Applications 7.   “(opt) eru köld kvenna ráð”–a Critically Popular Old Icelandic Proverb and Its Uses in the Íslendingasögur and Elsewhere.
Presented at a Meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada. 27 May 2007.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan                [

I am sure all of us here who have had experience in the discipline of Old Norse studies are uncomfortably familiar with the near proverbial observation of Árni Magnússon that “It is the way of the world that some people put errors into circulation while others try then to eradicate these same errors. This keeps everyone busy.” This unnerving epigrammatically stated truth is included by Sarah M. Anderson at the end of the Introduction to her collection of essays, Cold Counsel. Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology, ironically just a few pages after some very excusable blunders which inform the center of interest in my paper today. In pursuing them I must first state that I admire Dr. Anderson’s work, which is generally far better and more prolific as well as more useful than any of mine – and in any case, it is my proverbially attested belief that we learn from the mistakes of others, as well as from our own. What should matter, I think, is not the error itself, and certainly not its perpetrator, but rather what that error helps us to think about.

The Old Icelandic proverb, “(opt) eru köld kvenna ráð” [‘the counsel of women is (often) cold’] has been found twice in the Íslendingasögur and once in the Riddarasögur, and as well as in several other places. [Völundarkviða, str. 31, Laxdœlasaga, ch. 65. [Thesaurus Proverbiorum Medii Aevii, 9. 198.] It is used in a work as old as Vlundarkviða, an Eddic poem dated by some as early as the 9th century, and its inclusion in Låle’s East Norse and Latin Medieval Proverbs as well as in later Icelandic proverb collections would seem to suggest its continued and widespread currency in later stages of Nordic culture. [Låle, Peder, Östnordiska och Latinska Medeltidsordspråk, Copenhagen, 1889-1894, 153] Its use at two rather dramatic moments in the Family Sagas, Njáls saga and Gísla saga, and the uncomplimentary view of women’s plans or advice it apparently recommends in these passages have rendered it popular among saga critics, particularly in more recent times those of feminist bent, a notable example being that reference to it in the title of Anderson’s anthology.

First, Anderson’s impression that the proverb occurs twice in Gísla saga, “worded differently each time” is incorrect. The proverb is used once, in ch. 19, as will soon be discussed. It is most likely that Anderson remembered, rather, the comment of Gísli’s wife, Auðr, in her rather tense conversation with Ásgerðr, the wife of Gísli’s weak charactered brother Þorkell, about their respective pre- and extra-marital love affairs. Þorkell, eavesdropping, has heard her speak of her infidelity to him in unrepentant terms and departs, uttering a threatening verse predictive of death–“one man’s or more,” – – accurately, as things develop. Hearing him, Auðr, whose character is better than her sister-in-law’s, remarks, “Women’s gossip often leads to trouble, and it may turn out to be the worst kind of trouble.”[TPMA 3. 373.] and at her insistence the two women make plans for how to handle the incident, neither of which is very effective, although Auð’s is at least honest. Most likely Anderson was thinking of this scene and of “women’s talk” leading to trouble when she thought she remembered the “cold counsel” proverb differently worded.

The proverb of this essay’s title is actually used only in ch. 19 of Gísla, in a most crucial scene, and here Anderson follows Martin S. Regal’s choice of manuscript readings in the identification of the speaker to whom it is attributed. The text of Gísla saga traditionally used and recognized as most authentic is that of AM 556 a 4to, from the later 15th century and containing all three of the Old Icelandic outlaw sagas. It is referred to as the M-text, although the Íslenzk fornrit edition calls it E. A longer version, typically thought younger, copied from a parchment sent to Denmark in 1662, exists in a couple of paper copies and has in the last decades come to be regarded as the better text, whatever that really means. The two texts are most at variance in the first eleven chapters, and I find the story more understandable in the longer text at some points, although this of course does not mean it is the better text from a critical editorial point of view.

