Education and Isolation: The Didactic Methods of Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá—By Benjamin Harrison

From an early point of his reign, King Hákon IV Hákonarson (1204-1263) of Norway found himself frustrated at the lack of control he had over his hirð.[1] He therefore decided that the institution needed to be reformed and began to adopt the cultural and social attitudes of the European courts into his own.[2] To do this, Hákon employed the use of various pedagogic texts at his court. Under his command, he had didactic texts written for members of the court, and for example commissioned translations of Old French tales of courtly romance and chansons de geste (Songs of Heroic Deeds) in Old Norse to be recited at his court for entertainment, but also to cultivate courtly attitudes among his men, and educate them on the wider European world in his efforts to Europeanise Norway.[3] These modified French tales are now more commonly known as the riddarasögur (Chivalric sagas). This conscious effort to begin changes would transform his often-recalcitrant retinue into a more subservient group. Understanding the events that led to this process of change is imperative before one can approach the texts themselves. I will thus put forth a focused analysis of the didactic aspects of two medieval Norwegian texts. The first, and most significant in this process, is Konungs skuggsjá (The King’s Mirror). It was written c. 1250s, presumably under the commission of King Hákon Hákonarson and aimed at the education of his sons, Hákon and Magnús, but had a secondary role of disseminating ideas of courtly culture through the hirð.[4] The author is unknown, but through a study of the text it is clear that he must have been a well-educated individual, versed in theology, law and pedagogy which he likely learned whilst living abroad.[5] In modern scholarship, Konungs skuggsjá has often been linked to the widely defined specula principum genre, or ‘mirrors for princes’, a loosely defined genre of political writings created with the aim to education political leaders in the methods in which they should rule and act.[6] It is a didactic text, constructed as a dialogue between two characters: Son, a young man wishing to learn about the world, and Father, who answers his questions, explaining the nature and structure of society.[7] The second text is Hirðskrá (The Book of the Hirð), which consists of a collection of laws regarding the appointment and duties of the royal hirð, compiled c. 1270 under the orders of King Magnús VI Hákonarson (1238-1280) as part of his country-wide project of recording written legislation.[8] It is primarily a legal text, concerned with appointments and the legal statuses and demands that accompany them. Although it does have some of the typical elements that occur in normative sources, for example how it portrays the king’s view on how the hirð ought to act, it does not delve into the level of detail that Konungs skuggsjá does. Due to its legislative incentive, the text is not as concerned with courtly education, though it does make several references to attitude and behavior. This article thus puts forth a comparative inspection of the methods and techniques that these texts use to educate their audience.[9]

With the introduction of courtly culture in Norway, the structure of the aristocracy changed. Sverre Bagge refers to it as a transformation into an ‘aristocracy of the realm’, as opposed to the prior local aristocracies.[10] Local aristocrats left their lands to come to Bergen and be close to the king. A similar idea appears in Konungs skuggsjá, which states that there is no mutual contract in society – all men are subjects of the king.[11] This article will evaluate and compare the didactic methods of Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá to understand how these courtly ideals were disseminated, and why the hirðmenn voluntarily adopted them. With an overview of some of the troublesome encounters that can be found in Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, the first section will explain why Hákon wished to change the social attitudes of his hirðmenn. Such encounters were largely based on prior predicaments in Hákon’s life where he struggled with issues of insubordination within his hirð, in addition to the issue of negative reputation that his country and subjects received abroad. Having established such a foundation, I shall then proceed with an approach the pedagogical elements of Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá, comparing the different didactic methods in which they use to educate their audience, and encourage them to adopt new social attitudes aimed to tame the problematic behaviors of the royal hirð. I will examine how both texts push to create a societal divide between the aristocracy and peasantry through the introduction of courtly culture, and the emphasis on the virtue of nobility that comes from serving one’s king. Conclusively, the article will demonstrate how Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá utilise their differing didactic forms in the pursuit of the same goals, and why the two texts have been written with such different approaches in doing so.

The Need for Courtly Culture

Praised be God that I have this day fulfilled that errand which was charged on me on behalf of holy Rome and the lord Pope and all the cardinals; and now is your king crowned, and thoroughly honoured, so that no king can have gotten such honour before in Norway. Praised be God also for this that I did not go back on my course as I was urged. It was told me that I should here see few men; but even though I saw some, then they would be liker to beasts in their behaviour than to men; but now I see here a countless multitude of the folk of this land, and, as it seems to me, with good behaviour.[12]

