this. In the Icelandic annals, the death of Rǫgnvaldr is dated to 1158 and his translation to 1192. Discussion of this episode has tended to focus on its implications for politics, both ecclesiastical and secular. Whatever the politics of it all, the episode describing the killing of Rǫgnvaldr in chapter 103 deserves some more detailed attention.

Already the first words of chapter 103 are remarkable enough: 'When Rǫgnvaldr had been earl for twenty-two years since Earl Páll was captured...'. This reminds us that Rǫgnvaldr's grip on the Orkney earldom was consolidated when his rival Páll Hákonarson was eliminated through the actions of Sveinn Ásleifarson (chs 74-75). On that occasion, Rǫgnvaldr managed to keep a low profile despite clearly benefiting from Sveinn's actions. This first sentence is a clear signal that this chapter, too, will result in a similar situation: the reduction of two earls to one, with the survivor escaping any real responsibility for the events.

There is another echo of earlier events in the lead-up to the killing. Chapter 100 tells how Rǫgnvaldr and his eventual killer, Þorbjǫrn Cleric, get involved in a feud between their respective followers which turns violent after some drinking in Kirkwall. This feud was never settled and the implication is that this unfinished business contributed to the events that led to Rǫgnvaldr's death. This episode echoes a longer one back in chapter 61 in which there is a similar feud between followers of respectively Rǫgnvaldr and a Norwegian called Jón, also arising during some drinking, but this time in Bergen. This feud is eventually settled by no less than the king of Norway, who also uses the occasion to grant half of the earldom to Kali and to bestow on him the name of Rǫgnvaldr. This echo of an earlier episode at a crucial moment in Rǫgnvaldr's career serves to suggest that his luck has now run out, that what once served him well will no longer do so. This is further emphasised by two ominous events. On the first night in Caithness, Rǫgnvaldr sneezes, and on the next day when he sees Þorbjǫrn and wants to dismount to engage with him, he unfortunately catches his foot in his stirrup. Both of these are typical saga-motifs of omens signalling the death of the person to whom they happen. Other omens have happened before in the saga: in chapter 29, Rǫgnvaldr's namesake Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason anticipates his own death with the fateful misspeaking '"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 in chapter 47 a wave engulfs Magnús Erlendsson's ship as he is approaching Egilsay where he will eventually be martyred.

Rǫgnvaldr however does not come out of his 'martyrdom' quite as well as his uncle Magnús did. Or at least the story of Rǫgnvaldr's killing lacks the hagiographical tinge that one might expect of a future saint and there are some details which suggest that the narratorial sympathy is not entirely with him. Interestingly, it is Rǫgnvaldr's killer who is presented as a heroic figure in this account. Þorbjǫrn Cleric is the one who manages, despite severe injuries, to leap nine ells across a ditch. The extent of his injuries only becomes clear after his death: 'and when Þorbjǫrn’s wounds were inspected, his intestines had slipped out through the wound that Jómarr had given him'. The wound in question was given right at the beginning: 'And at that moment Jómarr thrust a spear into Þorbjǫrn’s thigh and the lunge continued into his intestines'. After receiving that wound, Þorbjǫrn and his men cross a swamp and defend themselves manfully, Þorbjǫrn makes a long impassioned speech to Haraldr and then jumps across the ditch, and he and his men make for some deserted shielings where again they defend themselves manfully, before eventually Þorbjǫrn expires. No one else in this chapter is said to have defended themselves manfully, certainly not Rǫgnvaldr, but the defence of Þorbjǫrn and his men is twice described this way in the chapter.

Þorbjǫrn's speeches are also extraordinary. In asking Haraldr for a truce, his grounds are that the surviving earl is going to benefit from his crime: 'And this deed that I have done is a great crime, and I am responsible, but all the territory has fallen into your power'. It is only at this point, as Haraldr is dithering about what to do, that some of Rǫgnvaldr's followers intervene and put an alternative argument, emphasising Haraldr's potential role in the killing:

...if Þorbjǫrn is given a truce after this deed and also that he dares to tell you to your face in every word that he had done this evil deed for you or to honour you, it will bring everlasting shame and dishonour to you and all the earl’s kinsmen if he is not avenged. I think that Earl Rǫgnvaldr’s friends believe that you will have for some time been advising the killing of Rǫgnvaldr, which has now happened.'

In the end, Haraldr takes the easy way out, refusing to do anything to Þorbjǫrn but tacitly allowing him to be killed.

Stepping in at this late stage to chase Þorbjǫrn and his men are the sons of Hávarðr Gunnason, including one called Magnús, who made that speech, but it is noteworthy that these supporters of Rǫgnvaldr take no part in the earlier encounters. The only followers of Rǫgnvaldr mentioned when he is first attacked are two complete unknowns, a young Norwegian called Ásólfr who gets petulant when he loses a hand in the fight, and Jómarr, said to be a kinsman of the earl. Jómarr could be said proleptically to have carried out the vengeance for Rǫgnvaldr with his spear-thrust to Þorbjǫrn's intestines which was the ultimate cause of his death. It is therefore odd that he is not more celebrated for this, rather the focus is on Þorbjǫrn for heroically persisting despite such a grave injury.

This reading suggests that the narrative of Rǫgnvaldr's death did not come from his camp. He does not cover himself in glory, but then neither does Haraldr. Indeed, Haraldr's prevarications stand in contrast to the way in which Rǫgnvaldr himself managed totally to evade any responsibility for the elimination of his rival Páll Hákonarson twenty-two years earlier. It has been suggested that the narrative derives from the eyewitness account of the sons of Hávarðr, but as already noted these only come into the story at a slightly later stage. Certainly the close attention to landscape and place-names in chapter 103 does suggest origins in an account by someone who knew the area and perhaps even was present at the events. But the real import of the narrative is in the speeches of both Þorbjǫrn himself, and Magnús Hávarðarson, as cited above. These are both deeply political speeches, encapsulating what must have been a matter of much local discussion, at the time or afterwards, about responsibility and benefit in situations where a leader is ousted.

By contrast, the rather glowing obituary for Rǫgnvaldr in chapter 104 presents him as quite the paragon:

Earl Rǫgnvaldr’s death was much lamented, because he was very popular there in the isles and widely elsewhere. He had been of assistance to many people, generous with money, calm and loyal to friends, a man of many skills and a good poet.

This can presumably be seen as official church or court propaganda, especially since it follows the reference to his translation many years later, and so is likely to represent a later, whitewashed picture. There is little sense of this person in the chapter describing his killing and, as already suggested, Haraldr does not necessarily come off much better either. Chapter 103 resonates with a feeling of 'a plague on both their houses', the response of an exasperated population who is not particularly enchanted with the leadership available to them.

Street named after Earl Rǫgnvaldr, Lerwick. He had connections in Shetland. Photo © Judith Jesch

This is for all 'exasperated populations' around the world....

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