Sagas and space (6-8) and wrap-up

Week 6 looked at spatiality in visual media, specifically stone, wood and vellum (light edit):

This week again deals with visual media. On the one hand, we focus on picture stones and rune stones and how they develop a concept of space. Kate Heslop gives us an insight in her research on framing strategies and narration on such monumental sources. Oh the other hand, Lena Rohrbach speaks about the specific spatiality of medieval manuscripts, shedding some light on many questions which had to be answered at the beginning of the book culture of the North. Although rune stones and parchments do not have much in common at first glimpse, they are intertwined in their self-referential discussion of space and their function as media.

What are runes, exactly? From the glossary: the individual letters of the runic alphabet, the oldest and only native system of writing used by Germanic peoples. This alphabet, called the futhark after its first six letters (th = þ), is attested in an older version from about AD 150-750 and in later variants. The older runes encompassed 24 letters, whereas the younger runes, emerging sometime before 800, only contain 16. Latin letters, which came in the wake of Christianity, competed with and gradually replaced runes. Only in Scandinavia, because of the late christianization (10th an 11th centuries), did runic writing continue into the Middle Ages.


In normal parlance, a couple of vids looking at a few picture stones and the layout of manuscripts, potentially thought provoking in the digital age. Judging by the wrap-up this one didn’t really catch fire.

Week 7, sticking a load of words together, is entitled Space – place – landscape: diaspora, folklore, archaeology (edited):

We now return to the Icelandic and North Atlantic landscape, widening the perspective of space with the help of more general concepts. First, Judith Jesch introduces the concept of ‘diaspora’ as a new field of research in Scandinavian studies, then Terry Gunnell examines notions of space, place and landscape in connection with folklore studies, addressing questions of ritual and performance. We also point to a project from another discipline, archaeology. The Mosfell Archaeological Project (vids) is an interdisciplinary research project aimed at constructing a comprehensive picture of human adaptation and environmental change in southwestern Iceland.

So, random corner once more. Looks like week 3 is going to be the standout, with a nod to week 1 for scaring people off.

Judith on The Viking diaspora:

  • diaspora – originally a term applied to the expulsion of the Jews from Israel and their dispersal around the world; nowadays commonly used to explain a variety of modern phenomena arising from the migration of peoples around the globe – the idea of migration is key to diaspora, but diaspora is much more than just migration
  • the sagas arise precisely out of that ‘consciousness of being connected to the people and traditions of a homeland and to migrants of the same origin in their countries’ that is the primary characteristic of diaspora
  • there was a continuing connection between Iceland, the homelands of the settlers, and other parts of the world, such as Orkney or Greenland, also settled at the same time by ‘migrants of the same origin’, which both enabled and stimulated the writing of the sagas

The difference between colonisation and diaspora becomes clear when one thinks about Viking culture. There was not merely a succession of exodus, immigration, establishment of a new society in new surroundings – Norse culture in the Atlantic was characterised by continuous relations with its origins. ‘Parent culture’ and genealogical affiliation is one of the key issues in Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature and culture. At times the conservatism that lies in the term led to an unwillingness to adapt to new physical and environmental surroundings, as was the case in the Norse settlements in Greenland.

There are many possible networks of spatial meaning in Viking Age and medieval Iceland. By telling and performing stories about what happened in specific places, the Icelanders of the settlement period turned the seemingly ‘meaningless’ nature of the country they found at their first arrival into a landscape which was full of meaning, ‘filling’ the empty land with stories and memories of places.

Week 8 has the title of Language and space: spatial thinking in language; landscape and place names (light edit):

The topic of our final week proceeds seamlessly into last week’s discussions about the naming of concrete places in the landscape. Stefan Brink introduces the field of place name studies and delivers some concrete Scandinavian examples. Paul Widmer brings a more abstract spatial perspective into focus, sheding light upon different conceptualizations of spacial thinking in a language by the example of Old Norse Icelandic.

