From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland

From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland

From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland

From Sagas to Society: Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland

Excerpt

The Icelandic sagas have been extensively studied as pieces of text—as literary and historical documents—by generations of saga scholars. Despite its progress and insights in some respects, this scholarly tradition has remained relatively silent on many pertinent and important issues, particularly social and comparative approaches. For two decades or so, however, a number of anthropologists, archaeologists, literary scholars, and social historians have been identifying and exploring the value of an alternative approach, an approach which reverses the priority of text over life. From their point of view, the sagas are potentially valuable ethnographic documents with various kinds of information on early Iceland and medieval Scandinavia. This book as a whole reflects this emerging 'field' of scholarship and the radical turn in saga studies which it represents.

Most of the sagas, it is generally believed, were composed in the turmoil of thirteenth-century Iceland, when the so-called 'Commonwealth' was about to collapse and Icelanders submitted to the King of Norway (see, for instance, Clover and Lindow 1985). Some of them, the so-called Íslendingasögur ('family sagas' or 'sagas of Icelanders'), describe the period from the time of settlement, between AD 870 and 930, to sometime after the introduction of Christianity, in the year 1000. They comprise about one hundred sagas and shorter stories (sögur and þœttir) that were compiled in one large manuscript sometime after they were written (most of the contributions to this book focus on this 'genre' of sagas; see, especially, chs 5–7, 9–11, 14, and 15). Another important collection, Sturlunga saga (named after one powerful family) largely concentrates on near-contemporary events from 1230 to 1262 (see ch. 12). This latter collection of fourteen sagas and stories was arranged in chronological order and compiled in one manuscript from early on, around the year 1300. The category of the 'Sturlunga saga,' therefore, is embedded in our 'fieldnotes'; unlike that of the 'family sagas' it is not imposed by later writers and scholars. Other categories of medieval Icelandic prose include the kings' sagas (see chs 3 and 4), fornaldarsögur ('sagas of the past' or 'legendary sagas,' see ch. 8), and legal texts, notably Grágás and Jónsbók (see chs 13 and 17). Furthermore, there are . . .

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