Nancy Marie Brown
E Burke, VT
Snorri Sturluson (1178- 1241) may be the most influential writer of the Middle Ages: His books inspired such writers as the Brothers Grimm, Longfellow, Ibsen, William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, Günter Grass, A.S. Byatt, Jane Smiley, and Neil Gaiman. His Edda, according to one translator, is “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.”
But only in the last few years have we begun to get a picture of Snorri’s own life. Since 1987, archaeologists led by Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir have been studying the farm of Reykholt in western Iceland, which Snorri took control of when he was 28 and where he was killed at age 63. Their work is summarized in a new book, Reykholt: Archaeological Investigations at a High Status Farm in Western Iceland, published by the National Museum of Iceland and Snorrastofa.
Snorri’s Reykholt was one of the largest church estates in Iceland, with an enormous income from the tithe. It encompassed extensive lands, including 30 tenant farms, along with grazing rights in the mountains and rights to collect driftwood and beached whales by the sea. Two salmon rivers cut through the estate. In the vast marshlands – nearly 50 percent of the estate was wetlands – ample grass could be cut for the livestock’s winter hay. Nor was there any shortage of turf for building house-walls or peat for firing the smithy. Some barley (for beer) was grown, but Snorri made little effort to manure his fields. He could afford to buy barley if he needed more.
To the east of Reykholt the soil became thin until it petered out altogether in wasteland under the eye of the glaciers. A main route from the north of Iceland to the assembly plains at Þingvellir ran along the edge of this wasteland, meeting a route to the sea near Reykholt. Trade was thick along both routes – one saga tells of a man who became rich peddling such things as chickens. The archaeologists found that Reykholt imported fish, seal meat, and seaweed, as well as driftwood, from the coast, and lumber, glass, ceramics, and grain from farther away. Artifacts were found from Germany, England, and France, including a gold finger-ring engraved with a Romanesque design.
The estate’s name, “Smoky Wood,” derives from two important natural resources. The hillsides to north and south of the valley were thickly wooded with scrubby birch and willow, useful for making charcoal, though the forests were in decline and wood would become scarcer by the end of the 13th century. As elsewhere in Iceland, the trees never grew tall or straight enough to use in ship-building – the wind saw to that.
“Smoky” referred to the steam from the hotspring on the property, which had long ago been plumbed. Conduits ran downhill to supply warm water for a hot-tub. Mornings, the women would use the hot water for laundry and cooking. Evenings, the men would gather and soak, sorting out the day’s troubles, telling stories, and talking politics.
Snorri’s predecessor at Reykholt, the priest Magnus, had taken over this fine estate upon his father’s death in 1185 and “gradually used up all the wealth as he began to grow older.” His agreement to turn the management over to Snorri in 1206 is recorded in the church’s inventory, a single sheet of calfskin which, though tattered and nearly unreadable, still exists; it is the oldest surviving document written in Icelandic. According to Sturlunga Saga, which was written by Snorri’s nephew, “Snorri was a very good businessman.” He restored Reykholt to prosperity and “became a great chieftain, for he was not short of money.”
Twelve years passed. Then Snorri went to Norway, where he received the title of Landed Man (equivalent to Baron) from the king. On his return to Reykholt in 1220, Snorri began a vast building project. Snorri had apparently taken notes in Norway, not just on history and mythology, but on the latest fashions in architecture.
As the archaeologists discovered, Snorri built huge timber houses with stone foundations and wooden floors and paneling. There was a great hall with a turf roof for his henchmen to sleep in, another hall for feasting and entertaining, and a little parlor for a private chat or to use as a writing studio. These rooms were connected to each other by a maze of hallways, but Snorri’s bedroom was a freestanding wooden cottage. Next to it was a two-storey house with a small ground floor and an overhanging loft like the townhouses Snorri saw in Bergen. One door opened into the feast hall, another into the parlor, and a third – perhaps a trapdoor – into the fateful cellar where Snorri would be murdered by the king of Norway’s men in 1241.
But that dark night was still some years off. Now Snorri, the richest and most powerful man in Iceland, was busy building a sauna with stone walls and floor. Steam was piped to it from the nearby hotspring via stone-and-clay conduits. Steam pipes may also have run under the floor of the parlor and feasthall, like a Roman hypocaust; the archbishop’s palace in Trondheim had a similar heating system.
Snorri enlarged the hotspring-fed bathing pool to the south of the houses. His circular, stone-lined pool was 12 feet in diameter and had a ledge to sit on. The hot water was piped 350 feet from the spring in a buried, stone-lined channel. A hidden door in the hillside opened onto a convenient tunnel that led from the pool to the basement below Snorri’s parlor or writing studio. A curved stone stairway, perhaps concealed in a wall, led up to his room.
Finally, the archaeologists found that around the whole complex Snorri built a wall of enormous stones and turf blocks topped by wooden stakes. It had drawbridges facing north and south, making Reykholt a seemingly impregnable fortress. Later events would prove its defenses were showy, but easily breached. Snorri had paid more attention to comfort and prestige than safety. As Sturlunga Saga describes him, Snorri Sturluson was “a man of many pleasures.”
Nancy Marie Brown is author of a forthcoming biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, available in October from Palgrave Macmillan.