Place name studies aka toponomy are/is interesting, but the 10 minute lecture didn’t yield up much beyond dividing names into nature names and culture names (with subdivisions for settlements: hamlets, farms…nations | fields), offering up the concepts of typologies and chronologies and affirming the need for insights into cultural geography to be able to contextualise place names properly. See Linguistic patterns in the place-names of Norway and the Northern Isles as an introduction, plus the British Museum’s Discover Nordic place names map and the Viking Network on placenames. Update from serendipity corner: tying place names in with memory and mapping we have Mapping, Beirut-style: how to navigate a city without using any street names.

Danish sources: (Names in Denmark) and Stednavne, plus Forstadmuseet’s List of local placenames and piece on the etymology of Hvidovre. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks strays into this area – see his word-hoard, plus The landreader project. Lieven Ameel has looked at toponyms as triggers for a sense of place. Latest finds: Key to English place names and female placenames analysis.

It’s a thing

See THING Sites and the THING project, a transnational World Heritage nomination, based on an expansion of Iceland’s existing World Heritage site Thingvellir. The Shetland Amenity Trust has a place names officer, wow. Assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, eg Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in the Sherwood Forest, and obv, Folketinget.

Update: see Alex Sanmark‘s Viking law and order: places and rituals of assembly in the medieval north (2017), plus The Assembly Project.


The peer assessment took the form of a 450-500 word essay, incorporating primary source and secondary course material, based on one of the discussion questions from the course. Quite neat, but judging from the discussion forums the hard core is pretty small.

So, what was it all about? There was a lack of a narrative thread, it felt like a random collection of pet projects hung round the broad theme of Sagas and space dressed up in academic language. Kudos for the non-natives for running the thing in English, but this can obfuscate even for a native speaker, so who knows what confusions may have arisen among non-native speakers.

Have to confess to being even more confused about who the Vikings were than before (eg did the Vikings conquer Denmark in the same way as they did Yorkshire? this article isn’t really helping) – it’s still not my period. (On which note, the local burial mounds and the sword at Avedøre are fun, but way too early for this context, obv.) Generally, Vikingery is a Scandi angle I have avoided up to now, but there are connections of interest to follow up, perhaps by revisiting our trip to the Faroes, a year ago this week.

Update: for the record, there’s an annual Norse in the north conference (@NorseintheNorth)…Neil Gaiman is big on the NorseA Kalfskinni: sagas and the space of literature by Torfi Tulinius…

Sagas and space (4-5): cosmography and cartography

Week 4 was entitled Cosmography: descriptions of the world in medieval texts:

This week’s main topic will be the cosmography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of pre-Christian cosmology in Week 1…The central question of all the sources is: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs? Two famous works will be at the centre of our attention, the so called Itinerary by the Icelandic Abbot Nikulás, and the so called Carta Marina map by the Swede Olaus Magnus with its sea monsters.

Abbot Nikulás’ itinerary, aka Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan (Wikipedia), was published around 1157 and takes the form of a guidebook for pilgrims about routes from northern Europe to Rome and Jerusalem. Gosh. The wrap-up states that “many of the contributions you posted on cosmography and intertextuality were extremely good” – the number of contributions may have fallen off a cliff, but leaves a fully engaged hard core. Expanding on this, “a nice definition of intertextuality can be found in some of Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Julia Kristeva’s writings…Intertextuality means that a text uses another text (more or less overtly and explicitly) and thus speaks with the voice of the other text…the Bible is of course the main text which was and is re-used and re-writtten in the Christian tradition.”

Week 5 was entitled Cartography: mapping the North:

This week’s topic will be the cartography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of the textual cosmography from last week. This means that we will look at some of the same sources, although from different angles. The central question is still the same: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs?

The videos take e a closer look at some of the more prominent medieval and early modern maps in the North, in particular Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (Wikipedia), made in the first half of the 16th century, ie a bit on the late side, but clearly Jürg Glauser’s specialist subject.

No headache inducing theory in weeks 4-5, hence rather less interesting to a non-Vikingophile.

