On writing Eastern Europe in Icelandic Sagas

My studies are in two senses “beyond medieval Europe,” as both Old Rus’ (a territory in Eastern Europe that interests me mostly) and Iceland (a place where practically all my sources had originated) are medieval regions lying beyond medieval Europe in the traditional sense of the term. This research aims at investigating the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, chronicles, and other texts from the point of view of their validity as a historical source for scholars of the history of Eastern Europe, and Old Rus’ in particular. In this vein this issue has not been raised in the framework of Old Norse studies outside Russia. Only certain questions of East European and Russian history reflected in the sagas are discussed in scattered scholarly works, and the studies that I have been carrying out in this field for four decades are being translated into English for the first time.

The book falls into two completely different parts.

The image of Eastern Europe in toto, and of Old Rus’ in particular, which is discussed in part 1, can be called both historical and geographical. Here, an attempt is made through reading Old Norse texts—skaldic poetry, runic inscriptions, sagas, chronicles, and geographical treatises—to formulate the idea of the Scandinavian oecumene, to reconstruct a “mental map” of medieval Scandinavians, and to imagine the place of Eastern Europe on this “mental map”, that is to see Old Rus’—with its ways, rivers and towns—through the eyes of medieval Scandinavians. It should be noted that the quantity of ethnic names and different place-names of the Eastern Baltic region, Old Rus’, and European North was considerably larger in the Scandinavian tradition than the information this tradition possessed about the countries of Western Europe, including England and France. Scandinavian Vikings became acquainted with the geography of Eastern Europe as a result of their first trips to the east, although it is hardly possible to date this process with any precision. The knowledge of rivers with their currents, location of settlements, customs, and traditions of the peoples inhabiting different parts of the waterways, and so on, was vitally important for the success of expeditions. This information was passed by word of mouth. Numerous expeditions to and continuous stays in the Old Rus’ of merchants and warriors, who participated in the military enterprises of the Russian princes, accumulated and enriched geographical information. This information started to serve as a background for stories of Viking activities in Eastern Europe and was even organized into more systematic descriptions, such as lists of rivers, towns and so on, which occur in later geographical treatises and sometimes in the sagas. This knowledge could not be acquired from books, so it definitely was the result of a living oral tradition. It is evident that ancient Scandinavian society had a fairly stable collection of ideas about Eastern Europe. To some extent, this was a picture of the world of the time when the sources under consideration were being recorded, but there is no doubt that some background knowledge and general geographical ideas of the Viking Age have been preserved in it.

In part 2 the reader will find some information on the history of Russian-Norwegian political relations of the last third of the tenth and the first half of the eleventh century from saga stories about the stay in Rus’ of several Norwegian kings. Sagas and skaldic poems have preserved information on the visits of the four Norwegian kings to Rus’, namely Óláfr Tryggvason in 977–986, Óláfr Haraldsson in 1029–1030, his son Magnús from 1029 till 1035, and Haraldr Sigurðarson in the early 1030s and in about 1043–1045. All the four kings are seeking a short-term refuge in Rus’ and obtain it. They are welcomed by the Russian prince and his wife and are highly honoured and respected here. Óláfr Tryggvason and Magnús Óláfsson are brought up by the Russian prince (Vladimir and Yaroslav, respectfully). Óláfr Tryggvason, Óláfr Haraldsson, and Haraldr Sigurðarson occupy a high position in the Russian military service. All of them leave Rus’ for their own country in an attempt to gain (or regain) power in Norway. Old Norse sources have recounted the activity of Yaroslav the Wise in the field of foreign affairs: the Russian prince is said to have used not only diplomatic means and military support of the Norwegian kings, but also espionage and bribery of the leading chieftains in Norway. The life of the Norwegian kings in Rus’ is described in the sagas with great laconicism, and with the help of a set of stock phrases. On the one hand, this demonstrates a lack of concrete information. On the other hand, it reflects the saga authors’ tendency to exaggerate the role of a noble Scandinavian outside his own country. Still, the very fact that these four kings had been to Rus’ (in spite of the absolute ignorance of the Old Russian sources on this matter) cannot be denied, since Icelandic skalds, contemporaries of those kings, quoted by saga authors, confirm the saga information.

by Tatjana N. Jackson