In 1247 Hákon Hákonarson was crowned King of Norway under papal authority, with the emissary William of Sabina traveling from England to conduct the coronation.[13] The above extract is from Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, written by Sturla Þórðarson under the commission of Hákon’s son and successor, Magnús VI Hákonarson.[14] In this speech, William of Sabina makes reference to the poor image of Norwegians held by their European neighbours; a belief that the Norwegians were almost animalistic due to their crass demeanour and lack of even the most basic social etiquette.[15] Whilst William dispels the stories he had heard and chooses to praise the behavior of his hosts, it is worth noting that these words should not be taken too sincerely considering the audience he was addressing. Hákon had a stronger desire to build relationships with Europe compared to his predecessors, and he constantly strived to further diplomacy and increase trade with neighbouring countries to the south, specifically France and Germany.[16] Nevertheless, the attitudes of his men proved to be a constant hindrance to his efforts. In 1248, Louis IX of France extended an invitation to Hákon to bring his men and join him at the French court where they would discuss leading a new crusade. Hákon opted to decline, citing many reasons why, one being that he was embarrassed about how his men would act as he described them as ‘impetuous and imprudent, impatient of any sort of injury or restraints.’[17] Men from the king’s hirð also had a duty to serve as envoys and ambassadors abroad, and as such, they functioned as representatives for their king and country. Logically, these representatives largely defined the image of Norway and its ruling class within royal courts across Europe.[18] An unruly, ill-mannered ambassador would strike a blow against the European connections that Hákon endeavoured to foster. Evidently, Hákon himself was well aware of the reputation his men had amongst their European neighbours, and did not think of this ill stature as undeserved. He did wish, however, to bring about a change to better his relationships with other countries.

The unruly attitudes and actions of Hákon’s hirð were a large source of embarrassment for him abroad, and also posed a personal danger to Hákon because of their unpredictable behavior. Throughout Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, we see that hirðmenn are a constant source of endangerment for him – particularly because of their excessive drinking.[19] One chapter tells of a nine-year-old Hákon returning by ship to the royal seat in Bergen, where the journey is fraught with disaster. The group took to sea in the evening, Hákon’s hirðmenn still intoxicated from having ‘drunk hard’ that evening.[20] Their carelessness led to the ship losing its direction in harsh weather and its rudder damaged. This inattentiveness put the young Hákon directly in danger, since their excessive drinking meant they were unable to properly attend to their duties. Whilst no one died in this incident, alcohol did lead to death in Bergen c. 1227: After an evening of heavy drinking, one of Hákon’s men misidentified one of the men of Skúli Bárðarson – Hákon’s co-regent – as the murderer of his relative some years prior, and slew him.[21] Realising his error in this, the killer fled to the closest church to take refuge and Hákon was obliged to protect this man both under the law and as his lord, yet he had to restrain not only his men, but also those loyal to Skúli.[22] This led to division and insubordination within the hirð, as even though they were sworn to Hákon they did not agree with his full authority and legitimacy in his actions of preventing them from carrying out retribution. From this we can clearly see that the hirð was not necessarily always a strong, cohesive unit. Regardless of Hákon having power over his men through the oaths of fealty they had sworn to him, they evidently did not see themselves as completely subordinate to his authority. Therefore, Hákon continuously faced problems of dissent within his ranks, an issue that was further compounded in 1240 when Skúli staged an armed rebellion against Hákon, which led to the Earl’s defeat at Niðarós.[23] Hákon took some of Skúli’s surviving men into his own hirð out of necessity and unsurprisingly faced even further issues of subordination from these men especially.[24]

Hákon’s retinue was a group of ill-disciplined, self-serving men that caused problems for the king and his country both internally and externally.[25] In Norway the king faced insubordination and neglect of duty, which in numerous situations potentially endangered his life and consequently made his ruling difficult. Outside of the country, it put a strain on foreign relations due to the embarrassment that his men caused him. His hirð needed to be brought under a stronger level of control, but he knew that it could not be done by force; therefore, looked towards the continent and decided to imitate the culture at foreign courts in order to ‘domesticate’ the elites of Norway.[26] Thus, Hákon not only aimed to strengthen his domestic power, but also to dispel the negative stereotype that prevailed in his foreign affairs.

Altering Social Attitudes
Before examining how the two texts facilitated the development of courtly culture in medieval Norway, an explanation of the term ‘courtly culture’ first needs to be addressed. Courtliness in Europe chiefly emerged from the French royal court and based itself around courtoisie, actions that embodied virtue and grace and was the antithesis of villain, a term that originally referred to a peasant, but at this point had developed connotations of also being ugly or vulgar.[27] The importance of proper etiquette and social hierarchy was paramount within courtly environments. An important aspect of courtly culture was therefore how it served to divide society between the courtois aristocrats and villainous peasants. Furthermore, courtly culture is not an inherent way of acting, but a mind-set that one is socialized into, and which seeks to distinguish the aristocracy from the ordinary.[28] Courtly attitudes in Norway were therefore purposely developed and cultivated by the monarchs to transform their courts and change the attitudes of their liegemen.

The prologue of Konungs skuggsjá implies that good morality was lacking in society.[29] In other words, courtly manners were not well known prior to the reign of Hákon which supports the idea that Konungs skuggsjá aimed to demonstrate the ways a virtuous man ought to act. The prologue openly declares its intention for the education of the king, but also claims its accessibility and applicability for all who wished to be ‘good men’.[30] This is an intentional tactic, as Konungs skuggsjá was not just intended to teach Magnús how to rule, but also how courtiers should act towards their king.[31] Regarding the hirð and its conduct, the second section which regards the king and his court is most significant. It is this section that allows us to see how the text was used in a persuasive manner to mould the attitudes of the king’s men, and to transform them into more subservient followers.

