The Imprisonment of Erling Steinveggr: a Case Study of Exile

One of the best things about doing research is finding pieces of evidence in the most unexpected places. I am back in Norway working on the Nordic Civil Wars project, thinking about how conflicts were resolved; what worked and what did not. As part of this, I have been reading Baglarsaga – chronicling the earliest years of the thirteenth century in Norway – looking for evidence of peace agreements. It was not the place I would expect to find any evidence for my forthcoming book on international law, but only two pages in, I realised I had struck gold.

One of the versions of Baglarsaga has a story about how King Sverre of Norway (r. 1177-1202) found out that there was a man in Denmark who was calling himself Erling, son of the previous King Magnus V Erlingsson (r. 1161-84), who, at one point, had been Sverre’s main rival for the Norwegian throne. Upon hearing this, and obviously realising that a son of his rival was a significant threat to his own position, Sverre sent men to Denmark to look for Erling, who promptly fled to the province of Göta in the kingdom of Sweden. Sverre then sent a letter to the Swedish king, Knut Eriksson, to whom he was related by marriage, and told him that ‘there was a man in his realm, who was calling himself a son of King Magnus, and who likely wanted to cause ‘ofrið’ (lit. unpeace) in Norway.’ As soon as King Knut heard this, he sent men to look for Erling and put him in the stone tower in the fortress of Näs on Visingsö – an island in lake Vättern – where he remained for a while (Bǫglunga sǫgur (1988), 2: 12).

The reason why this is of interest to me in writing about international law in the period up to c. 1200 is, as explained here many times before, that expulsion of individuals who were deemed dangerous in some way or another, and how these were tracked and chased across different political entities, is one of the best ways to see that international law was practised on a daily basis in the medieval period. Containing the movements of these people was of significant concern to rulers and, in many ways, was an extension of what can be seen in domestic laws from across the medieval West. We know something about how this was attempted because several treaties set out that neither side was to receive the men of the other without some form of identification that they came on legitimate business. Lists of ‘undesirable’ individuals were kept (e.g. Treaty of Falaise 1174), and we know that in certain contexts such lists were exchanged with the other side (e.g. Treaty of Colombiers 1189). We know that rulers could also intervene directly to canvass for the return of men who had been expelled, or to ask for them to be kept away. For instance, an eighth-century letter of Charlemagne to the Archbishop of Canterbury outlines the fate of Mercian exiles, asking the archbishop to intercede with the Mercian king, Offa, on their behalf so that ‘they may be allowed to return to their native land in peace and without unjust oppression of any kind’ (EHD I, no. 197).

The fortress of Näs, surrounded on three sides by water

The story in Baglarsaga evidently fits this wider context, showing how rulers could, and did, take action on this tricky issue. Of particular interest to me personally, is the imprisonment of Erling on Visingsö. I had the opportunity to visit the island in 2016 and can confirm that it lives up to its billing as the island of kings and legends. The fortress of Näs, on the southern tip of the island, was the seat of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century kings of Sweden, and presumably intended as a location that provided great security – though ironically King Karl Sverkersson was killed there in 1167. Little of the fortress survives now, having crumbled into the sea over the centuries, but if its location is any indication, King Knut seemingly felt that Sverre’s request to apprehend and keep Erling was of some significance. The pragmatist in me, of course, wants to argue that the fact that Erling was kept alive, indicates that Knut felt that this was a good chess piece to have and to play if the opportunity arose. More importantly, for the saga author at least, while the stone tower at Näs might have been impregnable, it was, nonetheless, one from which a man could escape. This, Erling promptly did, with the help of the woman who had been feeding him, and he subsequently acquired the byname ‘Steinveggr’ (lit. stone wall) as a commemoration(!) of his incarceration.

Iron-age graves on Visingsö

Exactly what happened to Erling afterwards is disputed among the sagas, and even among the different versions of the same saga – likely the author(s) didn’t know. Nevertheless, the story has provided me with a great case study and reminded me about that beautiful summer day when I may (or may not) have fallen off my bicycle on a completely straight bit of road going towards Näs, because I was watching the surrounding scenery with iron-age graves, straight oak trees, and stunning views of the lake…

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A Model Murder during the Nordic Civil Wars

This is greetings from Oslo! I am spending some time as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Oslo, working on the Nordic Civil Wars project. One of the main reasons for being here in Oslo is that I am writing a chapter on the concept of ‘state’, its expectations and functions during times of civil wars. However, researching this topic has inevitably thrown up plenty of other intriguing pieces of evidence that I am also pursuing as part of the project.

