Fake News and the Agency of Women in Viking Age Iceland

[A note on pronunciation of Old Norse: ‘ð’ and ‘Þ’ are both pronounced ‘th’; ’æ’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’; ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘y’.]

We live in an era of ‘fake news.’  Fraudulent Facebook accounts and alternative facts have shined a new spotlight on the importance of equal and uncompromised access to the truth. Are biased information sources purely a modern symptom of today’s politics and the unregulated wilderness of the internet? The women of Viking Age Iceland might beg to differ. At times, disinformation and false reporting were utilized to devastating effect in the sagas recorded by medieval Icelandic authors. Even within this temporally distant and culturally distinct context, we can examine how fake news was wielded against medieval women in explicit efforts to undermine their agency.

In 1000 CE, on a small, glaciated island almost a thousand miles from mainland Europe, news meant oral testimony carried on horseback from homestead to homestead, or ferried across storm-tossed oceans on the tongues of travelers. In a world of slow, oral news, far removed from the infrastructure of modern media, we can revisit basic questions about the dissemination of information we moderns might take for granted. What was newsworthy? Where did news come from? Who was responsible for its circulation? How was information verified, and who was able to access it? All of these questions are difficult for scholars of the Viking Age to answer; written sources of the period are few, and those that do exist don’t privilege oral news. In other words, no letters, newspapers, or notice-boards tell us how information was presented in 11th-century Iceland. 

With limited contemporaneous textual records of Viking Age Iceland, we have to turn to alternative sources to piece together answers to these questions. What we know about the lives of Viking migrants and Icelandic settlers around the turn of the first millennium comes primarily from archaeological sources, genealogical records, and the later Icelandic sagas. The sagas were written in Old Norse during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, two or three hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, by Christian clerics, or other church-taught men, in large vellum manuscripts. The sagas relay entertaining legends of Icelandic settlement and details of fiery family feuds, but they are a problematic source for a historian of the Viking Age, given the centuries-wide gap between their creation and the time being described. Whether or not the sagas can be treated as settlement-era sources, they can tell us what 12th-century Icelanders believed or hoped life was like for their ancestors, and they can reveal the attitudes and morals of their later (elite, male) authors.

As is the case for many medieval written sources in Western Europe and beyond, the sagas and other Icelandic texts of the period privilege the actions and perspectives of men. Icelandic laws, first written down in the 13th century but likely codified in an oral tradition much earlier, suggest that women had little de jure authority, though they did have the right to divorce their husbands (for, among other reasons, wearing low-cut shirts). 

Despite the fact that women had fewer rights and limited access to wealth or education, the Icelandic sagas are notable among other medieval sources for their rich depictions of outspoken and intimidating woman characters wielding de facto power within the family and sometimes in society at large. The 13th-century Laxdælasaga, or Saga of the Laxdalers, is so sensitive to the experiences of women that some scholars even suggest it may have been written by a woman. 

Whether or not it comes from a woman’s hand, Laxdælasaga revolves around a host of complex women characters. Many episodes detail the frustrations of navigating social, legal, and physical structures created by and for men. One of these obstacles is the process of obtaining information, a relatively tedious project for everyone in the medieval world, but particularly so for women living on isolated farms, where news traveled only as fast as the fastest Icelandic pony could tölt

Generally confined to the home and discouraged from travelling on their own, women probably relied on male visitors to relay news from the outside world. Middlemen controlling women’s access to information results in notable and familiar problems for which we now have modern buzzwords, such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, ‘fake news.’ 

Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is one of the protagonists of Laxdælasaga, a beautiful and intelligent farmer’s daughter who nonetheless has difficulty finding and keeping a good man. Her first marriage to Þorvaldr is brief, unhappy, and ends in divorce. Her second husband, Þord, drowns at sea. Finally, Guðrún meets the dashing saga hero Kjartan Óláfsson. They flirt in secret, defying her father’s wishes, and fall passionately in love. 

Before they marry, Kjartan tells Guðrún he wants to seek his fortune in Norway. Angry, Guðrún demands that Kjartan take her with him on the voyage.

“Guðrún said: ‘I want to go with you this summer. Then I could forgive you for arranging this trip so suddenly. After all, it isn’t Iceland I’m in love with.’ ‘It can’t happen,’ said Kjartan. ‘Your brothers are young and your father is old, and there won’t be anyone to take care of them if you leave home. So, wait for me for three winters.’” [Translated from Old Norse by the author]

Kjartan’s decision to sail to Norway alone, despite Guðrún’s request, is a catalyst for the tragic conflict that occurs later in the saga. Like all good romantic dramas, Laxdælasaga involves a love triangle. Guðrún loves Kjartan, Kjartan loves Guðrún…and so does Kjartan’s closest childhood friend, Bolli. Because of their friendship, Bolli accompanies Kjartan on the journey to Norway, but he doesn’t forget about the woman left behind.

