Applications 6.   The Proverbs of Morkinskinna. A Preliminary Survey.
Session 110. Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies. 42 International Congress on Medieval Studies. 10 May 2007, Kalamazoo.
Richard L. Harris, Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Sask., Canada []

Today I will talk about some proverbs which are found in Morkinskinna, a text, and physically a manuscript, containing sagas of the Norwegian kings. In studies of the kings’ sagas it is necessary to take into account the complexity of relationships between pertinent manuscripts and those texts to which they bear witness. Thus, the text of Morkinskinna (or “rotten parchment”) derives its name from the later 13th century manuscript, Gamle kongelige samling 1009 fol. Þormóður Torfason called the manuscript thus in using it for his Historia Rerum Norvegicarum which he published in 1711, covering Norwegian royal history to 1387. The manuscript contains orthographical archaisms of even distribution throughout its 37 extant leaves, and there is consensus that it is descended from an earlier version of the text, produced before or around 1220, which was perhaps descended from an even earlier form of the narrative. The earlier text itself is thought to have been partially indebted in turn to a couple of known literary sources, the Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, written by Theodoricus the monk in 1177-88 and the Ágrip af Nóregs konunga sögum, from around 1190. After the completion of this earlier manuscript, but before the extant copy was made, the text of Morkinskinna was used in the compilation of Fagrskinna and of Heimskringla, and the Rotten Parchment is clearly indebted at some points to those texts as well. While we need not be troubled by these details of transmission in the paper I am reading today, it can be useful to keep in mind the existence of Morkinskinna as the result in one manuscript of a very complex process about which there are still many unanswered questions. [SEE HANDOUT]

Thus, if we consider Theodoricus as one of the sources of material in Morkinskinna, we could be struck by the fact that his paroemial materials, which are sparse, are of learned rather than traditional origin. While Archer Taylor in 1930 remarked “the distinction [in proverbs] between “learned” and “popular” is meaningless and is concerned merely with the accidents of history” (5), he was writing in the structuralist terms of his time. Thorir the monk cites his sources, sometimes inaccurately, and they clearly have no immediate connections with oral traditions of the stories in which they are placed.

1. The notable exception to this general observation is found in the reported comment of Haraldr Sigurðarson before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, when his horse stumbles and he is thrown from it. “Seldom is a sign of this sort an omen of victory,” he observes, and the Ágrip (1190) follows in Old Norse, “Sjaldan fór svá, þá er vel vildi.”(‘Seldom did it go thus when luck wished well.’) (ÍF 39) In Morkinskinna, however, Harald’s reaction takes on a more positive tone: “Fall er farar heill.” (FJ, M, 274) he proclaims. His opponent, Harold Godwinsson, expresses a different view of the event: “Mikill maþr oc ítarliga. Oc er veNa at nv se farin at hamingio.” (274) which lends dramatic irony to the Norse invader’s optimism in the Morkinskinna and later versions of the story.

Both proverbial reactions as expressed by Haraldr to his fall, in the former and latter narratives, are found within a page of each other in Abbot Karl Jónsson’s Sverris saga, in a part likely composed at the court of King Sverrir himself in the 1180s. Here a figure different altogether from Haraldr, Erlingr jarl, who with his son King Magnús faces imminent attack by Sverrir and the Birkibeinir, anticipates trouble when a miraculous mist, sent we are told by St Olaf at the prayer of Sverrir, hides the invading forces. “Eigi fór þá svâ er vel vildi.”(FMS 8, 83-4.) “Luck fared not thus when it wished us well.”(Sephton 41) he complains. And yet later, going ashore to fight, he stumbles leaping from the ship, “ok steypdist fram á knèin, enn stakk niðr höndunum, ok mælti: fall er farar heill.”(FMS 8. 85) “and fell forward on his knees. Thrusting both hands into the ground, he said, ‘Fall portends fortunate journey.’”(Sephton 42)

This latterly expressed view, that a fall brings or is a sign of luck, seems current, at least, in the medieval North, where Saxo’s Erik the Eloquent, in Book 5, first going to meet Froði III, and stepping from his boat, “inadvertently tripped and fell to the earth. He interpreted the stumble as boding well and predicted that after this weak start more propitious events would ensure.” (Saxo, Fisher tr., Davidson notes. 126) Davidson recalls the tradition of William the Conqueror’s similar interpretation of his fall when he landed in England and whimsically ponders a relationship of such episodes to Livy’s story of the first Brutus’ deliberate fall to kiss the earth as secret fulfillment of the Delphic oracle’s prophecy. (Saxo, Notes, pgs 70 & 75) The fact that Harald’s more optimistic interpretation of his fall occurs first, in extant texts, in Morkinskinna leads one to consider whether its application thus was taken by the text’s composer from an unknown source about Haraldr, or whether it originated with him in this context based on more general northerly views of a fall as a good omen. In any case, it is especially interesting that Sverris saga places both proverbs in the mouth of one character within a few lines of each other shortly before he is killed.