A core attitude that the text wishes to change is the prevalence of drinking, which it condemns with a two-part approach that highlights both the danger it poses to one’s king, as well as one’s own reputation:

Never get drunk, wherever you are; for it may fall out at any time that you will be summoned to hear a dispute or to supervise something, or that you will have important business of your own to look after. Now if such demands should come to a man while he is drunk, he will be found wholly incompetent; wherefore drunkenness should be avoided by everyone, and most of all by kingsmen and others who wish to be reputed as worthy men, for such are most frequently called to hear suits at law and to other important duties. Moreover, they ought to set good examples for all, as some may wish to learn decorum from their behaviour.[32]

Firstly, those who are unable to attend their duties due to an intoxicated state would be considered ‘incompetent’, a direct besmirch upon their honour – an integral aspect of Northern societies. Secondly, this text stresses that by maintaining sobriety, a person acts as a noble leader for others at the court. This action would increase their personal standing as the text not only defines the hierarchy under the king, but also explains a hierarchy of courtliness within the hirð in an unspoken fashion.[33] In keeping with its persuasive theme, Konungs skuggsjá never attempts to tell one not to drink. It merely advises that a virtuous, courtly man does not debase himself through the lowly sate of intoxication and certainly does not drink excessively in the presence of his king.[34] The implication of this is that a man who is always in a fit state to attend his king is reliable and trustworthy, and he will therefore be viewed most favourably by him – increasing the likelihood of advancement and bestowment of honours.

Hirðskrá likewise argues against excessive drinking, but is even firmer in its case against intemperance by making reference to the seven deadly sins:

Be also particularly careful to avoid with all of the powers of discernment God has given you those seven cardinal vices which are the root and basis of all (other) vices. And men of wisdom identify them such that the first is immoderate indulgence in food and drink […] be further on guard against drinking too much, for many persons lose both their senses, their property and their friends as a result of this; and finally, and what is worse, the soul also is lost when the drunk man is unable to attend himself to God or to good men.[35]

This passage provides a stark warning for its audience: intemperance can lead to the loss of one’s honour and social position, and it also puts one in a state removed from God and piety. Just like Konungs skuggsjá, the text does not officially place a ban or restriction on a retainer and his alcohol consumption, which can be seen as odd given the legal disposition of the text. This is likely due to the societal importance of alcohol, because of which the king could never truly place a firm restriction upon alcohol consumption.[36] Hirðskrá also states that one may lose their property because of excessive drinking, implying that whilst drunkenness is not punishable, it certainly would not go unnoticed by the king. Nevertheless, the text does not declare an official penalty on drunkenness. In reading these two texts, a hirðmaðr would thus learn that to be drunk is not only a betrayal of his king and his duties, but a betrayal of God – the two most important figures in his life. This was also an effective didactic tool, as neither text forces a change upon its audience. Instead, it presents temperance as a virtue and clear and sensible way of conducting oneself, allowing one to make their own choice to change their attitudes. To demand such a change would be an incredibly unpopular move, and likely just cause problems for the king who tried to enact it. By presenting it as a completely optional and free choice, those who wished to please the king would be sensible with their drink, and ensure they were known to be. Then, the king could give public praise for this, which would spread such behavior through the hirð, as men wished to receive graces from him. Joachim Bumke has highlighted that ‘warnings against gluttony and drunkenness […] had a permanent place in the courtly etiquette’.[37] Those who lived in a courtly society would, of course, be wealthy aristocrats, and had everything they desired in abundance. Gluttony was sinful – which Hirðskrá directly discusses – but moderation is its antithesis, and therefore should be upheld and embraced. This was often reflected in European courtly literature,[38] which would have enforced the virtuous ideal of temperance at the Norwegian court, not just through Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá, but any French or German poems or literature that would have been recited as entertainment for the royal hirð.

Konungs skuggsjá is successful in its development of the hirð through the exploitation of the common desire for social advancement within Norse society.[39] The text does not present itself as any sort of compulsory commitment, but instead makes clear that any adoption of courtly ideas is entirely out of the adopter’s free will. The second section opens with an explanation of the benefits one can reap from servitude in the king’s household, and then expounds the many ways of how one could achieve these benefits. In relation to this, David Brégaint has highlighted how the author use the constant application of the verb vil, to want or to wish, when talking about self-advancement.[40] The author is persuasive in his tone, and implies that whilst one is not obligated to heed his advice, it is incredibly advantageous to do so. Royal service is beneficial, the author explains, and therefore all sensible men know that to courteously serve one’s king is the wisest decision, as it is the greatest advantage to be in the king’s full protection and friendship.[41]

