The Use of Sagas as Histiographical Sources

  By Aelfgifu, 25 September 2007; Revised
  Category: Medieval Europe
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In the eighth century, a people from the north appeared in Western Europe. As traders at first, but soon with less friendly intent. These raiders from the north have always been of considerable interest to historians. Much research has been done, and questions, such as why these Vikings went raiding and settling in Europe, where they came from, and how their world worked, have been answered, revised and re-answered. But for those scholars dealing with Early Medieval Scandinavia, there is a barrier. Where there are plenty of sources describing how it was to be on the receiving end of the Scandinavians’ European enterprise from countries like England, Francia and Ireland, the Early Medieval Scandinavians themselves seem to have written little to none about their side of the story. Only much later did the writing of history commence in Scandinavia. And even with the sources we have a problem remains. Many Scandinavian sources on the early Middle Ages are vague, or biased, and almost everything was written many centuries after the events.

Take the work of Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish clerk who lived around 1200 and wrote a book called Gesta Danorum, The Deeds of the Danes. Not only was he relating events that had happened about 300 years before his time, he was also heavily influenced by the politics of his own day and his work shows an extravagant patriotism in his attempts to prove the superiority of his own people. He tried to give the Danes a royal line which went back in an uninterrupted line until prehistory, and when sources or reality failed hem he did not hesitate to fill in the gaps himself with whatever material came to hand. [Smyth, 3] It does not need explaining that Saxo’s work is somewhat less than reliable as a source for those historians trying to find out what did happen in Scandinavia in the age before writing started. Given the lack of any reliable material for the age, we cannot simply disregard Saxo; after all, some of it could well be true. To simply dismiss his Gesta would be to put too little faith in him, but, whatever a historian’s aim, he must always take these Gesta with a grain of salt.


Runic Inscriptions

To say that the Scandinavians left us little to nothing at all is perhaps a bit too harsh. The Scandinavian people did write, just not too much on paper. They even developed their own alphabet, the runes. Runic inscriptions in stone and other material are found all over Scandinavia, the earliest dating as far back as the third century A.D. The most famous ones are the dedications on big memorial stones, the majority of which can be found in Sweden, but marks of property on tools are also common. There are even cases of graffiti: a stone lion which once stood in the port of Athens, but is now in Venice, has a runic inscription on its side, which unfortunately is too eroded to read. And on the floor of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, runes can still be seen, including names such as Halfdan and Ari. But perhaps the most fascinating runic find comes from Bergen, in Norway. Excavations there revealed a treasure trove of wooden sticks with runes on them, many of them carrying basic and domestic messages. This might sound boring, after all, finding an amzing piece of art is more spectacular, but for the research of history, it is of enormous significance. Not only does it give insight into the daily lives of the people who lived there, but it does also prove that runes were probably used on a daily basis by common people, and that literacy was by no means as limited as previously assumed. [Garrisson, 82-85]

A lot of inscriptions, both on stone and wood, must be lost to us, but what we still have can give us valuable information on language, kinship, settlement, communications, travel and even the spread of Christianity, for a large portion of the stones is Christian. [Sawyer and Sawyer, 11].


Scaldic Poetry

Another way the Scandinavians preserved historical events is in poetry. A certain type of poetry, called scaldic poetry, was very popular in Medieval Scandinavia. It is a gramatically very complicated type of poetry, often a kind of puzzle. It's subject is most often praise for kings and leaders, but other subjects include the poets own art, the beauty of women and the hardships of travel. [Foote and Wilson, 331] Scaldic poems are seldom anonymous, and most of the time it is possible to estabish who wrote the poem, and when and for what occasion it was constructed. Still, the historical value of the poems is a bit limited. The poems are often obscure because of their complexity and word-use, and their precise meaning is often far from certain. Not only the nature of the poems is making them difficult to follow. Their obscurity is also partly explicable by the way they were written down and copied. The poems are generally believed to have been composed orally, to be recited, and not to be read in written form. They were written down later, by people who sometimes did not completely understand the poems either, and in some cases the original order of different verses within a poem was lost, making them even harder to understand.  

