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21.09.26 Morawiec et al. (eds.), Social Norms in Medieval Scandinavia

21.09.26 Morawiec et al. (eds.), Social Norms in Medieval Scandinavia

The first two decades of this century have seen an explosion of essay collections on topics in Old Norse-Icelandic language, literature, and culture that would have been beyond the conceptual range of scholars a century ago: literary genre, hagiography, masculinity, emotion, sanctity, memory and forgetting, cross-cultural relations in the North Sea zone, to name only that first come to this reviewer's mind. The reader might then have expected that the volume here under consideration, on a topic that would be welcomed by students of the medieval North, would follow the lead established by these precedents and open with the exposition of a theoretical framework within which to consider social norms in early medieval Scandinavia, all the more so because of the importance of law and hóf "moderation" in the culture, and chronic feud in the communities of chieftains, farmers, poets, and the subaltern--the latter always a point of social reference. How could norms in force in Norway and in Norse settlements in the Celtic realms be adapted in new communities in a land with no prior population? How much could practically be generated ex nihilo? Could feud work both for and against social cohesion? How did norms change? How were violations sanctioned? What might be the impact of a new faith on religious and social practices? The editors' "Preface" goes only a modest distance in addressing such matters and serves chiefly to introduce individual essays. Some important topics, however, are established. The editors question how to address normative behavior and reasoning, "which are mainly preserved orally, performatively, or ritually, and rarely in a written or material shape, making their transmission dependent on ongoing cultivation" (ix). Studies must turn to "the immense corpora of preserved texts and objects [that] can reveal the regularities and recurrence of daily life of both social elites and ordinary people, embodied in a set of implicit norms that determined behaviour and common understandings of social coexistence" (ix). Values such as honor, prestige, loyalty, fidelity, manhood, authority, and duty are claimed as more important than prescriptive norms superimposed by wishful-thinking elites and rulers. The sagas of Icelanders "constitute the main source of insight into the normative phenomena of morality, ethics, and legality." But this focus on a single literary genre, whatever its conventions of impartiality and cool realism--what we might call the diegetic view from the middle distance--is to disregard the equivalent rich and early resources of saints' lives and homiletic works in the vernacular, where social norms, or the ideals to promote them, may find a very different definition.

In the following, essays that attempt to set out a theoretical framework for the processes of norm formation, maintenance, violation, and change will be discussed first, followed by summaries of those with a more tenuous connection to the volume's objectives. This will obscure the book's organization into three parts, which are "Pre-Christian Ritual Practices and Literary Discourses," "Reception and Cultural Transfer," and "Outsiders and Transgressors." In homage to a senior scholar, the opening essay of the collection by Jón Viðar Sigurðsson and entitled "The goðar and 'Cultural Politics' of the Years ca. 1000-1150" is listed as an "Introduction" but does not truly exercise that function. It does however spotlight the important role played by the major churches and by the Haukdælir and Oddaverjar, the two most important goðar families of the free state. One of the most striking of the author's observations is the number of churches and schools constructed by economically powerful families, who saw there both enhanced social power and economic gain (through tithing), and the concurrent number of vernacular saints' lives associated with these institutions and their small communities (11). This has important implications for the emergence of the secular sagas and qualifies the analytical view that would rather box them in a strict chronotype, colored by nativist assumptions.

In one of the most rewarding essays in this collection, "Discipline or Punish? Travels and Outlawry as Social Structures in Medieval Iceland," Marion Poilvez argues that "many forms of outlawry did not function as outright exclusion, but were social structures made to respond in a didactic way to anti-social behaviours, with the goal of re-educating wrong-doers, or at least providing them with a fitting function to suit the dynamics of a given society" (xiv). In a major re-adjustment from what a modern readership has seen as romantic but lonely outlaw destinies, qualified inclusion and discipline was the rule in outlawing, not punishment and absolute exclusion. The well-recognized possibility of outlawing the socially deviant was a form of social insurance, a provision not lightly applied and then only when other remedies failed. In "Cultural Transfer of Cognitive Structures of Fortune in the Latin and Old Icelandic Literature and Languages: The Case of the Metaphor Fortune is a Wheel," Grzegorz Bartusik provides an ample register of occurrences and likely cultural transfer from classical and Christian sources of this "cognitive metaphor" but little on how it formed a framework of anticipation or post-factum interpretation in medieval culture. Was there some friction between "native" notions of personal destiny (the metaphor of warp and weft) and the spatially differently organized, mechanistic wheel image? The author's conclusion is dark: "This determinism undermines and negates human efforts, leading to pessimism and fatalism" (105). The translated Rómverja saga, with material from Lucan and Sallust, figures prominently in the discussion.

Yoav Tirosh examines the commemorative function of saga in "Dating, Authorship, and Generational Memory in Ljòósvetninga saga: A Late Response to Barði Guðmundsson." Þórðr Þorvarðsson is proposed as author and the saga is marked by its "functional value as a form of cultural memory" (xii), which downplays its more immediate purposes in propaganda and local dynastic politics in northern Iceland in the late tenth and eleventh centuries. The two recensions have figured importantly in the Freiprosa-Buchprosa debate. Citing a vertical approach to memory, Tirosh calls the saga rich in information on the goðar system, Norwegian-Icelandic relations, sexuality, gender, and honor. On balance, the saga, "emphasizing the interactions between the generations rather than the younger generation erasing their ancestors and imposing their own stories on their deflated characters" (151) is judged "illusive" (150).

Łukasz Neubauer studies Sigurðr Fáfnisbani's potential for conflation with the figure of Saint George on the carved portal doors of the Hylestad stave church. Entry on the left, exit on the right. Comparable depictions of Christ's judgment, and the gate of heaven and maw of hell are important here. The imagery is situated in the larger "theological programme" (169) of providing parishioners with solace and warning. This notion of utilitarian art is pursued in Michael-Irlenbusch-Reynard's essay on "Jómsborg and the German Reception of Jómsvikinga saga: Introducing Masterhood as a Social Norm." It concerns early twentieth-century school and popular retellings of the the warrior brotherhood, all infused with the tension between German ideas of a pure Aryan race and its embarrassing prior location in Scandinavia. The author calls this an instance of "steered reception" (174). Curiously, the historic fortress's geographical location on the island of Wolin, historical German territory but not without Slavs, fades before the erection of a fairy-tale castle with its autocratic ruler. Alexander J. Wilson continues the motif of misrepresentation in "The Unfamiliar Other: Distortions of Social Cognition Through Disguise in Two Íslendingasōgur," which addresses Droplaugarsona saga and Fóstbrœða saga. Yet social cognition is not coincident with the social norms of the volume's title, although it could be argued that an unconscious awareness of norms affects the cognitive process in its concrete and social setting. Here violent conflict between communities finds its roots in intentional distortions of image and their effect on social cognition. Worth noting is that social disguise in Icelandic story-telling is down-scale, not up, it being easier to play a grotesque or fool than a worthy farmer or chieftain--Others, not Betters. The examples cited are expedient ruses, not long-term assumptions of a false identity, a rather different matter. The socially destabilizing confidence trick creates an opening for tactical advantage.

Keith Ruiter reviews "A Deviant Word Hoard" as "a preliminary study of non-normative terms in early medieval Scandinavia." The subtitle fails to distinguish whether it is the lexis (e.g., tabu words) or the referents (social outcasts) who are intended. A bit of both, as it happens. Presumed sexual deviance is the most focused social sphere, in the larger social context of law, honour, and morality, although the last-named concept is--in this reviewer's view--of doubtful application for the imagined pre-conversion period in question. The dichotomy here is normativity and deviance. The lexis studied is relatively familiar to students of the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas: terms that impute homosexual behavior to men, with special opprobrium reserved for the passive partner. Such charges need have no factual basis to be offensive and dishonoring socially and actionable legally. The essay does not interrogate the sources of the condemnation of non-heterosexual activity (in which we must include bestiality) in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Coupled with the sexually deviant are the "wolves" and outlaws, although these represent legal not social prescription, which rather clouds the issues underlying the essay. Poetic defamation and poles of defamation move the discussion from norms and law to magic, not fully explored here. A point well taken concerns the express need to defend oneself against these various accusations, such response also to be seen as integral to social normativity.

Rebecca Merkelbach's subject is "Enchanting the Land: Monstrous Magic, Social Concerns, and the Natural World of the Íslendingasōgur." Her claim is that practitioners of sorcery are depicted as socially monstrous figures operating through and within the natural world in order to cause harm. But saga sorcerers are generally only social misfits, e.g., with dubious Hebridean antecedents, and their magic is an extension of petty crimes. The author's association of them with revenants is chiefly in the paranormal dimension of activity and its effects, not in any ontological similitude. As well, the connection between weather-working sorcerers and worsening climactic condition in Iceland seems tenuous. Simon Nygaard, using the Edda's Grímnismál as context, argues for public performances of poems in the interests of social cohesion and, in this specific case, in associating tyro warriors with the figure of Óðinn and his gradual self-revelation in the course of the poem. There the speaker/performer assumes the stature of the paramount god just as the listener is to become a fully fledged fighter. In "Social margins to Karlamagnús saga: The Rejection of Poverty," Aleskandra Jochymek observes how the Christian obligation of alms and charity toward the impoverished is pointedly made to the Emperor Charlemagne in the Latinized version of Frenchchansons de geste but is wholly rejected in the Norwegian translation/adaptation, the context for this shift in morality being the fear of encouraging the vagrant poor, who should be the responsibility of their local communities. Norse society, seemingly Lutherans avant la lettre, would have had little sympathy for, or understanding of, the mendicant orders emerging in continental Europe. Joanne Short Butler writes on the related interplay of narrators, trouble-makers, and public opinion. This is an important topic for the definition of the saga genre: the determination of the degrees to which the narrator describes characters through the paratactic listing of telling epithets (even such summary definitions as ójafnaðarmaðr "inequitable person") on the one hand and the intradiegetic voicing of the public assessment of the actions of principals, this latter called "nebulous" by the author (239), on the other. The former tends to create a framework within which to view future action, the latter provides social judgment on its execution, inviting reader or listener agreement, perhaps less so than in the first situation, in which the narrator has the weightier and more authoritative voice. In both cases these are external assessments, not speculations on personality and motive." An audience is capable of recognizing the justification behind the public opinions expressed..., even as they recognize it as the 'wrong' side to be on in the stories told. Binaries like 'good' and 'bad' cannot easily be applied to the murky, all-too-human feuds that drive the sagas" (250).

Several essays draw conclusions that are rather more wide-sweeping than the evidence would allow. Dariusz Adamczyk's "The Use of Silver by the Norsemen of Truso and Wolin: The Logic of the Market or Social Prestige?" despite the interesting assemblage of data, fails to make an effective distinction in the use of silver in meeting the social and market needs of the two communities. Anita Sauckel's "Silks, Settlements, and Society in Íslendingasōgur" similarly over-ambitiously draws conclusions from difficulty assessed material evidence. The evidence of the silk trade is, however, impressive, as is the literary evidence for the wearing of prestigious clothing at assemblies, one more element on the scales of relative political power. An interesting topic under the rubric of speech acts and their consequences, often what might be called performative utterances, is David Ashurst's "Elements of Satire and Social Commentary in Heathen Praise Poems and Commemorative Odes." A basic problem here is just how much of irony and satire would be apparent to the well-informed listener and to its intended victim. Satirizing kings is dangerous business, as Egill Skallagrímsson will have known in composing Hǫfuðlausn ("Head-Ransom"). Locating the poet's elegiac Sonatorrek in this category seems a total misreading. In one of the first examples discussed, Ashurst claims that the poet Einarr skálaglamm Helgason's reference to austr "bilge-water" is a disparagement of his own verses on Hákon jarl Sigurðarson. Rather, it means first divesting himself of his lesser poetic talents, as did Óðinn when bringing the mead of poetry back to Ásgarðr in the form of an eagle and squirting its dregs from his rear, as the future lot of poetasters. Marta Rey-Radliński discusses friendship and a man's reputation as illustrated in Odds þáttr Ófeigssonar. Distinctive elements of the tale are what is called the deviation from objectivity and use of language to highlight negative emotions. Noble friendship proves more reliable than the more fragile relations of reciprocity between king and poet or merchant.

Despite some unevenness of quality and distance from the professed theme, this is a welcome collection of essays on an important topic and should spark interest in pursuing the needed elaboration of a theoretical frame in which to analyze attitudes toward, and expressions of, normativity and its violation, not only in the fictional world of the sagas of Icelanders that view the national past through glasses idiosyncratically tinted dark-rose but also in the tumultuous thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that produced them.