Monthly Archives: December 2015

Rethinking the Konungs Skuggsjá

Over the last couple of months the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oslo has been reassessing the thirteenth-century Norwegian text known as the Konungs Skuggsjá (‘The King’s Mirror’). A famous example of the ‘advice to kings’ or ‘mirror of princes’ genre, the Konungs Skuggsjá has long been studied as a source of evidence for political thought and as a product of the process of state formation in high medieval Norway. However, large portions of the texts – particularly the first part of it – are not (or at least not explicitly) concerned with kingship at all. Rather, the first part of the text has been characterised as ‘encyclopaedic’, and contains all sorts of information about geography, cosmology, and marvels which can (according to the author) be seen in Ireland and Iceland. The Konungs Skuggsjá also contains information about military strategy, dining etiquette, and much more besides. All this fascinating material has been relatively neglected in comparison with the elements of the text which deal with kingship, and the relationship between a king and his subjects.

Viking ship

(Norwegian society changed radically between the ‘Viking Age’, represented by the ships at the Viking Ship Museum, and the thirteenth century, when the Konungs Sjuggsjá was composed)

The purpose of the reassessment of the Konungs Skuggsjá by the Scandinavian Studies scholars at Oslo, led by Professor Karl Johansson, has been to bring the ‘encyclopaedic’ nature of the text to the fore, and to examine the Konungs Skuggsjá within the context of European education in the thirteenth century. To that end, a series of lectures which examined the Konungs Skuggsjá from that angle were arranged. I had briefly touched on the Konungs Skuggsjá when writing recently about the Irish context for, and genesis of, the ‘wonders of Ireland’ genre. As a result, Professor Johansson invited me to give a lecture in the series from an Irish perspective. Rather than look at the ‘wonders’ section, however, I decided to return to the much-studied sections on kingship, but to approach them from the perspective of medieval education and the ‘encyclopaedic’ tradition in the hope of shedding some new light on the process by which kingship ideology was formulated and developed in the central Middle Ages. In brief, I noted that ideologies of kingship do not arise out of a vacuum, coherent and complete in themselves; nor are they simply copied or expanded upon from earlier tracts on kingship. Rather, I argued that the gathering together of material on kingship in order to formulate political theory, required precisely the same sort of messy processes of scholarship, and drew on the same sorts of ‘encyclopaedic’ sources, as did the sections of the text on cosmology, or geography, or ‘wonders’. That is, the development of political theory required, for example, knowledge of scholarship on biblical kings who were used as exempla of good and bad kingship, the interpretation (or exegesis) of those biblical models, a conception of how kingship fitted into ‘world history’ (in this, the idea of a succession of ‘world empires’, derived from scholarship on the biblical Book of Daniel and the works of the late antique writer Orosius, was key), and an understanding of texts which posited a cosmological connection between good kingship and the health and fertility of the kingdom (again based on the interpretation of biblical history probably, according to forthcoming research by Daniel Watson of Maynooth University, mediated through the work of Eusebius and his Latin translator, Rufinus).

I used Irish evidence to offer a comparative perspective and showed how, on the one hand, we have a ‘canonical’ collection of early medieval texts which articulate medieval Irish theories of kingship, such as the seventh-century Audacht Morainn (‘Testimony of Morann’) and De duodecim abusiuis saeculi (‘On the Twelve Abuses of the World’), a Latin text composed in Ireland, probably slightly earlier than Audacht Morainn. However, complementing those coherent texts on political theory, we have a whole host of glosses, commentaries and scholia, sermons, law texts, historiographical texts, narrative literature, and much more besides, articulating the same theories of kingship and frequently displaying a marked interest in the kings who are used in texts on kingship theory as biblical exempla (Kings Saul, David, Solomon, Cyrus the Great, and so on). Thus, I argued that texts on kingship theory were emanating from the same educational milieu that was producing texts on history, geography, ‘wonders’, cosmology, and other texts which draw on medieval ‘encyclopaedic’ learning. In the latter part of my lecture, I used examples from the Konungs Skuggsjá where the author’s comments on Old Testament kings said as much (if not more) about processes of learning and education as about any ideology of kingship.

Oslo palace

(More modern Norwegian ideologies of kingship are visible in the city’s art and architecture.)

The culmination of this series of lectures in Oslo was a two-day conference, which took place on 30th November and 1st December. Leading international researchers from Norway, Iceland, Germany and Switzerland were brought together to discuss the ‘encyclopaedic’ part of the Konungs Skuggsjá from a variety of perspectives. We were treated to fascinating papers on the connections between Konungs Skuggsjá and medieval cosmology and map-making; tracts about table etiquette; tracts on naval warfare; and on education in the liberal arts. You can see the full list of speakers and paper titles here. These papers allowed us to see the Konungs Skuggsjá from a fresh perspective and the cumulative tendency was to see the texts as a learned literary production – with the author displaying his bookish learning – rather than a pragmatic guide to kingship per se. Indeed, perhaps the cumulative findings of the conference were best summed up by Professor Rudolf Simek of the University of Bonn, who memorably described the author of the Konungs Skuggsjá as having ‘more books than windows’, that is, the text tells us more about book-learning, education and erudition in thirteenth-century Norway than it does about the pragmatic aspects (or even political workings) of thirteenth-century Norwegian society.

This conclusion helps us to understand more about the intended, and actual, audience(s) of the text. In a particularly interesting paper on the medieval Icelandic transmission of the Konungs Skuggsjá, Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir showed that many of the Icelandic manuscripts of the text were commissioned by and/or for women, and that its Icelandic readership could be identified as the aristocratic and educated families of the late Middle Ages, who were promoting a pro-monarchical worldview. For most of the Middle Ages, the audience for the text was not royal, but aspirational and literate, and the text should thus be seen as a significant articulation of educational, as much as political, ideals.

Oslo harbour

(Norway’s outward-looking political, religious and economic connections provided routes of transmission for textual learning.)

[I am very grateful to the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies for their generous hospitality, and particularly to Professor Karl Johansson.]