After its explanation of the advantages of good behavior and devoted service, Konungs skuggsjá proceeds to explain how one becomes courteous through a purposeful effort to change one’s attitude, actions, and appearance:

And if the king should happen to speak a few words to you which you did not catch, and you have to ask what he said, do not say ‘Eh?’ or ‘What?’ or make a fuss about it, but use only the word ‘Sire;’ or if you prefer to ask in more words: ‘My lord, be not offended if I ask what you said to me, but I did not quite catch it.’ But see to it that it happens in rare cases only that the king need to repeat his remarks to you more than once before you grasp them.[42]

With this passage, the author clearly suggests a rather large change of attitude in how one communicates with the king. It was presumably commonplace to speak to the king in the same way one would speak to any other, but with this proclamation Konungs skuggsjá puts forward a new standard of addressing one’s liege, with specific and formal language.[43] It emphasises the usage of the honorific herra, ‘sire’, expressing the king’s higher status and title over those who address him. It also tells one to ensure the king does not need to repeat his words, further emphasising the king’s rank over his hirðmenn and continuing the significance of hierarchy. Speech is just one example of how the text shapes the attitudes of its audience in order to create a stronger hierarchy, reaffirming the king’s higher status. In turn, this reduces the autonomy of the hirð and consequently subjugates it and reduces the possibility of future subordination. The repeated emphasis on the importance of attitude and manners in Konungs skuggsjá can be seen within Hákon’s own hirð during the latter part of his reign.[44] As an example, Sverre Bagge highlights that of his advisors, only ten out of 22 came from families of the high-status lendirmenn, whereas the majority of his personally appointed councillors came from a lower aristocratic background.[45] This allows us to see that Konungs skuggsjá was in keeping with Hákon’s desire to reform the attitudes of his men, and that he must have actively preferred men based on their qualities rather than solely their lineage.

Considering its legal nature, Hirðskrá understandably provides a lot less detail when it comes to specific actions and behaviors of the hirð. It only makes general remarks regarding attitudes in chapter 29, where the text asserts the following:

All good manners have their origin in loving God above all else and in the constant fear and love of him in all of your dealings, regardless of whether you are joyful or apprehensive … If you come into the king’s service, then show him a love second only to your love of God; love him more than other men, for he may be the source of all happiness for you if you serve in the right manner the rightful king.[46]

Following this, it lists a selection of short maxims concerning one’s behavior not only to the king, but to one’s peers. The text affirms the hierarchy of the king being second only to God in adding strength to the notion of the hirð being completely subordinate to the authority of the monarch. Although such notions are discussed in a lot less detail, the general theme of the section is in keeping with Konungs skuggsjá’s discussion of manners and attitudes. It does not demand or force the audience to change how they act, but it persuades them via an appeal to their religious identity, and also through a desire for self-advancement. Understanding Konungs skuggsjá’s model of communication is crucial in comprehending how it was received by its audience, and how it transmitted its teachings. The Son addresses the Father in a highly formal fashion, using herra, just as the author suggests that a liegeman should use for his king. The dialogue between the two is an effective method for educating the reader on how to act and behave by teaching through example. Especially since the text is driven by the Son asking questions about the king and society, the audience may well have wondered why the king had such an importance, and why he should be served in such a way. These questions could never have been asked openly at court, as the person would be seen as foolish – or worse, treasonous. In this manner, the text thus allows the subjects to explore these questions and answers themselves, in privacy and security, whilst also instilling values that it wished to cultivate at court. Hirðskra’s didactic method fundamentally differs from that of Konungs skuggsjá. Despite both texts being normative in nature, Hirðskrá is primarily a legislative text and, therefore, rather than being persuasive, Hirðskrá tells men how they ought to act. However, it is still important to note that it never phrases it as forceful demand; instead, it discusses it as the expectation of one to fulfil as part of their position. The text discusses the ranks of the hirð and the duties that come with them, as well as the adoption of courtly attitudes as a secondary, lesser part of one’s role as a hirðmaðr. However, the difference is, of course, that one is not penalised for not adopting these attitudes. Despite their different methods, however, both texts seek a common goal of reforming the social attitudes of the royal hirð. In doing this, they encourage what could be called a self-imposed segregation, and isolation from non-aristocratic, non-courtly individuals, turning the royal hirð into a closed sphere, gathered around the king.

Societal Isolation of the Hirð
The ulterior motive of courtly culture has been put succinctly by Marlen Ferrer: courtly culture is ‘a manner that serves to distinguish the aristocracy from the common people’.[47] As previously mentioned, it is thus an attitude which one is socialized into and which requires a conscious effort to adopt. By separating the noble from common it creates a greater division in society, emphasising who is tied to the king, and who is not. This creates an ‘isolation’, where the courtly voluntarily segregate themselves away from the non-courtly within closed aristocratic spheres – the most desirable sphere being located around the king. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson has observed that the growing concentration of power meant that the king became increasingly isolated, and this reached its zenith in the thirteenth century.[48] Therefore, those in his inner circle had a more beneficial position as it gave them access to power through their personal influence on the king.

