The Man from the Middle Ages
THE MAN FROM THE MIDDLE AGES, Historian and Murderer Tormod Torfeus
by Bergsveinn Birgisson
Publisher: Vigmostad & Bjørke
Translation © Kari Dickson
Part 1 Iceland
Born Into Soot and Ash
He is born into an ancient world where monsters still swim in the depths of the ocean and great birds with iron beaks soar in the dark skies. A world of recently discovered loose ends that people have only just started to tie together. Little has been categorised and finalised, though the great thinkers are slowly coming to understand universal harmony. Rationality is the new buzzword. With reasoned thought they try to penetrate the hidden laws and structures of creation. The measurement of time and the calendar are almost in place. He is born on 27 May 1636 in Iceland and 6 June in England, as the English calendar is ten days ahead of the Scandinavian.
It is a time when people still believe that enormous giants were the first to inhabit the North. Ghosts are real and lurk in dark corners, and animals and people can be raised from the dead by the power of language. Magic symbols can be used to influence the devil. And the same symbols can also be used to harness the natural order. God talks to humans through signs in nature and it is scientists who recognise these signs. Walnuts can cure headaches, because they look like the brain. There is also a direct connection between the seven apertures in the human head and the seven stars that are known at the time.
This is a world that is governed by the Holy Bible and the authorities of Antiquity; whoever argues against the Lutheran orthodox regime may find themselves in trouble. Evil is manifest and can catch you in its claws at any moment. According to Páll in Selárdalur, an influential priest in Iceland, God opened the century by releasing the devil into society.
Most importantly, however, the boy is born at a time when Scandinavians have discovered that their history stretches far back into the past and is recorded in some rotting leather books on Iceland.
The place where he first sees light of day is close to the gates of hell, or Mount Hekla. In an illustration for his book A Description of the Northern People, published in 1555, the Swede Olaus Magnus placed “Chaos” beneath Hekla. And in many ways he was right. Sources show that in those days, Hekla was thought to be the entrance to the old, pagan Niflheim, where those who practised magic could control fire and use it.
So he slips from his mother’s womb before rationality and a belief in progress have become firmly rooted in man’s mind, and is born into a world where superstition and miracles prevail. A world of Latin and sin, where the mercy of Christ might often feel distant. But it is also a world of burgeoning knowledge. Galileo Galilei has just published his pioneering work on the two world systems (1632) and is under house arrest. In a few years’ time, Decartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1644) will revolutionise scientific thinking. And in the year that he is born, the physician Ole Worm in Copenhagen discovers that the horns that were once believed to come from unicorns, are in fact from the Greenland narwhal.
People’s understanding of the world is changing rapidly.
He is given the Icelandic name Þormóður. And his surname is Torfason, son of Torfi. As an adult, he Latinises his name to Tormod Torfeus, as scholars were wont to do in those days. He is most often known by this name, and it is the one that will be used in this book.
A couple of weeks before his birth, on 8 May, the gateway to hell, Hekla, erupts. With a great rumbling and explosion, thirteen pillars of fire leap up from the mountain at the same time. An enormous ash plume rises up then falls on the nearby villages. And it does not take long before the ash has destroyed the teeth of the sheep and cows, and they start to die in huge numbers.
A white baby is born into a world of soot and ash.
The disease variola major, also known as smallpox, or simply the pox, if rife in the southern part of Iceland at the time. In 1636, ninety people are buried at Hvalsnes Church, where the baby is soon to be baptised. The chances of survival for the baby boy are minimal. In the same year, a brother and sister from the neighbouring settlement give birth to a child. A brutally short record in the annals states that the child “was found buried and they were executed”. The pirate invasion of 1627 is still fresh in people’s minds. The pirates were North Africans, mainly from Algeria, who sailed around the Atlantic Ocean with the help of Dutch captains, to find slaves. In Iceland, they were called Turks, and the invasion is thus known as the Turkish Abductions. In 1636, the year of Tormod’s birth, news reaches the island that an unknown Dutchman has bought an Icelander out of “barbarity” in Algeria for an enormous sum of money.