Another reason why the poems might be less than reliable for historiographical purpose is their subject matter. After all, a lot of the poems were made to flatter kings and powerful men, and poems of praise do not inspire sober judgement. [Sawyer, 35] Still, poems can be good sources on some subjects. The morals and values of the people of the age can be seen in the kind of praise heaped on rulers, and information about subjects as ships, ways of travel, ideas of love and deeds considered heroic can also be found in poetry. And famous thirteenth-century Icelandic politician, writer and poet Snorri Sturluson might have had a point, when in his foreword to the historical work called Heimskringla he stated that scaldic verse was a very good source on kings and heroes because: 'It is [to be sure] the habit of poets to give highest praise to those princes in whose presence they are; but no one would have dared to tell them to their faces about deeds which all who listened, as well as the prince himself, knew were only falsehoods and fabrications. That would have been mockery, still not praise.' [Heimskringla, 4]



The sources however that speaks most to the imagination, and the sources this essay is concerned with, are the sagas. The word saga itself means no more than ‘prose story’, but in to historians, the word is used to indicate the Old Norse stories from the Middle Ages. There are different forms of sagas. Most of them were written in Iceland, some in Norway. The oldest of them date back to about 1150, but the golden age of sagawriting was between 1190 and 1230, and they continued being written until the 1400's and even after. They can be divided into a number of groups, according to subject matter. The oldest sagas are stories which date back to before the colonisation of Iceland. These are heroic sagas, heroes’ stories. They are often based on historical persons, but the stories themselves are fantasy. These are called Fornaldar sagas. A second group consists of family histories from the age when Iceland was first settled. They continue until ca. 1340 and are generally called Islendinga sagas. A sub-group of these, dealing with the Icelandic politics of the thirteenth century, is called the Sturlunga sagas, after the leading family and their saga. A third group are the Konung sagas which deal with the stories of kings. A last group, one that was put into writing at a very early date, are the Bishops’ sagas.

By far the majority of all material written in Old-Norse comes from Iceland.  Writing started in Iceland in the early twelfth century, with the writing of  the first work in the vernacular, the Íslendingabók, relating the story of the settlement of Iceland in a chronological order. This was written by the Icelander Ari Þorgilson hinn froði (the Wise) between c. 1122-33. He relates in his preface that the book was read and revised by two bishops and a learned chieftain. This means that the book represents the official view on the settlement as held by Iceland’s ruling elite. In spite of being an adapted ‘official’ version of Icelandic history, Ari was very conscientious about naming his sources. As expected for the first written work of a country, all of his sources were oral, stories heard from old people. This does however not mean Ari’s book relates the actual way the settlement took place, nor that it contains stories made up later. It is esentially the story of the settlement as remembered by the common memory of the people.

The next book to be written was the Landnámabók, probably soon after Íslendingabók. Where Íslendingsbók relates the settlement of Iceland in a chronological way, Landnámabók does so in geographical order. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 1-2] This book contains many stories which focus on explaining how Icelandic place-names came into existence. Most of these stories are probably not true. The books claim most place names by supposing they were named after the first person to settle there, or events that took place at a certain spot, but most names can more easily be explained by translating them as geographical descriptions than personal names. The name Kambsnes for instance is described as the place where Auðr the Deep-minded lost her comb (Combs point). In fact, the name can be translated as ‘the promontory with the sharp crest or cliff’. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 5]


Oral Culture

Oral transmission of stories does not happen in the same way as transmission of written text. As a story is memorized and passed on, it is changed. This does not necessarily have to be a problem for the conservation of the story though. Although the details may differ from one telling to another, the core of the story remains. One could say that in an oral culture, it is the contents of a story that is passed on, rather than its shape or outward form. When dealing with texts that have come from an oral tradition before having been written down there are a few basic principles one has to take into account. First, there is no sense in referring to the ‘original text’. Instead, there is either one version of the text, for instance a written version, or there is the whole concept of the story, the sum of all versions, in which only the essence of the story is of importance. Secondly, only of a single individual version can a date be ascribed. The concept of the story as a whole cannot be dated, as there is no fixed reference. On the other hand, the concept can be ascribed to a certain period, or sphere of influence. Third, in an oral tradition, similarities between different stories can not be used as proof there was an influence of one on the other. As neither can be dated and both stories are the result of the same tradition, it is only likely that there will be similarities between the stories, but this does not mean the similarities have significance. On the other hand, it is possible for the tradition as a whole to be influenced, and this can show in its products. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 75-76]

