There is not so much earlier research on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, but a paper presented by Ólafía Einarsdóttir in the 12th International Saga Conference in Bonn in 2003 makes an exception. The paper discusses the description of the death of King Óláfr Tryggvason in various north European sources. The results of the paper have not been widely cited and discussed, even though Ólafía Einarsdóttir makes some interesting observations, which are relevant for my study as well. I will summarize her main points here, as they are related to the definition of martyrdom in Old Norse-Icelandic society, and to the question: who decides what is martyrdom?
In his Latin history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen the German historian Adam of Bremen (11th century) told that after most of Óláfr Tryggvason’s men had fallen in the battle of Svöldr in 999/1000, Óláfr himself jumped into the sea and perished in this manner. He was not given any credit for converting the West Nordic people by Adam. Instead, Sveinn Haraldsson tjúguskegg (Forkbeard) – Óláfr’s enemy – is said to have ordered that Christianity should be adopted in Norway. In addition, according to Adam, Óláfr’s death was clearly a suicide: certain of his defeat, Óláfr chose to die by drowning. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.) As a cleric, Adam wished to emphasize that Óláfr had committed a grave sin.
In Iceland, a source that was contemporary to Adam’s history – Ari the Wise’s brief history of the Icelanders, Íslendingabók, from the beginning of the twelfth century – stated explicitly that Óláfr Tryggvason was responsible for the Christianization of Norway and Iceland. He also stated that Óláfr fell in the battle of Svöldr. Another Icelandic source, a skaldic poem by Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld (ca. 965–1007), tells that Óláfr’s body was never found, however. As a consequence, some people expected that the king was still alive, and some later stories imply that Óláfr Tryggvason had actually been seen in various places afterwards. The poet is clear to indicate, however, that he believed King Óláfr Tryggvason was in Heaven. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414.)
Around circa 1160–1180, two histories of the Norwegian kings were written in Latin in Norway. The first one, Historia Norwegiae (ca. 1160) praises Óláfr for bringing Christianity to Norway, and suggests that Óláfr managed to rescue himself and continued his life elsewhere. According to the writer of Historia Norwegiae, the king did throw himself into the sea. However, he also considers it possible that even though the king was wearing his armour, which would have made his movements under water difficult, he was saved by angels, or he was rescued in a boat, unless he managed to swim to safety by himself. As Ólafía Einarsdóttir suggests, Óláfr’s death in Historia Norwegiae was heroic and honourable. Nobody expected a prominent war leader to outlive his men, who had all fallen in battle already. The writer of HN and his contemporaries presumably considered Óláfr’s death a self-killing, but they did not regard his manner of death problematic in that it would have made his passing away less heroic and less honourable. (See Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414-415.)
However, Ólafía Einarsdóttir finds the attitude expressed in HN slightly problematic since the writer would probably have been aware that in Norwegian and Icelandic laws suicides were not allowed burial in the churchyard. However, the writer of HN is, as Ólafía Einarsdóttir notes, the only one writing about King Óláfr Tryggvason who calls him Sanctus (Óláfr Haraldsson the saint on the other hand is named Sanctissimus). (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.) Therefore, although the writer of HN held it possible that Óláfr Tryggvason either drowned or actually did not die at the battle of Svöldr, he appears to accept that even after killing himself he could still be a Sanctus.
Adam’s history is said to have been among the sources of HN, along with some works written by the Icelandic historian Sæmundr fróði, whose texts unfortunately have not survived. (Simek & Pálsson 2007, 181.) However, the writer of Historia Norwegiae clearly has a positive attitude towards King Óláfr Tryggvason. Although Óláfr’s choice to throw himself into the water is not completely rejected, in another version he is also allowed (miraculous) escape. In addition, by disappearing from the scene, Óláfr is also allowed later (perhaps also eternal) existence. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.)
In De antiquitate regum Norwagiensium from around 1180 commissioned by Eysteinn, the archbishop of Nidaros, and written by a Benedictine monk called Theodoricus, Óláfr Tryggvason is also held in esteem as the king who brought Christianity to Norway. The account of Óláfr’s death resembles that of HN. King Óláfr Tryggvason is said to have fled in a boat, and people expect that he traveled to a faraway country for the sake of the salvation of his soul. Theodoricus also tells that according to some people, Óláfr had jumped into the sea and drowned. He does not confirm or reject either of the views, but appears to think that Óláfr is now with God. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415-416.)