Tormod’s father, Torfi Erlendsson, was one of the privileged in a strict class hierarchy. Torfi was a representative for the Danish ruling class when his son was born at Engey. He held several positions on their behalf, some of which paid handsomely. Torfi was for a long time the governor of two relatively rich districts in southern Iceland, Árnessýsla and Gullringusýsla, home to Reykjavík and Suðurnes. Iceland was, like Norway, a Danish province and had been since the Norwegians entered into a personal union with Denmark in the fourteenth century. But by the time this story unfolds, this had developed into Danish rule. The Danish crown owned many of the farms on Iceland, and Torfi was responsible for managing a number of these royal farms. Icelandic officials were in awe of their Danish rulers and could be ruthless to their own countrymen.
In other words, little Tormod was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
But who was he?
He was the first person to bring the history of the Nordic countries to the attention of scholars throughout the world and an eminent collector of manuscripts. In a famous etching included in the great “History of the Kingdom” from 1777, he towers over everyone. While historians P. F. Suhm, Gerhard Schøning and Ludvig Holberg sit decorously on the edges, and Saxo and Snorre are each given their own side, Tormod Torfeus’ work dominates the centre of the picture, surrounded by pennants and laurel wreaths. The collective memory fascinates me: who we choose to remember and who we choose to forget – the very question, in fact, that prompted this work, which I now realise I must try to answer. Why has the man who looked after some of our oldest records himself been wiped from the collective memory? Is it because he lived a debauched life and killed someone? Or is a result of the enormous changes in people’s thinking? Did he simply become a dinosaur among the modern birds of the Renaissance?
The sagas tell us that a person is shaped by four equal factors: father, mother, upbringing and name. If we the separate this into inheritance and environment, we see that environment only accounts for a quarter, the remaining three quarters are inheritance. In other words, as it says in Grettis Saga: “No man creates himself”. And there was certainly a good deal of “wild blood” in Torfi Erlendsson’s family.
Torfi is portrayed as being a rather boorish character, or quite frankly, a bit of a bastard. “Hard, greedy and unpopular”, “fair to a point, but constantly caught up in disputes and unpopular” says another source, which otherwise tends to be more forgiving of people’s memories. He was known to have had an intense dislike for priests, especially those who were poor. And even though he had no knowledge of the law, he became the district judge for Gullbringusýsla in 1639, but needed a legal assistant with him whenever he judged a case. Some even say he could barely write his own name. The fact that he detested priests was not so much a religious matter, but can be explained by a conflict that he himself instigated with a particular poor priest, who we will meet later. As this priest was very knowledgeable and wise, it could be said that his aversion stemmed, quite simply, from an inferiority complex.
The father’s behaviour was similar to the behaviour of his legendary ancestor, governor Torfi Jónsson in Klofa (1460–1505), who was Tormod’s great-great-great grandfather. He always travelled with a group of armed men, and among other things, killed the Danish bailiff, Lenhardte. It should, however, be said that the bailiff had killed a man and also attacked Icelanders on several occasions. In fact, the bishop refused to bury him in consecrated ground without considerable financial recompense. The head of Torfi’s church later threatened to kill the bishop of Skálholt, the spiritual capital. Torfi in Klofa was known as the most powerful chieftain in southern Iceland, so quite an ancestor to have.
Torfeus’ paternal grandmother also had restless blood in her veins. She was the daughter of a barber surgeon from Hamburg, Henrik Gerkens, who for some reason was also appointed as a governor in Iceland. He is described as being greedy and rich. And her maternal grandfather was Björn Þorleifsson, (1408–1467), also known as “the rich”, who was the most powerful man of his time. He was the king’s officer and a knight, and lived in Skarð, a big farm on Breiðafjörður in western Iceland.