As it happens the latest issue of Granta has the theme of the map is not the territory, ie “the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is, beyond our faulty memories and tired understanding”, with pieces that “remind us of the human cost associated with the divergence of map and territory” in, for example, Iraq, and on the present state of Russia: “Communism…made the distinction between image and reality a political art form” (source: introduction). Of the open pieces, The archive is a splendid bit of experimental writing in the from of a visualisation which provides “a means of understanding the essential aspects of a literary text, avoiding the possible confusions, or a proliferation of diverging interpretations, to which a conventional approach could give rise”. It would be interesting to tie these ideas in with the texts and maps on offer in the MOOC.

Sagas and space (3): discovering new spaces

Week 3 was entitled Discovering new spaces: geographical and social aspects; memory and space:

This week’s topic will be the social space and the historic landscape in which the Icelandic saga literature is set. Another very interesting facet of space we will hear of is its connection with memory.

Pretty heavy going, with two theoretical dollops, starting with a lecture on the space of literature by Torfi H Tulinius:

  • title borrowed  from French literary theorist and essayist, Maurice Blanchot, who wrote The literary space (1955) – literature is a locus where you encounter and transcend the limits of meaning and understanding; is this a space in the usual sense of the word?
  • Old Norse-Icelandic literature is very much concerned with space (ie how the country was settled; horizontal) and time (ie history; vertical) – these axes intersected in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries
  • all space is mental – we do not have immediate access to it, so we have to represent it, in our consciousness and in our cultural artifacts, such as literature
  • there is also space which we neither represent nor experience, but which is nevertheless part of our existence; for example the space of literature which exists in the sagas
  • some of the texts display evidence of fluidity (fluid space, liminal space, spaces of uncertainty) – the nature of the world changes as the character goes from one place to another; also from one time to another; transcending traditional categories, literature as a special place where the limits of language are tested
  • the sagas were a public space, testing the meanings and representations of society, particularly in the liminal times around the settlement of Iceland and conversion to Christianity
  • the space of literature as an alternate space, where things that didn’t happen can happen and where meanings and ideas can be tested

Next, space and memory by Pernilla Hermann (Aarhus):

Memory and space are connected in a variety of ways. Memory is best constructed on the basis of place – space can preserve memory, it can structure memory, and it can trigger memories. Two traditions bring together space and memory:

  • collective and cultural memory – memory places, places that construct and preserve memories; here the focus is on collective identity; places are something external – social groups, cultural symbols, collectively shared, external
  • the art of memory – a rhetorical tradition, where places are mnemonic devices or mnemonic tools; places are constructed in the mind of individuals and are internal. – rhetorical tradition, mnemo-technical device, individually constructed, internal
  • ancient authors distinguished between  natural memory and artificial memory, with artificial memory based on a cultivation of natural memory and two dominant principles:
    • mnemonic places – constructed in the mind of the one who trains his memory; very often architectonic structures such as a theatre or palace
    • mnemonic images – constructions of things that is supposed to be remembered, images of these things to be remembered are placed in various locations in the architectonic structure
  • when you have to recollect your memories you enter the space and go to the various images that you have to remember
  • artificial memory influenced art and literature – the sagas came into being in a transitional culture between orality and writing, and we can expect the people in this culture to have explored and used a rich variety of mnemonic aids
  • how did memory function among the Nordic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries? does Old Norse literature represent artificial memory? is Old Norse literature to some extent structured from mental spaces?

