14.11.07, Mortensen and Lehtonen, with Bergholm, eds., The Performance of Christian and Pagan Storyworlds

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Bradford Lee Eden

The Medieval Review 14.11.07

Mortensen, Lars Boje, and Tuomas M. S. Lehtonen, with Alexandra Bergholm. The Performance of Christian and Pagan Storyworlds: Non-Canonical Chapters of the History of Nordic Medieval Literature. Medieval Identities: Socio-cultural Spaces, 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. x, 448. ISBN: 9782503542362 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bradford Lee Eden
Valparaiso University

There are many substantive studies on what are known as the great masterpieces of Nordic medieval literature: skaldic poetry, the Swedish and Danish Rhyme Chronicles, the classical Scandinavian ballad, kings' sagas, or the Visions, to name a few. The extensive introduction to the present volume sets forth that the editors are trying to get away from these well-known and well-researched standards in order to examine smaller and lesser-researched forms of Nordic medieval literature, particularly those related to rituals and ritualized speech. These texts and musics have been overlooked and even ignored, because they have not fired the imagination or national tendencies of the modern era. The concept of marked speech and music in a ritualized context opens up new pathways for studying Nordic storyworlds in the medieval period, focusing on verbal performances specifically related to the Christian rather than the pagan past, although the two are intertwined throughout many of the genres and literatures examined in this study (the definitions of storyworld and pagan for the purposes of this book are provided in the introduction).

The intertextuality and internationality of the medieval Scandinavian community focuses the research of three languages: Finnish, Old Norse, and Latin; in addition, Low German, Icelandic, and the Faroese languages also provided strong influences on the texts studied here. Just to give an example, the development of the Finnish language was influenced by four linguistic factors: 1) written Latin, 2) written and spoken Low German, 3) written and spoken Swedish, and 4) spoken Finnish. Within the introduction, the editors provide a survey of Nordic medieval literature, with a comparison of how these tomes relate or don't relate to the emphasis within this particular research area. In addition, the editors document what they feel is missing from current Nordic medieval literature research: 1) a study of Nordic Medieval Latin as distinct from Classical Latin, 2) a study of liturgical performative texts as a primary influence, and 3) the power that the introduction of writing and the book had on Scandinavian society. Documentation then ensues on the late eleventh century as a key turning point, when the written book, expansion and reorganization of episcopal structure, and a local scribal culture combined to result in an explosion of manuscripts and missionary activities throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Three interesting personalities involved in this explosion of knowledge are provided as examples: Danish nobleman and Archbishop Anders Sunesen (d. 1228), English-born Bishop Thomas of Finland (d. 1248), and nobleman and Archbishop Oystein Erlendsson (d. 1188). The introduction finishes with an interesting comparison of this time period in Scandinavia with Greek culture c. 700 BCE, citing the work of Eric Havelock (1903-1988) on the move in Greece from an oral to a literate society as the primary influence on the development of Western thought.

There are four overall subheadings under which the contributions are subdivided: I. The impact of Latin song, book, and service; II. Christian discourse framing pagan stories; III. Educating and disciplining the community; and IV. Oral poetics through the social spectrum. Section I focuses on the performance of the divine services in medieval Scandinavia, and the impact of the Latin books and the liturgical performance surrounding their use. Aslaug Ommundsen begins with a detailed discussion of how the medieval liturgy was introduced into Norway, providing a new storyworld to the North from another culture. Ommundsen examines all aspects of liturgical performance, including keywords, context, and music, a mix of both narrative and acoustic drama that assisted in the development of local saints' cults and an interest in the storylines of saints already present in the Christian church. Current scholarship on surviving liturgical fragments in Finland, Sweden, and Norway assists in this reconstruction. The contribution by Tuomas Heikkila focuses on the development of Latin literacy in medieval Finland. Ties with the churches in Uppsala and Linkoping, along with a clergy from mainland Sweden, resulted in an influx of liturgical texts into Finland in the twelfth century. Given that no writing system existed in Finland prior to the twelfth century, including runes, the production of sacred books became a primary occupation. The establishment of a Bridgettine monastery in the fourteenth century, along with a strong Dominican presence, assisted in the development of a vernacular language in the Turku diocese. Tuomas M.S. Lehtonen provides a specific example of how both Latin and vernacular speech flourished next to each other with the Latin poem Ramus virens oliuarum. This hymn text, composed in the early fourteenth century by the Bishop of Turku, Ragvaldus (printed in 1582), was translated into the Finnish vernacular by a local parish priest Hemmingius de Masco in 1616. Lehtonen details the differences in style, syntax, and focus between the versions, along with the intermingling of pagan and Christian undertones and storyworlds.

