Burial brooch

Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s reading is an extract from the Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Earls of Orkney. The medieval Viking sagas give a glimpse of a world so different to our own, and yet they talk about areas that are familiar to many of us today; one based around warlords and constant power struggles but with a very different moral code from today. The Orkneyinga Saga traces the supposed history of the Earls of Orkney and the relationship of Orkney and Shetland with the surrounding areas. Almost no texts surviving today centre around Orkney, which makes the Orkneyinga Saga highly unusual.

This particular excerpt is from the appendix. It tells the tale of how Earl Sigurd won a battle against Earl Melbrigd, and is a stark warning against hubris and septicaemia.

Earl Melbrigd slain by Sigurd

Earl Sigurd became a great chief. He formed an alliance with Thorstein the Red, son of Olaf the White, and Aud Djúpaudga (the very wealthy), and together they conquered all Caithness and much more of Scotland—Mærhæfui (Moray) and Ross. He built a borg on the southern border of Mærhæfui. Melbrigd Tönn (tooth), an Earl of the Scots, and Earl Sigurd, made an arrangement to meet in a certain place, with forty men each, in order to come to an agreement concerning their differences. When the appointed day arrived Earl Sigurd was suspicious of treachery on the part of the Scots. He therefore caused eighty men to be mounted on forty horses. When Earl Melbrigd saw this, he said to his men:—“Now we have been treacherously dealt with by Earl Sigurd, for I see two men’s legs on one side of each horse, and the men, I believe, are thus twice as many as the beasts. But let us be brave, and kill each his man before we die.” Then they made themselves ready. When Sigurd saw it, he also decided on his plan, and said to his men:—“Now, let one-half of our number dismount and attack them from behind, when the troops meet, while we shall ride at them with all our speed to break their battle array.” There was hard fighting immediately, and it was not long till Earl Melbrigd fell, and all his men with him. Earl Sigurd and his men fastened the heads [of the slain] to their saddle-straps, in bravado, and so they rode home triumphing in their victory. As they were proceeding, Earl Sigurd, intending to kick at his horse with his foot, struck the calf of his leg against a tooth protruding from Earl Melbrigd’s head, which scratched him slightly; but it soon became swollen and painful, and he died of it. Sigurd the powerful was buried in a mound at Ekkialsbakki.

You can read more of the saga on Project Gutenberg. You can find more information about the saga and the history of Orkney at Orkneyjar.

We’ll see you again tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!