One way by which the aristocracy were separated from the rest of society was how they physically appeared. They were expected to dress and groom themselves in a specific way. Konungs skuggsjá describes the standard of dress which a man at the court ought to follow, and this account is so detailed that it is likely that the author himself must have been a part of Hákon’s hirð.[49] He describes the quality, cut, and colour of the clothes:

Your costume you should plan beforehand in such a way that you come fully dressed in good apparel, the smartest that you have, and wearing fine trousers and shoes. You must not come without your coat; and also wear a mantle, the best that you have … Your shirt should be cut somewhat shorter than your coat; for no man of taste can deck himself out in flax or hemp. Before you enter the royal presence be sure to have your hair and beard carefully trimmed according to the fashions of the court when you join the same.[50]

The author emphasises the use of specific colours and specific materials to create a divide between the court and the commoners. In the thirteenth century, it was illegal in Norway – as it was in most parts of Europe – for those of a lower status to wear clothes that were dyed with specific colours, or made from expensive cloth.[51] By establishing what could be called an unofficial dress-code for the Scandinavian aristocracy the divisions that already existed within this society were widened, serving to isolate the elites and promoting a closed sphere within the highest tier of society. The Norwegian court was probably following examples set within other parts of Europe, as we can see laws that possibly date back as early as under Charlemagne’s rule which dictated what the peasantry and aristocracy could wear.[52] All such laws had the same purpose: to constrain what commoners could wear, and allow the nobles’ extravagance – emphasising the divide between them.

Konungs skuggsjá does not discuss a mutual contract of loyalty between the king and his hirð. As the king is the rightful ruler of the country and all of his subjects within it, the obedience of his liegemen is implicit.[53] Consequently, the author makes the point that since all men are to serve their king, it is only natural to want to attend as closely and loyally as possible to him – for it is that which ennobles a man.[54]

Now since all the men of the realm are thus bound to the royal service, why should not every sensible man regard it a greater advantage to be in the king’s full protection and friendship, no matter what may happen in his intercourse with other men, and to be superior to his comrades and hold them loyal to the king if they will not otherwise obey, than to be called a mere cotter who is constantly under the control of others, though he still owes nearly the same duties as otherwise?[55]

Konungs skuggsjá had an aim of enticing the liegemen of the king, and to attempt to secure a place within the hirð and in order to stay at the court. In doing so, it would allow them to increase their proximity to the king, which was essential for gaining his honours and advancing one’s self within the upper echelons of society.[56] With this the second section of the text exemplifies the division in society that it aims to create. A strong point is made on the nobleness that comes from one directly serving the king, stressing the contrast between being a hirðmaðr and what is derogatorily called a kotkarl, a cottage-dwelling peasant farmer. There is a definite emphasis on the division between the leaders of society and the peasants. The writer continues his persuasive tone here, as every man should wish to serve the king directly, and in turn be able to guide his own future through gaining the king’s friendship. However, a man who opts not to is no different from a peasant who has no control in life; he is merely controlled by those above him. Once again, the social divide between the elite and the commoners is reinforced to centralise the elites in one place: directly under the king.

The legal provisions in Hirðskrá constantly act to enforce the authority of the king over the hirðmenn. As previously stated, the text takes the loyalty of the king’s men as absolute. The last chapter of the text is a provision as to when the book should be read aloud for the benefits of the hirðmenn, as well as the penalties for those who disobey its summons:

Thus, it is also affirmed in the court of all the hirð men, and with the king’s will and advice, that every Yule the entirety of Hirðskrá will be read to the hirð men on the days that the king believes to be best suited, and he will call for them to meet … But whichever hirð man does not come to these meetings, if he is in town, he has lost his position if he has not got leave from the king, for it can be that he spends his time on what is not appropriate or useful.[57]

Jól – Yule – was a combination of Christian celebration and pagan tradition during the thirteenth century in Norway and at this point it had mostly lost the pagan elements of worship, albeit many of the old traditions remained, such as the feasting and celebration.[58] The chapter essentially states that any time the king wishes to summon his men for no reason other than to reinforce the knowledge of the codes and laws they are expected to live by, he could do so. Failure to attend resulted in loss of position. Whilst this punishment only applies to those ‘in town’ – referring to wherever the king currently resides – those not geographically close to the king would already have had to gain permission to leave him, as is outlined in chapter 34, which stipulates that any leave of absence must be authorised by the king.

This last chapter therefore functions as a further act of solidifying the king’s power over his hirð. The section essentially gives the king full authority over where his men are located during Jól, ensuring that they are kept within close proximity to him, thus restricting how far his men could effectively travel without expressed permission. The addition of it to Hirðskrá shows a reaffirmation of the hirð’s subservient role when the text was being compiled, the provision laid out in this chapter is arguably redundant. Whilst Hirðskrá specifies the king being able to gather the hirð at Jól, he already had the power to summon them whenever he wished; the act of gathering them to read from the text is merely establishing his dominance as monarch, and underlines that their purpose is to serve him.