Stories in an oral tradition are often in verse rather than prose, as verse is easier to memorize. The sagas however, even the ones that seem to be the oldest, are in prose. At the same time, there are remarkably few long poems in the Norse tradition. There are the poems in the Edda, but these are all very short in comparison with the long poems that can be found in other Germanic cultures, like the Anglo-Saxon poems Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon. One possible explanation of this is that the Fornaldar sagas were once poems which were converted to prose when that became the preferable style in the Scandinavian lands. Both the poems of the Edda and many of the sagas presuppose knowledge of unknown parts of known stories or to other legends which have not been passed on to the present day. This means the amount of stories and legends must have been much bigger in the oral culture of Scandinavia than in the written age. It is likely that there were many versions of certain stories, some longer and some shorter, and what remains to us today is the personal selection of the one who wrote them down. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 81]

Oral and written culture must have flourished side by side for quite some time, and it stands to reason that the genres must have had some influence on one another. Many of the stories told in the sagas, particularly the Fornaldar sagas and the Islendinga sagas pre-date the beginning of written culture in Iceland, so many of the sagas must have originated in oral form. Nevertheless, the products we know today are undeniably part of written culture. A writer or scribe made a decision about where to begin the tale, where to end it, about what to include in it and what to leave out. [Ólason, 20]


Written Culture

At the beginning of the twelfth century the first indigenous historiographical works started to appear. Amongst the first subjects were the lives of Norwegian kings, the most important of which were Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldson the Saint. The Agrip af Noregskonungasögum, a summary of the histories of the kings of Norway, was one of the first works of this kind. The Agrip is thought to have been made in Norway itself, but the Icelanders soon took over the leading place in the production of these biographical works. In the middle of the twelfth century a history of the beginnings of the Norwegian civil war was written in Iceland, called Hryggjarstykki (Backbone piece). In the 1180 the story of king Sverrir Sigurdarson was written in the vernacular by an abbot of Þingeyrar monastery on Iceland, and between 1190-1200 two monks at that same monastery wrote two sagas on Olaf Tryggvason in Latin. [Ólason, 48] Also in the twelfth century, the first large chronicles were written, which dealt not just with the life of one king or bishop, but related about a whole royal line, such as the Skjoldunga saga. This saga deals with the kings of Denmark beginning with the dynasty the Beowulf poem tells of, and it provides a genealogy for the Royal family leading back to Troy. [Ólason, 50] That the writing of history and historiography was quite popular in Iceland, can be seen by the early appearance of  works  which combined continental and English sources into world histories. The Veraldarsaga, the ‘History of the World’, is such a collection, based in part on the Ecclesiastical History of  Bede. Another translation of world history was the Romverja saga, a history of the ancient world based mainly on the works of Sallust and Lucan. There were also many translations of religious works. In fact, so much religious manuscripts were produced that it is unimaginable that these works did not reach the common people as well as the upper classes and intelligentsia. [Ólason, 47]

In the thirteenth century, two of Iceland’s earliest bishops were canonised, and their lives and miracles were described in fairly standard Latin hagiographical works, which were translated. A more political and secular account of early Christianity is the Hungrvaka (Appetite Wetter), which is a chronicle about the bishops of Skalholt. In this century, more works on the Norwegian kings were written, such as the Morkinskinna (Ugly Parchment) and the Fagrskinna, (Beautiful Parchment) the Lifssaga Olafs Helga (Saga of the Life of St. Olaf), of which only fragments survive, and last but not least the Heimskringla, Snorri Sturlussons masterpiece. But the interest of the writers widened too. A saga was written about the Jarls of the Orkneys (Orkneyinga saga). A saga about the Jomsvikings (Jomsvikinga saga) should be considered as entertainment rather than a historiographic work. The Færeyinga saga is about the people inhabiting the Faeroe Islands, and the Grænlendingasaga and Eiriks saga rauða, describe the explorations west, the settlement of Greenland and the discovery of Vinland (Newfoundland). [Ólason, 51-52] Around the same time, the translating of foreign medieval literature also started, and the Tristrams saga, Karlamagnus saga and Alexanders saga (of the Alexandreis) were made. [Ólason, 60]

