Eric Bloodaxe - Sources

Sources

The little historical data which is available has been used by historians to reconstruct a narrative of his life and career. There is a distinction between contemporary or near contemporary sources for Eric's period as ruler of Northumbria, and the entirely saga-based sources that detail the life of Eric of Norway, a chieftain who ruled the Norwegian Westland in the 930s. Norse sources have identified the two as the same since the late 12th century, and while the subject was controversial among early modern historians, most historians have identified the two figures as the same since W. G. Collingwood's article in 1901. This identification has been rejected recently by the historian Claire Downham, who argued that later Norse writers synthesized the two Erics, possibly using English sources. This argument, though respected by other historians in the area, has not produced consensus.

Contemporary or near-contemporary sources include different recensions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eric's coinage, the Life of St Cathróe and possibly skaldic poetry. Such sources reproduce only a hazy image of Eric's activities in Anglo-Saxon England.

Strikingly, Eric's historical obscurity stands in sharp contrast to the wealth of legendary depictions in the kings' sagas, where he takes part in the sagas of his father Harald Fairhair and his younger brother Haakon the Good. These include the late 12th-century Norwegian synoptics – Historia Norwegiæ (perhaps c. 1170), Theodoricus monachus' Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium (c. 1180) and Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum (c. 1190) – and the later Icelandic kings' sagas Orkneyinga saga (c. 1200), Fagrskinna (c. 1225), the Heimskringla ascribed to Snorri Sturluson (c. 1230), Egils saga (1220 x 1240) and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta (c. 1300). Exactly in what sense the Eric of the sagas may have been based on the historical Eric of Northumbria, and conversely, to what extent later evidence might or might not be called upon to shed light on the historical figure, are matters which have inspired a variety of approaches and suggestions among generations of historians. Current opinion veers towards a more critical or dismissive attitude towards the use of sagas as historical sources, but conclusive answers cannot be offered.

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