Blue Ribbon

This article is reprinted by permission of the authors from the November, 1992, edition of the annual arts and sciences supplement of Pikestaff. Pikestaff is the newsletter of the East Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. This article was jointly written; the original idea, adaptation to an SCA context, and knowledge of court mechanics were Josh's; legal references and the "Norse perspective" were provided by Carolyn. During webbing, some minor improvements were made to formatting of the references; the rest of the text is unchanged.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

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A Tenth-Century Viking Peerage Ceremony

© 1992 Josh Mittleman (Arval Benicoeur) and Carolyn Priest-Dorman (Þóra Sharptooth)

When we learned that the Crown would elevate Þóra to the peerage at Pennsic XXI, we realized that we had a problem and an opportunity: the standard Society ceremonies don't fit her persona. To the extent that they are based on history at all, our peerage ceremonies attempt to re-create the thirteenth-century Anglo-French knighting ceremony with its vigil, dubbing, and investiture, and its focus on the Crown as the font of honor. Since re-creating the culture of her persona is so much a part of why Þóra was to receive her peerage, we felt it particularly important that her ceremony fit that culture. We thus faced the difficulty of finding some model for a Society peerage ceremony in tenth-century Anglo-Scandinavian culture; that culture has no analogue to later-period knighthood, orders of knighthood, or feudal hierarchy. We found our inspiration in the one formal ceremony that pervades early Scandinavian life: cases at law. Anyone who reads the sagas or studies early Scandinavian culture cannot help but be struck by the importance of legal contention; the Scandinavian upper classes were every bit as disputatious as twentieth-century Americans, and they had developed rigidly formal legal procedures derived from Roman law which regulated the relations between men of property.

We adapted the ceremony from Viking and Icelandic republic legal traditions. Our starting-point was the late tenth-century Icelandic murder trial recounted in Njal's Saga; to this literary account we added information from the Grágás, an early Icelandic legal code, which provided useful guidance for the conduct of a court case. We further consulted the sagas for accounts of the interactions between freemen and kings; a common theme of the sagas is the Icelandic traveller who wins fame and fortune at royal courts around the Viking world. We tried to compose a framework which would embody the flavor and nature of a lawsuit, but which would also fit the general pattern of Society peerage ceremonies. We believe that the result was a successful fusion of the two goals.

The general form of the ceremony is a lawsuit brought by Master Huginn Hrothgeirsson, speaking as Þóra's master, against the King and Queen of the East. He accuses the royalty of being remiss in their customary duty by failing to elevate Þóra to the peerage, as is her due. He calls witnesses to speak on her behalf and a jury of Companions of the Laurel rules in her favor. The Crown offers no defense, admits its error, and remedies its omission forthwith. This proceeding closely parallels the standard ceremony in both form and symbolism. Master Huginn plays the same part as the spokesman of the Order who begs the boon. The witnesses are the peers from each order who speak for her qualifications. As in all awards, the Crown has already consulted the order, so the consultation of the jury is a formality.

We considered that there might be some concern over the symbolism of a suit brought against the Crown. We believe this action was within our standard model of royalty: the Crown rules as a feudal sovereign, by contracts of fealty with its vassals. Fealty is a legal contract, with rights and obligations on both sides. One of the obligations placed on the Crown is to give due recognition to those who are deemed worthy. Another is to consult with the orders and to hear their recommendations. It suggests no dishonor to the Crown for a peer to ask for a formal hearing in these matters. Lawsuits were the lifeblood of feudal society, and it only enhances our re-creation to show the Crown as a just sovereign, adjudicating the complaints of its subjects.