So bring on Emily Lethbridge‘s Icelandic Saga Map and accompanying blog, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage. From Emily’s vid:

  • maps and narratives are age old explanatory systems or frameworks which help us to understand the world and our place in it
  • all stories are maps of a kind, and maps in turn can tell stories; Robert Tally (Spatiality, 2013; Literary cartographies, 2014) : to draw a map is to tell a story
  • from a literary critical perspective mapping as an approach is a means of textural reduction and abstraction, prompting or helping us to ask different questions
  • we organise information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way; maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions and consider more possibilities (Peter Turchi, Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer)
  • digital maps can be used to present literary worlds as spaces through which characters move and the places and events in a narrative are set, and also to present the historical worlds in which bodies of literature were produced and transmitted; the medieval Icelandic sagas are fundamentally rooted in the Icelandic landscapes, and many places in them can be identified around the country today
  • mapping the sagas works on two levels; at the narrative level and at the level of presenting and visualising their transmission in space and time
  • at the narrative level, a map displaying places named in any single saga gives all kinds of insights into the literary functions or significance of different kinds of places and spaces inside the landscapes and enhances our understanding of the ‘narrative logistics’, such as the relative distances between places or the progress of journeys made by characters
  • the map highlights the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas over time and underlines some of the methodological issues in this kind of literary cartography; hyperlinking places named in the in the sagas to points on the map suggests that the relationship of saga text to modern day landscape is simple, but the correlation between the identification of specific places in the Icelandic landscapes today with those named in the sagas is often far from straightforward
  • landscapes have changed as a result of natural processes, not least volcanic eruptions and the various ensuing consequences of this, and also on account of human intervention of different types; farms have been abandoned, resettled, and place names have been lost or moved around; sometimes the political, ideological, or economic stakes are high with regard to identifying a certain place in the modern day Icelandic landscape as a place in a saga
  • the map is therefore also a resource that tries to highlight these mismatches, ambiguities, or disputes over the identification of saga sites
  • the process of developing the saga map brought into focus the extents to which places in the sagas exemplify what Edward Soja
    calls real and imagined places (Thirdspace, 1996), because of the way that the sagas are at once both history and fiction, ie fictionalized or literary renderings of historical events that are said to have taken place in identifiable local locations
  • one key preoccupation of past scholars investigating the topography of the sagas has been the extent to which local landscapes have been accurately or inaccurately represented by saga authors, but if one accepts that the saga sites around Iceland are both real and imagined places, real and imagined simultaneously, one can begin to better understand the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas, and to examine how the sagas have been transmitted via or through the landscapes, as well as being copied in manuscripts
  • this gives us insights into the broader sociocultural functions that the sagas have filled over time; many place names around the country reference the sagas or saga characters but aren’t mentioned specifically in the  texts; these places play a crucial part in the reception of the sagas, and are a part of what might be described as the sagas’ outdoor mode of transmission rather than their indoor mode of transmission, acting as mnemonic triggers for episodes in the sagas; while one was, say, moving through the landscapes, details from the sagas would be brought to mind
  • until recent times this spatial way of reading the sagas was just as important as the reading of the sagas from manuscripts in an indoor domestic setting; the landscape itself is, in fact, just another kind of saga manuscript, and is, in fact, a palimpsest with layers of saga memory and narrative detail built up over and across it over time
  • the possibilities that the Icelandic landscapes have offered over time for reading and rewriting the sagas is one of the reasons for their enduring popularity over time in Iceland, and arguably also one of the most remarkable characteristics as a body of internationally acclaimed literature
  • tweets from #maptext18: one | two | three

New in the glossary: in Icelandic the term ‘saga’ generally means a story told in prose. As a linguistic term it also refers to a large collection of stories from the Icelandic and partially Norwegian Middle Ages, ie ‘saga literature’. The sagas are the most extensive of the three main categories of Old Icelandic literature. The handwritten tradition starts in the 12th century, but most manuscripts date from the late 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

From the wrap-up:

Saga sites in the concrete Icelandic landscape help to support and create memory. This space related memory can be individual, collective and/or cultural, so space and time are part of different levels. Landscape as described and memorized in the sagas sometimes belongs to different layers of time which becomes clear when the narrator of a saga comments that a certain spot is called this and this today, but it was called differently in those times, or that this place is not inhabited any longer today; older layers of the history of a region may thus become visible and one might call such phenomena palimpsests.

