«By Vidar Palsson A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History in the ...»
Power and Political Communication. Feasting and Gift Giving in Medieval Iceland
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
University of California, Berkeley
Committee in charge:
Professor John Lindow, Co-chair
Professor Thomas A. Brady Jr., Co-chair
Professor Maureen C. Miller
Professor Carol J. Clover
Abstract Power and Political Communication. Feasting and Gift Giving in Medieval Iceland By Vidar Palsson Doctor of Philosophy in History University of California, Berkeley Professor John Lindow, Co-chair Professor Thomas A. Brady Jr., Co-chair The present study has a double primary aim. Firstly, it seeks to analyze the sociopolitical functionality of feasting and gift giving as modes of political communication in later twelfth- and thirteenth-century Iceland, primarily but not exclusively through its secular prose narratives. Secondly, it aims to place that functionality within the larger framework of the power and politics that shape its applications and perception.
Feasts and gifts established friendships. Unlike modern friendship, its medieval namesake was anything but a free and spontaneous practice, and neither were its primary modes and media of expression. None of these elements were the casual business of just anyone.
The argumentative structure of the present study aims roughly to correspond to the preliminary and general historiographical sketch with which it opens: while duly emphasizing the contractual functions of demonstrative action, the backbone of traditional scholarship, it also highlights its framework of power, subjectivity, limitations, and ultimate ambiguity, as more recent studies have justifiably urged. It emphasizes action as discourse.
1 for Bragi (1975-1998) friend and role model i Table of Contents Acknowledgements
PART ONEFeasting and Gift Giving as Modes of Political Communication in Medieval Europe CHAPTER 1 I. Friends II. Demonstrating Bonds through Action III. Field and Framework of Social Action IV. Preliminary Note on Layout
CHAPTER 3 I. Making Friends in the Icelandic Saga II. Making Friends in the Later Icelandic Commonwealth CHAPTER 4 I. Power and Limits of Action II. Generating Status through Action
Writing this dissertation was made possible by a group of people that never failed to guide, support and encourage. It is a pleasure to name them and thank them deeply and most sincerely. To my supervisors John and Carol, and to Tom and Maureen; it was my greatest fortune to become their student. Also at Berkeley, to Chris Ocker and Geoff Koziol. To my fellow students and friends, among whom are Charity Urbanski and Mike, and Tyler Lange and Rebecca Moyle. To Andrew Wawn for countless corrections and advice. To Guðrún Nordal and all the people at Árnastofnun in Reykjavík, where I wrote the best part in wonderful company; and especially to my “neighbors” Jóhanna Katrín and Grégory Cattaneo, for their endless help and enthusiasm. To Helgi Þorláksson, Torfi Tulinius, Sigurður Pétursson, Sverrir Jakobsson, Ármann Jakobsson, Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, and Valur Ingimundarson, all at the University of Iceland. To Hafsteinn Þór Hauksson for reading the entire piece and helping me to file it. Last but not least, to my family and best friends Jónína, Hrafnkell and Þórdís, and to my parents.
I Friends Feasting and gift giving were fundamental modes of political communication in medieval Iceland. Any exploration of the political narratives that twelfth-, thirteenth-, and fourteenth-century Iceland left behind soon produces references to veizlur and gjafir, “feasts” and “gifts,” with vinir and vinátta, “friends” and “friendship,” probably lurking close by. These feasts, gifts, and friendships are echoes of a political discourse widespread in pre-modern Europe. Although they bear the unmistakable marks of the specific and the individual – as do all historically particular things by their nature -, they also speak to discursive and ideological traditions extending further back than those habitually labeled medieval, to which they are closely related. These traditions unmistakably link formal hospitality and exchange with amici and amicitiae.
The present study has a double primary aim. Firstly, it seeks to analyze the sociopolitical functionality of feasting and gift giving as modes of political communication in later twelfth- and thirteenth-century Iceland, primarily but not exclusively through its secular prose narratives. Secondly, it aims to place that functionality within the larger framework of the power and politics that shape its applications and perception. Unlike modern friendship, its medieval namesake was anything but a free and spontaneous practice, and neither were its primary modes and media of expression. None of these elements were the casual business of just anyone. The argumentative structure of the present study aims roughly to correspond to the preliminary and general historiographical 2 sketch with which it opens: while duly emphasizing the contractual functions of demonstrative action, the backbone of traditional scholarship, it also highlights its framework of power, subjectivity, limitations, and ultimate ambiguity, as more recent studies have justifiably urged. It emphasizes action as discourse.
There are two particular polarizing concepts that have served decisively to redefine
our modern notion of friendship from what it probably meant to most medieval people:
the modern state and the free market. In societies where power has been institutionalized beyond the imagination of the medieval mind, and in which modes and media of disinterested exchange of goods occupy ideological as well as real positions thoroughly alien to medieval societies, the conceptualizations of social and political ties are bound to be profoundly reshaped and transformed. To the mind brought up in a world in which the state and the market have virtually established themselves as the natural and normative base-structures of society, with their institutionalized impersonality promoted as one of their greatest virtues, friendship is primarily private in nature. But to those brought up in a world where the exercise of power was far more personal and less centralized than is the case today, there could be no clear divide between the “private” and the “public.”1 Medieval Europe knew
institutions and offices of power, but society in its totality, the polity of men, was nevertheless seen as holistically consisting of, and practically being brought into existence by, personal ties of men. It was a world in which an institutionalized public sphere, with its characteristic monopoly of force – “government” or “administration” in statist parlance –,2 had not yet exiled personal ties and friendship to the private. It was a political culture that placed the highest value on personal and social ties, which were not seen to be more private in nature than the society that they formed.3 This way of thinking appears foreign to modern minds, that commonly associate the intermingling of political authority and personal friendship with corruption.