It would be impossible for us to conduct a legally correct court case according to the Icelandic model. The lengthy and often repetitious proceedings are not suited to the Society court venue. Cooper's Lake is not furnished with a Law Rock, nor does the East Kingdom boast enough Vikings to people an Althing.[1] Realizing our limitations, we decided to adopt whichever elements fitted in with Society court, adapt what we could, and give up the rest; this gave us both a script to follow and the built-in opportunity for improvisational theatre so appreciated in our courts. Where the two major sources differed on procedure, we usually followed Njal's Saga for two reasons: First, the text of Njal's Saga usually followed a simpler and less formal court procedure than the Icelandic law codex of Grágás, which contains some clearly identifiable thirteenth-century elements, and it was also easier to adapt, being effectively a transcription of the proceedings. Second, Njal's Saga undoubtedly enjoys a much wider readership in the Society than Grágás; more people would be likely to understand a ceremony drawn from it than one drawn strictly from an Icelandic legal text. Happily, the two texts agree on most of the main points of procedure; the author of Njal's Saga clearly took care to depict the court case vividly and authentically.

Sending to Vigil

The peerage ceremony currently used in the East typically divides into two parts: sending the candidate to vigil, and investing the candidate with her new rank. Not every candidate sits vigil, but it is nearly universal among the Chivalry, and has become more common among the other orders in recent years. Þóra wanted to sit vigil, and we found a convenient way to build that into the framework of Icelandic law. Icelandic law required that a complaint be proclaimed in the presence of witnesses before it was adjudicated.[2] Using this proclamation as the ceremony of sending to vigil was a natural match.

Þóra's peerage ceremony was scheduled for Eastern court on Wednesday evening at Pennsic, and Þóra wished to sit vigil Tuesday evening. Therefore, we arranged for the Order of the Laurel to be invited to gather in the Merchant Quarter at 7pm on Tuesday, just before a performance by the Debatable Consort. Once the Crown was present and the Order assembled, Master Huginn stepped forward and proclaimed his complaint:

Huginn: I, Huginn Hrothgeirsson, name Master Edward Zifran of Gendy, Mistress Ellisif Flakkari, Sir Kikuchi no Tsurunaga, and Countess Aidan ní Leir, to witness[3] that I invite Ruslan and Margaret, King and Queen of the East, to hear my presentation of this case. I swear that I bring this suit properly on behalf of my dependent Þóra Sharptooth,[4] who is my apprentice as I was apprenticed to Master Charles Stuart O'Connor, who was squired to Count Jahn of Outman, who was squired to Duke Merowald de Sylveaston,[5] and against Ruslan and Margaret, King and Queen of the East, inasmuch as they have withheld due and proper advancement and recognition[6] from Þóra Sharptooth, by failing to elevate her to the peerage and to admit her into the Order of the Laurel, and have thereby deprived her of station and respect due to her by virtue of her skills, services, and accomplishments. I proclaim this complaint publicly by daylight that it may be heard in the court of the East where it properly belongs.[7]
Crown: This complaint is proclaimed in accordance with law, and will be heard at the next session of the court of the East. Until then, let Lady Þóra be conducted to a place where she can consider the merits of her case.
Þóra was led out by a delegation of Laurels, and the herald announced where and when other peers could attend her vigil.

Investiture Ceremony

Þóra's investiture was the last item in Eastern court. Þóra, her lord Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson, Huginn, and the four witnesses gathered at the back of the hall. When Huginn was called into court, he began by establishing his identity and greeting the Crown.

Huginn: I am Huginn Hrothgeirsson of Calontir, Master of the Laurel, and I thank Your Majesties for receiving me in Your court.[8]
As Huginn named his witnesses, they came into court and stood ready to one side.

Huginn:[9] I, Huginn Hrothgeirsson, name Master Edward Zifran of Gendy, Mistress Ellisif Flakkari, Sir Kikuchi no Tsurunaga, and Countess Aidan ní Leir, to witness that I invite Ruslan and Margaret, King and Queen of the East, to hear my presentation of this case. I swear that I bring this suit properly on behalf of my dependent Þóra Sharptooth, who is my apprentice as I was apprenticed to Master Charles Stuart O'Connor, who was squired to Count Jahn of Outman, who was squired to Duke Merowald de Sylveaston, and against Ruslan and Margaret, King and Queen of the East, inasmuch as they have withheld due and proper advancement and recognition from Þóra Sharptooth, by failing to elevate her to the peerage and to admit her into the Order of the Laurel, and have thereby deprived her of station and respect due to her by virtue of her skills, services, and accomplishments. I call on my witnesses to affirm that I proclaimed this complaint publicly by daylight that it be heard in the court of the East where it properly belongs.

