The Northern Way

The History of the Gotlanders

© Peter Tunstall 2004

Many thanks go to Peter Tunstall for making it possible for us to bring this text to you.

The History of the Gotlanders (Gutasaga) dates to the 13th century, and survives in a manuscript c. 1350, Codex Holm. B 64 (Royal Library at Stockholm) along with the Gotland legal code, the Gutalag. It was written in the Old Gutnish language, the Norse dialect of the island.
For the original see:

Gotland was first discovered by a man called Thielvar. At this time Gotland was bewitched so that it sank by day and [only] surfaced at night. But that man brought fire to the land for the first time, and after that it never sank.

This Thielvar had a son called Hafthi. And Hafthi's wife was called Whitestar. Those two were the first to settle on Gotland. The first night they slept together she dreamt that three snakes were coiled in her lap. And it seemed to her that they slid out of her lap. She told her dream to her husband Hafthi. He interpreted it thus:

"All is bound with bangles,
it will be inhabited, this land,
and we shall have three sons."

While still unborn, he gave them all names:

"Guti will own Gotland,
Graip will be the second,
and Gunfiaun third."

These then divided Gotland into three parts, so that Graip the eldest got the northern third, Guti the middle third, and Gunfjaun the youngest had the south. Then, over a long time, the people descended from these three multiplied so much that the land couldn't support them all. Then they draw lots, and every third person was picked to leave, and they could keep everything they owned and take it with them, except for their land. Then they were unwilling to leave, but went to Torsburgen and settled there. Then the country [Gotland] would not tolerate them, but drove them away.

Then they went away to Fårö and settled there. They couldn't support themselves in that place, so they went to a certain island off the coast of Estland, called Dagö, and settled there and built a town that can still be seen. But they couldn't support themselves there either, so they went up the river Dvina, up through Russia. They went so far that they came to the land of the Greeks. They asked leave of the Greek king to stay there for the waxing and waning of the moon. The king granted that, thinking it was just for one month. Then after a month, he wanted to send them away, but they answered that the moon waxed and waned for ever and always, and so they said they were allowed to stay. Word of this dispute of theirs reached the queen. She said, "My lord king, you granted them permission to dwell for the waxing and waning of the moon; now that's for ever and always, so you can't take it off them." So they settled there, and live there still, and still have something of our language.

In those days, and for long afterwards, men believed in holt and howe (grove and grave-mound), sanctuaries and sacred enclosures, and in the heathen gods. They made offerings of their sons and daughters and cattle, with feasting and drinking. They did that in their error. The chief sacrifice among the people was the one for the whole land, but each Third had its own sacrifice, and the smaller assemblies had lesser sacrifices with cattle, food and ale. They were called suth-nautar, that is 'Brethren of the Boiling', because they cooked [the sacrificial feast] together.

Many kings made war on Gotland while it was heathen, but the Gotlanders always maintained their own religion and law. Then the Gotlanders were sending many messengers to Sweden, but none of them succeeded in negotiating a peace, till Awair Strawlegs from Alva parish. He was the first to make peace with the king of the Swedes.

When the Gotlanders asked him to go, he answered, "You know that I am now very old and close to death, so if you want me to go into such peril, then give me three wergilds: one for me, one for my boy, and one for my wife. As he was a smooth-tongued man, wise indeed and artful, as the stories of him go, he established a fixed treaty with the Swedish king: 60 marks of silver a year - that is the tax for the Gotlanders - with 40 for the king, out of that sixty, and the jarls to get 20. This amount had already been decided by agreement of the whole land before he left.

So the Gotlanders submitted to the king of the Swedes of their own free will, that they might go anywhere in Sweden freely and unfettered by tolls or any duties. So too the Swedes could come to Gotland with no ban on the import of corn, or any other restrictions. The king was to give aid and help whenever they needed it and asked. The king would send messengers to the Gotland national assembly, and the jarls likewise, to collect their tax. These messengers must proclaim freedom to the Gotlanders to travel in peace over the sea, to all places where the Swedish king held sway. And the same went for anyone travelling there to Gotland.

Although the Gotlanders were heathens, they sailed with merchants' wares to all lands, Christian and heathen. Then the merchants saw the Christian ways in Christian lands. Then some had themselves baptised, and brought priests to Gotland. Botair of Akebäck was the name of the first to build a church in that place which is now called Kulstäde. This the country would not tolerate, but burnt it. So the place is called Kulstäde even now.

For a time afterwards there was sacrifice at the sanctuary. He had another church built there. The land wanted to burn this church too. Then he himself climbed up onto the church, and said, "If you want to burn her, then you'll have to burn me, with this church."

He was an important man and married to the daughter of the most important man, who was called Lickair Snielli. He was a farmer there at the place called Stenkyrka. He deliberated much at this time. He helped his kinsman Botair and said, "Don't go burning this man or his church, because it stands on holy ground, in the temple sanctuary under Kinten."