The friendship we speak of in the political culture of post-Roman and pre-modern Europe gains meaning and context both in terms of the overall political development of the period as well as its cultural and philosophical origins. The former refers to the way in which politics was exercised and thought of in societies lacking political structures of the type or level (non-qualitatively) that we customarily describe by means of concepts of 1 An early critique of the application of modern constitutional and legal historical concepts to pre-modern political culture, such as the dichotomous “private-public” binary is Otto Brunner, Land und Herrschaft.
Grundfragen der territorialen Verfassungsgeschichte Südostdeutschlands im Mittelalter, Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Geschichtsforschung und Arkivwissenschaft in Wien 1 (Baden: Rohrer, 1939), transl. from rev. 4th ed. (Vienna et al.: Rohrer Verlag, 1959) as Land and Lordship. Structures of Governance in Medieval Austria, transl. Howard Kaminsky and James Van Horn Melton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
2 Max Weber’s classic, and ritually cited, definition of “state” was that it was a territorial monopoly of coercive force.
3 On the centrality of personal bonds and associations in early medieval political culture, see Gerd Althoff, Verwandte, Freunde und Getreue. Zum politischen Stellenwert der Gruppenbindungen im früheren Mittelalter (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990), transl. as Family, Friends and Followers. Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe, transl. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
3 statehood. The latter obliges us to recognize the Greco-Roman traditions and theoretically identifiable base-types of friendship.
The Roman legacy provided medieval Europe not only with its language of record but also a comprehensive range of philosophical and political terms and concepts.
Throughout the Middle Ages, political thought was discussed and articulated in learned circles through the use of Greco-Roman philosophical discourse.4 This became particularly pointed during the high and late Middle Ages when Platonic political discourse became more directly known, and when the reintroduction of the original works of Aristotelian political philosophy complemented Ciceronian rhetoric in the creation of an applicable language of political theory. However, the rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle was not so much a revolution in basic modes of political thought as it was a major advancement in the conceptualization and expression of these thoughts.5 Most conceptual categories of Platonic (overwhelmingly) and Aristotelian philosophy were known to late antique and early medieval intellectuals seeking to think theoretically about politics; they were broadly diffused within Greco-Roman intellectual culture and they permeated those works directly handed down to post-Roman Europe. This likewise applies to numerous concepts central and dear to Platonic and Aristotelian discourse, including the Latinized and customary term for friendship, amicitia.
Greece, Rome, and their medieval heirs knew about private friendship, a category extending beyond what we would identify as a political framework. 6 Greek culture articulated positive views on friendship based on emotional closeness, verging on homoeroticism, from modern standpoint. Generally, however, friendship was felt to be subject to reciprocity and honor, and as such invoking revenge rather than forgiveness.
Thus, it was ultimately social, as honor is by definition. This is equally true for friendship 4 The application of classical discourse to medieval political theory is well illustrated in Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), esp. 7-10 on how political thought “emerged out of theology, law, Ciceronian rhetoric and Aristotelian philosophy,” (2) and passim.
5 The profound, or even revolutionary, changes in political thought accompanying the emergence of statehood, which framed prominent debates on the relationship between secular and ecclesiastical authority, were expressed in Aristotelian discourse rather than actually driven by its reintroduction.
Aristotelian political discourse was frequently adopted by ideologically opposite camps, and can therefore hardly be seen as primary agent of change in itself, cf. Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450, 11.
The agency of the reintroduction, and thereby the transferability of theory through discourse from ancient to medieval contexts, is primarily associated with Walter Ullmann’s notion of “ascending” and “descending” political principles: see Walter Ullmann, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages, 4th ed.
(London: Methuen, 1978); Walter Ullmann, Medieval Political Thought, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), esp. 159-173.
6 On friendship in classical Greece (private, philosophical, sociopolitical), see David Constan, Friendship in the Classical World, Key Themes in Ancient History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997);
Lorraine Smith Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gabriel Herman, Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Horst Hutter, Politics as Friendship. The Origins of Classical Notions of Politics in the Theory and Practice of Friendship (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1978); cf. Hans-Joachim Gehrke, “Freundschaft. I. Sozialgeschichtlich,” Der Neue Pauly. Enzyklopädie der Antike 4, eds. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider (Stuttgart et al.: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 1998).
4 as a philosophical concept (philía/amicitia) in classic ethics, where its social and political aspects bring it manifestly beyond the modern concept of friendship. While Plato was the first to offer systematic, if largely inconclusive, analysis of friendship as a philosophical concept (Lýsis), Aristotle was the first to present a holistic theory on its nature and function (primarily Nicomachean Ethics). Although both give space to its modern private, such as relations to goodness, moral values, happiness, and personal fulfillment, it remains thoroughly framed by sociopolitical dimensions. This is particularly true of Aristotle – the more influential of the two on the subject and subsequently its standard point of departure –, who put friendship squarely within his anthropological observation of man’s natural inclination to enter social and political bonds (man as “political animal”), i.e. to forming society. For Aristotle, then, friendship not only belongs to the political sphere, it constitutes it.