The First Witness steps forward.

Edward:[10] Master Huginn named me as his first witness and Mistress Ellisif Flakkari as his second witness, and Sir Kikuchi no Tsurunaga and Countess Aidan ní Leir as his third and fourth witnesses. He cited us to testify that he gave notice of this action against Ruslan and Margaret, King and Queen of the East, for withholding due and proper advancement and recognition from Þóra Sharptooth by failing to elevate her to the peerage and to admit her into the Order of the Laurel, and thereby depriving her of station and respect due to her by virtue of her skills, services, and accomplishments. He gave notice in public by daylight, in the same words he used here today, and asked that it be heard in the court of the East. This evidence we duly give, and we are agreed on it.[11]
Crown: This is proper and within the law. Let the Order of the Laurel of the Twelve Kingdoms be called forth to hear the merits of this case.[12]

The herald summoned "at least twelve members" of the order.

Huginn: I call my witnesses to testify to the merits, skills, and accomplishments of Þóra Sharptooth.

The witnesses came forward one at a time. Each spoke the following line (more or less), and then spoke in support of the candidate.

Witnesses: Huginn Hrothgeirsson called me as his [number] witness to testify to the worth of Þóra Sharptooth.[13]

After the testimony, Huginn closed his case and asked for a judgement.

Huginn: I have proclaimed my case before this court, and I now ask that proper judgement be executed: that Þóra Sharptooth be admitted to the Order of the Laurel to take her place among the peers of the East.
Crown: Do you Companions of the Laurel judge that this case is sound and that this judgement is merited?

The order mumbled assent. The royalty continued.

Crown: We offer no defense, for We see that We have indeed been remiss.[14] We shall repair this omission immediately. Let the lady herself be called forth.

The herald summoned Þóra into court. The normal Laurel investiture followed, with medallion, cloak, and scroll. The scroll was read first in Old Norse, then in English. Þóra swore her fealty in Old Norse, and the royalty replied in kind.

As Þóra retired from court, Huginn offered thanks to the royalty for Their actions and friendship.[15]


We believe that the ceremony was a success. Þóra was very pleased with it, and the populace and the participants enjoyed it. A few people at Eastern court offered very kind and flattering comments ranging from "I hope I have a ceremony like that some day" to "it reminded me of what the Dream is about."

The ceremony of sending to vigil was definitely a success. It was small but no smaller than other similar ceremonies at past Pennsics. It was attended primarily by Þóra's close friends, who particularly appreciated the effort to tailor the ceremony to her persona.

No ceremony works out exactly as it was planned, and we fully expected last-minute changes, omissions, and inclusions when we actually got into court. We tried to minimize the chance of confusion by limiting the number of people with scripted speeches. Only Master Huginn and the first witness, Master Edward, had speeches longer than one or two lines. Master Huginn read his lines from a waxed tablet; the Crown had a prompter to give them the matter of their lines. In the context of a formal court case, where a mistaken word could easily lead to outlawry for any party, it seems reasonable for the participants to speak from prepared notes. This choice succeeded in avoiding the problems we foresaw: there was little stumbling over lines and no delay while the participants groped to recall complicated speeches. The witnesses spoke naturally and spontaneously. On the other hand, the minimal scripting did produce a problem that we had not foreseen. The opening speeches of the ceremony, delivered in ringing tones by Huginn and Edward, captured the attention and interest of the populace. They saw something clearly different from the standard ceremony, and reacted well to it. I believe that many of the populace recognized that they were seeing a re-creative effort, and appreciated it. However, when the witnesses began giving their testimony we lost some of that atmosphere. Most of their speeches were not specifically Norse in style, and as they followed one upon the other, some of the "periodness" was sacrificed. I believe we could have avoided that problem by having Huginn or the Crown speak a sentence or two of legal formula to re-establish the mood.