2. For today’s presentation I have abbreviated and categorized citations of paroemial material from my on-line Concordance to the Proverbs in the Icelandic Sagas, the Morkinskinna file of which is not yet open to the public. In the first category of your handout are texts which have a Germanic currency or which have more general affinities with Germanic cultural traditions. Thus, when Ingigerðr, wife of Jaroslav, and daughter of Óláfr the Swede, to humble her husband forces him to foster King Óláfr of Norway’s illegitimate son, Magnús, she explains, “it is confirmed in the case of you two that it is the less distinguished man who fosters the other´s child.” (A-G 90). Another royal instance of this custom, again between a foreign and the Norse house, occurs when, in Heimskringla, Haraldr hárfagri sends his son Hákon to be fostered by the English King Æðalstan, who had first sent him a sword as a feudal symbolic means of establishing his own superiority to its receipient. In the Íslendingasögur, of course, fostering is common--a means of making peace, of binding families, and in several relevant episodes are references to this accepted inferiority of the one who fosters.

Some proverbs in this category reach far back into continental Germanic traditions, echoed in Eddic materials, commented upon by Susan Deskis in her discussion of paroemia in Beowulf. Such texts are, then, “Everybody’s got to die sooner or later.” and “Let fortune take its course.” “The cautious man’s business waits till evening.” and “It takes time to test a man/friend.” bespeak the suspicion and slowness to trust of medieval Iceland’s competitive society, and the latter is found, for instance, also in Grettis saga, Friðþjófs saga frœkna and Ljósvetninga saga. Yet it is also found in Medieval Latin and Spanish works and is probably in any case good advice anywhere. So the true test of the ethnic nature of a proverb lies not in its sentiments but rather in the data of its occurrence–and the general wisdom which proverbs tend to embody is not necessarily culturally specific in itself. Nevertheless, categorization of paroemial material found common to the corpus, say, of the Íslendingasögur, can be useful in various ways to our understanding of them and the purposes with which their composers undertook their composition.

Thus, when Steigar-Þórir Þorðarson is led to the gallows that will decapitate him, his imputed last words, “Ill counsels, ill outcomes,” (A-G 290) will remind readers of Njála where the proverb is twice used of the machinations of Hallgerðr, which will lead eventually to Gunnar’s death, and they may also think of the related proverb, “Evil from evil seed/roots” as it is twice applied to the even more deeply destructive scheming of Mörðr Valgarðsson as having sprung from “evil seed”in the words of Flosi Þorðarson, or as Njáll himself puts it, “from evil roots.”

3. Ármann Jakobsson and others have written on how the author of Morkinskinna is “extemely interested in the ideology of kingship, and in particular the necessary virtures of kings.” (“Royal Biographies”, ON-I Lit & Culture, 395). A number of proverbial texts speak of this concern, for instance, when Hákon Ívarsson attempts to inveigle Haraldr hárfagri into granting him the jarldom which the king has not quite promised him, “it is fitting for a king to keep his word,” he reminds him, not having listened carefully enough to Harald’s typically deceptive words. And again, Sigvatr Þórðarson tells Magnús the Good, “it is insolent of a king to harry in his own country” reminding him he has not kept those promises of good governance which he had made when he came to rule Norway. And we here today, reaching farther back in Germanic royal history , might bring to this text the example of the Danish king Heremod, used twice in Beowulf as a cautionary instance of a monarch who came to attack his own people.

4. Theodore M. Andersson has remarked on how the composer of Morkinskinna is concerned with the status of Icelanders in Norway, and we might well consider how other kinds of foreigners are treated in this text. In Haralds saga harðráða Georgios Maniakes as leader of the Byzantine troops is a leader notably inferior to the story’s hero. “Thus it often came about that victories were won when Harald was in command, whereas Georgios did not succeed.” Georgios blames this on lack of support from the Varangians, and Haraldr separates from him taking them and the Normans on further campaigns while the Greek commander retires to Constantinople. Snorri seems here to simplify a relationship developed more fully in Morkinskinna where the leaders clash over military techniques during the campaign they make together in Sicily. In this episode, where Norðbrigt devises ingenious schemes to overcome well fortified and seemingly impregnable towns, Gyrgir voices only discouragement, sometimes in rather curious proverbial terms: “Where the greater remedies don’t work, there’s no point in trying lesser ones” he says, and again, in a case of frustrating recalcitrance on the part of a town’s inhabitants, “Let us explore further and not commit the foolishness of undertaking what we cannot achieve.” And lastly, in the next sentence, the inexplicable admonition “It is no good to sit down more often than you get up.” as he urges Norðbrigt to lift this so far non-productive siege and move to a new area. While the first example is found in TPMA, which cites analogous texts from Medieval Latin, French and German, the latter two are not, and of those two the former, against undertaking what cannot be achieved, goes directly against the principles of North Germanic heroic behaviour. Consultation with Krumbacher’s Mittelgriechische Sprichwörter has not been productive, but one can’t help wondering whether these two paroemia come to the Old Icelandic text from outside Norse culture itself.

