A few months ago I had been reading Paul Beekman Taylor’s Sharing Story: Medieval Norse-English Literary Relationships and in particular his chapter titled ‘Nordic Sacral Kingship in Beowulf’ made me begin to think about how Icelanders would have viewed the idea of sacral kingship. (Yes it has taken me a long time to create this post.)
My understanding is that the idea of sacral kingship was fairly widespread and common in the Middle Ages, and I take it that this idea was that in the words of Beekman Taylor ‘That is to say that the king’s own body is not only a body politic, but a treasure and a fertile force, and when that force fails its function, kingship fails. If the crops fail, the king has failed his office and must be removed.’* This idea makes sense for the Nordic people who were ruled by a king, such as the Norwegians or Danish, but what would the Icelanders have thought about sacral kingship? And also how is our understanding of the Norse perspective on sacral kingship skewed by the fact that most surviving documents for that period come from Iceland. For a long period of time Icelanders had no king, and in fact prided themselves on this. So the question is how does did this impact on their idea of the function of sacral kingship? By whom or what did Icelandic people think the functions of the king were fulfilled; if the crops failed or there was unrest, who was responsible for these things? And how did they order their world?
Icelandic literature is full of examples of Icelanders sailing abroad and matching wits with kings to be proved their equal and are heaped with honours, which indicates that they did not think of themselves of being less worthy than kings and perhaps indicates they didn’t feel the lack of a king. Maybe because they didn’t have a king they didn’t need to justify or explain the kings function through the idea of sacral kingship. I will definitely need to investigate at some point what the Icelandic solution was to the questions that other socities answered with sacral kingship.
*Paul Beekman Taylor, Sharing Story: Medieval Norse-English Literary Relationships (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1998), p. 54.