In the final analysis, we are both pleased with the ceremony as it actually worked out. We offer this article in the hope that others will follow this lead in researching and adapting medieval ceremony. We invite anyone who wishes to use this ceremony to contact us for advice, and Arval enthusiastically offers his help to anyone interested in similar efforts for other cultures.


  1. In Icelandic law, cases were proclaimed at the Law Rock at an annual Assembly of land-holders (Althing). At the Assembly, Quarter Courts met to adjudicate cases from each quarter of Iceland. [back]
  2. "Men must publish today and tomorrow all the suits which are to go before a Quarter Court." "Today and tomorrow" means the Thursday and Friday of Assembly week; jury challenging began on Saturday, and Quarter Courts began hearing cases on Sunday or Monday. Grágás, tr. Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins, in Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1980, Section K-21, p. 54; hereafter referenced as "Grágás", with the section number of Konungsbók and page number of the translation. [back]
  3. "If a man wishes to publish a suit against someone, he is to name three witnesses or more -- 'I name witnesses to witness that I publish a suit against him'--and name him by name, and state the suit, and the penalty he claims he is liable to" (Grágás, K-21, p. 54). Huginn names one witness from each of the East's four peerage orders: the Laurel, the Pelican, the Chivalry, and the Rose. In recent years, the East has commonly followed Calontir's lead in having a member of each peerage order speak for the candidate; casting these representatives as witnesses was a natural step. [back]
  4. "He is to swear it on oath that it is his case he is presenting" (Grágás, K-31, p. 65). The case is Huginn's by virtue of the fact that Þóra is his dependent because she is his apprentice; that is, the responsibility lies with Huginn to press the case. (For religious and personal reasons, Þóra elected not to include any oaths in the re-created legal procedure.) [back]
  5. This section is a bow toward a portion of the law which we were unable to include in the ceremony. The prosecutor and defendant had the right to challenge jurors on the grounds of relationship by either consanguinity, marriage, legal involvement in the case, or "spiritual kinship" in the case of Christians (Grágás, K-25, pp. 59-61). The citations of elaborate genealogies which this element of the law required, and of which Icelanders seemed inordinately fond, are hinted at in Master Huginn's invocation of Þóra's "feudal ancestry." [back]
  6. The charge of withholding gifts which it is in their power to grant is one to which Viking Age chieftains would be especially vulnerable. The virtues of generosity, openhandedness, and hospitality were regarded as basic to the Viking personality and were widely attested to in both saga and mythological literature. We felt that these qualities corresponded well to the Society's philosophy that it is both the privilege and the duty of the Crown to recognize nobility and achievement. [back]
  7. A similar speech is recorded in Njal's Saga: "Mord named witnesses -- to testify that I give notice of an action against Flosi Thordarson for unlawful assault, inasmuch as he assaulted Helgi Njalsson at the place where he assaulted Helgi and inflicted on him an internal wound, a brain wound, or marrow wound, which did cause Helgi's death. I demand that Flosi be sentenced to full outlawry on this charge, not to be fed nor forwarded nor helped nor harboured. I claim that all his possessions be forfeit, half to me and half to those men in the Quarter who have a lawful right to receive his confiscated goods. I refer this manslaughter action to the proper Quarter Court. I give lawful notice of it, in public, at the Law Rock. I give notice of an action, to be heard at this session, for full outlawry against Flosi Thordarson, as assigned to me by Thorgeir Thorisson.'" Njal's Saga [Brennu-Njals Saga], trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1960), ch. 141, p. 298; hereafter referenced as Njal's Saga. [back]
  8. We did not write an exact script for this speech, preferring to leave it to Master Huginn. Two good but very different models for interactions between a free man and a Scandinavian king can be found in "Gunnlaug Wormtongue" and "Auðun and the Bear." [back]
  9. The following speech is almost identical to that used in the vigil ceremony. This is both convenient, since Huginn only has to memorize one speech, and true to the examples of court cases that we find in Njal's Saga. An Icelandic court case opened with a recitation of the procedures followed in the earlier stages of the case. Procedure was important; pleading a case without following proper procedure was itself a serious crime. Therefore, the case was reiterated and witnesses summoned to verify each step. We have abbreviated this process (Njal's Saga, especially chapters 141-142, pp. 298-309). [back]
  10. In Njal's Saga, witnesses came forth to verify each procedural step, and recited speeches which echoed the prosecutor's presentation in much the manner that this speech echoes Huginn's (Njal's Saga, ch. 142, pp. 302-303). As a practical consideration, we chose Master Edward as the First Witness because he is a professional actor, who could be counted on to learn his lines, and a notorious ham, who could be counted on to make the most of them. [back]
  11. The last two sentences were modelled on Thorbjorn's testimony, which includes "He [Mord] referred this action to the proper Quarter Court. He gave lawful notice of it, in public, at the Law Rock.... He gave notice of it in the same terms as he used in stating his charges, and as we have now used in our testimony. We [the two witnesses] have now given our evidence accurately, and we are both agreed on it." (Njal's Saga, ch. 142, p. 303) [back]
  12. The Crown takes the role of the judges in this case, and the Order serves as the jury. An Icelandic jury, on the other hand, was composed of men nominated by the various chieftains: "It is lawful to call on a chieftain to form a panel of twelve before the court goes out and also at the court." (Grágás, K-26, p. 63) [back]
  13. This line is modelled on the opening words of Thorbjorn's testimony, "Mord named Thorodd as the first witness and me as the second, and I am called Thorbjorn." (Njal's Saga, ch. 142, p. 302) From practical considerations, we chose to give the witnesses very short scripts and otherwise to allow them to speak as they saw fit. We could not count on each witness being prepared to memorize and recite a long speech, and Society tradition values the spontaneity of this sort of speech. Later in this article, we discuss the pluses and minuses of this choice. [back]
  14. Having the Crown default was a neat way out of the tricky situation created by a legal challenge to the Crown. We found this to be a natural analogy to the Crown granting the boon in the traditional peerage ceremony. [back]
  15. At this point in a model exchange between a free man and a Scandinavian king, the man would offer some sort of wordfame (praise or perhaps a poem in his honor) to the king; the king in turn would reward the man with a gift. This practice is widely attested to in the literature, and "Gunnlaug Wormtongue" and "Auðun and the Bear"are only two of the many examples of it; Egil Skallagrimsson, for instance, is also said to have been enriched by this sort of interaction (see Egil's Saga). [back]