Around 1190–1210 two histories of King Óláfr Tryggvason were written in Iceland, in Latin, but only vernacular translations of these texts survive. In the saga written by a monk called Oddr Snorrason from the Þingeyri monastery, Óláfr Tryggvason appears to represent John the Baptist, whereas St Óláfr resembles Jesus Christ. In his account, Oddr relies especially on the Norse tradition, such as skaldic poetry (attributed both to the followers of Óláfr Tryggvason and his enemies). However, he was also familiar with Latin literature, such as the lives of saints, which appear to have influenced Oddr’s description of Óláfr’s death. In Oddr’s account, Óláfr Tryggvason is standing in his ship, on an elevated place where he can be seen by everyone, and he is surrounded by the bodies of fallen warriors. As his enemy is approaching him, Óláfr suddenly disappears; the enemy has bent for a second to remove the fallen men that are on his way, and during this instance Óláfr has vanished. No trace of Óláfr is found, and it remains unclear whether he is dead or not. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 416-417.)
Oddr brings forth that his own contemporary King Sverrir of Norway (1145/1151–1202) had found Óláfr’s death and his last moments on his ship Ormr inn langi (the Long Serpent) most heroic (a view that here as elsewhere in the sources reciting Óláfr Tryggvason’s death may have been motivated by the commonly held observation that Óláfr had been fighting against an overwhelming enemy). Oddr adds a new element to the story: According to him, a bright light from the heaven suddenly came over the place where Óláfr was standing, and after the light had extinguished, the king was nowhere to be found. Ólafía Einarsdóttir then discusses how Oddr considers carefully the probability that Óláfr would have been able to save himself, should he have fallen or jumped into water. Oddr points out in the saga, for instance, that Óláfr is a very good swimmer – a ‘fact’ known also elsewhere in saga literature, such as in the thirteenth-century Laxdæla saga, which tells about Óláfr’s encounter with some Icelanders. Oddr also speculates that when Óláfr had jumped into the sea, he held his shield above him with another hand and then pulled of his heavy armour with his other hand, and would therefore have been able to swim and escape in that manner. Indeed, in Oddr’s opinion, Óláfr survived and later traveled to Syria and entered a monastery there. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)
As a monk, Oddr was aware of the attitudes of the Church – that suicide was regarded as a sin – which presumably influenced his eagerness to keep Óláfr from drowning. As a cleric, Oddr may not have considered the possibility that Óláfr fled from battle as a disgrace, but perhaps thought that because of his humility, Óláfr was aided by God to escape. However, Oddr also betrays in his saga an attitude that (although it was perhaps not his own view of the matter) still existed in warrior society: he describes in the saga Óláfr Tryggvason’s own view of those who fled a battle: according to Óláfr, a real king would never flee a battle but would fight to the end. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003,417.)
Indeed, two collections of king’s sagas, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (from the beginning of the 13th century) and Fagrskinna (possibly written by an Icelander in Norway around 1230), which are both more secular in tone compared to the sources of clerical origin discussed above, both emphasize that Óláfr did not escape but died during the battle. In Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s words, the writers of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna “value traditional Teutonic heroism, and to them Olaf’s flight would have been an outrageous disgrace and an indelible stain on the memory of the glorious king.” Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s notion is intriguing, as it raises a question: what, then, was a less disgraceful – or even heroic and respectable – way to depart, according to the writer’s of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna? (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)
Military suicide does not appear to have been as tricky issue as might be expected. In Fagrskinna and Heimskringla, it is indicated that king Óláfr Tryggvason sprang overboard “to his deep-sea death” and died (Fagrskinna, 131–132; Heimskringla, chs 119–120). In a warrior culture, deliberate and self-inflicted death could, naturally, be a preferable option if there was a threat that after your own troops had been defeated, you would be seized by the enemy and treated in a shameful way. (Sagas do contain descriptions of such cases as well.) In addition, if captured by the enemy, the warrior would not always be able to decide by himself how he died and when he died. That self-killing was a better option compared to capture is implied in Saxo Grammaticus’s recount of Óláfr Tryggvason in his history of the Danes, Gesta Danorum (ca. 1200). Saxo’s view may have been influenced by the Norwegian archbishops (or Icelandic bishops) who visited the Danish archbishop Absalon in Lund while Saxo was writing there his Gesta Danorum for Absalon. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 418.) However, it is also possible that Saxo’s account reflected a common Nordic view of honourable death, and behaviour that was expected in war conditions.
