Sagas and space (1): placing space

My first MOOC of the year, after a couple of false starts, may well be Sagas and space: thinking space in Viking age and medieval Scandinavia. It’s going to be an arm’s length affair for the sagas – medieval history is emphatically not my period, and TBH I never associated Vikings with Denmark before moving here, but the potential for yet more input about s/p(l)ace hereabouts isn’t to be sniffed at.

On Coursera, eight weeks from 7 April, 7500 signed up, 60% female. It’s being run by a team from the University of Zurich, and why not. Lovely place, reeks of class. Anyway, back to the sagas…

Explore with us the fascinating ways of thinking about space in Viking Age and Old Norse culture. Together we will discuss how space is conceptualised and depicted in diverse Old Norse genres and traditions.

Space is a basic category of human thought. Over the last decades it became a very productive scientific category, too. Thinking about spaces, places, locations, or landscapes covers a spectrum of meanings from the concrete and material through to the abstract and metaphorical.

In this course we explore various categories of space in the field of Old Norse culture. Together with international guest scholars from different fields we want to find out how mythological, heroic, historical, geographical spaces or landscapes look like in written and oral narratives, but also on picture-stones, runic inscriptions, paintings, woodcarvings and manuscripts. Another promising question could be to ask about the relationship between texts, images and maps and the process of mapping itself.

Spookily enough, the 16th International Saga Conference in August is hosted by the universities of Zurich and Basel, with the theme of…sagas and space. Good plan, tying a MOOC and conference together.

Sagas and space branding (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Week 1: space as a key element of narration and representation

Other than primary school my only exposure to Vikingery is probably the Scottish section of Robert Macfarlane’s The old ways, plus some reading I did after our trip to the Faroes last June, with a nod to Orkney in 2012. Not forgetting the local burial mounds…so the Scottish links are of some interest, although I identify more as a Celt. Hence one of the recommended resources, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage, a blog and accompanying Icelandic Saga Map by Emily Lethbridge, may well prove helpful. More excitingly, there’s a glossary to come – it’s arrivé, such as it is!

Note this is about ‘space’, not ‘place’.

From the introductory remarks by Jürg Glauser:

  • part of the category ‘space’: historical space, political space, economic space, bodily space, postcolonial space, social space, technical space, medial space, cognitive space, landscape space, urban space, touristic space, poetic space, epistemic space (see Stephan Günzel, plus What is the spatial turn?)
  • alludes to Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope, encountered in Karl Schögel’s Moscow, 1937: “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”, and the new to me International Institute of Geopoetics (and Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, whose journal is called Stravaig)
  • areas of Old Norse‐Icelandic culture for closer examination in terms of their spatiality:
    • graphic materiality – the spatial dimension of writing, eg runes, Jelling stones
    • the topology and topography of the Old Norse Eddas – Iceland as a terra nova, discovery and colonisation
    • memory – always connected to a temporal dimension, and hence also to the spatial; a chronotope, an immediate connection to the Icelandic landscape (classical theories about memory see places (loci) as one of the most important instruments for the creation of memory)
    • connections between space and text at commemorative monuments, such as the location of the Battle of Stiklestad in Norway
    • utopias and dystopias during the Middle Ages – aspects of spatial semantics such as centre, periphery, diaspora or liminality enjoy a great popularity in Old Norse studies
    • nature as landscape in medieval poetry and prose; the two spatial categories of the pleasant place (locus amoenus) and the terrible place (locus terribilis)

I love intro week, everyone’s in a holding pattern. Lots of enthusiastic Vikings fans, who may be struggling with the introductory remarks – it’s not exactly FutureLearn style – although there have been complaints that week 1 was content lite. I did listen to a 2013 edition of R4’s In our time on the Icelandic sagas to get me into the groove – lots of links to follow up if I feel so inclined IDC.

Social: class map; there’s a Facebook group up and running and @abbie_thorne has made a Twitter list; no Twitter action to speak of.


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