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.

Runes

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:
definitions

  • 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: Navn.ku.dk (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, and my own Faroese glossary. 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.

Wrap-up

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)