Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Saga of Herdis, the Bishop's Wife

What is a saga? Confusingly, 140 texts written in Old Icelandic are labeled "sagas." Derived from the Icelandic verb "to say," saga implies neither fact nor falsehood. Today we place the Icelandic sagas in several genres--Family Sagas, Sagas of Ancient Times, Kings' Sagas, Contemporary Sagas (including the Bishops' Sagas), Knights' Tales, and Saints' Lives.

The best, the ones people usually mean when they say "the Icelandic sagas," are the Family Sagas. "The glory of the sagas is indisputable," they are "some sort of miracle," scholars gush. "In no other literature is there such a sense of the beauty of human conduct." Others praise the sagas' "earnest straightforward manner," their crisp dialogue and "simple, lucid sentence structure," their individualistic characters, their gift for drama, their complex structure, "the illusion of reality which they create," and their sophisticated use of "the same devices that we are accustomed to from modern suspense fiction." The Family Sagas are "a great world treasure," comparable to "Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor."

The Bishops' Sagas, on the other hand, have been dismissed by one expert as "backwards, stilted in style, and schlocky in hagiographical excess." No one gushes over the Saga of Bishop Pall. Few people, other than specialists, even read it--there's no English translation.

But that doesn't mean there aren't treasures to be found in it. The Saga of Bishop Pall is the only text to mention Margret the Adroit, the best ivory carver in all of Iceland, and the artist at the center of my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them.

Another fascinating woman introduced in this saga is Herdis, the wife of Bishop Pall. Technically, Pall should have divorced her when he became bishop of Skalholt in southern Iceland in 1195. Church reformers had preached against clerical marriage for hundreds of years. The Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 officially banned it. If previously married, upon consecration a priest must eject his wife and children from his home and take a vow of celibacy: The church should be his only bride.

Perhaps Pall tried. When he returned to Iceland from his consecration and moved into the bishop's quarters at Skalholt, he left his wife of 20 years and their four children behind at their family estate of Skard. A year later, however, Herdis and the children moved to Skalholt, and Herdis took over running the household. Whether she shared Pall's bed, we do not know; they had no more children. But foregoing her management skills was more than Pall could accept. According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, she was such a good manager that "she had been there only a few winters before there was enough of everything that was needed and nothing was lacking at the estate even if 120 people arrived, on top of the 70 or 80 in the household itself."

At the same time, Herdis continued to manage the family estate at Skard, which "stayed in good shape while she lived," says the saga, "for of all women she was the most zealous, both concerning her own work and that of other people, as experience well shows."

Skard lies between ice and fire. The roiling glacial river Thjorsa marks its western border, the foothills of the looming, cloud-shrouded volcano Hekla rise to the east. Skalholt is 15 miles away, as the raven flies; with two rivers to cross, it's not an easy horseback ride.

One day soon after Easter in 1207, the saga says, Herdis went to Skard to check on the farm there. With her went her son Ketil and daughter Halla, leaving Loft and his sister Thora at Skalholt. While she was there, the glacial river flooded. The ford across the Thjorsa became impassable.

Determined to return to Skalholt on the day arranged, Herdis hired a ferry. Ketil, then 16, and a priest named Bjorn crossed first, carrying over the riding gear and leading the horses, forcing them to swim behind the boat. One horse--Herdis's own--broke free of its rein and was swept down the river. Herdis did not respect the omen.

On the second trip, the wind gusted up. The ferry hit a shoal and flipped, spilling Herdis, her daughter Halla, and her niece Gudrun, as well as the deacon who oversaw Skard and a man named Sigfus, into the icy, turbulent water. Sigfus made it to land, exhausted. The others, while the priest and the boy watched, helpless, drowned. The women, especially, had no chance, weighed down as they were by their heavy wool gowns and cloaks, against a current strong enough to overcome a horse.

"When the news came to Bishop Pall's ears, suddenly, in the middle of the night," the saga says, "it seemed to everyone that God had nearly given him more than he could bear. He could not eat, he could not sleep, until the bodies were buried, though he tried to cheer up everyone else as much as he could."

The pathos of this description--"in the middle of the night ... he tried to cheer up everyone else"--suggests to some scholars that Loft, Pall's son, the one left at home, was the author of the saga. His brother Ketil died in 1215, about 22, but Loft lived to old age, entering a monastery late in life and dying in 1261, about 70 years old.

You can learn more about Bishop Pall and his family in Ivory Vikings. Read about it on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

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