Monday, March 4, 2013

The Interconnected Ancient World III: Harald the Tyrant

Harald Fairhair, king of Norway (c. 859-928), has a somewhat mixed reputation in the Norse sagas. He united the petty kingdoms of Norway into a single country. The sagas tend to treat this event somewhat ambivalently. Egils Saga explains the situation in this way:
Once King Harald had taken over the kingdoms he had recently won, he kept a close watch on the landholders and powerful farmers and everyone else he suspected would be likely to rebel, and gave them options of entering his service or leaving the country, or a third choice of suffering hardship or paying with their lives; some had their arms and legs maimed. In each province King Harald took over all the estates and all the land, habited or uninhabited, and even the sea and lakes. All the farmers were made his tenants, and everyone who worked the forests or dried salt, or hunted on land or at sea, was made to pay tribute to him.

Many people fled the country to escape this tyranny and settled various uninhabited parts of many places, to the east in Jamtland and Halsingland, and to the west in the Hebrides, the shire of Dublin, Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, the Orkney Isles and Shetland Isles, and the Faroe Islands. And at this time, Iceland was discovered. (Egils Saga, chapter 4, translation of Bernard Scudder) 
King Harald’s conquest of Norway figures large in the sagas as an important event in the background of many of them.

In Laxdaela Saga this was not a positive development. As the saga opens, Ketil tells his kinsmen “I have true tidings of Harald’s enmity (fjándskap) to us; so it seems to me that we cannot ask for succor (trausts) thence.” The Norse term fjándskap would be fiendship in English. Harald was a fiend. The term traust is cognate with English trust. One can put one’s trust in someone who will help, aid or succor someone else. Those who will not cannot be trusted.

So it is that Ketil and his kin depart Norway. Ketil, himself, settles in Scotland, but the saga follows his daughter Unn to Iceland (as many of the sagas do). The event also figures into the settlement of Greenland, and Vinland, and one branch of the family expelled by Harald’s conquest settled in Normandy and produced William the conqueror, who may nominally have been French, but his heritage was that of a Viking.