For instance, when Gísli’s namesake uncle in the Norwegian prelude of the saga fights with the slave Kolr over the sword Grásíða, which he’s borrowed from the latter and doesn’t wish to return, it seems puzzling in the traditionally admired shorter text that a slave should have a sword and defend it so stoutly. But in the longer version we learn that Kolr is of excellent family, taken in battle and called a slave. Ingibjörg, recent widow of the outlaw’s uncle Ari, brother thus of our outlaw’s namesake, has brought Kolr to their household at her marriage, calls him fóstri, or foster father, and obviously likes him. When Ari dies defending her from a berserk, she instantly develops a fancy for this first Gísli, understandably wanting to marry him rather than the importunately expectant berserk. Thus, like a dutiful romance heroine, she arms him for battle by telling him of her slave’s weapon, “which will prove better than most others,” she claims, “though he speaks of it scornfully and calls it his ‘chopper’.” Kolr himself calls it his battle treasure, “though what is great in a churl’s cottage isn’t so in a king’s palace”, a proverb incidentally found also in Magus saga and in Gautreks saga [Mag 73, Fas iii 155, 3rd vol, Gautrek 1-53, Hemings þáttr, Ynglinga saga]. The first Gísli borrows the sword, kills the berserk and later fights with Kolr rather than return it to him. They kill each other, in both versions of the text, but only in the longer version are we provided the entertaining and illuminatory background on Kolr which makes a slave’s possession and fatal struggle to regain such a weapon understandable and believable. Regal chooses to ignore this passage despite recent textual criticism approving of the longer version over the shorter, opting instead for the laconic recounting of the deaths of these uncles of Gísli the Outlaw without any background on Kolr. This seems to me unfortunate since Grásíða itself practically has a life of its own in this story. After shattering at the killing of Kolr it is transformed by a sorcerer into a short handled spear, and proves in this reincarnation the instrument of several men’s deaths, carrying with it the curse which Kolr in the longer version has placed on it at his death: “Now this is only the beginning of the ill luck which your family will get from the sword.” Grásíða cursed and transformed thus comes to objectify that thread of Fate which the composer clearly represents as instrumental in the workings of his narrative, and the inclusion of its first owner’s fuller background makes, I think, a better story, whatever textual critical studies may recommend from one critical season to another.

In the passage in ch. 19, however, which Anderson chooses to go with for the advantage of her argument, Regal continues true to the M-text, AM 556 a 4to the shorter version. Let us consider the manuscript evidence for the text here, where Þórdís has finally deciphered a verse she heard and memorized in which her brother Gísli the Outlaw cryptically boasted that he himself was the killer of her husband. “I expect,” she says in this scene, “that you need not look elsewhere concerning Thorgrim’s slaying. He [Gisli] will rightly be brought to justice,” she concludes, of her brother. Börkr, her new husband and brother of the previous one, the victim in question, is enraged, “I want to turn back right now and kill Gisli.”

And here we reach the most tantalizing paroemiological conundrum of which I am aware in Old Icelandic literature, the passage in which three different manuscripts place Anderson’s target proverb respectively in the mouths of the three different people present at the scene. 1. “On the other hand I can´t be sure,” Börkr continues in AM 556 a 4to, “how much truth there is in what Thordis says. It’s just as likely there’s none. Women’s counsel is often cold.” 2. Now, AM 445 c 4to, containing fragmentary portions of the saga, close to the M-text, puts the proverb rather in the mouth of Þorkell, brother of Þórdís and Gísli, a dear friend of Þórdís’s first husband, the man Gísli killed, so that Þorkell is obviously conflicted over his loyalties. Here, when Börkr insists on returning for an immediate kill, Þorkell disagrees: “I still don´t know whether that is true that Þórdís says,” he muses, “and cold are the counsels of women”. Immediately after this he uses a pretext of needing to see a friend as a means of extricating himself from Þórdís and Börkr but instead rides off to Hól and warns Gísli about his sister’s revelation of his guilt. His objection and its proverbial support are thus well suited to the occasion where he forestalls the action and warns his brother of danger, whereas Börkr enraged but then immediately doubting, without any logical motivation, his wife’s accusation of her own brother – which was obviously a difficult step for her – seems a most unlikely development in his psychology. As the editors of the fornrit edition notice of the reading in 445 c 4to, with Þorkell as speaker of the proverb, it is “clearly more correct than that” of the primary M-text. 3. The only other choice, that Þórdís says it – and it’s not unheard of for women in the sagas to speak of themselves proverbially in demeaning terms (though elsewhere with ironic implications [Flótsdœla and Njála, Hallgerðr, on a woman’s job, when the cheese is stolen]) – is found in the longer version, the S-text, where perhaps rethinking the consequences of her accusation, she counters the rage of Börkr by saying she would not agree to a swift return and kill: “‘And I don´t know whether that is true or not,’ says Þórdís; ‘and the counsels of women are always cold. But yet as badly as matters have turned out, yet it’s a good plan, Börkr, to proceed with the law of the land in this case and outlaw the man; because you have a case so just that Gísli will be convicted, even if he were somewhat excused for the deed. Let us then conduct this case ourselves as we are able . . . . . . . . . . .and for you it is better not to spoil your case and blunder grievously.’ And she is able to beat this down.” Although there is better contextual motivation for this passage than for the version in which Brkr considers the coldness of women’s counsel, it could also be merely a lengthy rationalization of a more difficult reading. Making the utterance Þorkel’s seems most plausible in light of his subsequent action in warning Gísli, and of his continued conflict over loyalties to kinship and friendship through the rest of his life in this narrative.

