The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2013, 464-526

Genealogy and the beginnings of Norse-Icelandic historical writing

E. A. Melnikova

Like in any early society, genealogy was an important element of the
mentality of Germanic nations: origo gentis and origo regis were crucial
for the formation of collective self-consciousness and self-identifi cation. The
existence among the Germans of legends about their descent from the gods
is attested already by Cornelius Tacitus whereas in the course of the sixth to
eighth centuries pedigrees of Goth, Langobard and Anglo-Saxon kings were
put to writing. These were lists of names with no additions.
The potential capacity of genealogies to incorporate historic (or quasihistoric)
information was realized in Scandinavia. The earliest representation
of an extended genealogy can be found in Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf where
four generations of Skjǫldungs are named with short characteristics of warrior
virtues of each king. The tradition was further elaborated in genealogical skaldic
poems of Thjóðólf of Hvin and Eyvind the Skaldspiller (the ninth and tenth
centuries) who supplemented the pedigrees with information on the deaths and
burial places of the Ynglings and Hladajarls respectively. These poems witness
the emergence and growth of a historical genealogical tradition which later
became the main form of the perception, structuring and chronologization of
the past as well as the representation of the past in the illiterate society.
The Norse-Icelandic history-writing emerges and develops within the
framework of the genealogical historical tradition. Non-extant lists (tǫlur)
and life stories (ævi) of Norwegian kings composed by Sæmund Sigfússon
and Ari Þorgilsson were the fi rst written records of this tradition and at
the same time the fi rst historiographic works in Iceland. They refl ected the
dominating perceptions of history and turned into both the source and model
for later history writing. Even Norwegian Latin “Histories” whose authors
were well acquainted with European historiography relied on this tradition
to more or less extent.
The heyday of “genealogical history” is connected with compilations of
compendia devoted to Norwegian kings in the late twelfth and fi rst third
of the thirteenth century. They preserve the structure of a pedigree —
526
a kind of plot parataxis though the life stories of each ruler, especially of
Óláf Tryggvason and Óláf Haraldsson, are detailed and describe a king’s
life from his birth to his death. It is only in Heimskringla, the latest of
the compendia, that the earlier unbroken narrative is divided into individual
narrations devoted to each of the kings of Norway – sagas, thus making
the whole a collection of a series of biographies. The writer and politician,
Snorri Sturluson explicitly introduced also a political aspect of a lineage: he
stressed not only the biological succession of the Ynglings but their right
to inherit the power thus legitimizing their right to supreme authority in
Norway.
The “genealogical history” did not however cover contemporary events,
i.e. the events of the last two decades of the twelfth century and later. It
was strictly limited to the distant past, from mythological beginnings till the
rule of the last Yngling. Later history of Norway as well as the history of
Iceland was represented in a different form of historiography which made
use but did not rely on genealogy. Still, the role of genealogy remained as
important as it used to be, but it separated from historiography and was
represented by family pedigrees of Icelanders and dynastic pedigrees of
Norwegian kings and aristocracy.

Keywords:
genealogy, pedigree, skaldic genealogical poems, kings’ sagas, Scandinavia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, historical writing
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