Björn’s family had a patent of nobility, as did Torfi Arason (died 1459). Only three Icelandic families had a patent of nobility, and Tormod was born into two of these families.
On his mother’s side, however, there were several relatives who had more spiritual leanings. His maternal grandfather, Bergsveinn, was the second cousin of Guðbrandur Þorkláksson (1541-1647), who was the bishop of Hólar in northern Iceland, for fifty-six years. Guðbrandur was one of most important champions of humanism and renaissance thinking in Iceland, along with his peer, Arngrímur Jónsson the Learned, who was also related to Torfeus.
Tormod was only a few months old when his family left the island of Engey, outside Reykjavík, which at the time was no more than a few scattered farms. Torfi had been given a new post. Tormod’s mother, Þórdís, waded through the ash and smoke with the little white baby in her arms, while his seven-year-old brother, Sigurður, trotted along behind and Torfi led the horse pulling a wagon with their furniture and chattels.
It was primarily the king’s official who allocated such positions, and at the time, this was either the sheriff or fief lord, as he was called in Norway. Torfi was to manage the royal estate at Stafnes, the biggest fishing village in Iceland. Stafnes is situated more or less in the middle of the “boot” that sticks out of the coastal area west of what is today Keflavik Airport, in the southwest of the country. The area is called Suðurnes. In addition to being the governor, Torfi’s job was to run the farm as a kind of fish wholesaler, in the first instance. As the king owned a number of vessels, this also entailed acting as his majesty’s shipowner, as well as getting as many people as possible to fish from Stafnes. They had to catch as much cod as possible to dry for the Danish merchants.
An overview of the value of exports from Iceland in the years 1625 and 1655 show that fish products, primarily stockfish and cod liver oil, accounted for 75 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively, of total exports.
The Danish king’s income from the colony of Iceland was largely derived from trade, over which he had a monopoly. Merchants or trade organisations paid rent to the king for trading in Iceland. This rent alone provided the treasury with an annual income of between ten to twenty thousand riskdaler. But there was still plenty of profit to be made for the merchants themselves. Around a fifth of all farms on Iceland were crown property and provided income in the form of property taxes, that is to say rent and various levies. As governor, Torfi Erlendsson was responsible for managing the royal farms in his area and collecting tax and rent for his king.
A third, and not insignificant source of income for the treasury was the king’s fishing boats that were attached to fishing villages like Stafnes. At the start of the winter fishing season, tenants of the royal farms in south-western Iceland, along with their workers and subtenants, were ordered to work on the boats. They were given little or no pay for this, as it was seen to be part of the property tax.
Consequently, it was the king, Torfi and a handful of other officials who profited from the resources at Stafnes, not whose who procured the goods.
Engey and Stafnes
I have been to both these places, and have a vivid memory from Engey, the island outside Reykjavík where Tormod was born. The island is not big, perhaps 4-5 square kilometres, and on the day that I go there, it lies like a green meadow atop the black cliffs. My father has taken me and a second cousin, who is the same age as me, over in the boat. We have been sent to collect gulls’ eggs – a spring-time delicacy. We don’t have much time as Father is always nervous that the authorities will catch us by surprise. Just as our allotted time is almost up and we’re not allowed to gather any more eggs, we come across the ruins of some houses on the southside of the island, facing the city. The old foundations of collapsed and overgrown walls are barely visible beneath the tussocks of grass and rocky knolls, but the nests lay side by side here and there are eggs aplenty.
We grin and shout to each other how many eggs there are in each nest, as we fill our buckets.
It is not until many years later that I realise that this overgrown patch full of great black-backed gulls’ eggs must have been precisely where Tormod Torfeus was born, almost exactly 350 years before. I remember it was 1986, the summer that God’s hand guided Maradona’s kick into the net. We went back to the shoreline, where Father was waiting in the boat. As we crossed the slippery stones, my father shouted to us, as only old captains can: ‘Careful not to slip.’
Of course, as soon as he shouted this, we both lost our footing. Our buckets sailed through the air and the broken eggs billowed on the swell of tangled seaweed along the shore of Engey.
I went to Stafnes only once I had started to work on this book. It is a brisk day in March 2018 and I drive straight west from Keflavík Airport to sole of the “boot”, towards the edge of the ocean that lies beyond an enormous, black lava field. I want to see the fishing village where Torfeus spent his childhood and grew up in the most privileged circumstances. Based on descriptions of the nearby fishing village of Básendar, it is easy to imagine what Stafnes was like.
In Tormod’s day, it was no more than a cluster of wooden houses. The stockfish warehouse was the hallowed centre, alongside a company house and a small shop. The cod liver oil warehouse, cooperage and carpentry workshop were no doubt nearby, and prominent families, such as Tormod’s, had their homes on the edge of the village, close to a stable. The fishermen and women workers lived in huts along the shore, and the frames and huts made from lava stones for drying the fish were built on the flat ground by the water. In the winter months, they were full of gutted, headless cod blowing in the wind.
In 2018, there wasn’t much left of the old fishing village, and what remained was in much the same condition as Tormod’s birthplace on Engey, nothing but overgrown foundations. There were still some cairns, tool sheds, the ruins of a few boathouses and a clutch of newer houses. It was possible to see the foundations of a big building under the flat grass by the lighthouse, presumably the warehouse that Torfi Erlendsson had to fill with stockfish every season. No one fishes from here any longer, everything has moved to the neighbouring Sandgerði. The buildings at Stafnes no doubt suffered the same fate as the trading post Básendar, where as good as all the houses were washed away by a great tidal flood and storm in January 1799. The merchant and his family managed to escape just in time, but the buildings were smashed by the waves.
The place must have been a hive of activity, with busy days, but there is nothing left to show of the generations of work and huge earnings for the Danish king and his merchants. Little remains of the material culture from places like Stafnes. One possible reason for this is that people were not proud of the work and history favours men with power.
But we do know something.
We know that the crews, quite literally, fished for their lives. Any poor farmer who took part in seasonal fishing at the time was in effect a suicide candidate for the Danish crown. The situation for fishermen was worse than it had been previously for slaves; as no one “owned” them, there was no chieftain to step in and prevent them undertaking such perilous work. The boats were small and open, usually eight or ten-oared, and in winter, the coastal areas were prone to storms.
As I walked around, I saw Kolaflúð, a skerry where many a ship had run aground. Port conditions along the entire coast were appalling. The constant, heavy swell smashed any boats than ran aground to kindle wood. The Icelanders could not swim – even though all slaves could in the Viking Age. Until the late 1800s, it was not unusual for people to stand on the beach and watch their loved ones die only a few metres from shore. Many ships foundered on the rocks and skerries close to where the Stafnes Lighthouse stands today. When a southerly prevailed, the waves that reached the shore could be fatal. The only place of safety was a deeper inlet between the breaks, a rift in the seabed where the water was a little calmer.
These inlets were often marked by beacon-like cairns on the beach. I spot one and go over, run my hand over this humble monument to the fishermen of Stafnes. Think about the eyes that must have focused on this stone marker in the hope that they would manage to navigate into land between the breaks, and the hands that steered a boat that was about to go under.
The fishermen wore leather clothes, made from sheepskin more often than not, and had woollen mittens with two thumbs, so they could turn them and get equal wear on both side. And my gut feeling is that most Icelanders who died at the time were dressed in such clothes with thick mittens on their hands. In 1636, the year that Torfeus was born, thirty-eight men from fishing villages along this stretch of coast lost their lives at sea, including a crew of eleven men on a ten-oared boat and a eight-oared boat from Stafnes. So not all of the ninety people who were buried at Hvalsnes Church that year died from the pox.