The oldest written Fornaldar sagas date from the early fourteenth century, and so are much later than the more historically inclined sagas listed above. Nevertheless, the genre itself must have been much older: fairytales and folktales of heroes, which is what many of the Fornaldar sagas are, are in general much older than descriptions of contemporary kings.

The majority of Scandinavian manuscripts known to us date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which were the centuries in which most copying and manuscript producing was done in Iceland. But not all sagas survive in manuscript form. Some sagas only survive in printed versions. Some we know are lost, for we still have their titles, or references to their existence in other stories. Without doubt, there are also many manuscripts and stories lost without leaving a trace.

Because even the earliest manuscripts date from a relatively late period, it is not possible to speak of an ‘original version’ of any saga. In the Middle Ages, copyright did not exist, nor any sort of artist’s rights, and anyone who was interested in a certain story could have his own copy made, including or excluding whatever he wished and altering whatever he felt like. If several different versions of a story were available, the writer or his employer could choose the one he liked best, or try and incorporate the different versions into a new one. A scribe doing the copying would often clearly show which older versions he based his own product on, as originality was in itself not a valued feature, and older authorities were considered to be respectable. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 109-114]

There are a number of sagas of which only a few copies survive, and which come in as many versions as there are manuscripts. But there are also sagas of which we have many copies, and many of which do not differentiate much between them. These copies were not reworked or recomposed, but copied truthfully. This means that these sagas had found a definitive form, with a public consensus of what belonged in the story, and what not. For Egils saga, for instance, this can be seen to have happened before the middle of the 13th century, for Njals saga and Laxdœla saga it occurred at the end of the thirteenth century. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 126]


Writers of Stories and Histories

In the discussion about the reliability of the sagas as historical sources, two questions are of main importance. By who were the sagas written down, and what were the writers’ intentions by doing so? These questions differ from one saga to the next, and from one writer to the next. When we look at the writers whose names and even some personal history is known, it becomes clear that in the Icelandic society, history was closely connected to law. All the saga-writers we know by name were also law-speakers. From descriptions we know that in Iceland the stufy of law included the learning of history. Law-speakers were supposed to know the whole law by heart, and they were supposed to know the history that came with the laws. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 96-97]

Not only history and law were closely connected; a similar connection can be seen between being an historian and being a storyteller. That being the one or the other was in fact the same thing becomes clear from an episode in a short story called Sturlu Þattr. Sturla Þórðarson, poet, politician and one of the greatest writers and historians of Iceland, finds himself on the mercy of the Norwegian king. The king is disinclined to show him goodwill at first, but Sturla manages to save himself by telling a then well known but now lost story to his Royal audience better and more entertainingly than anyone had ever before him. This so impressed the king that he befriends the poet and gives him a powerful position. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 102] We can conclude that the writers of the sagas were often important men, who were politically involved. We can also conclude that in the Old-Norse literature, story and history were closely connected.


The Function of Sagas in Society

One pressing question on sagas is what their writers’ intention was by writing them down. Were they meant as historical works, as literary entertainment, or did they have another purpose altogether. It is clear that some works are more historical than others, and that some were meant to be more serious than others. The Fagrskinna for example seems to be the first work written with a truly hagiographical aim. The writer based himself on older written versions of lives of Norwegian kings, but he stripped them of much that was mystical, miraculous or irrelevant, preferring to mainly include facts about deaths of kings and battles in which they died. Sagas like the Jomsvikinga saga on the other hand seem to have been of  a far less serious nature. But some, like the Islendinga sagas, are hard to define. They seem to be both literary and historical. There are stories about true events, such as the migration to Iceland and Christianisation, but also ghost stories about people come back to haunt the world. There are descriptive elements which can be compared to histories and chronicles, and character descriptions and moral lessons more closely associated with heroic poetry and folk tale. They are in prose like folk tales, and their heroes are often of common descent like in folk tales, whereas heroic tales are mostly in verse, and their heroes are invariably of royal lineage. On the other hand, the Icelandic heroes are larger than life, like heroes in heroic poetry. [Ólason, 229-230] The many similarities in style between the literary sagas and the ‘historical’ ones show that to contemporary writers there was no clear distinction between the two. [Ólason, 60] And sometimes, the distinction was lost on the audience, as some sagas were clearly not historical at all, but were sometimes still perceived to be so by twelfth and thirteenth century audiences. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 106]