Therefore, in the sources Ólafía Einarsdóttir discusses, Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is treated 1) as a suicide and therefore as a sinful act (Adam of Bremen), 2) as a self-inflicted death, but the fact that Óláfr’s body is never found is emphasized and the option that Óláfr actually escaped and survived is also given (in Nordic clerical context, e.g. in Historia Norwegiae, Oddr Snorrason’s saga), or 3) as a heroic death of a warrior king who chose not to flee but fought until the end (in secular contexts in Fagrskinna and Heimskringla). Ólafía Einarsdóttir shows in her study that the portrayal of Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is heavily influenced by issues of political power. It is probable that the attitude of the German historian Adam of Bremen who wrote about the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, was affected by his dislike towards Óláfr Tryggvason’s choice to rely on English clerics who assisted him in his attempts to convert the Nordic people, even though the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen had been granted authority over the people in the North by the Pope. In addition, Adam’s view of the case may not have been that objective because the sources he used were biased: the source of Adam’s account was Sveinn Forkbeard who was Óláfr Tryggvason’s enemy. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.)
As Haki Antonsson (2004) has pointed out, many of the martyrs in the North, such as St Óláfr, were men (kings and princes) who had died a violent death. He has also shown that royal martyrs started to be borne remarkably soon after Conversion – or their cults were born first, and aspects of Christian martyrdom were added to them later. Óláfr Tryggvason never became a saint, however, even though the writer of Historia Norwegiae thought he was a Sanctus and he was widely known in Norway and Iceland as the king who Christianized the north.
Oláfía Einarsdóttir argues that Óláfr never became a saint because his death was a suicide. According to her, that there was no body to be found and placed in a shrine, similar to St Óláfr, would not have been crucial. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 419.) It is possible that in the minds of the clerics, suicide played a crucial role, but bearing in mind the emphasis on materiality in medieval western Scandinavian culture, the hypothesis concerning the unimportance of the body can be contested; in medieval west Scandinavian thought, power was thought to reside in material objects, such as bones and corpses. (See e.g. Kanerva 2017, 29–35.) Therefore, that there was no corpse could have influenced Óláfr Tryggvason’s posthumous reputation.
However, it is remarkable that although Óláfr Tryggvason was the herald of God in Norway and in the minds of the Icelanders, his death did not give rise to multiple miracle stories. Naturally, Christian tradition in Scandinavia was still young and some of its aspects had not yet been adopted when Óláfr Tryggvason died. In addition, many of the Nordic versions (apart from Fagrskinna and Heimskringla) seem to support the idea that Óláfr Tryggvason managed to escape and survived, and that some people met him in the southern lands. St Óláfr, however, was associated with several miracles after his death. Naturally, St Óláfr may have had strong supporters, since e.g. the earliest reference to his martyrdom is made by Adam of Bremen (see Haki Antonsson 2004, 72). Good reputation in the Hamburg-Bremen archbishopric may have facilitated the recording of miraculous events that concerned St Óláfr in the North as well. In addition, it is probable that the negative attitude towards Óláfr Tryggvason expressed in Adam of Bremen’s work, and the annoyance felt in Hamburg-Bremen when Óláfr chose to communicate with English clerics and ignore the authority of Hamburg-Bremen had an affect on Óláfr’s possibilities of becoming an official saint. Whether somebody became a Christian saint or a martyr was a political issue; people who had power defined sainthood and martyrdom.
However, whether there ever was a local cult (as a result of native instead of Christian beliefs) in the first place that could have resulted in a status as a Christian saint, should the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen not have held a grudge against Óláfr, is hard to attest – that there was no proof of Óláfr’s posthumous material presence, for instance, presumably affected his status as an ancestor who according to native beliefs could observe and influence the physical and mental environment around his grave mound. As Óláfr had disapperead, there was no body to be buried.
How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “(Who decides) What is martyrdom? (Or what is not…).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 January, 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/who-decides-martyrdom >
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Fagrskinna. Edited by Finnur Jónsson. Køpenhavn: S. L. M, 1902–1903.
Haki Antonsson. 2004. Some Observations on Martyrdom in Post-Conversion Scandinavia. Saga-Book, 28 (2004), 70–94.
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Oddr Snorrason: Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar = Det Arnamagnæanske haandskrift 310 qvarto: Saga Olafs konungs Tryggvasonar er ritaði Oddr muncr. En gammel norsk bearbeidelse af Odd Snorresøns paa latin skrevne saga om kong Olaf Tryggvason. Edited by P. Groth. Christiania: Fondet, 1895.
Ólafía Einarsdóttir. 2003. Olaf Tryggvason – Rex Norwegiae 994–999. Christian Ethics versus Teutonic Heroism. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn/Germany, 28th July—2nd August 2003, ed. Rudolf Simek & Judith Meurer. Bonn: Universität Bonn, 413–420.
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