The next three chapters are part of Section II, examining how pre-Christian stories and figures appear in Christian writings during the pagan/Christian transition period. Jonas Wellendorf analyzes the prologue of a non-canonical version of the prose Edda. This longer and more learned version is usually ignored and rarely studied, but Wellendorf indicates that it must be subjected to the same rigorous examination as the canonical version. Probably copied at a Benedictine monastery in Iceland in the mid-fourteenth century, the interpolations in this version provide rare glimpses into the pagan past, especially related to the characters of Zoroaster, Saturn, and Odin. A particular episode in Snorri's Edda, that of Thor's fishing expedition in which the Midgard serpent is caught, has parallels in Latin Christian literature as Henrik Janson illustrates in his contribution to this book. The language Snorri uses to tell this story is very similar to accounts of God capturing Satan found in an Old Icelandic translation of the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus as well as the Icelandic Homiliubok, a twelfth-century book of sermons. The proliferation of the cult of St. Olaf in Finland is documented by Lauri Harvilahti, both in terms of social and geographical trajectories. At the same time that the Christian story of St. Olaf was circulating in the twelfth century in Finland, pagan venerations of deities like Elijah, Ukko, and St. Olaf as thunder gods were happening as well. The effect of both oral poetics and liturgical veneration of Christian saints had a profound effect on the mixing of pagan and Christian deities in the cultural dynamics of peasant life in medieval Finland.

Section III contains four chapters documenting how persuasion, both cultured and violent, was used in the education and consolidation of the new Christian storyworld in Nordic society. Aidan Conti shows how the Old Norse Stave Church homily from the early thirteenth century had a two-fold purpose: as a written text for literate priests to use for the dedication of a church, but also as a bridge between vernacular and Latin learning, oral and written, anonymous and authorial storyworlds which were in flux and change at this particular time period. Slavica Rankovic examines the performativity of selected Icelandic family sagas, in the context of the social norms surrounding these stories and in relation to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iceland. Irma-Riitta Jarvinen discusses the cult of St. Anne, the mother of Mary, in Karelian and Finnish folklore. Through the analysis of charms and proverbs, Jarvinen shows that St. Anne was both a spirit of the woods in Karelia and associated with peasant women's work before Christmas; another example of how the pagan and Christian storyworlds mixed and mingled in the late fourteenth century along the Finnish coast. The Latin Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, written in the early thirteenth century, is an eyewitness account of missionary activities in the North, and Linda Kaljundi takes the time to tease out the many concepts of frontier society, crusading, and paganism in relation to ritual and performance that are contained in the text, as well as the performativity of the text itself.

The last section focuses upon poetics (mostly oral) that were shaped and shared by the lower strata of Northern society. Pertti Anttonen examines a vernacular account of the martyrdom of Bishop Henry, Finland's saint, in relation to the Norwegian story of St. Olaf's death, local myths, ancient and biblical sources, and more recent Nordic versions. The psychology of the traitor motif which runs through biblical (Judas) and Finnish (Lalli) folklore provides an interesting twist to the study of a late medieval song about Bishop Henry and Lalli with a supposed Finnish background. Else Mundal then explores two genres that have few manuscript sources, but provide tantalizing evidence through allusion and existing terminology--female mourning songs at funeral rites, and obscene verses recited at harvest or other fertility celebrations. Mundal's research shows that the use of canonical sources cannot always be counted on to reconstruct or represent poetic forms that were a part of social and ritual norms neither memorized nor written down. Finally, Senni Timonen discusses a number of songs from nineteenth-century Karelia and Ingria about Mary, the mother of Jesus, picking berries; given that women picking berries were quite common in the North in medieval society, what is interesting about these song versions is how the Virgin Mary becomes pregnant with the Savior by eating a berry, with its allusions to fertility and sexuality. Timonen shows how the border region where these songs originated (between countries with Roman and Orthodox rites) probably indicates a much older origin for the songs, and even though they are not directly attested to in the medieval North, the editors felt that including this chapter served to illustrate the many lost poetics of long ago that have not survived for current scholars to research.

Overall, I found this to be a very insightful and groundbreaking book. Examining the lesser-known literatures of Old Norse, including sermons, various surviving intertextual and interreligious prose and poetic sources, liturgical performative texts and the interplay between pagan and Christian influences, along with various social and cultural influences has provided the foundation for more research in this area in the future. I found the extensive framing of the research within the book by the editors in the introduction quite refreshing and illuminating. A must-read for anyone whose scholarship touches on the medieval North and its influences and sources.

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Bradford Lee Eden

Valparaiso University