Gisli's Saga: An Observation of the Scandinavian Justice System and Christianity

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  • Topic: Iceland, Scandinavia, Christianity
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  • Published : February 22, 2011
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Gisli’s Saga: An Observation of the Scandinavian Justice System and Christianity Gisli’s Saga is not only a great historical work of its time period, but it is also very well known for the psychological impact of its main character. Several shifts occurred in the ninth century that changed early Scandinavian worldviews, including the influence of Christianity and resistance to nationalism. For example, the old ways insisted that vengeance on behalf of one’s kin was expected and power was measured by the ability to gain supporters. Christian thought, however, opposed revenge, uprooting traditional codes about kinship and honor. Although attributing the end of the Viking Age to the Christianization of the Scandinavian countries is almost certainly an exaggeration, there is no doubt that it did bring radical changes to many areas. In Gisli’s Saga, Gisli’s banditry and pursuit is a classic example of the societal tensions present in Medieval Scandinavian culture’s political and justice system and even suggests the barbarism and violence led people, and entire communities, to adopt Christianity. The author of Gisli’s Saga is very assertive in his support for the new society, including Christianization and a unified national identity, but remains openly sympathetic to the old ways, as well. This same contradiction, a desire to end the vengeance system, while maintaining nostalgia for it, is played out in the lengthy pursuit of Gisli. The hunt for Gisli is drawn-out, and results in multiple senseless deaths. As years pass and many people die, the saga’s author seems to be saying that this method of resolving conflict is ineffective and immoral. “Gisli said to Eyjolf: ‘By my will, you will never earn anything more than the sixty ounces of silver you have taken on my will be disgraced for losing so many men’” (Johnston and Foote 58). Nonetheless, the author also admires Gisli, showing how craftily he avoids capture. His ingenuity, ranging from switching capes with his thrall to pretending to be a “half-wit,” makes Gisli a sort of antihero. Gisli’s outlaw life becomes a microcosm for the struggle between a unified, Christian Scandinavia and the more fluid, kinship-based societies of the past, concluding, that “no man has put up so great a defense” (Johnston and Foote 59). No central government enforced laws or regulations and crimes were customarily handled by the community or by Icelandic chieftains. Norway, however, seizing a window of opportunity during a civil war in the early 1260s, forced Iceland into a monarchical union, which was nothing more than the surrender of the freedom of self-determination and a national submission to the Norwegian crown (Derry 16). By that time, Gisli’s family had already left Norway for the still-developing Iceland. It is clear that, long before the different Scandinavian countries became officially Christian, there was already a sizeable Christian population in each; in the words of Else Roesdahl: “some people were already Christians, and most had heard of the new faith.” As far back as the time of the Roman Empire, there was frequent contact between Scandinavia and Christian areas of the Continent. All along, the sea-bound nature of the Scandinavian people meant that they were in contact with Christendom. Scandinavians were aware of the greatness of Christian-based Empires, both past and contemporary, such as the Roman and Carolingan Empires. Furthermore, as Sawyer, Sawyer and Wood point out in relation to the contact between Denmark and France, “It is dangerous to draw too hard and fast a distinction between pagan Scandinavia, or rather Denmark, and the Christian empire of the Franks” (36). There was plenty of mobility between the two societies and it is in the light of this mobility that Christianization is best considered.” Though Gisli’s story is said to have occurred around 950AD, it was passed down through oral tradition and not recorded until the early 13th century. The written...
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