A Hagiographical Reading of Egils saga
By Philip Roughton
Proceedings of the 14th International Saga Conference Uppsala, 9th–15th August 2009
Introduction: While suggestions have been made concerning the function of certain Íslendingasögur and Íslendingaþættir as guidebooks in Christian morality, most scholars would not admit striking similarities between the Íslendingasögur and established Christian guidebooks represented by the byskupa sögur and other Church writings such as homilies, as if the rhetoric of family sagas and bishops’ lives were simply unadaptable from the one group to the character and/or function of the other. However, considering the fact that saga writing and the writing of hagiographical accounts of the lives of native Icelandic bishops took place at the same time (primarily the late-twelfth and early thirteenth centuries), and that the writers of ecclesiastical and secular literature might have been trained in the same church schools, if they were in fact not the same people, some crossover might be expected. Icelandic clerics were extremely well-trained in the art of hagiography, imitating imported literary genres and adapting them, often ingeniously, to the needs, tastes, and expectations of their native audience, as can be seen either in their outstanding translations and adaptations of Latin vitae of apostles, martyrs, and holy confessors, or in their composition of miracle books or vitae for their own native bishops: the latter stand out as exceptional representatives of the genre.
Þorláks saga byskups in elzta (the A-version of his saga, hereafter referred to as Þorláks saga), the vita of Iceland’s patron saint, Þorlákr Þórhallsson (1135–1193), is an outstanding representative of a medieval bishop’s life, reflecting a sober Augustinianism in its attention to apostolic authority, the scriptural basis for everyday living, the marked division between the realms of the worldly and the spiritual, and the fruitfulness of lectio divina, as well as a certain “humble” historicity in its descriptions of Þorlákr’s daily cares and habits. The composer of Þorláks saga structured his narrative according to the paradigmatic framework of the life of a holy confessor, thereby securing its (and its subject’s) cultural legitimacy. This framework, well known to students of hagiography, emphasizes its subject’s excellence as an imitatio Christi and his saintly virtues through stylized descriptions of particular stages or events in his life: his birth, childhood, and youth (early promise, recognition of “holiness” by wise men, encouragement or apprehension by parents); his election to the bishopric, travel to a foreign archbishopric for consecration, and return home; his daily life and teaching; miracles; challenges; death and interment; translatio; post-mortem miracles.
The combination of these particular motifs into the framework for the life of a medieval bishop can be traced back through the Vita Sancti Martini and its ultimate predecessor, the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ. The use of the motifs in the creation and confirmation of these medieval Christian heroes assures the bishops, like their model Christ, of a place in the pantheon of universal heroes: Herakles’ strangling of the vipers and later labors in distant lands are akin to Þorlákr’s youthful promise of greatness through his mastery of learning and subsequent travels abroad for study and consecration, as well as his struggles with secular authorities at home. For students of comparative literature or culture, there is in fact nothing particularly striking about any of the paradigmatic motifs in a bishop’s life in terms of their usefulness for the literary expression of an individual’s heroic character; we have seen them many times before, often in other guises. However, for the medieval Christian hagiographer and his audience, the scheme’s cohesive and repeated presence in the lives of the Church’s heroes served a specific edificatory purpose: the model, built on key moments in the life of Christ and his saints, was of vital importance in nothing less than the biographer’s and his audience’s salvation; adhesion to it imparted the keys to moral living, wisdom, and the assurance of eternal life.