Newberry 2024 Graduate Conference Abstract

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How to Change Your Viking*: A Transformative Bromance in Saxo's Gesta Danorum

The Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus devotes the largest portion of his monumental history of the Danes to the entwined narratives of two characters: his patron, Absalon, archbishop of Lund (1178-1201), and his patron's king, Valdemar I of Denmark. Saxo traces the careers of the two men from the assassination of Valdemar’s father in 1131 through the Danish civil war, Valdemar's co-regency and rise to sole monarch of Denmark, and Absalon's rise through the church, from his election and consecration first as Bishop of Roskilde (1158-1192), then Archbishop of Lund , and finally the death of Valdemar in 1182. In Saxo's narrative, the relationship between the two men is far more intimate than bishop to king: They are foster brothers, devoted lifelong friends, and each is an essential part of the other's transformative process.

My research focuses on narratives of personal transformation in Medieval Scandinavian literature, and more specifically on individuals in the process of becoming rulers. This case study affords the rare opportunity to examine the portrayal of two rulers--one monarch and one bishop--emerging in concert. Laura Ashe has written that "medieval chroniclers, hagiographers, and romancers very much want to suggest a consistency of character in their subject; and furthermore, that this is so even in cases where the narrative in question seems ultimately to rely upon the idea of transformation."1 Expanding on Ashe's observation, I argue that while Saxo indeed requires consistency of virtue and action from his twin exemplars, he effectively uses their close friendship as a means to depart from this convention, portraying growth and character development when necessary in pursuit of his literary and political goals.

1Laura Ashe, 'Mutatio dexteræ Excelsi: Narratives of Transformation after the Conquest', The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 110.2 (2011), 141-172.

  • I realize that, among other things, the 12th century context pushes the limits of who we can reasonably call "vikings." On the other hand, Absalon and Valdemar's favorite brotherly pastime seems to be strapping on their swords, hopping into a boat at the head of a fleet, sailing down-river and wreaking havoc on the Slavs. I can't think of anything more "viking" than that. Well... other than the fact that Saxo himself refers to Absalon as pirata--which Zeeberg notes is usually rendered in Danish as "viking."