The Unwashed Children of Eve: The Production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland

The Unwashed Children of Eve: The Production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland

The Unwashed Children of Eve: The Production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland

The Unwashed Children of Eve: The Production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland

Excerpt

It is customary to regard the Icelandic saga as an essentially medieval phenomenon, one which had its 'golden age' in the mid-thirteenth century, when Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla and the better-known Íslendingasögur ('sagas of Icelanders', 'family sagas') are thought to have been produced. The loss of political independence to Norway in 1262–64 – the 'fall of the Commonwealth' as it is rather romantically called – is thought to have ushered in a period of decadence during which were produced such secondary or post-classical works as the fornaldarsögur ('sagas of ancient times', 'mythical-heroic sagas') and the indigenous riddarasögur ('chivalric sagas'), native imitations of the translations, chiefly Norwegian, of French chivalric romances and related material. These indigenous romances have been mentioned in the literary histories chiefly in connexion with the deleterious effect they are commonly supposed to have had on the native saga tradition. By the mid-fifteenth century, received opinion has it, the writing of prose fiction had to all intents and purposes been abandoned in Iceland, until revived by the national-romantic novelists of the nineteenth century, in particular JónThoroddsen, author of 'the first Icelandic novel', Piltur og stúlka ('Lad and lass'), published in 1850.

Although he cannot be said to have been its author, the major champion of this view was Sigurður Nordal. In the introductory essay to his anthology Íslenzk lestrarbók 1400–1900 (Reykjavík, 1924), entitled 'Samhengið í íslenzkum bókmentum' ('Continuity in Icelandic literature'), even as he berated foreign scholars of Old Icelandic literature for being 'alls ófróðir um menningarlíf vort á síðustu fimm öldum' ('totally ignorant about our cultural life over the last five centuries') and thinking 'að íslenzkar bókmentir hafi orðið sjálfdauðar um 1400' ('that Icelandic literature died about 1400'), Nordal was prepared to state categorically that 'Um 1400 kulnar sagnaritunin alveg út' ('about 1400 sagawriting died out completely'). The sagas, by which he meant principally the Íslendingasögur, continued to exert an influence, but only in so far as they continued to be copied 'með ópreytandi elju' ('with inexhaustible diligence') in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period to which Nordal gave the name 'lædórnsöld' ('the age of learning'), interest in saga-literature was chiefly of an antiquarian nature, the inspiration for which came from abroad. The 'samhengi í íslenzkum bókmentum' to which he was so keen to draw attention pertained, apparently, only to poetry.

My own research into the indigenous romances, particularly in conjunction with the preparation of my edition of Sigurðar saga Þỏgla (Reykjavík, 1992), led me increasingly to question this view. The very large number of romances preserved in paper manuscripts from after the Reformation, many of them clearly not much older than the manuscripts in which they are found, seemed to indi-

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