Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Church and Sacred Space in Thirteenth-Century Iceland

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Church and Sacred Space in Thirteenth-Century Iceland

Article excerpt

THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY was a dangerous time in Iceland. n 21 February 1234 a big landowning magnate in the northern region of Skagafjoror, Kalfr Guttormsson, was executed at the order of the chieftain Kolbeinn the Younger Arnorsson. This was the day before the Feast of St. Peter in the winter, and as he became aware that his enemies were upon him Kalfr said: "Nu skal i dag segjast i ping med inum helga Petri postula. Valtir verda peir oss nu pessa heims hofdingjarnir" (Sturlunga saga I: 369) [Today we shall declare ourselves to the chieftaincy of the Holy Apostle Peter. The chieftains of this world can no longer be trusted]. Although Kalfr protested his innocence against the men who came to slay him, he did admit that two men that were not present would have had legitimate cause against him. Before he and his son were killed, they both confessed their sins to a priest. Kalfr had been ordained as an acolyte, but another man who was with him, Jon Markusson, was spared, which "Naut Jon pess i pat sinn, er hann komst heill i brott, er hann var prestr" (Sturlunga saga I: 368) [was chiefly due to his being a priest].

There are at least two noteworthy ramifications of this sad episode. Firstly, there is the question of body, space, and immunity. The sacred office of Jon Markusson guaranteed him immunity that Kalfr did not enjoy, in spite of his personal piety. Secondly, the temporal aspect of the episode, the significance of Kalfr's death occurring on the eve of the mass of St. Peter, is emphasized by Kalfr himself who seems to regard it as of vital importance for his passage from this world to the afterlife. His death becomes a liminal experience, to use the terminology of Victor Turner (Turner 95-6). The presence of St. Peter at the time of his death is a fortunate occurrence as it gives Kalfr a bond with the saint that is of significance in the afterlife.

Immunities, such as the priest Jon Markusson enjoyed, can be seen as a way to construct space, define boundaries, and prohibit entries. (1) The body of the priest is defined as a sacred space that is exempt from the customary violence of pre-state Iceland. At this time, in the turbulent 1230s, physical violence against priests in Iceland was on the wane, becoming obsolete in a relatively brief time. This type of immunity was not only accorded to certain people but to certain places as well. Ideologies of the body were mirrored in the social and political uses of architectural space and landscape. For example, St. Peter was invoked again in 1255 when the young lord Porgils the Harelip (ON. skardi) Bodvarsson wanted to let his horses graze in the fields of Reykjaholt but was warned against it as "Petr postuli a toduna, ok hefir hann ekki til saka gert vid Porgils" (Sturlunga saga II:171) [the Apostle Peter owns the hay, and he has not committed any offence against Porgils]. The Church at Reykjaholt was consecrated to St. Peter and this seems to have entailed immunity for the land from any type of outside aggression.

The temporal and spatial presence of St. Peter in the harsh surroundings of thirteenth-century Iceland, and the complex and shifting circumstances in which some places and individuals managed to gain immunity against the ever-present violence in this stateless society, are an illustration of the complex ways in which time and space had a social meaning in thirteenth-century Iceland--and how the Church had succeeded in imposing a religious interpretation on these underlying frameworks of the world-view. This spatiality was socially based: the created space of social organization and production. Following the introduction of the tithe system in 1097 and the creation of an annual levy on the community of farmers, the sacred space of the Church was also the vehicle for new forms of class distinctions and the redistribution of wealth.

The structure of organized space was homologous to power relations. That the examples cited occurred in a society probably "unique in existing without any central power for centuries after Christianity had brought to the country the art of writing on parchment in the Latin alphabet" is of much significance (Gunnar Karlsson I). …

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