"Auðunar Tháttr Vestfirzka" [Auðun and the Bear], trans. Gwyn Jones, in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, World's Classics edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. (ISBN 0-19-281528-8)

This short story illustrates the interactions of an Icelander with the kings of Scandinavia. Each king he visits gives Auðun costly gifts.

"Gunnlaugs Saga Ormstungu" [Gunnlaug Wormtongue], trans. Gwyn Jones, in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, World's Classics edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. (ISBN 0-19-281528-8)

This short saga about Gunnlaug Wormtongue's ill-fated love for Helga the Fair was included because it also illustrates the interactions of an Icelander with various foreign kings and chieftains. Gunnlaug visits kings and jarls and declaims poetry to them, which is accounted a great honor; in return they are honor-bound to reward him with costly gifts.

Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I [Grágás], trans. Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. University of Manitoba Icelandic Studies, vol. 3. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1980. (ISBN 0-88755-115-7)

This book contains a translation of the laws relating to the proper conducting of an Icelandic Althing, which are found in the manuscript called Konungsbók, ms. 1157 in the Old Royal Collection, Copenhagen.

Njal's Saga [Brennu-Njals Saga], trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1960.

Njal's Saga, the finest example of the Icelandic saga, traces a violent feud between two wealthy Icelandic families, leading to the murder of Helgi Njalsson and the capture and trial of his killers. The trial was the literary basis for much of our work.

This page was created on 19 September 2000 and last updated on 19 September 2000.

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