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An Investigation of Advice Giving in the Íslendingasögur



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Anderson, Kimberly 


This thesis examines the advice-giving practices depicted in the Íslendingasögur (Sagas of the Icelanders), especially how they form, structure, and alter relationships. It argues that Icelandic society as depicted in these sagas benefits from advice-giving norms, which can facilitate peacekeeping, alliance and even authority.

Ascertaining a medieval Icelandic literary definition of advice allows for the systematic and rigorous identification of advice-giving incidents in the Íslendingasögur. This thesis first investigates advice lexemes through a semantic field analysis of Old Norse textual evidence. This analysis indicates that advice can be identified mostly using phrases containing ráð, although a more holistic understanding of advice necessitates considering contextual criteria as well. Informed by these findings, a database was made of advice-giving incidents in the Íslendingasögur. This approach allows for quantitative comparisons as to who gives advice, to whom and in what circumstances. Advice-giving patterns are compared to quantitative data from Sturlunga saga to help determine the existence and cessation of patterns for the role of advice in these narratives.

In Chapter I, this thesis argues that advice has an essential function in preserving the security and reputation of the family. This chapter suggests that the sagas depict an informal hierarchy of advice givers, advice giving first being the responsibility of fathers and older male kinsmen. Younger men, who do not generally advise those older, can seek to disrupt this, attempting to establish authority through protesting advice-giving practices. Women, although existing outside of this hierarchy and often being dismissed as advice givers by male characters, mostly use advice to urge safety and caution, despite the scholarly focus on women as vengeful whetters.

Whereas Chapter I investigates advice giving within the family, Chapter II explores these practices outside of it, examining non-familial advice givers, such as friends, strangers, enemies, hosts and leaders. This chapter argues that the sagas depict advice acts as a social glue, since friends commonly reenforce alliances through advice giving, even recontextualising their relationships when giving marriage advice. This chapter also suggests that the sagas depict advice as protecting communities. Where no social bond exists between giver and receiver, advice is given to benefit not the receiver but rather the wider community. Good hospitality includes a duty to advise guests. How the sagas depict advice as given by Icelandic chieftains is compared to advice from foreign kings and it is shown that only in the Icelandic system is advice giving treated as an obligatory service for leadership roles.

Informed by these findings on relationships between advice givers and receivers, this thesis then considers advice in its situational context. Advice is usually given during conflict and this is the focus of Chapter III. This chapter explores how advice is given not only to improve a combatant’s chance of success, but also to reduce violence in the community. This chapter identifies the role and the qualities of ‘lawmen’ and others with a reputation for giving good advice. However, this chapter also argues that the sagas demonstrate a preference for advice from those with close pre-existing social attachments. Advice-giving expectations first protect the family circle and then the community.

The study of advice giving is the study of relationships and roles in the Íslendingasögur, as well as aspects of social authority and obligation not previously explored in scholarship. This thesis ultimately suggests that, while on a smaller scale, advice is given to benefit a single individual, on a larger scale, advice giving in saga society mirrors the underlying structures of that society and even shapes them.





Rowe, Elizabeth


advice, family sagas, íslendingasögur, medieval icelandic literature, sagas, sagas of the icelanders


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
• The Sir Richard Raynes Foundation • The Brian Pippard Fund at Clare Hall • The Marjorie Chibnall Fund at Clare Hall • The English Faculty of the University of Cambridge • The BFWG Charitable Foundation Funds for Women Graduates • The Gilchrist Educational Trust • The Melton Mowbray Building Society