The term used for saga writing is ‘setja saman’, which means ‘to put together’ rather than ‘to compose’. The saga writers took historical persons and events as a basis for their sagas, and filled out the bare facts with story fabric. The saga writers did not invent their stories, but they did extend them and polish them into a smoothly running narrative, so in this respect the sagas must be considered literature. [Ólason, 20]

Apart form the question whether the sagas were meant as historical works or not, there are also questions of what message they were meant to convey. Some literary historians have tried to give them a moral meaning. But a moral lesson can only be discovered under some very severe scrutiny, and even then it is of a dubious nature. Medieval writers in general made it quite clear what the meaning of their work was, and to add a morality in such a way as to make one doubt what it is, is not very productive. [Ólason, 224] Another argument is that the sagas are a form of political propaganda. After all, many of the sagas, like Laxdœla saga and Egills saga were written in the thirteenth century, politically tumultuous times, by men who often played a not insignificant part in these politics. It would be hard to believe there is no political agenda behind them. There are also those who argue the sagas have a purely literary purpose, and that they are politically ‘objective’ in essence. [Bagge, 201] This is supported by the fact that many sagas, in particular the ‘older’ ones, tend to be rather neutral, not making a very strong judgenemt on the persons in it, weather positive or negative. [Clover, 64]

The perhaps most interesting possible purpose of the sagas can be seen in the light of the moral values of the time: in a society where a man’s greatness and importance is judged by his actions and achievements, there is an understandable need for the recording of the deeds of great men so everyone can hear about them after they have died. In this respect, chronology is of minor importance. It does not matter whether the events were recent or not, as the rules of society have not changed. The stories both served as an example of how to achieve greatness, and as an incentive to become great: after all, what would be the use of doing great deeds, if no-one remembers them. In this theory, the sagas function is not ‘the reporting of history’ but being ‘the judgement of history’. This would be an argument for their political ‘objectivity’: they record cowardice and bravery of all, and are not biased in favor or against any party or faction. [Bagge, 201-203]


Historical Reliability of Sagas

The main question of this essay is whether or not the sagas can be used as historical sources. As we have seen, it is not completely clear how historiographical the intentions of the sagas’ writers were. There are many other factors such as politics and morality which influenced the writers and all of these could have had their effects on the historical reliability of the source. And even if one credits the makers of histories and historical works with reasonable accuracy and the intention of writeing a true historical work, one has to take into account not only the chances their own opinions were added subconsciously, or a need to give vent to national pride, but also the chance that their sources, written or oral, were inaccurate, or that the conventions of the genre might have kept them from historical truth. [Bessinger, 23-24]

But the most important thing, as already mentioned above, is that the distinction between story and history is one that did not exist at the time, that the very perception of it was not there. In the eyes of contemporary readers, historical reliability was therefore not the main issue. The best sagas in their eyes were those that mixed real events with added extras to make the story juicier. That this is so is asserted by the authors of various sagas. Snorri, for instance tells his readers that his accounts on the lives of kings are based on old stories and poems, and even though he realises people of his time no longer know for sure whether they are true or not, he states that they do know that wise people in the past considered them to be so, and so he sees no reason to reject them as untrue. In the Ganga-Hrolfs saga the writer states that it is not fitting for anyone to censure the stories of  learned men, or call them lies, unless one can tell them better or more truthful himself. And in Jarl Magus’s saga we are told that according to the writer different versions of a single story come into existence as a result of careless persons, who would tell a story incompletely. Later, there would be those who could tell with more skill, and they had found it too short and simple, and had (rightfully) added to it what seemed lacking. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 134] And one has also to take into account that works meant as truthful histories, such as the Heimkringla, were still cast in the shape of a narrative, rather than a dry factual account, which once again shows how intertwined the genres of story and history were. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 136] Even genealogies included in the sagas changed in the course of time. They were adapted to fit the present situation, which meant fitting ancestors were found for those currently in power. Royalty were sometimes added amongst the ancestors to show noble descent, and marriages were used to show connections between important families. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 92-93]