Having noticed recent textual studies which attempt to validate the longer version, Anderson has chosen the version least complimentary to Þórdís’s husband in making him seem a bit of a bore when he doubts thus his wife’s veracity, which is convenient for her argument but does not seem a particularly just treatment of the text itself. “The proverb,” she assures us, “springs to Bork’s mind not because he himself wishes to counter the notion of vengeance, but because he is skeptical of her – he cannot fully believe what she says, he reasons, because women give ‘cold counsels.’” Anderson adds, “His attempt to discredit her by invoking the authority of the proverb is problematic, however, for Thordis rightly indentifies Gisli as her husband’s murderer.” Anderson would thus accuse Börkr of insensitivity to the value of his wife’s opinions as well as making him wrong in questioning thus Gísli’s guilt. The weak motivational force of a scene in which Börk’s rage is self-quelled within a couple of lines of his monologue makes Anderson’s comments which build upon this version seem rather unfair, and one might question thus her basis for her next remarks that “far from consituting Old Norse attitudes about women and their counsels in crystalized and conclusory form, this proverb is a manifestation of complex and often contradictory socio-cultural attitudes that implicate women – and men alike – as readers as well as speakers in their culture.” To understand what the proverb means, she concludes, “it is necessary to consider these women and the cold world of which they are a part.” While no one could reasonably disagree with her last thoughts on this matter, her arrival at them might be based on a more thorough and objective consideration of the text and what its composer most likely meant.

The point of this episode is perhaps further illuminated by the audience’s awareness of other instances where the proverb was used in the Old Icelandic corpus. In Völundarkviða, the first extant text, spoken by Níðuðr to his queen, refers to the damage she caused by having the sinews of the talented Vlundr cut so he could not leave the island where he crafted treasures for the royal family. In retaliation Völundr made cups and jewelry from Níðuð’s sons’ heads and got their only daughter, Böðvild, pregnant. Níðuðr has reason to complain over the results of his wife’s aggressive approach to labour management in that ancient legendary world of early Germania, and whoever uses the proverb in Gísla saga must, like its audience, be aware of this old story in which the queen’s advice had tragically destructive results.

In Njáls saga, composed some decades after Gísla, the proverb is used in a most powerful scene, equal in its intensity to scenes involving Brynhild and Guðrún in the Eddic material of the Völsungs. Here Hildigunnr uses traditional rhetoric and feud ritual to pressure her uncle, Flosi Þórðarson into taking blood vengeance for the killing of her husband, Höskuldr Þráinsson, the Hvítanesgoði, by the sons of Njáll. She takes the cloak, a gift of Flosi, in which her husband was killed, covered with his dried blood and throws it over her uncle, so the clots of blood rattle down upon him. “In the name of God and all good men I charge you, by all the powers of your Christ and by your courage and manliness, to avenge all the wounds which he received in dying – or else be the object of contempt of all men.” This and the cloak force him into action, but not without complaint, which is what Anderson notices: “You are the worst monster and want us to take the course which will be worst for us all. Cold are the counsels of women.”

