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2. Christian Biography

Margaret Cormack

Subject Literature » Medieval Literature

Place Northern Europe » Scandinavia

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631235026.2004.00005.x


The traditional division of sagas by subject matter (kings' sagas, family sagas, sagas of ancient times, etc.) distinguished between sagas about Scandinavian royalty, Icelandic bishops and continental saints. Since the nineteenth century, the former have been published and discussed in groupings appropriate to the status of the protagonist, as sagas of ‘kings’ and ‘bishops’ respectively. Sagas dealing with the saints of the Catholic church were treated separately as ‘sagas about holy people’ (heilagra manna sögur). These categories corresponded roughly to contemporary judgements as to the historicity of the subject matter. Heilagra manna sögur , whose heroes and settings were generally far from Scandinavia, had scholarly value primarily as linguistic and literary artefacts; sagas about Scandinavian kings or Icelandic bishops (several of whom were also saints) were native compositions which were thought to preserve historical information. If we look at the distribution of these materials in medieval manuscripts, however, the lines become blurred. While certain manuscripts are devoted to the kings of Norway and Denmark, these ‘national histories’ included (and sometimes centred on kings who were also saints, such as Óláfr Haraldsson and Knútr Sveinsson. It is also possible to find the sagas of St Óláfr and St Jón Ǫgmundarson (bishop of Hólar) in a manuscript containing sagas about ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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