One such unexpected finding relates to the killing of King Harald Gille in 1136 by his half-brother and rival for the Norwegian throne, Sigurd Slembe. The account in one of the kings’ sagas known as Morkinskinna, composed c. 1220, goes something like this:  Having discovered that Harald was staying the night with his mistress ‘Sigurd went to the lodging where the king was sleeping, and they began by first killing the guards and breaking down the door. Then they entered with swords drawn. The king had gone to bed after heavy drinking and was fast asleep. He awoke only as they attacked him…There King Harald lost his life…After that Sigurd and his men left. He summoned the men who had promised to support him if King Harald was killed. They took a ship, had the oars manned, and rowed out across the bay past the king’s residence. It was then beginning to dawn. Sigurd stood up and spoke to the men on the quay, identifying himself as Harald’s killer. He asked that they accept him as their chieftain, as his birth entitled him to be. Then large numbers arrived from the king’s residence, and they were all in agreement. They said that they would never serve a man who had murdered his brother…They all proclaimed that the killers should be outlawed and subject to death. Then the king’s trumpet was sounded, and all the district chieftains and retainers were assembled. Sigurd and his men saw that their only chance was to depart’ (Adapted from Morkinskinna, tr. T. M. Andersson and K. E. Gade (Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 371-2).

There are lots of things in this account that is of interest. For me – no surprises – the description of an unemendable crime and the outlawing of the perpetrator was what originally caught my eye. The description in Morkinskinna has all the hallmarks of a more formal, legalised, process, with emphasis on certain elements – the breaking into the chamber, the witnesses, the consultation and agremeent, and the judgment of outlawry. The account clearly deals with the crime of treason – a hotly debated topic in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe and characterised in works such as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (VI:24), following the Digest of the Emperor Justinian. But despite these exciting features, my question after reading the account in Morkinskinna, and remembering a similar description in one of the eighth-century entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), which I use in one of my third-year lectures as an example of how to become king in the early Anglo-Saxon period, leaned more towards: Did the Icelander writing the saga have access to the ASC?

The short answer is ‘no’. Or, not that we know of anyway. The accounts are not exactly the same, but at the core there are some very close similarities, suggesting the use of a textual model. I will be exploring some of the possibilities and problems of the origins of the account in Morkinskinna in a forthcoming paper to be given to the Graduate seminar at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Cambridge on Monday 6 November. Hope to see you there!

Developing a Theoretical Framework for Medieval Diplomacy

I am suffering from research insomnia. You know, that condition that afflicts all academics once they have had enough time and space in their minds to recover from a long term and to start thinking about all those research projects they’ve been neglecting. In my case, it is coinciding with something I have been pondering for a while: how to establish the right theoretical framework for my next monograph.

The outline for the book – Law, Treaties and International Relations, 700-c.1250 – I have had for a while and have been writing chapters towards it. The main thrust up to this point has been on thinking about international law; what it is and what the possibilities and problems are for the early medieval period. However, I have had a sense for a while that I was not quite getting to the bottom of things and in the last few weeks have started working on a slightly different theoretical model that will better bring out the legal aspects of the book by focusing on known issues within diplomacy and international relations: security, displacement of people, deterrence, transitional justice and so on.

I know that this modern take on medieval diplomacy will be unpopular with many early medievalists but I think it is important to re-align the historiography on pre-modern diplomacy with its more modern counterparts for several reasons. As John Watkins noted in 2008: ‘Much IR theory may first seem irrelevant to a discussion of premodern diplomatic configurations because of its grounding in relationships between modern nation-states. But scholars writing on anything from strategic negotiations and treaty-making to the cultural impact of shifting political configurations in the premodern period could benefit from reading bodies of IR theory that explicitly challenge the state-based assumptions currently dominating the field, such as transnationalism, postinternationalism, Robert Keohane and Jospeh Nye’s complex interdependence theory, constitutive theory, and Krasner’s international regime theory’ (John Watkins, ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38 (2008), p. 5)