Through an investigation of Konungs skuggsjá and Hirðskrá, and their dissemination of courtly culture towards the king’s hirð, this article has undertaken an evaluation of the didactic forms of the two texts, and sought to show that they differ in the methods applied to achieve the same ultimate goal of subordination and behavioral chance. This examination supports the claim that a voluntary social change in etiquette and attitude was engineered by an appeal to the king’s liegemen’s desire for self-advancement. Both texts take a two-part approach in this objective. Firstly, they aim to sophisticate the hirð through establishing a new social etiquette inspired by the courts of the European mainland, in order to bring more control and civility to his liegemen. A second objective was the isolation of these men by facilitating a further societal division, which would spatially centralise the aristocracy around the king, consolidating his power over his hirðmenn.

The didactic qualities of the two texts also differ from each other, but are still in the pursuit of the same outcome. Konungs skuggsjá has a persuasive approach and aims to guide its audience to change their ways voluntarily. It appeals to one’s desire for self-advancement, teaching that the adoption of courtly and virtuous behavior is what leads to promotion within the ranks. It almost never pushes, or demands any change – it merely embraces a didactic technique that aims to teach rather than demand social and behavioral improvements. Hirðskrá, however, is more direct in its didactics. It retains a suggestive form when discussing maxims of morality, but with any discussion of duty its tone changes to being firm and uncompromising. Konungs skuggsjá aims to bring a shift away from the old system of local aristocrats who opted to reside in their own lands, and primarily look after their own interests. Subsequently, the higher echelons of society began to condense into an insular sect, which can be seen even more clearly in Hirðskrá, emphasising the noble ideal of serving the king. All men had the duty to serve their king, and those who excelled in their service gained honour and prestige amongst their peers. Those who could serve yet opted not to were no better than peasants in lack of ambition and self-advancement. Hirðskrá reaffirmed and upheld the efforts of Konungs skuggsjá, maintaining its ideals and political thought but in a legislative manner. The aristocracy had now become a more homogenous, courtly group, beginning to condense under the king. This change led to the ability to place stricter rules and regulations on them, resulting in Hirðskrá’s more direct tone. It aimed to more firmly establish this isolated sphere which contained the Norwegian courtiers. Both texts, though they have fundamental differences, were employed in similar ways to ultimate work towards the same goal, proved to be invaluable tools in the process of educating and isolating the royal hirð.

Benjamin Harrison, University of Aberdeen

Benjamin Harrison is an MLitt student at the Centre for Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen. His current research investigates the relations between social, political and communicative structures in high-medieval Norway through a case study of the thirteenth century legal codex, Hirðskrá.


[1] David Brégaint, ‘Civilizing the ‘Viking’: A Pedagogy for Etiquette and Courtly Behaviour in 13th Century Norway’ in Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles (2016): 1-2.

[2] Brégaint, (2016), 2.

[3] Eyvind Fjeld Halvorsen, ‘Medieval Court Literature in Northern Europe’ in Northern Studies 3, (1974), 17.

[4] For discussions on the dating of Konungs skuggsjá, see: Sverre Bagge, The Political Thought of The King’s Mirror (Odense, 1987), especially pp. 11-13; Hirð comes from the Anglo-Saxon hîred or hîrd, meaning household, retinue, brotherhood, or company. Initially it referred to informal companions or bodyguards of the king whom had sworn allegiance to a powerful magnate. However, by the beginning of the thirteenth century in Norway, it had undergone a more formalised system of homage, where men now served as a vassal, either directly in one’s retinue by the side of the king, or elsewhere in the country, but acting as his public agent. Those who were currently residing by the king’s seat, and in current attendance to him were the foundations for what would become the Norwegian royal court. See: Steinar Imsen, ‘King Mangus and his Liegemen’s Hirdskrå: A Portrait of the Norwegian Nobility in the 1270s’ in Nobles and Nobility: Concepts, Origins, Transformations, ed. Anne J. Duggan (Suffolk, 2000), 205-220.

[5] Stefka G. Eriksen, ‘Pedagogy and Attitudes towards Knowledge in The King’s Mirror’ in Viator 45.3 (2014), 146; Bagge (1987), 220-2.

[6] The concept is usually expressed as a ‘European tradition’, a problematic labelling from two perspectives. The first is that by calling it European, it ignores the Eastern texts that conform to the genre, especially those originating from the Islamic world. Secondly, the term ‘tradition’ implies as continuous transmission of texts, and that there is a direct line of influence. However, many texts – Konungs skuggsjá especially – seemed to have been written without the direct knowledge or influence of other mirror texts. For further discussion on the debate of the problematic genre group of ‘mirrors for princes’, as well as Konungs skuggsjá’s relation to it, see: Einar Már Jónsson, ‘Les “miroirs aux princes” sont-ils un genre littéraire?”, Médiévales 51 (Autumn 2006), 153-166.