And so the church stood unburnt. It was consecrated in the name of all the saints at that place now called Saint Peter's Church. It was the first church to remain standing in Gotland.

Some time afterwards, Botair's father-in-law, Lickair had himself baptised along with his wife, his child and his whole household, and built a church at his own farm, which is now called Stenkyrka (Stonechurch). That was the first church to go up in the Northern Third of Gotland.

When they saw the ways of the Christians, the Gotlanders hearkened to God's word and the teaching of learned men. The people as a whole received Christianity, of their own free will without being forced in any way, so no-one forced them to be Christians. As the people all became Christian, another church was built on the island, at Atlingbo. That was the first one in the Middle Third. Then a third church was built in the South Third, at Fardhem. After that, churches sprang up all over Gotland, because people built churches for greater convenience.

A while after that, King Olaf the Holy came fleeing Norway with his ships and put in to the harbour of Akergarn. Saint Olaf stayed a long time there. Then Ormica of Hejnum and many other important men came to him with gifts. Ormica gave him twelve rams and other valuables. In return, holy King Olaf gave Ormica two bowls and a broad-axe. Then Ormica received Christianity after the teaching of Saint Olaf, and he built a chapel house there where Akegarn church now stands. Then Saint Olaf went to Yaroslav in Holmgard (Novgorod).

Before Gotland had a proper bishop of its own, bishops came to Gotland on their way to the Holy land, as pilgrims to Jerusalem, or on their way home. At that time there was a route to Jerusalem through Russian and Greece. At first, it was they who consecrated the churches and churchyards and on whose insistence churches were built.

After the Gotlanders had converted to Christianity, they sent messengers to the chief bishop in Linköping, as he was the nearest to them, to arrange a special agreement whereby the bishop would attend to them. It was then decided that the bishop should come from Linköping every third year with twelve of his men who would accompany him all over the island on horses supplied by the farmers, twelve and no more.

So the bishop would travel round Gotland consecrating churches. And in payment he could take three meals for each consecration, but no more, and also three marks. For consecrating an alter: one meal and twelve oyrar, but only the altar should be consecrated. When both an altar and a church are consecrated together, then both shall be consecrated for three meals and three marks in coin.

From each priest, the bishop may receive, in return for his visit, a payment of three meals, and no more. For each priest who does not pay that year, the bishop shall receive a fine from everyone, so that all the churches are taxed. Those who did not pay their dues that time, must pay when the bishop returns after three years, and recompense those who paid the fine last time.

If there are disagreements for the bishop to judge, they should be settled in the same Third, because those who live nearest will know most about the truth of the matter. If the disagreement is not dealt with there, then it shall be transferred to the national assembly, and not moved from one Third to another. If strife or disagreements arise, which pertain to the bishop to settle, then the parties must await the bishop's arrival, and not go over the sea, unless compelled - and that would be a great sin, too great for a provost to absolve. Between the Feast of Saint Walpurga and the Feast of All Saints, they can go over, but no later than that. From then, over the winter time till Walpurgis Night, the case belongs to the bishop. In Gotland, an episcopal fine is no fine higher than three marks.

When Gotlanders received bishop and priest, and completely accepted Christianity, they also undertook to accompany the king of the Swedes into battle with seven warships against heathen lands, but not against Christian ones. It had to be done thus: the king must call the Gotlanders to muster after winter, with a month's notice, and the mustering day must be before midsummer and not after. Such is a legal summons, and nothing else. Then the Gotlanders have a choice to go if they want, with their ships and eight weeks' supplies, but no more. If they decide not to accompany [the king], they much pay 40 marks in coin for each ship - but only on the following year, not the same year as they were called. That is called the mustering-tax.

In that month [when the summons goes out], during the first week, the summons-stick shall be send around and an assembly called. If it is agreed that the expedition is to go ahead, then half a month shall be given over to further preparations. And then, for seven days before the mustering day, the men must stand ready, and wait for a fair wind. But if a wind does not come that week, they must wait seven more days after the mustering day. If a fair wind still does not come in that time, they have the right to go home without penalty, because they can't cross the sea rowing, but only sailing. If the summons comes at shorter notice than a month, they needn't go, but have the right to remain at home without penalty.

If it so happens that the king will not believe that the summons was given unlawfully, or that the wind hindered at the time specified by law, then the king's messengers, who come to receive the tax at the next assembly after Saint Peter's Day, must demand an oath off twelve nominated men - the king's men to nominate who is to swear - that they stayed for lawful reasons. No oaths of nominated men are given in Gotland, expect for oaths to the king.

If the worst happens, and a crowned king is driven by force from his kingdom, the Gotlanders shall pay no tax, but hold onto it for three years. They should however gather tax every year, but let it lie - and then give it to whoever is ruling the Swedish kingdom then. A letter sealed with the king's seal, shall be sent as proof of his legitimacy, but not an open letter.