The Tale Of Breeches-Aud

 

The story of Breeches-Aud is one of the more memorable tales in the Icelandic Laxdæla saga, a 13th-century book filled with strong female characters that were loosely inspired by women said to have lived in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Although the exploits of many people described in the sagas were embellished or even invented, the core details (genealogy, settlement locations, poetic evidence etc.) were deemed to have enough truth that later Medieval Icelanders, such as the chieftain Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), proudly and confidently traced their ancestry back to characters in the sagas. Whether or not the sagas were histories with creative license, historical fictions or pure folklore, they were feats of impressive storytelling and, as Icelandic stories go, the tale of Breeches-Aud was one of the more unique narratives.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Aud lived with her husband, Thord Ingunnarson, on a farmstead called Hol in 10th-century Iceland. Aud eventually became a bold woman of action, but in her first scene in the saga she is portrayed in an extremely downgrading light. Poor Aud was horribly described as “a woman who was neither good-looking nor exceptional in other ways, and Thord had little affection for her” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Her husband, the prominent lawyer, Thord Ingunnarson, received much better treatment in his introduction: “Thord was a fine, strapping figure of a man, highly capable, and often involved in lawsuits” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32).

Thord Ingunnarson’s law work brought him into contact with one of the central figures of the Laxdæla saga—Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Her father had forced her to marry a man named Thorvald Halldorsson when she was only fifteen years old. After two unhappy years of marriage, Gudrun decided to divorce her husband following an incident where Thorvald slapped her across the face. Before she had made her decision to separate from Thorvald, Gudrun had befriended Thord Ingunnarson, and now, she used his knowledge of Icelandic law to help her case. With her friend’s help, Gudrun successfully divorced Thorvald Halldorsson, and she even received half of his property when they split up.

Thord Ingunnarson remained friendly with Gudrun after her divorce, but he wanted to be more than friends. He was unhappy with his current wife, Aud, and quickly fell for the young Gudrun, who was described as “the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). Gudrun apparently returned his affection and helped Thord search for a way to extricate himself from his unfulfilling marriage.

According to the Laxdæla saga, Thord and Gudrun were traveling to the Althing, Iceland’s national assembly, when the pair decided on what tactic to use against Thord’s wife. Gudrun claimed that if Aud was accused of cross-dressing like a man and witnesses were found to support the claim, no one would object to Thord filing for divorce. It was also Gudrun, who supposedly first proposed the catchy nickname, Breeches-Aud. Although Thord Ingunnarson responded to Gudrun’s plan by musing that he had never seen his wife dress like a man and similarly had never heard her be called Breeches-Aud, he decided to go with the ploy, anyway. When Thord reached the Althing, “He named witnesses and announced he was divorcing Aud on the grounds that she had taken to wearing breeches with a codpiece like a masculine woman” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 32). The announcement shocked, surprised and enraged Aud’s brothers, who were in the assembly at the time. It was through these siblings, Thorkel Pup and Knut, that the now infamous Breeches-Aud learned of her divorce. Thord did not immediately go back to Hol, but instead traveled to the estate of Gudrun’s father in Laugar. A posse did arrive, however, to seize some cattle from Aud’s farm in Hol as Thord’s share in the divorce, and, as soon as the animals reached Laugar, Thord and Gudrun became engaged, with their marriage set at the end of the summer.

Although Thord was ready to forget about his former wife, Breeches-Aud and her brothers were in no way willing to forgive and forget Thord. Thorkel Pup and Knut tried to rally their neighbors and relatives to support their mistreated sister, but Gudrun’s plan to assassinate the character of Aud had worked like a charm, and consequently, everyone was hesitant to give public support to Breeches-Aud. With no allies to be found, Thorkel Pup and Knut gave up hope of finding justice in court or battle. Breeches-Aud, however, did not stop her planning.

In the summertime, ewes were brought out to pasture and the inhabitants of the various Icelandic farmsteads that were responsible for the animals would stay in shielings (pasture huts) to keep watch over their respective flocks. The people of Hol pastured their ewes in Hvammsdal and Aud was one of the people staying in a shieling. Thord and Gudrun’s community from Laugar was pasturing its animals in Lambadal, just southwest of Aud’s location. Using farmhands as spies, Aud gathered information about her former husband. The informants reported back that almost everyone from Laugar was in the pasturelands, including Gudrun. Thord Ingunnarson, however, was not with the others. He was believed to be back at Laugar helping Gudrun’s father build a new hall.

Hearing that Thord would only be accompanied by his aging father-in-law during the night, Breeches-Aud decided that now was the time to strike back against her ex-husband. She invited only one other person to join her plot—a loyal shepherd. At the end of the day, after the exhausted herdsmen had gone to sleep, Breeches-Aud made her move. She even dressed for the occasion: “shortly before sundown Aud mounted her horse, dressed in breeches, to be sure” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35). Armed with a sword and wearing pants “like a masculine woman,” Breeches-Aud and the loyal shepherd rode through the night to Laugur. There, just as Aud’s informants had predicted, Thord Ingunnarson was sleeping alone, with only his father-in-law nearby in another room of the home.

Breeches-Aud left the horses in the care of the shepherd and then crept, with sword brandished, toward the house. The door was not locked and she easily slipped inside the hall. Before long, she found the room where Thord was in a deep sleep. He did not wake up as his scorned ex-wife tiptoed into the room. He did not even awaken when she prodded him, presumably to hear why he had done what he did, or simply to look into his eyes while she attacked. She did not achieve either of those possible goals, for Thord merely rolled over on his left side in response to the poking.

Not wasting any more time, Breeches-Aud raised her sword to mete out vengeance on her ex-husband for his betrayal and the public humiliation that he had made her suffer. Summoning all of her rage, Aud chopped down with everything she had. In its single arc, the sword cut deep into Thord’s right arm and even sliced his pectorals before the blade lodged itself firmly into the wooden bed frame. As Thord howled in pain, Breeches-Aud escaped into the night. Thord was too wounded to chase after her, and by the time his father-in-law rushed into the room, Aud had already disappeared.

Thord Ingunnarson miraculously survived his wounds. His right arm had taken the bulk of the blow, crippling it for the rest of his life, but the cuts on his chest were minor flesh wounds that healed quickly. At first, because of the breeches, Thord thought his assailant was a man. Yet, after thinking it over, he came to suspect it was Aud. In an interesting ending to the story, Thord sympathized with his ex-wife and, although he was an accomplished lawyer, he decided not to press charges. When explaining his reasoning to his father-in-law, Thord simply said, “what Aud had done was only evening the score” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 35).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of the Valkyrie, Brunnhild, painted by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander and translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

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