Even if you consider the Pseudo-Sallust a forgery — and many scholars do — the next piece of evidence for the existence of the kaunar is powerful due in no small part to the character of its author. St. Ansgar (c. 801 to 865 AD) was called “the Apostle of the North” for his work in bringing Christianity to the pagan Danes. The son of a noble Frankish family, after his mother’s early death, Ansgar was brought up in Corbie Abbey, and was educated at the Benedictine monastery in Picardy. According to the Vita Ansgarii (“Life of Ansgar”), when the little boy learned in a vision that his mother was in the company of Saint Mary, his careless attitude toward spiritual matters changed to seriousness (“Life of Ansgar”, 1). His pupil, successor, and eventual biographer Rimbert considered the visions of which this was the first to be the main motivation of the saint’s life.
In 829 in response to a request from the Swedish king Björn at Hauge for a mission to the Swedes, King Louis the Pious (Charlemagne’s son) appointed Ansgar missionary. With an assistant, the friar Witmar, he preached and made converts for six months at Birka, on Lake Mälaren. It was during this time that he had an encounter with what he called a “skraelingr”. In The Dialogues of St. Ansgar, a collection of letters written to the Abbot of Corbie, he describes this chance meeting which took place while journeying around the marshy shores of Lake Mälaren. The creature was plundering a pagan burial site when St. Ansgar happened upon it:
“. . . crouch’d like an ape, black-nailed hands tearing at the loam. The creature did not notice me, at first, but went about its task, craggy brow furrowed, black hair hanging in limp strands around its shoulders. It shoveled aside a handful of soil. I stepped closer. This thing, this skraelingr crowed suddenly as it dug the putrefying skull of a dead pagan from the earth . . .” (The Dialogues in Translation, R. Z. Szeles, University of Chicago, 1938.)
The word St. Ansgar uses to describe this creature is, of course, familiar to lovers of Viking-era history. The Old Norse term skraelingr (pl. skraelingar) was also used by the Greenland Norse to describe the indigenous tribes of Vinland (i.e.: America). It is related to the Icelandic skraelingi, which means barbarian or foreigner.
Next time, we’ll continue our survey of textual evidence with the Rathmore Fragment (also known as “The Lesser Gylfaginning”) and the celebrated combination Old English/Danish manuscript kept in the British Museum and known to scholars as “Cotton MS Vespasian D.vi”.