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Social Networks in Norse Sagas

Though they were only written down in the 13th and 14th Centuries, much of the Icelandic Sagas read like histories of Viking settlements in Iceland several hundred years before, including realistic-sounding journeys of exploration and discovery. Some of them seem rather less plausible; see the Saga of Erik the Red, where Erik’s son is shot in the stomach by a one-legged man-creature on the shores of North America who escapes by hopping up a stream. A great deal of scholarship is devoted to the not-insignificant task of determining to what extent the events really happened. Now a new statistical study concludes that the social networks described in the sagas at least are realistic, sharing many qualities with ones in the real, modern world.

The sagas lend themselves well to this kind of analysis—they read a little like the newspaper of a very eventful village, or maybe a deranged family scrapbook. They tell of the activities of well over a thousand folks, many of them relations, who are in varying degrees of warfare with each other and are constantly undertaking strange and bloody journeys overseas. And you rarely hear about these people just once. Individuals who have starring roles in one saga crop up elsewhere as bit characters, like cousins in the background of a group photo. It’s one of the sagas’ more charming features.

The researchers, who are based at Coventry University in the UK, looked at the connections between characters in 18 sagas, a total of over 1,500 people. They calculated certain characteristics about the networks within five of the most populous sagas and throughout the group of sagas as a whole. The social networks tend to be what network scientists call “small world,” the researchers found—the number of hops between any two given people on the network isn’t large, and if one person knows two other people, those two people are very likely to know each other as well. Modern social networks also tend to be small worlds, and, like most of the saga networks, they also are assortative, meaning that people who are connected to each other tend to have a similar number of connections....

Read entire article at Nautilus