Though Kjartan doesn’t explicitly point to Guðrún’s gender as the reason for refusing to bring her along, his dismissal of her desire to travel highlights a clear division between gendered spaces in medieval Iceland. Women tend to the home while men are left to farm, to fish, to study, to vote, and to travel abroad. Kjartan reminds Guðrún of her responsibility towards her younger brothers and elderly father, who will be left unprotected if she were to pursue her desire to travel. 

Emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as grounds for impeding her movement appears in many modern studies of the migration of women. For example, women who emigrated from the country of Georgia in the 1990s were vilified for leaving their families behind. Referring to the “feminization of migration” in Georgia, social scientists Hofmann and Buckley observe, “most respondents described it as unnatural, challenging the male role as breadwinner and female responsibilities for childcare and eldercare.” The clear delineation of gendered occupations is deployed as a barrier to women’s movement outside the home as much today as it was a thousand years ago. Confinement to the home means prohibition from male spheres of political, social, and economic exchange—more often than not, the places where news happens. 

The knowledge and experience gained from travel abroad are traditionally available only to men. In Laxdælasaga, the first thing Kjartan and his followers do when they arrive in Norway is ask other men for tíðindi, or tidings. They catch up on the gossip, such as it was in early medieval northern Norway, undoubtedly including plenty of rumors about who won what battles, the best English beaches for landing a raiding party, and who the king’s sister currently favors. Disinformation and fake news, as we’ll see later on, can be a powerful tool of political and psychological maneuvering in a world without third-party fact-checking services. As the saga continues, Kjartan cozies up to the Norwegian king and starts to make a name for himself as a competent warrior and all-around Icelandic heartthrob. 

Bolli returns early to Iceland, leaving Kjartan at the Norwegian court. He heads straight for Guðrún, armed with all the instruments of modern psychological warfare. Bolli deliberately turns Guðrún against her former lover, describing how Kjartan is enjoying his newfound fame in Norway. He insinuates that Kjartan’s heroic qualities have caught the eye of the king’s marriageable sister, and implies that Kjartan has forgotten Guðrún and their old attachment. 

Guðrún at first refuses to believe him, but Bolli enlists the help of her father and brothers, who together spin stories about Kjartan’s reprehensible behavior and undermine Guðrún’s convictions, until she begins to believe that Kjartan is not the man she thought he was; a classic example of what would today be termed gaslighting. Without any way of communicating with Kjartan, and unable to travel to Norway to ascertain the truth for herself, Guðrún is coerced into marrying Bolli instead.

When Kjartan returns to Iceland a few months later, he is distraught to discover that Guðrún is married to his best friend. News of his arrival and the truth about his stay in Norway reaches Guðrún, revealing Bolli’s deceit. She confronts her husband about his campaign of misinformation, but he demures: “Bolli declared that he had said what he knew to be the truth.” You can almost imagine the deafening shrug. Here, news is weaponized against a woman by a man armed with the facts and determined to twist ‘the truth’ to his own ends. 

Kjartan, dead on the lap of Bolli. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Resentment rages between the three characters, even as Kjartan moves on and marries another woman. After a series of escalating offenses occurs over several years, Bolli, egged on by his brothers, finally takes up a sword against his friend. Kjartan, refusing to fight, casts away his shield and allows himself to be fatally stabbed. Bolli takes the dying Kjartan in his arms and pours out his remorse at being driven to such a terrible act. Soon after, Kjartan’s sons avenge their father by killing Bolli. 

The tragic conclusion hints at an unexpected but relatively lucid Viking Age moral. A great deal of grief originates from Bolli’s decision to modify facts, and from Guðrún’s isolation from the masculine realms of movement and information exchange. If Guðrún had accompanied Kjartan on his journey as she requested, if she had been supplied with all available information or been able to verify the news she received some other way, the saga’s tragic conclusion might have been avoided. Based on the arc of this episode, it would seem the author of Laxdælasaga regards the obstruction of a woman’s movement and access to information as inappropriate and potentially perilous. Manipulation of facts and deliberate misinformation leads to two deaths and an unhappy ending for everyone involved. 

Other brief but telling episodes in medieval Icelandic literature hint at a tacit approval of the movement of women. We see Viking Age heroines throughout the western diaspora (Iceland and the British Isles) commissioning their own ships, setting out on long journeys, and striving to form their own networks of information exchange through kin and marital ties. It may be that these women are simply literary figures playing out imagined fantasies that would never have been possible for real women of the time; or, perhaps these examples reveal some awareness of the importance of the agency of women. 

In this modern era of fake news and alternative facts, we might do well to remember some of the simpler lessons of Icelandic history. Honesty, as a medieval Icelander would probably tell you, is the best policy. Obscuring the truth leads only to blood feud and bitter regret.

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