The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2017-2018, 169-195

From Oral Communication to Written: Situation in Medieval Norway in the Light of Icelandic Sagas

T. Jackson

On the basis of Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar written by Sturla Þórðarson
between 1263 and 1265, a royal saga “of modern times”, according to Sigurður
Nordal’s classification, and fifteen “sagas of the past” forming Heimskringla, a
large compendium of the kings’ sagas written by Snorri Sturluson c. 1230, the
article investigates how Norwegian rulers were gradually starting to use letters
instead of oral messages. The author aims to find out how the saga authors in the
thirteenth century felt about the transition from oral communication to written,
as well as how deeply in the time preceding the development of writing they
attributed the existence of a written private act.
The Christianization of Norway, initiated by King Olav Tryggvason (995–
1000), was completed by his successor and second cousin Olav Haraldsson
(1014–1028). During the eleventh century a new religion and the Christian church
gradually strengthened their position in the country, and with them came writing,
first in Latin and then in Old Norse. The Latin language, as a language of the
church, became the written language in Scandinavia and for some time remained
the only (with the exception of the runes) written language of the Scandinavian
countries. The Latin alphabet did not start being used for writing in the national
language immediately after the introduction of Christianity. It is impossible to
establish when exactly this happened, since the oldest manuscripts in the national
languages have not been preserved in Scandinavian countries. But there is reason
to believe that the Latin alphabet was first used in Iceland for writing in the
native language in the early twelfth or even late eleventh century. Soon after
1056, the first school mentioned in the sources was founded by Bishop Ísleifr in
Skálholt in Iceland. It is known that in the twelfth century there existed schools
at the cathedrals of Nidaros, Bergen and Oslo in Norway. The earliest surviving
Norwegian manuscript in Latin dates to the 1170s, while in Old Norse to c. 1210.
About 80 manuscripts in vernacular reached us from the thirteenth century, and
more than a thousand from the fourteenth century. Introduction of writing into
business correspondence was also slow: the early Norwegian documentary corpus,
before January 1, 1301, is represented by 993 letters only, while beginning with
the fourteenth century the number of documents snowballs.
The paper demonstrates that, according to Snorri Sturluson, for more than
a century and a half after the adoption of Christianity in Norway, there were
no literate rulers or magnates. Unfortunately, Snorri never mentions who writes
those letters that the Norwegian side exchanges with the Danish rulers, although
it might easily be someone of the clergy close to the king. In Snorri Sturluson’s
oppinion, Norwegian rulers prior to the 1170s, unlike Danish or English rulers,
remain within the framework of oral culture. Norwegian rulers and clergy of the
mid-thirteenth century, as described by Snorri’s nephew Sturla Þórðarson, resort
to both oral and written communication, although writing letters takes time and
effort. On the whole, the slow development of private communication represented
by sagas can be considered as parallel to the state of office work in Norway, as
well as to the abrupt increase, from the early thirteenth to the fourteenth century,
of the amount of manuscripts in Old Norse.

Keywords:
writing, oral and written communication, Icelandic kings’ sagas, Norway, Iceland, letters, Snorri Sturluson, Sturla Þórðarson
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