Furthermore, currently scholars of pre-modern and modern diplomacy are often talking past each other because of the different vocabularies and terminology used to express that scholarship. For instance, medieval historians rarely discuss exile and outlawry within the context of displacement of people and its link to the crime-conflict nexus – both of which are well-known issues in IR studies. This has resulted in some curious gaps in the historiography, with most text books and longer surveys of diplomacy, international relations and international law giving the Middle Ages the heave-ho despite the fact that there are scholars working on aspects of these topics. One of the most recent examples I came across was piracy – a known threat to contemporary international shipping. Reading some of the literature on this topic, one would think that counter- and anti-piracy was a 21st-century phenomenon, even though scholars working on the Vikings, Slavs or on fourteenth-century piracy might disagree once they saw the practices that underpin these two concepts.

Adopting a more modern vocabulary and theoretical model does not mean abandoning that fundamental principle of questioning the medieval evidence or taking the evidence out of its immediate context. Yes, I frequently get asked about this. Having embarked upon this new direction for the book, it is still the case that it will be based on the evidence from medieval treaties or descriptions thereof. In fact, it is that evidence that is leading me to frame the content of the study in IR theory. If I was to discuss, say, exiles, arbitration, or compensation without this theoretical framework, I would be missing a significant point about where this material sits in our history. Most importantly, related fields within medieval history, such as violence and conflict, have gone through a similar progression of wider interdisciplinary and theoretical analysis.

To test the waters before embarking completely on producing the monograph, I am just putting the final touches to an article on ‘Peace, Security and Deterrence’ for Walter P. Simons’ collection of essays in A Cultural History of Peace in the Medieval Age. I guess this means research insomnia might continue for another week or so.

Crime, Exiles and Ordeals

(Recent Cardiff graduate, Naomi Maher, writes about her placement researching crime, exiles and ordeals, and what it’s like to trawl through 600+ pages of primary source material!)

For five weeks I have researched Anglo-Saxon exiles and trial by ordeals. I examined sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne and A. O. Anderson’s Early Sources of Scottish History (all 604 pages of this latter work is simply a compilation of lots of other sources – making it a very long and repetitive account!). Despite some of the challenges these sources posed, this placement provided me with a great opportunity to read and attempt to get a better understanding of the contemporary accounts of Anglo-Saxon life.

Understanding the reasoning behind the ordeal trial and punishment by exile or outlawry was half the challenge. There were a number of different ordeals that could either convict or free an accused. For instance, the ordeal of fire required that the accused walk a certain distance, over red-hot ploughshares or holding a red-hot iron. In theory, if you were innocent you would come out of this completely without injury. However, more commonly the wound was bandaged and re-examined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was festering, in which case you were guilty and then exiled or executed. According to various law codes, exile could be ordered for an individual in cases such as repeat offences, wizardry and prostitution. My research, however, seemed to suggest that the most common reason was simply that the individual posed a threat to the king and it is not always clear if these underwent the ordeal. For example, Symeon of Durham records that in 944 Anlaf and Reignold were expelled from Northumbria by Edmund who later subdued it to his own authority- no further information is provided but it seems pretty clear that they were simply a threat that was dealt with. In regards to trial by ordeal, various law codes suggest that the practice was used in instances such as coining of false money, treachery and theft. In particular, it was this latter crime which seems to have been one of the most common for having to undergo a trial by ordeal. As theft was a crime that could affect the whole community it would stand to reason that the Anglo-Saxons would not only want to make an example of the accused in order to reassure the community but also to deter would-be thieves.

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Overall, whilst today we would see a painful trial and social ostracism as bizarre and extreme we have to remember that, in reality, these penalties were perhaps rarely enforced. Most crimes were compensated rather than punished. During my placement I looked at a range of sources and expected to find many instances of ordeals and exiles/outlaws but was surprised by the lack of evidence for this. Whether this was because they weren’t always recorded or whether they just didn’t happen that often we’ll never really know but, in my opinion, these harsh penalties were effective scare mongering tactics enforced throughout the centuries. These kingdoms were constantly changing and were regularly threatened by external forces, including neighbouring kingdoms and the Vikings, and these strong punishments seems to have been a way of limiting the internal threats that were posed to law and order.