We cannot simply treat all sagas as a unity. There are great differences in historical reliability between earlier and later sagas. The sagas that were written down fairly early, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries are generally taken to be quite close in shape and contents to the oral stories that preceded them. This does not automatically make them more reliable as it is unlikely that the oral stories themselves had not changed substantially before that time. Still, the heart of the oral stories often goes back to true events, if not the details, and they were written down much as they were told.

The later saga writers however, who had many examples of saga writing to guide them, and who must have been more confidently embedded in a literate society, had a much bigger influence on the contents of the story. They often changed aspects of the stories to enhance their entertainment value. This can be seen because many of the main events in these stories can not possibly have been based on real events. Even so, many of the secondary information would still remain intact, such as names and family connections of characters. [Ólason, 218]

For the sagas that deal with the events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries themselves, the situation is different again. These events are not washed through many generations of oral transmission, but written down by men who were surrounded by the time they described. This will, on the one hand, increase the reliability of the material, as nothing is forgotten or remembered wrong. But on the other hand, some events were still only written down up to a hundred years after the actual events took place and other events were written down by eye-witnesses who might not be wholly neutral in the events, as they themselves often were part and party in them. [Meulengracht Sørensen, 48-49]

A last barrier in the usage of sagas as historiographical sources is the writers own outlook on history. From a study of the Heimskringla, Sverre Bagge has concluded that Snorri Sturlusson had a very different idea on history than we have today. He does not see history as a series of causes and consequences with logical connections, as he often seeks to explain events by supernatural means, even though to us an explanation can easily be found in economical and political circumstances. There is also no ‘developmental’ perspective in the Heimskringla, no attempts to explain the present by what happened in the past. [Bagge, 201] And even the subject matter is different than we would have chosen. All of the sagas, the Heimskringla included, focus on describing events, such as battles and dramatic events. But for historians today, this is not the most interesting information, as focus has shifted away from individual events to more abstract movements. The things that do interest modern historians, such as government, administration, social and economic conditions and development of society, are pointedly absent from the sagas, leaving a lacuna in our knowledge on the time and age. [Bagge, 10]

In conclusion we can say that sagas are not the best of sources. The intent with which they were written, the shape they take, and the circumstances in which they were written all work against their reliability as sources. There is also the problem of the difficulty of intact survival for the older sagas in particular and all of the sagas in general, as only a selection of them has reached us intact and much has been lost.

On the other hand, the sagas were in every cases intended to convey a message to the reader, even though it is not always clear what this message is. Many of the events and persons in the sagas must have been real, which makes them in many ways invaluable insights into the lives and times of the people they discribe, and they can by no means be dismissed as sources. In the end, the sagas must be used as all historical matter must, with caution and care.


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Bessinger, J.B., ‘Maldon and the Óláfsdrápa: An Historical Caveat’, in: Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur, S.B. Greenfield ed. (New York, 1963), pp. 23-35.

Clover, Carol J. ‘Scaldic Sensibility’, Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 93 (1978), pp. 63-81.

Fagrskinna, a Catalogue of the Kings of Norway , Alison Finlay ed. and trans. (Leiden, Boston, 2004)

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Garrison, Mary, ‘“Send More Socks”: On Mentality and the Preservation of Medieval Letters’, in: New Approaches to Medieval Communication, M. Mostert ed. (Turnhout, 1999), pp. 69-99.

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Sawyer, Peter, Kings and Vikings; Scandinavia and Europe, AD 700-1100 (London and New York, 1982).

Smyth, Alfred P., Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles (Oxford, 1977).

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla; History of the Kings of Norway, Lee M. Hollander, transl. and ed. (Austin, 1964).