5. I´ve written and spoken elsewhere on how parts of Old Icelandic narratives are based on and thus informed by allusions to proverbs which are not given full expression in specific texts. Such proverbial references, or allusions, are first mentioned by Erasmus, who in the Introduction to his Adages says “Occasionally [proverbs] are alluded to in one word, as in Cicero in his Letters to Atticus: ‘Help me, I beg you; “prevention” you know’ where he refers to the proverb, ‘Prevention is better than cure.’ (Erasmus 1982 18). In more recent times Neal Norrick, in How Proverbs Mean, speaking of the didactic quality of proverbs, observed that “mention of one crucial phrase serves to call forth the entire proverb, the “kernel of the proverb.” “Proverbs bear much greater social, philosophical and psychological significance for speakers than do other idiomatic units.” The semantic density of proverbial material thus impresses such texts on our consciousness. “Consequently a speaker can call forth a particular proverb for his hearer with a brief allusion to its kernel.” (Norrick 1985 45) It is obvious that competence in a culture’s proverbial inventory is requisite for an awareness, or understanding of such allusions.

Thus, “the hand is soon sorry that it struck” used once in each of Njála’s three parts, echoes and enhances the moderating advice of Sigvatr Þórðarson to the not fully matured Magnús the Good, “the hand must be measured by moderation.” Hreiðarr the Fool, who ironically shows elsewhere, too, in his þáttur a sound knowledge of proverbial wisdom, begs King Magnús not to lodge him outside the court, away from his brother’s protection: “wiser to be near someone who cares for me like my brother Þórðr,” he observes, and the audience must recall the proverb found in Grettla and Njála, “bare is his back who has no brother.” We should remember, too, that both proverbs referred to here by allusion are found in their full text in Saxo, who seems to draw upon traditions of which there was strong awareness among saga composers. Orally based narratives such as the Icelandic sagas thus use not only proverbs among their building blocks, but also allusions such as these to proverbs, and where we are aware of them we may find further signals of the purposes motivating the composers of these stories.

6. Although the term Wellerism, used for a hybrid proverbial format which creates a humorous or ironic effect, derives from Charles Dickens’ character Sam Weller, of Pickwick Papers (1837), the form itself seems ageless if not universal, occurring as early as Greek and Roman literature, and yet quite unevenly distributed in later European cultures. Wolfgang Mieder has defined their triadic structure consisting of 1. An often proverbial statement, 2. Identification of speaker (which can be an animal) and 3. A phrase placing the statement in an unexpected situation. [Ex: “Everyone to his own taste,” said the farmer when he kissed the sheep.] Archer Taylor noticed that while in his observation Wellerisms were popular in northern medieval Germany they were much less so in its southern areas, to judge by extant sources (207-8) And while the form flourished in continental Scandinavia, its occurrence in Iceland in such texts as Sverris saga (FMS VIII 402) and in Morkinskinna probably derives from continental sources–certainly its recorded native presence is sparsely attested.

Of the four Wellerisms in Morkinskinna, two or three occur within lines of each other, uttered by Sveinki Steinarsson in heated public debate with King Magnús’ man, Sigurðr ullstrengr, sent to enforce his departure from his ancestral lands. The clustering of this material, if it is not of purely literary origin, seems likely the result of an episode having been composed orally and preserved in tact--the Wellerisms, like other paroemial material, acting in a mnemonic as well as a dramatic function. Indeed, this passage is also otherwise remarkable for the rhetoric displayed in Sveinki’s speeches. As he inveighs against King Magnús’ henchmen, he soars into a series of comparative proverbial phrases: “How dare you banish us? You weren’t so high and mighty as long as my foster son King Hákon was alive, since you were as timid as a mouse in a trap when you crossed his path. You skulked under cover like a dog on a boat. You were downtrodden like a grain in a sack. You were as nervous as a gelded plow ox in the mating pen. You had as much breathing space as an otter in a weir. Look here, you can thank your lucky stars if you escape with your life. Up, men, and let’s have at them!” (294) The rhetoric of Sveinki gains momentum and power to this point, the Wellerisms part of the gradual escalation to this urgent passage. While we cannot be sure of their origin, nor find them elsewhere in Norse literature, if they do not come from an unusually sophisticated orally transmitted episode about Sveinki’s defiance of Magnús and his campaign against the men of Elfr, then they are certainly a tribute to the eloquence of the composer to whom we owe them and the story in which the are embedded.

From this brief survey of the proverbs of Morkinskinna it is clear that much could be done in the way of paroemiological studies of this, as of other texts of the kings’ sagas. Some of the data we have seen represents the oldest ideas of pre-Christian Germanic heroic culture. Some is likely not of Icelandic origin, and could come from far abroad indeed. Some of it may be useful in the discussion of relationships between manuscripts. Most importantly from my point of view, some of it is helpful to our understanding of the points composers were trying to make about kings and their subjects, or about national identities, or about social differentiation–in other words, about that particular vision of history itself which they wished to convey to their audience. The continued pursuit of the objectives of my Concordance will, I hope, enhance our comprehension of what they wrote.

Return to