Sagas and space (2): constructing mythological space

Week 2 was on constructing mythological space and the Eddic cosmography:

We will start with the ‘beginning’ – the creation myths of the Eddas and how, in Old Norse-Icelandic mythology, the universe was imagined before the creation of earth and heaven. This will lead us to the question how the cosmology of the pagan myths was structured with regard to creating, shaping, changing space. Our recommendations for reading material include some of the most important texts of the whole medieval literature, such as the Eddic ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’, or ‘Völuspá’, and the first parts of the Prose Edda. These are stories that are absolutely essential for the understanding of the Old Norse-Icelandic world and its culture, and we will come back to them again and again.

I think not…the glossary tells me that the term Edda refers to two works from the Icelandic Middle Ages: the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda consists of c30 poems in Old Icelandic, assumed to be based on stories from the 9th to 13th centuries passed down orally and written down in the 13th century. The Prose Edda, supposed to be a handbook for the tradition of skaldic poetry, was presumably put together in the second quarter of the 13th century and was at least partially written by Snorri Sturluson (1178/79-1241). Blimey.

Skaldic poetry is a corpus of poems and single verses composed between the 9th and 16th centuries, mostly found in the sagas and the Prose Edda. Significant characteristics are alliteration, complex syntax and a high amount of metaphors.

While we’re here, some basics:

  • Viking Age – the word ‘Viking’ has come to be used in a general sense to describe the Scandinavian world and peoples in the period 800-1100 AD; several etymologies have been suggested: derived from the region Viken in southern Norway; from the substantive vík, ie people lurking in a cove or fjord; from wic or vicus, giving people attacking (or frequenting) ports of trade, and so on; “the Viking Age began when Scandinavians first attacked western Europe and it ended when those attacks ceased”; but see The Viking age began in Denmark
  • Medieval Scandinavia – in Scandinavia the beginning of the Middle Ages is generally dated around 1050/1100 AD, when Christianity had fully overtaken and the first states had been founded; characterised by a rising level of textualisation; elsewhere the Middle Ages are usually considered to be the time period between classical antiquity and the early modern period, starting after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD) and ending in the 15th/16th century (the Reformation, discovering the Americas, the invention of the printing press)

The wrap up states that there have been “critical voices in some of the less enthusiastic posts”, but haven’t been able to zero in on them, which as a MOOC watcher is a shame. Discussions highlighted:

  • the understanding of Old Norse mythology in general – are the Eddic narratives of an ultimately pagan, pre-Christian, pre-medieval, Germanic, popular origin, or should they be studied as a body of texts situated in a later Christian, medieval, learned, written, Scandinavian culture? evidence for both, and the answer is dependent on individual fields and approaches; eg comparative religion, medieval literary/cultural history, archaeology, linguistics, philology, history… see the parallels between Classical and Norse mythology and creation myths, the role of medieval etymology in explaining historical connections, the structure of the eddic universe etc
  • from the Movements and Borders thread – the essentially mediating function of mythical narratives (which according to the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is one of the main tasks of the myth); the important aspect of (spatial, mental, physical) liminality will be taken up again in Week 3, hurra!
  • the interrelation between space and time in Eddic mythology – see scene in the beginning of Gylfaginning: Gangleri spoke: “What was the beginning? And how did things start? And what was there before?” Gangleri’s question about the beginning and origin of times is answered by High, Just-as-high and Third by referring to very concrete and spatial phenomena. Time, it seems, cannot be expressed without recourse to space – a fact that reminds us of Mikhail Bahktin’s chronotope.

So, that’s the mythical basis and origins of spatial thinking in Viking Age Scandinavia done with.

Here’s some related material from my Faroes notes:

  • the Faroese language evolved from Old Norse, came with the first settlers around 800 – in 1380 Danish became the official language, and the language used in churches, ie written language, from 1538 (first Faroese text published in 1823, recognised as national language in 1948)
  • St Olav is patron saint, celebrated on Olavsøka, 28-29 July; he was a Norwegian king who fell at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and helped Faroese hunk Sigmundur Brestisson overthrow his heathen rival
  • Færeyinga saga (c1200) – earliest known literature about the Faroes, published in 1832

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.