[7] David Brégaint, ‘Conquering Minds: Konungs skuggsiá and the Annexation of Iceland in the Thirteenth Century’ in Scandinavian Studies 84.4 (2012), 446.

[8] Steinar Imsen, (2000), 205.

[9] The riddarasögur will not be discussed in further detail as they lack the direct didactic approach that the two discussed texts use. Instead, they aim to teach through inspiration and allegory, rather than a direct method. See: Carolyne Larrington, ‘Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot?’ in Scandinavian Studies 87.1 (2015), 74-94.

[10] Sverre Bagge, ‘The Structure of the Political Factions in the Internal Struggles of the Scandinavian Countries During the High Middle Ages’ in Scandinavian Journal of History 24.3-4 (1999), 307.

[11] Bagge (2010), 235-6.

[12] Hákonar saga Hákonarson, 248, ch. 255, 3-15. ‘Lofaðr sé Guð, at ek hefi þat örendi full-gört í dag, sem ek hefir umboð til af hendi heilagrar Róma-borgar, ok herra Pávans, ok allra kardinála; ok nú er konungr yðarr kórónaðr, ok fullkomliga sæmðr, svá ar eingi mun slíka sæmð fengit hafa fyrr í Noregi. Mér var sagt, at ek munda, hér fá menn sjá; en þó at ek sæja nökkura, þá mundu þeir vera likari í sínni atferð dýrum en mönnum; en nú sé ek hér ótaligan fjölða af þessa lands fólki; ok sýnisk mér með góðum atferðum.’ Trans. Dascent, 258.

[13] Steinar Imsen, ‘Introduction’ in The Norwegian Domination and the Norse World, c. 1140 – c. 1400, ed. Steinar Imsen (Trondheim, 2010), 20.

[14] Sverre Bagge, From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway c. 900-1350 (Copenhagen, 2010), 164.

[15] Ian Peter Grohse, ‘The Royal Origins of Norwegian Commercial Diplomacy: King Hákon IV Hákonarson and the Council of Lübeck, 1247-1250’ in Diplomacia y comercio en la Europa Atlántica medieval, eds. Jesús Telechea, et al. (Logroño, 2015), 69.

[16] Stefka G. Eriksen, ‘Popular Culture and Royal Propaganda in Norway and Iceland in the 13th Century’ in Collegium Medievale 20 (2007), 99-100.

[17] Brégaint (2016), 2.

[18] Brégaint (2014), 192.

[19] Lawrence Marcellus Larson, ‘The Household of the Norwegian Kings in the Thirteenth Century’ in The American Historical Review 13.3 (1908), 473.

[20] Sturla Þórðarson, The Saga of Hacon, ch. 71, pp. 65, 13.

[21] Ibid., ch. 157, 145, 3-20.

[22] David Brégaint, Vox Regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway, PhD thesis (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2014), 183.

[23] Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, ‘Kings, Earls and Chieftains. Rulers of Norway, Orkney and Iceland c. 900-1300’ in The Northern World. Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages: Scandinavia, Iceland, Orkney and the Faroes, eds. Gro Steinsland, et al. (Leiden: Boston, 2011), 69-70.

[24] Brégaint (2014), 181.

[25] For a further discussion of historical insubordination within the royal hirð, see: Brégaint, 2014 and Brégaint, 2016.

[26] Brégaint (2016), 2-3.

[27] Marlen Ferrer, ‘State Formation and Courtly Culture in the Scandinavian Kingdoms in the High Middle Ages’ in Scandinavian Journal of History 37.1 (2012), 1.

[28] Ibid., 2.

[29] Brégaint (2016), 7.

[30] Konungs skuggsjá, Kgs, p. 2, ch. 1, 36.

[31] Ibid., p. 2, ch. 1, 33-36.

[32] Ibid., p. 81, ch. 37, 3-12, ‘… þá ger þik aldrigi drukkin, þvíat iðuliga má svá at berask, at þú sér þá kallaðr til mála manna ok til yfirsjónar, eða elligar þurfir þú um þín vandamál at væla; ok ef slíkir hlutir kunnu manni meðan til handa at bera, er hann er drukkinn, þá er han till enskis fœrr; ok hœfir fyrir því hverjum manni við ofdrykkju at sjá, allra helzt konungsmönnum, ok þeim er siðarmenn vilja heita, þvíat þeir verða optast til kallaðir yfir mál manna at sjá eða til annarra auðsynja; enda skulu þeir hverjum manni góð dœmi gera, ef nökkurr vildi eptir þeirra siðum nema at lifa.’; Trans. Larson, 1917, ch. 37, 74-83.

[33] Brégaint (2014), 192.

[34] Brégaint (2016), 4-5.

