Historians (with their written records) and archaeologists or scientists (with their data and tested evidence) often can work in a complementary fashion, with each side providing explanations and context to the other. Some of the most accurately dated historical events obtained their accuracy due to the events in question being connected to natural phenomena (such as eclipses, comets, volcanoes, giant fires, etc…) that can be confidently placed on a chronological timeline through archaeological and scientific testing. Yet, depending on how well-documented a historical event may be, the addition of new data and dates can sometimes cause more drama than clarity. The Battle of Sitklestad in 1030 (and the death of King Olaf II of Norway during it) was one such event that became caught in a tug-of-war between beloved medieval sources and later scientific calculations.
Debate over dating the Battle of Stiklestad arose over two key features about how the battle was documented. For one, medieval chronicles and sagas confidently pinpointed the battle to a specific day—July 29, 1030. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), a respected Icelandic poet, scholar, mythographer, saga-writer and historian, matter-of-factly and without hesitation stated that “King Olaf fell on Wednesday the fourth Calends of August” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 235), which is a long and archaic way of saying the accepted traditional date of July 29th. In addition to the above date, however, Snorri, like other sources, went on to also say that “The king fell before high noon, and the darkness [of an eclipse] lasted from midday till high noon” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 235). Both of these assertions together, unfortunately, caused a problem for dating the Battle of Stikelstad. Eclipses, as it turns out, are calculable events, and math can be used not only to predict a future eclipse, but also to pinpoint the dates of past eclipses. Through these means, mathematicians and astronomers were able to confirm that an eclipse did, indeed, occur in Norway in 1030. Yet, instead of the eclipse falling on the traditional Battle of Stiklestad date of July 29, the eclipse was actually calculated to have occurred over a month later, on August 31, 1030.
The conflicting traditional date of the Battle of Stiklestad juxtaposed against the different date calculated for the 1030 eclipse in Norway set off debate about the correct time of King Olaf’s downfall. Some proposed amending the date of the Battle of Stiklestad, or King Olaf’s death, to August 31 in new history books, disregarding the medieval confidence in the earlier July date. Others were more comfortable ignoring the new eclipse date, leaving the Battle of Stiklestad at its traditional designation of July 29, 1030, perhaps thinking that memories of a later eclipse could have been fused with accounts of the Battle of Stiklestad by storytellers. Another prominent decision has been to ignore choosing a month and instead non-confrontationally say that the Battle of Stiklestad simply occurred in 1030. Nonetheless, after scanning texts and sources, it seems July 29, 1030, remains the most commonly used date for the Battle of Stiklestad and the death of King Olaf II of Norway.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Winding Of St. Olaf’s Body, by Olaf Isaachsen (c. 1835 – 1893), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.