5 Charming Episodes of Violence from Medieval Iceland

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The sagas of early medieval Iceland (written down between 1100 and 1300) are some of the great works of Western literature. Heck, they've got it all: lust, envy, large-scale violence, widespread failures. Plus, these charming tales are all set in a time when a man just had to do what a man (generally a man with anger-management issues and a club) had to do.

1. Hallgerd the Petty (Njal's Saga)

One of the bloodiest feuds in Icelandic history arose from the seating chart at a wedding, when Bergthora asked Hallgerd Hoskuldsdattir to move over at a banquet to a less prestigious seat. It only makes sense that the slighted Hallgerd took the instruction as a deadly insult. Unfortunately for Bergthora, though, Hallgerd knew how to hold a grudge. After all, this was the same woman whose husband, Gunnar, once slapped her for stealing from one of his enemies. Then, years later, when besieged in his home by his enemies, Gunnar begged Hallgerd to give him a lock of her hair to repair his bowstring, and she refused, reminding him of the slap he'd given her. Gunnar was killed, and Hallgerd was finally happy.

Bergthora wasn't any luckier. Despite the attempts of Njal, Bergthora's husband, to make peace, things quickly got out of hand. Eventually, a gang attacked Njal's family on their farm and set fire to the farmhouse, killing everyone inside except for a brother-in-law, a Viking who didn't take kindly to his in-laws being barbecued. In response, he cobbled together a small army and successfully wiped out most of the conspirators before finally ending the bloody feud as all good feuds end . . . with a strategic marriage.

2. Hrafnkel's Comeback (Hrafnkel's Saga)

Hrafnkel was the perfect villain: a callous chieftain who murdered without paying compensation (this being rather bad manners at the time). Overthrown but spared by the kinsmen of a man he had killed, Hrafnkel was banished to the life of a penniless vagrant. But he managed to learn from past mistakes, gaining wisdom, kindness, and followers while his enemies grew weak and complacent. And while the wisdom and followers would definitely help him in his greater plan, we're not quite so sure we buy the kindness. Hrafnkel waited seven years for the opportunity to serve his revenge ice cold. And when it finally came, he killed the most dangerous of his enemies, then chased the rest out of his former holdings.

3. Thorstein Replaces the Men He Kills (The Tale of Thorstein the Staff-Struck)

What's a poor farmer to do when his honor is insulted by three servants of a wealthy landowner? If you're Thorstein Thorarinsson, you kill 'em, announcing your actions after the fact in accordance with Icelandic custom.

Luckily for Thorstein, the three he killed were so worthless that their own boss didn't particularly want to avenge them. Thorstein and the chieftain, Bjarni, fought a rather halfhearted duel, punctuated by frequent water breaks, pauses to examine one another's weapons, and even stops to tie their shoes mid-battle. Finally, they reached a settlement: Thorstein, who was strong enough to do the work of three men, became the perfect replacement for the three he had killed. Downsizing, Icelandic style.

4. Egil Rewrites a Poem in His Head (Egil's Saga)

Egil was a raider, a pirate, a murderer, and, oh so predictably, an accomplished poet to boot. On his way to deliver a poem to King Athelstan of England, he fell into the clutches of Eirik, the Viking king of York. This was most unfortunate, as Egil had made a career of being quite a pain in Eirik's royal rear. Given one night's reprieve while the king decided the method of execution, Egil stunned everyone by delivering, in perfect meter, a poem in praise of Eirik. He was released well before anyone realized that he had just replaced "Athelstan" with "Eirik" (the Old Norse form), maintaining the rhythm of the poem and saving his own neck. Long after he died of old age, Egil's grave was excavated and his abnormally bulky skull was discovered, proving that you can have a thick head and still do some quick thinking.

5. Gudmund Negotiates a Deal (Gudmund the Worthy's Saga)

When a chump named Skaering had his hand cut off by Norwegian merchants, he turned to his kinsman Gudmund to get him justice. Ever helpful, Gudmund arranged a monetary settlement, but as soon as he left the scene the Norwegians refused to pay. Summoned back, a rather annoyed Gudmund made the following proposal: "I will pay Skaering the amount that you mental-floss-forbidden-knowledge.jpgwere judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from among you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skaering and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that fellow's hand as cheaply as you wish." Not surprisingly, the Norwegians quickly coughed up the money, no doubt to the sound of Skaering's one hand clapping.

This article was written by Brian Gottesman and excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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September 19, 2008 - 12:10pm
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