The Famous Headdress of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir
Posted in
October 8, 2022

The Famous Headdress of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir

By Beth Rogers

One of the most famous pieces of clothing in Icelandic saga literature is the headdress that appears in Laxdæla saga, known to English-language readers as The Saga of the People of Laxardal. The story was written in the thirteenth century and relates the trials and tribulations of people in the Breiðafjörður area in western Iceland from the late ninth century to the early eleventh century.

The saga particularly focuses on the romantic entanglements between the proud Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, the heroic Kjartan Ólafsson, and the tough Bolli Þorleiksson. Guðrún and Kjartan originally intend to marry, but Kjartan is kept away from Iceland and his duties after sailing to Norway. Hoping to coerce the people of Iceland into converting to Christianity, the King of Norway holds Kjartan and his men, who represent some of Iceland’s best, for several years as his “guests.” Bolli, who is not as valued as Kjartan, is allowed to leave Norway and return to Iceland first. After hinting to Guðrún that Kjartan has become great “friends” with Ingibjorg, sister of the Norwegian ruler, and that the king desires a marriage between the two, Guðrún reluctantly agrees to marry Bolli instead.

Kjartan is eventually released from his stay at the Norwegian court and is gifted with a fabulous headdress by Ingibjorg, who tells him to give it to his intended bride, Guðrún:

Ingibjorg then reached for a nearby casket, from which she took a white head-dress, embroidered with golden threads, which she gave to Kjartan and said she hoped Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir would enjoy winding this around her head. “You are to give it to her as a wedding present, as I want Icelandic women to know that the woman you have consorted with here in Norway is hardly the descendant of slaves.” There was a covering of fine fabric around the headdress. The gift was a great treasure.

Ingibjorg’s pettiness at losing Kjartan to another woman is revealed in her words, a reference to the fact that many of Iceland’s first settlers were slaves (præll) brought to help settle the new country. Kjartan arrives back in Iceland to learn that his best friend has married his fiancée and says nothing. When Hrefna, the sister of a friend, spots the headdress among the goods being offloaded from the ship and tries it on, Kjartan says that he might as well own the headdress and the one wearing it. Romantic!

Kjartan gave Hrefna the head-dress as a wedding present, and the gift was renowned throughout the country, as no Icelander was so cultured that he had seen, or so wealthy that he had possessed, such a treasure. According to reliable reports, there were eight ounces of gold woven into the head-dress.

Guðrún later orchestrates the disappearance of several of Kjartan’s gifts from the Norwegian court, including the famous headdress:

“People said that Þórólfr had burned it on his sister Guðrún’s orders.”

Her anger leads her to destroy the precious gift completely, which was not necessary if her only purpose was to keep it from her rival, Hrefna. In fact, if she only wanted to possess it, she could have kept it for herself, but strictly in private, so as not to reveal herself as the thief; however, keeping it privately for herself would preclude wearing the headdress in public, in a vainglorious display, which would never do for a woman like Guðrún. In Laxdæla saga’s first description of Guðrun, she makes a lovely display of herself, “so much so that the adornments of other women were considered to be mere child’s play in comparison.”

From the Laxdæla Saga: “So Hrefna sat still with the head-dress on. Kjartan looked at her heedfully and said, ‘I think the coif becomes you very well, Hrefna,’ says he, ‘and I think it fits the best that both together, coif and maiden, be mine.’ Illustration from “Vore fædres liv” : karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden / samlet og udggivet af Nordahl Rolfsen ; oversættelsen ved Gerhard Gran., Kristiania: Stenersen, 1898.

Her preoccupation with decoration is developed throughout the story, continuing in the ornaments she demanded that her first husband, Þorvaldr, purchase in excess: “She was avid in demanding purchases of precious objects. There were no treasures in all the West Fjords so costly that Guðrún felt she did not deserve them.” In fact, it is Þorvaldr’s inability to keep the ornaments coming that prompts Guðrún to eventually leave him.

The headdress is an important symbol throughout the narrative. A good headdress, like all beautiful and finely made clothing, is meant to be seen and admired. Georgine de Courtais’ 1973 book Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles summarizes early European clothing thusly:

The main function of clothing during those unsettled centuries was a practical one: fashion as we understand it did not exist. Social status was rigidly defined and any social emulation would have been unthinkable. In any case the mass of the population were in the main too poor and had insufficient leisure to be able to indulge in any taste for change or novelty in clothes. The wealthy ruling classes could show their superiority by wearing a more elaborate and richly decorated version of the general style of costume. The basic shape of garments remained the same for many centuries. Wool was the material for all garments and linen was available for the wealthy.

To put the headdress in context, Anna Zanchi’s article “‘Melius Abundare Quam Deficere’: Scarlet Clothing in Laxdæla Saga and Njal’s Saga” points out that the scarlet clothing which Kjartan receives from the king of Norway is a fine woolen broadcloth analogous to “oriental silks and imperial purple” to the wealthy class of Europe. Like the headdress, the clothing is a gift from royalty to a well-liked Icelander visiting the court. The author notes that this is a common scene in Icelandic sagas, and that Icelanders are never shown to have or make scarlet clothing or other fine gifts like these – they are always gifts from foreign royalty and a common symbol of achievement within the narrative.

The headdress is a significant object. Its fabric is “fine,” presumably linen or even silk, it has “eight ounces of gold embroidered into it,” it is wound about the head in some fashion, and no one in Iceland has, or has even seen, anything like it. Guðrún’s audacity in destroying it, thus depriving the community of the accomplishment it represented, politically (the connection to the Norwegian nobility) and economically (a significant amount of gold), is clear. But the headdress represents even more.

In the article “Social institutions and belief systems of medieval Iceland (c. 870-1400) and their relations to literary production” Preben Meulengracht Sørensen points out the connection between social hierarchy and the concept of honour from materiality and the concept of value. Simply put, the finer your material goods, the higher your social status and respectability. By destroying it and Kjartan’s sword, which was also a gift from the Norwegian king, Guðrún is striking out at his reputation, bringing him and his wife down in both social status and honor. Instead of allowing herself to be brought low by Kjartan’s insult in breaking his promise to marry her, Guðrún repays the hero in kind, symbolically taking him down a notch in society, making him look at the very least as if he is careless with his treasures.

Judith Jesch comments that for Guðrún, self-respect comes before love and that the female listeners to these stories in the medieval period may well have admired Guðrún’s strength and cleverness in not taking Kjartan’s treatment of her sitting down. Though her actions may seem selfish and conceited to some readers, Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is, in fact, a strong woman who is confident and demands respect in an age where it was certainly not guaranteed to a woman. We tip our hats to you, Guðrún.

Beth Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Iceland, where she works on the cultural significance of dairy products in the Middle Ages. You can follow her on Twitter @BLRFoodHistory

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Subscribe to Medievalverse October 8, 2022 at 12:16AM

Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *