The Medieval Review 15.01.10

Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir. Minni and Muninn: Memory in Medieval Nordic Culture. Acta Scandinavica: Aberdeen Studies in Medieval Nordic Culture, 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. x, 241. €75.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503549101 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

William Sayers
Cornell University

In a foreword to this collection of ten essays, Jürg Glauser states that "the history of human culture can only be understood when its memorial performances are adequately taken into account" (vii). Intimately tied to memory are its grounding in topology and realization through a diverse mediality. He contends that the Nordic cultures of the Viking Age and Middle Ages were acutely aware of the nature of memory construction and of the functions of memory. "The creation of the past and of history" (x) is effected through both remembering and forgetting, and the latter poses a particular challenge to scholarship. In literary artifacts, intertextuality may be viewed as one text speaking with the voice of another: "the whole system of skaldic kennings, at the centre of Old Norse-Icelandic poetry, could be defined as one large memory machine" (x).

In their introduction to the essays, the editors call attention to the emic vocabulary of memory in medieval Nordic culture, minni "memory," muna "to remember," forn minni "ancient memories," minnunga men (Old Swedish for "men with good memory"), Óðinn's world-scouting ravens Huginn and Munnin (mind and memory) and the etic notions of transmission and media, preservation and storage, forgetting and erasure, authenticity and falsity, and the important distinction between personal and communal memory. The editors invited contributors to address questions of the origins of the symbols and metaphors of memory in the North, their instrumental dimension, strategies for the construction of the past through both oral and literate means, the articulation of discourse on remembering and the remembered, memory and identity (personal and collective), and, quite simply put, attitudes toward the past. The book is divided into two sections: "Memory and Narration" and "Memory and History."

The collection opens with Pernille Hermann's "Key Aspects of Memory and Remembering in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature," which finds a consistent set of memorial preoccupations in a wide range of prose literary genres (historical, mythological, etc.). Less an intrinsic cultural memory than an import, classical rhetoric (like later foreign models) could have stimulated Nordic memory and memory techniques. The book was an innovative technology. Hermann notes the frequent pairing of memory and wisdom, as "incarnated" in Óðinn. Citing Stephen A. Mitchell, the author invites readers to consider these as "partially overlapping categories" (15). In Óðinn, memory and thought combine to maintain order in the universe. Comparably, forgetting can be an unconscious release, a willed commitment to oblivion, or simply the consequence of a dearth of storage capacity. There is a persistent kinetic image here, information "falling" out of memory. Memory seems more vulnerable than thought, as expressed in Óðinn's concern for his two ravens ("I tremble more for Munin"). Memory and thought are also represented in Mímir and Hœnir.

Hermann also introduces the important link between memory and place, further discussed in later essays. While this had a parallel in classical mnemotechnics, it is widespread as a feature of both remembering and memorialization in many cultures. Other kinds of mnemonic images (particularly corporeal) are also discussed. Memory and knowledge of the present are prerequisites for the complement that is foresight, knowledge of the future. In an example that Hermann might have plumbed more deeply (26-27), the terms of a contract are made memorable by one of the parties extemporizing a bit of verse, in this pre-literate social environment. Here the appeal of poetic devices as well as such interlocking detail as alliteration, rhyme, word-play are engaged in the service of creating a memorable utterance and thereby contributing to guaranteeing the fulfillment of the contract by engaging communal memory and ethical standards. Hermann offers a definition of cultural memory that may be usefully recalled throughout the collection, despite the tendency to over-explicitness that marks this scholar's writing: "cultural memory metaphorically implies that culture has a memory of its own, i.e., that memory is not merely to be conceived of as a phenomenon that resides inside individuals, but as a collectively shared phenomenon, which takes external form, i.e., in poetry, narrative, rituals, or other representational forms" (31). One would have welcomed the author's comments on glory as a counter-force to oblivion.

In "Memory and Old Norse Mythology," John Lindow discusses how cultural memory is renewed after catastrophe, in the gods' case, after Ragnarök. They regroup to compare memories of the attack of chaotic forces and to reform the community; objects and places are used as focusing sites of memory; giants are thenceforth excluded from ritual and the cultural discourse. To earlier discussed kinds of memory, Lindow writes of processual memory, e.g., ritual, magic chants, behavior, and habit. One might also include a mastery of poetics (as distinct from the narrative or other content of poetry) as a dimension of processual memory. Against the limitations of giants to simple experiential memory, the gods also exploit semantic and process memory as techniques to preserve mythological knowledge (frœði). Here one might also introduce the concept of "nested" memories: humans remembering the words of poets who drew on cultural memory to relay the memories of the gods.

Fresh concepts for memory studies are introduced in Margaret Clunies Ross's "Authentification of Poetic Memory in Old Norse Skaldic Verse." How did poets vindicate the status of evidence and create an impression of the veracity of the statements embedded in their verse? "The creation of texts, whether oral or written, depends fundamentally on the human memory, because textual composition can never be absolutely contemporaneous with the events or persons that inspire its creation" (60-61). Three criteria determine the skald's success in assuring the desired reception of his work: 1) his position vis-à-vis his subject matter, e.g., eyewitness, poet under royal patronage, 2) the nature and status of the subject matter to be remembered/memorialized, and 3) the genre of the poem, itself dependent on the foregoing criterion. One might venture a fourth: evident mastery of the cultural capital as stored in communal memory, craftsmanship. The conventions of skaldic metrics both ensure a memorable text, in two senses, and provide a guarantee of authenticity, if not complete trustworthiness. Clunies Ross goes on to examine several formal poems and examples of lausavísor, and prestigious subjects such as King Óláfr Tryggvason. In poems not quasi-contemporary with events, the poet makes his emotional engagement the guarantee of authenticity.

Placing rhetoric next to authenticity, the volume moves on to Kate Heslop's "Minni and the Rhetoric of Memory in Eddic, Skaldic, and Runic Texts." This wide-ranging study passes in review the Norse vocabulary for memory and remembrance at the transitional moment between oral and inscriptional culture, and the literate age. In rune stones, the individual's act of remembrance is given permanence in the physical monument, while skaldic verse draws on both communicative memory (as the bearer of living memory) and cultural memory (to which it then contributes) in the form of myth compressed into kenning. Paradoxically, kennings with their highly graphic element are rarely self-referential in the sense of thematizing memory itself or other abstractions. Complementing the conception of the body as the storehouse of memory, there are "drinks of memory" to stimulate it. Heslop provides an informed discussion of óminnishegri "the heron of forgetfulness" that visits the poet in his cups, still a puzzling image in Hávamál. It is here associated with drinks of forgetfulness as "strategies to counter the memoria of the text, by papering over the cracks between the divergent bodies of narrative material in the [Eddic] compilation" (83). Heslop goes on to catalogue the phenomena that are deemed worthy of memorialization, variously battles, gifts, wrongs, loss, often seeing memory as serving the discourse of fame and infamy. The rigorous conventions of skaldic verse give it a permanence approaching that of the rune stone ("the longevity of the message," 87)--provided that a later culture has some extrinsic reason to remember the poem at all. The question of mediation rises to the fore when Heslop examines memory and the mining of the deep past, so often intimately tied to community identity and imagined charter values. Both the kenning system and undressed stone have antecedents more remote than any one person memorialized and also a farther future, so that the culture of the North could draw on media of greater permanence than ephemeral human life.

Russell Poole writes on "Autobiographical Memory in Medieval Scandinavia and among the Kievan Rus'." While autobiographical memory originates in personal experience and preserves it in mediated forms that we are only now beginning to understand, it is can also find expression in social interaction with others. The narrative realization of autobiographical memory was an integral part of early northern culture, "given voice in the lapidary format of skaldic verse" (126). Poole identifies the predominant aspect of public memory in medieval Scandinavia as "the commemoration of the deeds of kings and other rulers" (109). But memorialization also implies commodification, the contents of the poet's memory emptied out from a mental form into an oral one. But the autobiographical dimension of memory is also, a bit surprisingly, prominent, as the essay well illustrates. This serves in the creation of the poet's persona. Examples show that, as in the classical world, the cultivation of memory was seen as an important part of the formation of virtuous and prudent character, and thus preconditions the actions of the future.

Part II of the collection, "Memory and History," opens with Rudolf Simek's "Memoria Normannica," which passes in review Norman texts from the eleventh century onwards that reflect awareness of the Scandinavian traditions of the "homeland." Included are legendary origin stories (the Scandinavians in Troy, the Germanic peoples in Scandinavia), "enhanced" memories of celebrated raids in Sicily, even of original Scandinavian customs as related to marriage and less formal unions. Some recognition of affinities with other Germanic peoples is also apparent, while the connection to Normandy remains strong. One section of the essay examines a tall tale about Norman canniness in conquering castles, typical of later European uncritical whitewashing of events from an age of conquest. Simek's statement that "occasional facts are being reinterpreted by Christian historians, mainly for the sake of literary effectiveness rather than for ideological reasons" (151) pays too little regard to the writers' fundamental objective, viz., proving that the southern Normans did have a legitimizing earlier history--just like all great nations.

This manipulation of memorabilia if not memory is more explicitly recognized in Stephen A. Mitchell's "The Mythologized Past: Memory in Medieval and Early Modern Gotland." Two historical moments that writers on Gotlandic history, "men of memory," presented as determining for the island community's identity and history, and grounded in the preserved landscape and monuments, are studied: the conversion to Christianity and the onslaught of the Black Death. The essay is to be welcomed in particular for its critical effort to weigh negative evidence, the conscious effort of historians to elide "uncomfortable" memories of the bubonic pandemic and responses to it. But even a commissioned and constructed history, with both learned and popular elements and not always internally consistent, is not static, as successive redactors shift emphasis and interpretation. Over time insularity is recast as independence.

Mitchell's theme of memory and textual production is pursued in Gísli Sigurðson's "Constructing a Past to Suit the Present: Sturla Þorðarson on Conflicts and Alliances with King Haraldr Hárfagri". Sturla's version of Landnámabók contains several differing stances toward the ninth-century Norwegian king as shaped by the perspectives and objectives of various regional political and social factions in the Iceland of the early thirteenth century, particularly in the sensitive area of the historical depth of land claims. The author is not impartial but also not overly partisan. But problems in determining the historicity of traditional accounts of the settlement add a further complicating factor ("the different written reflections of oral memory," 177). As elsewhere in Europe, a fundamental, if never stated, objective of historiography is exposing the deep historical roots of contemporary legitimacies. Concurrently, present-day problems are seen to have past parallels. Differing redactions of Landnámabók reveal a conscious manipulation of the written record, one that even went so far as to remove manuscript pages. "The conflicting information and the lost evidence both indicate the sensitivity of the knowledge and how potentially important it may have been for those concerned to gain control of the written medium in order to permanently construct a past that suited the present" (188). And by "the present" we should understand "present political objectives."

"Minnunga mæn: The Use of Old Knowledgeable Men in Legal Cases" by Stefan Brink returns to the notion of bearers of cultural memory, human archives, in which advanced age seems uncritically equated with truthfulness ("veneration of wisdom," 205). The case in point involves a land dispute on the Norwegian-Swedish border in the thirteenth century. The names of boundary markers were preserved in rote memory and orally in lists with some few mnemotechnical devices, not by historians but by interested parties in an "instrumental" use of memory. The collection concludes with Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir's "Legal Culture and Historical Memory in Medieval and Early Modern Iceland," which deals with oral and written modes of transmission of memorial culture. The early Icelandic law courts are characterized as a space of legal remembrance, whose ethos was projected forward onto later historical writing. Initially recited at annual thing meetings, law codes were subsequently read aloud after commitment to vellum by an increasingly specialized group of learned men, whose familiarity with canon law also exerted influence. The list of law-speakers also functioned as a time-line for other historiographical narratives.

This is an excellent collection and it perhaps inevitable that the first part should make for more exciting scholarly reading than the second. Yet many essayists here write of memory without making a clear distinction between content and process, between memories and remembering. In its juxtaposition with munnin "memory," we should perhaps see in wisdom not so much a body of knowledge as the workings of the mind, the analysis and synthesis of data, and judicious conclusions. This invites a model not of overlapping categories (as per Hermann and Mitchell) but of two coordinates, diachronic remembering and synchronic mental processing, thought at work across a broad field of information and personal and community remembrance. Memories, whether naturally or artificially recalled through mnemotechnics, are grist for the mill of the mind. This contribution from the North will strengthen the fiber of the burgeoning of memory studies. Still, as these studies illustrate, in pace with our further elaboration of a critical terminology for memory studies, we need to develop a comparable lexis for the study of propaganda.

Copyright (c) 2015 William Sayers

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