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The hird, in Norwegian history
History of Norway
The history of human settlement in what is present day Norway goes back at least 11,000 years, to the late Paleolithic. Archaeological finds in the county of Møre og Romsdal have been dated to 9,200 BC and are probably the remains of settlers from Doggerland, an area now submerged in the North Sea,...

, was originally an informal retinue
A retinue is a body of persons "retained" in the service of a noble or royal personage, a suite of "retainers".-Etymology:...

 of personal armed companions, hirdmen or housecarl
In medieval Scandinavia, housecarls and sometimes spelled huscarle or houscarl) were either non-servile manservants, or household troops in personal service of someone, equivalent to a bodyguard to Scandinavian lords and kings. This institution also existed in Anglo-Saxon England after its...

s, but came to mean not only the nucleus ('Guards') of the royal army, but also developed into a more formal royal court household.

The term comes from Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

 hirð, again from either Old English hir(e)d 'household, family, retinue, court' or perhaps the old German cognate heirat 'marriage', both of which can mean "body of men". While the term is often used in Norse sagas
Sagas, are stories in Old Norse about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history, etc.Saga may also refer to:Business*Saga DAB radio, a British radio station*Saga Airlines, a Turkish airline*Saga Falabella, a department store chain in Peru...

 and law codices
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

, it is a medieval term - the sagas were primarily written down in the 12th century using the language of their own time. There is some uncertainty as to what the term replaced, although the term hlid or lið is used in Danish sources for the warrior following of Canute the Great
Canute the Great
Cnut the Great , also known as Canute, was a king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. Though after the death of his heirs within a decade of his own and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history, historian Norman F...


By the reign of Håkon IV (1204 – 1263) the Norwegian hird was no longer exclusively focused on the military function, and had acquired several subdivisions on continental patterns, with squire
The English word squire is a shortened version of the word Esquire, from the Old French , itself derived from the Late Latin , in medieval or Old English a scutifer. The Classical Latin equivalent was , "arms bearer"...

s (kertilsveinr, literally "candle-men", which were ceremonially required to hold candles at hird ceremonies), men-at-arms (hirdmenn) and knight
A knight was a member of a class of lower nobility in the High Middle Ages.By the Late Middle Ages, the rank had become associated with the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior....

s (skutilsveinr, literally "table-men"). In addition there were low-born gestir, who received only half pay and served as a sort of intelligence service, and were not allowed to sit at the king's table for supper, apart from Christmas
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday generally celebrated on December 25 by billions of people around the world. It is a Christian feast that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, liturgically closing the Advent season and initiating the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days...

 day and Easter
Easter is the central feast in the Christian liturgical year. According to the Canonical gospels, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. His resurrection is celebrated on Easter Day or Easter Sunday...

 day, when the entire hird was assembled and sections of their law code, the Hirdskraa
The Hirdskraa , 'The book of the hird', is a collection of laws regulating many aspects of the royal hird of late 13th century Norway. Compiled somewhere in the first part of the 1270s at the order of King Magnus VI , it was recopied widely in the 14th century. The earliest extant texts, the AM 322...

was read or recited. The upper levels of the hird were a recruitment ground for numerous royal officials, and most external officials were also incorporated into the hird. Somewhere during the reign of Magnus VI the older laws of the Hird were incorporated into the Hirdskraa
The Hirdskraa , 'The book of the hird', is a collection of laws regulating many aspects of the royal hird of late 13th century Norway. Compiled somewhere in the first part of the 1270s at the order of King Magnus VI , it was recopied widely in the 14th century. The earliest extant texts, the AM 322...

 law code.
During the reign of Håkon V (1299 – 1319) the Norse titles were dropped entirely in favor of continental titles. Emphasis was put on the Norwegian king's hird as a community of equals, a chivalresque corporation of warriors in which, technically, the king was the first among equals.


Hirdman (plural Hirdmen) is a word in Scandinavian languages (notably Norwegian
Norwegian language
Norwegian is a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Norway, where it is the official language. Together with Swedish and Danish, Norwegian forms a continuum of more or less mutually intelligible local and regional variants .These Scandinavian languages together with the Faroese language...

 and Swedish
Swedish language
Swedish is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along its coast and on the Åland islands. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish...

), literally for a member of a Hird 'household, family'.

It is used as a title, originally, even in Norse mythology, for informal companions or retainers of the powerful, in the unruly old (often still pagan) times especially as companions in arms, later more refined like courtiers, a development not unlike that of the thegn
The term thegn , from OE þegn, ðegn "servant, attendant, retainer", is commonly used to describe either an aristocratic retainer of a king or nobleman in Anglo-Saxon England, or as a class term, the majority of the aristocracy below the ranks of ealdormen and high-reeves...

 or the Roman comes
Comes , plural comites , is the Latin word for companion, either individually or as a member of a collective known as comitatus, especially the suite of a magnate, in some cases large and/or formal enough to have a specific name, such as a cohors amicorum. The word comes derives from com- "with" +...


When the Norwegian royal hird had developed into a formal court, hirdman became the title of the highest of its four ranks, those magnates who were allowed to seat in the royal council (the closest feudal equivalent of a cabinet) and thus had a say in governmental and other important matters.

Under the rule of Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling
Vidkun Quisling
Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling was a Norwegian politician. On 9 April 1940, with the German invasion of Norway in progress, he seized power in a Nazi-backed coup d'etat that garnered him international infamy. From 1942 to 1945 he served as Minister-President, working with the occupying...

, the word was again used in Norway in its original sense of 'warriors', as troops. See Hird (Nazi).

Some primary sources

  • Konungs Skuggsjá
    Konungs skuggsjá
    Konungs skuggsjá is a Norwegian educational text from around 1250, an example of speculum literature that deals with politics and morality...

    and Hirdskraa
    The Hirdskraa , 'The book of the hird', is a collection of laws regulating many aspects of the royal hird of late 13th century Norway. Compiled somewhere in the first part of the 1270s at the order of King Magnus VI , it was recopied widely in the 14th century. The earliest extant texts, the AM 322...

  • Norse Kings' sagas
    Kings' sagas
    The kings' sagas are Norse sagas which tell of the lives of Scandinavian kings. They were composed in the 12th to 14th centuries in Iceland and Norway....

    : Fagrskinna
    Fagrskinna is one of the kings' sagas, written around 1220. It takes its name from one of the manuscripts in which it was preserved, Fagrskinna meaning 'Fair Leather', i.e., 'Fair Parchment'. Fagrskinna proper was destroyed by fire, but copies of it and another vellum have been preserved...

    , Heimskringla
    Heimskringla is the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas. It was written in Old Norse in Iceland by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson ca. 1230...

    , Óláfs saga helga
    Óláfs saga helga
    Óláfs saga helga or the Saga of St. Olaf can refer to several different kings' sagas.*Oldest Saga of St. Olaf, ca. 1190, mostly lost.*Legendary Saga of St. Olaf, ca. 1210.*Óláfs saga helga by Styrmir Kárason, ca. 1220, mostly lost....

  • Sagas of Icelanders: Egils Saga
    Egils saga
    Egils saga is an epic Icelandic saga. The oldest transcript dates back to 1240 AD. The saga is centered on the life of Egill Skallagrímsson, an Icelandic farmer, viking and skald...

    , Fornmanna Sögur
    Hulda-Hrokkinskinna is one of the kings' sagas. Written after 1280 it relates the history of the Norwegian kings from Magnús góði, who acceded to the throne in 1035, to Magnús Erlingsson, who died in 1177....