BY Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe
Flateybok is unique among Icelandic manuscripts for many reasons—it is the biggest, it is the most beautifully decorated, and we know the most about it. Flateybok itself tells us the name of its patron, Jon Håkonsson, the names of its two scribes, Jon Tordsson and Magnus Torhallsson, the year it was started, 1387, and the year it was finished, 1394. What it does not tell us is why it was made. Jon Håkonsson was a wealthy man who liked sagas and who owned other manuscripts; perhaps he just wanted to add to his collection. But his other manuscripts are much plainer than Flateybok, and Flateybok is so unusual that some scholars, including myself, think it must have been made with a special purpose in mind—to be a gift for the king of Norway, Olav IV. Its size and decoration make it a gift fit for any king, but it would have been particularly appropriate for King Olav because he was named after Olav den Hellige, and Flateybok features the longest version of the saga about this king.
There was also a special reason to give Olav a copy of Olav’s saga. Olav IV was a boy king—only seventeen years old when Flateybok was made. His father, King Håkon Magnusson the Younger, Håkon VI, had died when Olav was ten. Håkon’s queen, the Danish princess Margrete, was ruling Norway until Olav was old enough to rule by himself. We can easily imagine that as the time approached when Olav would be king in his own right, the Icelander Jon Håkonsson—whose father had been named after Olav’s father—hoped that the young king would be a wise and good ruler and would not forget about his subjects in Iceland.
We should not be surprised that Jon Håkonsson used an indirect method to educate young Olav. Although there were books about how to be a good king, such as Konge-speilet, which King Håkon den gamle, Håkon IV, had written for his sons around 1250, it is one thing for a king to tell his sons how to rule; it is quite another thing for an Icelander to offer instruction! Instead, Jon Håkonsson conveyed his lessons to Olav through stories and pictures. Reading stories in the Middle Ages was not like reading today. As you know, some kinds of stories involve a task or job for the reader. For example, in detective stories, our task is to solve the mystery. In the Middle Ages, the task for the reader was an ethical one. Even when they were being entertained, readers were supposed to judge the characters and to act on their judgments. The task of the reader was to imitate the good behaviour and to avoid imitating the bad behaviour.
Flateybok would be a gift of stories for young king Olav, crafted especially for him. Not mere entertainment, the stories would give him the history of his land and the history of his own family. They would not only tell Olav about all the things that his famous namesake had done, explaining why Olav Haraldsson was Norway’s eternal king and a saint in heaven, they would also encourage young Olav to follow his example. If this idea is correct, that Flateybok was meant to be a gift for the king, then that would explain many things about the manuscript. It would explain why every chapter begins with an illuminated initial. The initial at the beginning of each saga and story illustrates some aspect of the plot. For example, the saga of Olav den Hellige begins with an initial showing Olav’s death at the Battle of Stiklestad; the story of Eindride the archer shows Eindride drawing his bow. The chapter about the last battle of King Olav Tryggvason has an initial of the king in his dragon ship, pointing to the text, where it says that Olav was not killed in the battle but escaped and spent the rest of his life as a hermit in the Holy Land. The initials for ordinary chapters are decorated with humorous faces or drawings of dogs or funny little two-legged monsters. These beautiful, detailed images would draw Olav in; of course he would want to look at every single page himself, and he would want to find out what the pictures were about. Why does this story have a little two-legged monster wearing a bishop’s hat? What does that chapter have a man wearing no clothes?
This idea about how Olav would approach the manuscript explains why there are so many stories in it. Flateybok not only contains the full saga of Olav den Hellige, it includes many short stories about Olav that are not found in Heimskringla. Some of the stories are found in other versions of Olav’s saga, but six are only found in Flateybok. In addition, the saga of Olav den Hellige is prefaced with a very long saga about Olav’s predecessor, Olav Tryggvason, and that saga is filled with many stories of its own.
This idea about how medieval people read stories also explains why there is so much commentary. If we compare the Flateybok version of the sagas of Olav Tryggvason and Olav den Hellige with earlier versions, we see that Flateybok includes many passages telling the reader why these two kings were so important and why their stories are so valuable to read. In case young Olav does not get the message, there is even a story about how Olav den Hellige meets a man who entertains him with stories about ancient kings of Norway and Denmark, and then Olav judges them and says which one was the most famous. The story demonstrates what young Olav is supposed to do with the stories of Flateybok.
