Sæmundr inn fróði Sigfússon

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by Jonas Wellendorf

Sæmundr fróði, ‘the Learned’ (Sæmundus multiscius), is believed to have been the founder of Icelandic historiographical writing and a pillar of the church. His work on the Norwegian kings and everything else he might have written is now lost.

Biography

Sæmundr (1056–1133) stands at the very beginning of the Icelandic literary tradition and was renowned for his great learning. Ari the learned showed Sæmundr a draft of his Íslendingabók, the oldest preserved Icelandic work of history (written 1122–1133), for approval, and Hungrvaka, another pioneering work of Icelandic history (written in the beginning of the 13th century), calls Sæmundr ‘very wise and the most learned of all’. Later, his reputation grew to such proportions that many texts believed to be old and important became ascribed to him, most famously the poetic Edda. Facts relating to his biography are few, but the years of his birth and death are given in Icelandic annals. As a young man he must have studied abroad, since some annals mention that he returned from school in around 1077. Later, many legends grew regarding his stay abroad. His return to Iceland is also mentioned in Íslendingabók, where it is dated to the period in which Sigvatr Surtsson held the law speaker office (i.e. 1076–1083). According to Íslendingabók, Sæmundr returned from ‘Frakkland’ (‘France’, but not identical with present-day France, see Foote 1984). Exactly where he studied is unknown, but the 16th century annals Oddaverjaannáll suggest Paris. He became a priest, and the farm where he lived, Oddi in southern Iceland, became an important seat of learning. Perhaps Sæmundr founded the school there. In 1096, the Icelandic tithe-law was passed in which Sæmundr played an important role. His son Loptr married a Norwegian princess, Þóra, who was an illegitimate daughter of Magnús Barefoot. After Sæmundr’s time his descendants (the Oddaverjar) continued to play a very important part in Icelandic history, and Snorri Sturlusson was raised at Oddi by Jón Loptsson, the grandson of Sæmundr. The thought that Snorri acquired his wide historiographical, mythological and poetological learning at Oddi appeals to many scholars.

Works

Most scholars now agree that Sæmundr; 1) wrote in Latin and 2) composed a rather short work of history of the Norwegian kings from Haraldr Fairhair to Magnús the Good (†1047).

  • 1) The so-called First grammatical treatise (from the second half of the 12th century) mentions some works existing in the Icelandic vernacular at the time it was written, among others the ‘learned writings of Ari the Learned’. Likewise, the prologue to Heimskringla says that Ari was the first who wrote frǿði ‘learning’, here in the sense of historical writing, in the vernacular. Sæmundr was Ari’s senior by ten years and might have written before him. The argument consequently goes that since none of the authoritative texts that mention early historical writings in the vernacular mentions Sæmundr, he must have written in Latin.
  • 2) Many preserved writings refer to Sæmundr as their source, but often in such a way that it is unclear whether a written or oral source is meant, such as when the Icelandic Konungsannáll in the entry dealing with 1047 writes as follows: ‘Thus says the priest Sæmundr the Wise that …’. At least in one case it is certain that a written work is meant. This is a scene in the saga of Óláfr Tryggvason by Oddr Snorrason which ends with the words: ‘In this way Sæmundr wrote about king Óláfr in his book’. This saga was originally written in Latin, but only a vernacular version exists. A long poem, Noregs konunga tal, ‘The enumeration of the kings of Norway’, composed in honour of Sæmundr’s grandson Jón Loptsson, possibly around 1190 but only preserved in the Flateyjarbók manuscript (late 14th century), hints at the possible scope of Sæmundr’s work on the Norwegian kings. The poem enumerates the kings of Norway, beginning with Haraldr Fairhair and his father Halfdán the Black and ending with king Sverrir. In the concluding stanzas, much is made of the fact that Jón’s mother was the daughter of King Magnús Barefoot. The poem thus praises Jón by describing all his royal ancestors, and the implicit argument of the poem is that Jón is also a kingly figure. A few stanzas are accorded to each king. After the section on Magnús the Good (†1047) roughly midway through the poem, the poet says that he has now told about the lives of ten kings from Haraldr Fairhair ‘as Sæmundr the wise said’ (st. 40). The sort of information the poem gives is the duration of the rule of the various kings, how they died and where they are buried. In the remaining part of the poem, the poet regularly refers to what he ‘has heard’ or ‘been told’ in a general way (st. 42, 48, 50 and 62). No such references are in the section where Sæmundr is supposed to have been the source. Even if the references found in the second part of the poem are conventional, they do not make it unlikely that the poet used a single source concerning the lives of the first ten kings, and that this then was Sæmundr’s work on the Norwegian kings. In giving the length of the rule of each king, Sæmundr might have laid the chronological foundation for the entire history of the early rulers of Norway in his lost work. The scribe of Flateyjarbók erroneously attributes the complete poem to Sæmundr.

Medieval Reception and Transmission

Sæmundr’s work is lost to us, but a rich legendary tradition revolving around Sæmundr has been preserved. In the folk tradition Sæmundr acquired the reputation of a powerful magician, and legends tell about his dealings with the devil, whom he promised his soul among other things in order to obtain the seat at Oddi. In the end Sæmundr managed to cheat the devil of his reward. This legendary tradition continued until modern times, but it had already begun in the middle ages. A recension of the Icelandic life of saint Jón, Jóns saga L (written before 1350 but only preserved in later manuscripts), contains a story about how the future bishop and saint helped Sæmundr escape from an unnamed master who taught him magic arts. The schooling given was such that Sæmundr had forgotten everything he had learned in his youth, and even his baptismal name.

Bibliography

  • ARNI MAGNÚSSON 1787: ‘Vita Sæmundi multiscii vulgo froda’ pp. i–xxviii in Edda rhythmica seu antiquior, vulgo Sæmundina dicta. Hafniae.
  • ANDERSON, T. M. 1985: ‘Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur)’ pp. 197–238 in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (eds. C. L. Clover & J. Lindow). Ithaca.
  • ELLEHØJ, S. 1965: Studier over den ældste norrøne historieskrivning. Bibliotheca arnamagnæana 26. København.
  • FOOTE, P. 1984: ‘Aachen, Lund, Hólar’, pp. 101–120 in Aurvandilstá: Norse Studies (eds. M. Barnes et al.). Odense [first published in 1975].
  • FOOTE, P. 2003: Jóns saga hólabyskups ens helga. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ A14. København.
  • GUNNELL, T. 1998: ‘The return of Sæmundur: Origins and analogues’ pp. 87–111 in Þjóðlíf ok þjóðtrú: Ritgerðir helgaðir Jóni Hnefli Aðalsteinsyni (eds. Jón Jónsson et al.). [Reykjavík].
  • JÓN HNEFILL AÐALSTEINSSON 1994: ‘Sæmundr fróði: A medieval master of magic’, Arv 50, 117–132.
  • SVERRIR TÓMASSON 2005: ‘Sæmundr Sigfússon (hinn fróði)’ pp. 77–79 in Reallexicon der Germanischen Altertumskunde vol. 26, Berlin [includes substantial bibliograpy].