[35] Hirðskrá, p. 110, ch. 28, 1-19, ‘Uarazt oc æinkanlega sem fræmmazt gefr guð þeer skilning. Oc maatt til með ollu kostgiæve þinu þau siau hafuðlyti sem root oc grunðvollr er allra onda luta. En þau græina sua vittrir mænn oc sannsynir at þat er first ofnæylzla matar oc dryckiar … þat nest at þu græter þin fra ofðryckiu þui at af hænni tapar margr hæilsunni bæðe oc vitinu fe oc felogum oc þui siðazt sem mæst er at salen er tynð þar sem ðrukkinn maðr ma æigi sialfs sins giæta oc æigi suðs ne goðra manna.’; Trans. Berge, p. 50; Unlike the other sources I have made use of, a version of Hirðskrá in standardised Old Norse form does not exist, therefore it is reproduced here in its original form.

[36] Brégaint (2014), 182.

[37] Joachim Bumke, Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middles Ages (Woodstock, 2000) p. 181.

[38] Ibid., 180-3.

[39] Brégaint (2016), 10.

[40] Ibid., 11.

[41] Konungs skuggsjá, 62, ch. 28, 12-14.

[42] Ibid., 69, ch. 32, 28-34, ‘En ef svá kann til at verða, at konungr mælir til þín nökkur orð, þau er þú nemir, eigi, ok þarftu annat sinni eptir at frétta, þá skajt þú hvárki segja ‘há’ né ‘hvat’, heldr skalt þú ekki meira um hafa, en kveða svá at orði: ‘Herra min! Látit yðr eigi fyrur þykkja, at ek spyrja, hvat þér mæltut til mín, þvíat ek nam eigi görla.’ Ok lát þik þó sem fæstum sinnum þat henda, at kongungr þurfi optar en eum sinn orð at herma fyrir þér, áðr en þú nemir.’; Trans. Larson (1917), ch. 32, 29-35.

[43] Caroline Larrington (2015), 77.

[44] Bagge (1987), 182.

[45] Ibid., 182-3.

[46] Hirðskrá, 114, ch. 29, 5-13, ‘En þat er upphaf allra goðra siða at ælska guð vm fram alla luti oc vera alðrigi vttan hans ræzlo oc astar i ollum þinum atfærðum huart sem þu ert i otta eða glæiði … Ef þu komær til konongs þionustu þa ælska hann nest guði vmfram aðra men þui at af honum ma þer stranða allr fagnaðr ef þu þionar retlega rettom kononge.’; Trans. Berge (1968), 55.

[47] Ferrer, State Formation (2012), 1.

[48] Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300, (Ithaca, 2017), 123.

[49] Bagge (1987), 220.

[50] Konungs skuggsjá, 67, ch. 30, 3-13, ‘En klæðabúnaði þínum skaltu áðr hafa svá háttat, at þú sér klæddr öllum góðum gangvera, þeim sem þú heifr vildastan til, ver hosaðr ok skúaðr; eigi skaltu ok kyrtilslauss vera; þvílíka yfirhöfn ok, sem þú hefir vildasta til … Ætla jafnan góðum mun styttri skyrtu þína en kyrtil, þvíat engi maðr hœfeskr má sik prúðan fá gört af hör eða hampi. Skegg þitt ok hár skaltu láta virðuliga göra, aðr en þú gengr, fyrir konung, eptir þeim siðum er þá eru í hirð, er þú leitar til hirðar.’; Trans. Larsen, 1917, ch. 30, 41-53.

[51] Bumke (2000), 128-132.

[52] Ibid., 128.

[53] Eriksen (2007), 101.

[54] Bagge (1987) 180.

[55] Konungs skuggsjá, 62, ch. 28, 12-18, ‘Nú með því at allir menn eru skyldir með konung til þjónostu, þeir sem í eru ríki hans, hví mun þá eigi hverjum vitrum manni þykkja mikill munr undir því vera, at hann sé í fullu Konungs trausti ok hans vináttu, hvat sem til handa kann at berask við aðra men um viðrskipti, ok vera yfirmaðr fóstbrœðra sinn aok stjórna til hlýðni við konung sinn, ef þeir vilja eigi áðr hlýðmir vera, heldr en heita kotkarl ok vera æ undir annars stjórn, ok þá náliga skyldr sem áðr.’; Trans. Larsen, 1917, ch. 28, 31-37.

[56] Brégant (2014), 197-9.

[57] Hirðskrá, 179, ch. 54, 1-11, ‘Sua er oc staðfastlega tekit innan hirðar af ollum hanðgengnum monnum með konongs forsio oc raðe at i huerium jolom skal alla hirðskra upp lesa ollum hanðgengnom monnum þa ðagha sem kononge þickir til fallet oc hann lætr hanðgengnom monnum til blasa … En huer hanðgengin maðr sem ei kømr til þessa tals oc er hann innan bøar þa hever han firigort þionostu sinni nema hann have konongs orlof til þui at værða kann at hann nyti æinar hueriar stunðir til þes sem eigi se viðrkømølegre ne nytsamlegre en til þessa.’; Translation my own. The sole English translation for the text only covers chapters 1-37, hence the use of my own translation here.

[58] Alexander Murray, ‘Medieval Christmas’ in History Today 36.12 (1986), 32.