This brings us to the question of the ethics. What behaviour is young Olav supposed to imitate? Three things are important. The first is how a king should govern his subjects. One story shows that kings should be generous with their gold, that generosity is repaid many times over, and that Olav den Hellige was more powerful than King Knut of Denmark:
One time when King Knút was in England, two beggar boys, one Danish and one Norwegian, were travelling together. They came to where the king was attending a feast, and joining the other poor folk hoping for a hand-out, they discussed whether Olav Haraldsson or King Knút was the more famous. The Norwegian boy said that Olav was; the Danish boy said that Knút was. A quarrel ensued, and it got so loud that the king heard it. He called both boys to him, inquired as to their reasons, and sent them off again. At the end of the feast each boy was given a roasted hen. They decided to part company, and the Danish boy selfishly asked to exchange hens with his companion, for the Norwegian boy’s bird looked fatter than his. The other generously agreed, and so they went their separate ways. When the Norwegian boy started eating later, he discovered that the skinny hen was full of gold pennies. The narrator concludes: ‘Now everyone can know for a fact that he received all that by the holiness of King Olav of Norway’. Even though Knut meant to reward the Danish boy, Olav saw to it that the reward went to the Norwegian.
Another story specifically addresses the question of royal generosity with respect to the Icelanders. The introduction to the story of two Icelandic warriors who become devoted to Olav den Hellige, says ‘the holy king, Olav Haraldsson, not only loved his subjects in Norway but equally those who lived in Iceland. He gave to each of his Icelandic retainers worldly honours as he thought appropriate. He gave some gifts of money; to some he gave titles.’ Evidently Jon Håkonsson hoped that this story would show young Olav that Icelanders were loyal subjects eager to serve their king and that the praiseworthy behaviour was to love them and reward them!
But Flateybok is not all about rewards. The story of Hroi the Foolish tells of a Danish trader who runs into trouble in Sweden but who is able to gain justice from the king’s court. Here the lesson for young Olav is to uphold the law, keep honest men around him, and deal firmly with wrong-doers, even if they are his own advisors. Generosity and justice even to foreigners are thus some of the behaviours that Flateybok encourages young Olav to imitate.
The second thing that is important is Christianity. Story after story tells how Olav Tryggvason and Olav den Hellige promote religion and ask that all who come to them be baptized. The Icelanders in particular leave their natural families behind and take the king of Norway as their spiritual father. These stories give many examples of kings personally teaching Christianity, and the stories show how serving the king leads to a reward in heaven as well as a reward on earth.
The third thing that is important is fighting to preserve Norway as an independent land. Iceland had come under Norwegian rule in 1264, and the Icelanders depended on the king to make sure that trading ships came every year. The last thing that they wanted was to be ruled from some far-off place such as Sweden or Denmark, where they would be forgotten like the Greenlanders. The stories in Flateybok therefore celebrate how Olav Tryggvason and Olav den Hellige repeatedly resisted Danish claims on Norway, and even when the Danish kings such as Svein and Knut bring about the deaths of the rightful Norwegian kings, their control fails and rightful Norwegian kings return.
But the story of the king’s gift does not have a happy ending. Tragically, it was a lost cause almost from the moment it was started. A later addition to the manuscript dates the part with Olav’s saga to 1387, but young king Olav died that year! He died in August, but the news did not reach Iceland until the following year, when the first ship arrived from Norway. It is heart-breaking to think how hard Jon Tordsson was working, and how high were the hopes of Jon Håkonsson, all the time not knowing that the king had died months ago. Another sad fact is that even if young Olav had lived to accept the magnificent manuscript, he would have barely been able to understand it. Up until about 1370 literate people in Norway for the most part wrote the same language that was used in Iceland, but then a rapid change occurred, partly from the influence of the spoken language and partly from the influence of Danish and Swedish. The resulting ‘Middle Norwegian’ (Mellomnorsk) was much closer to modern Norwegian than to Old Icelandic. Soon such great differences had arisen between the two languages that few Norwegians would have understood the sagas in Old Norse. What Jon Håkonsson should have done was to translate Flateybok into Norwegian, and so, many centuries later, we have.