Gissurarson: Snorri as a Conservative Liberal

Hannes speaking and Sverrir Jakobsson listening. Photo: Haraldur Bernhardsson.

The University of Iceland Centre for Medieval Studies (Midaldastofa) held a seminar 2 December 2021 on a theory, presented in Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson’s recent book, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers. It is that Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson could be seen as an early proponent of the conservative-liberal tradition in politics. Snorri (1179–1241) is probably the most famous Icelander who has ever lived, the author of the acclaimed Edda, on Nordic mythology and poems, Heimskringla, the history of the Norwegian kings, and Egil’s Saga, one of the best Icelandic sagas.

In his paper, Gissurarson pointed out that in Heimskringla (probably written between 1220 and 1237) Snorri clearly sympathised with two political ideas of the Middle Ages, that kings were subject to the law like everybody else and that if they broke the law, they could be deposed. Indeed, Snorri went further and said in a speech that he put into the mouth of farmer Einar of Thvera in 1024 that since kings were uneven, some good and some bad, it was best to have no king, as was the case in Iceland during the Commonwealth, between 930 and 1262. Moreover, Egil’s Saga was a celebration of individuality: the warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson was one of the first genuine individuals to step out of the mist of family, tribe, and region. According to Lord Acton, St. Thomas Aquinas was the first Whig, but it could be argued that it was rather Snorri who deserved that epithet. Likewise, Jacob Burckhardt had taught that individuality first emerged in Renaissance Italy, but it could be argued instead that it emerged with Egil. Gissurarson suggested that the Icelandic sagas were written when the Icelanders, challenged by Norway, had to reaffirm their national identity. Finally, Gissurarson asked whether Snorri’s political programme, to maintain friendly relations with Norway without Iceland becoming a tributary of the Norwegian king, was feasible. He pointed out that in late twelfth century, what is now Switzerland was forming in the Alps, an independent country without a king.

Professor Sverrir Jakobsson commented on Gissurarson’s paper. He agreed that liberal or anti-royalist sentiments could be detected in Heimskringla, but he questioned whether Snorri was in fact the author of Egil’s Saga, adding that in his lifetime Snorri did not really behave as an opponent of the Norwegian king. Gissurarson responded that the main source on Snorri’s life, his cousin Sturla Thordson, was obviously biased against him. It should be recalled, also, that Snorri was of course not hostile to the Norwegians. He wanted friendly relations with them, but not servitude under them.

Gissurarson Slides (Icelandic) Reykjavik 2 December 2021

Accounts of the discussion were published in Morgunbladid on 4 December 2021 and on on 5 December.

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