Monday, April 1, 2013

Sticks and Stones

It might not occur to readers of the sagas who see, for example, the description of Gunnar's wonderful halberd in Njals Saga that it was so lovingly described because it was so rare:
Only few people in Iceland owned weapons, usually the chieftains, their retainers and some wealthy farmers. The most common weapon in Iceland was stones. In the biggest battle in Icelandic history, at Örlygsstaðir in 1238, the chieftain Gizurr Þorvaldsson commanded his men to stop throwing stones at their enemies, because they could fling them back. (Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, “Kings, Earls and Chieftains,” in Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages [Leiden: Brill, 2011], 74.)
Sigurðsson praises the "peaceful character of Icelandic society . . . depicted in many saga episodes."  (Someone less well versed probably remembers fewer of these.) Still, this illustrates at least two points: (1) In a pinch, anything can be turned into a weapon. Humans tend to be inventive that way. (2) Fancy weapons are expensive and are prestige items. This is true whether one is talking about jewel encrusted swords, pearl-handled revolvers, or nuclear weapons.