To get into the good graces of a medieval Icelandic skald, one usually needed only do great deeds and give great gifts. Canute the Great—ruler of England (r. 1016-1035), Denmark (r. 1019-1035) and Norway (r. 1028-1035)—was a figure who did both. Two known Icelandic poets, or skalds, who journeyed to the court of Canute were Bersi Skáldtorfuson and Sigvat the Skald. Canute seemed to favor the former over the latter, reportedly giving Bersi two golden rings and a sword which was, of course, also inlaid with gold. Sigvat the Skald also received a golden ring from Canute, and although he was grateful for it, he harbored some jealousy for the gifts bestowed on his colleague. These rewards, and the feelings they inspired, were poetically written down by Sigvat the Skald, and his verse was quoted in the Heimskringla of the scholar Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241):
“Gave us the glorious sovran
guerdon bounteous, so that
both our arms, Bersi,
brightly shine with gold rings.
One mark or more he gave as
meed to you, a sword eke,
sharp-edged: my share is only—
surely God rules—a half mark.”
(Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 131).
Sigvat the Skald, perhaps irked at being favored less than Bersi, ultimately left Canute’s court and reportedly went to his rival, the Norwegian King Olaf II (r. 1015-1028), before Canute seized control of Norway. Sigvat later joined the court of Olaf’s son, King Magnus the Good of Norway (r. 1035-1047).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Midvinterblot (Midwinter Sacrifice), painted by Carl Larsson (c. 1853-1919), housed by the National Museum in Sweden, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.