It is not unusual for men to complain of women’s whetting in the sagas, and people forced on errands they know will come to no good end, express similar reluctance over their assignments, sometimes in exaggerated terms, though often enough in understated ones. It is the view of Anderson and her colleagues that defense of Icelandic women’s right to give “cold counsel” tends to rest in saga criticism on the assumption that these saga women, who are responsible for egging men on to vengeance in the interests of maintaining family honour, “are engaging in one of the few speech acts represented by the literature as open to them, and they are speaking on behalf of the customs of their society–not in monstrous aberration from them.” [S.M.Anderson, “Introduction: ‘og eru köld kvenna ráð’”, pp. xii-xiii.] The proverb thus applied by male speakers to to Hildigunnr in Njála and to Þórdís in Gísla seems to have negative implications–on the one hand emphasizing the harshness of the former woman´s character in rhetorically forcing Flosi to go for blood vengeance and on the other, attempting to discredit the information provided by Þórdís Súrsdóttir about her brother’s culpability for the killing of Þorgrímr goði. These conclusions certainly seem plausible, although the evidence drawn from the scene in Gísla is unfortunately incomplete, and whether the composer of Njála wants his audience to believe that Hildigunnr is a monster, or whether Flosi is required by the feud ritual and rhetoric of saga culture to make such an observation, could be a matter of interesting debate. It’s remarkable, anyway, that in the end Hildigunnr marries one of her husband’s killers, who has for the last hundred pages been her uncle’s arch-enemy.

Meanwhile, beyond the shores of medieval Iceland, the coldness of women’s counsels was also the subject of occasional comment. The mid-12th century Proverbs of Alfred [B 305 (25)] state: “For this is said in lede: ‘Cold red is quene red’. And Chaucer, in “The Nonne’s Priest’s Tale,” tells of Chaunticleer, “a cok . . . that tok his conseil of his wyf, with sorwe.” “Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;/Wommennes conseil broghte us first to wo,/And made Adam fro Paradys to go,/Ther as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.” And then he assures his audience that it is only “in game” that he “blamed” the “conseil of wommen” although he does not inform us, nor is there evidence elsewhere in Middle English, about the context of proverbial tradition in which his critical comment is situated. The TPMA notices also several instances of comment in Middle High German on the uselessness, or ‘coldness’, whatever that means in context, of women’s counsel. There is also a citation from a medieval French work, so clearly the kernel of this proverb, advising caution over the cruelty, the destructiveness, or perhaps originally the destructive uselessness of women’s advice, existed elsewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, in cultures less obsessed with the various responsibilities of men and women in a feud based society such as that of Iceland. What such proverbial observations really meant, and whence they were derived, remains to be examined.

It is tempting to try to form a conceptual progression in the occurrences of the proverb in Old Icelandic from that uselessness which seems current also on the Continent to the perverse cruelty of Hildigunnr. Thus, the earliest attested use, in Völundarkviða, has Níðuðr blame his queen for advice, not overly cruel in itself but leading inadvertently to brutally destructive consequences. In the case of Gísla saga, in the mouths of any of the three possible speakers, primary emphasis would be that Þórdís’ accusation of her brother was based on her use of inadequate evidence and thus potentially wrong and chaotically destructive. The vindictive rage and cruel demands of Hildigunnr in the somewhat later text of Njáls saga could thus be viewed as representing a new and different emphasis on the value of the proverb. Unfortunately for this theory, in the Old Icelandic Hómilíubók, dating from around 1200, in the homily on St John the Baptist, Herodes comments when his wife Herodiadis has their daughter demand the the head of St John on a platter: “Kom það þar fram, sem mjög oft þykir verða, að köld eru kvenna ráð.” [It happened there, as very often seems to occur, that women’s counsels are cold.] (17) Cruelty rather than destructive uselessness, could certainly be seen as the drift of the proverb’s meaning here, thus disappointing the temptation to find a narrowed progression of meaning in the Icelandic corpus.

It is clear that further and objective investigation will be needed if we are to understand the psychology underlying the origins of this proverb on the Continent and the accepted contexts for its use at various stages of Old Icelandic literature. This investigation would be best and most usefully conducted without reference in the first place to ideologically based preferences of interpretation, – focusing rather on the texts themselves, their likely dates and the sources from which they might be assumed to have been derived.