Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Transforming Female History in Stjorn

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Transforming Female History in Stjorn

Article excerpt

The Old Norse-Icelandic biblical compilation known as Stjorn recasts the Fall story as a series of interlocked disobediences that ultimately disrupt the prelapsarian unity of mind and body. As in the Bible itself, the serpent tempts Eve, who in turn convinces Adam to cat the forbidden fruit; but in Stjorn the focus of the narrative is on explaining how the domino effect of sin manifests itself for readers in involuntary physical lust. Virtually no attention is paid in this elaboration on the Fall to the characteristics or motivations of Satan, Eve, or Adam; instead, the history of Adam and Eve is linked to a universal human condition and focuses on the present, using the past only as an explanatory tool. Stjorn places Eve, complete with her gender-ascribed flaws, as the originating figure of human sin and female history. The Icelandic context of this mode of history makes the Stjorn text particularly interesting because of its contrast to the "native" mode of history in the sagas. As Carol Clover has suggested, the sagas, as "documentary sources, dating as they do from the Christian period, are notoriously slippery, but no reader of them can escape the impression that the new order [brought by Christianity and `European social forms'] entailed a radical remapping of gender in the north."(1) The Fall story in Stjorn is an origination narrative in this remapping, and in Eve a part of the transformation is crystallized.(2) The Stjorn characterization of her offers support for Clover's assertion that, with northern Christianization, "one has the impression that femaleness became more sharply defined and contained (the emergence of women-only religious orders is symptomatic of the new sensibility)."(3) Stjorn turns biblical history, outward as it presents, for either an Icelandic or a Norwegian audience, the fundamental Old Testament narrative in the more widely accessible vernacular and as the compiler provides a guide for contemporary reading of the story; in Iceland in particular, this version of the Christian origination story contrasts the presentation of women in those sagas, such as Laxdola saga, that recount local origination stories.(4) In his commentary and interpretations, the Stjorn compiler focuses attention on the bodily implications of the Fall and on Eve and her descendants as originators of irrational sexuality.

Stjorn as a text is actually three distinct units of Old Testament history that were not originally one. The youngest of these covers biblical material from the beginning of Genesis through Exodus 18 and is identified as Stjorn I; Stjorn II covers the rest of the Pentateuch, and Stjorn III deals with Jewish history from the Book of Joshua up to the Exile.(5) The popularity of Stjorn or substantial parts of it is attested in the existence of several medieval manuscripts, of which AM 226 folio, which contains all three sections, is the most extensive.(6) That manuscript dates from around 1350 and appears to have been part of the substantial library at the Helgafell monastery in Iceland until the Reformation.(7) The now less complete AM 227 folio was also in Iceland, at Skalholt, at roughly the same time.(8) Stjorn I has a tentative composition date in the early fourteenth century, although it is unclear whether it originated in Iceland or in Norway; the other parts of Stjorn are dated to the middle or late thirteenth century. Stjorn I draws heavily on Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica, Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale, and the Vulgate itself, all of which the compiler adapts and revises while making plain as he goes, for the most part, his sources.(9) The resulting text offers a broad and morally directed history, one that emphasizes the Christian condition at large rather than concerns specific to a country and a people; the Fall narrative in Stjorn is not markedly Germanicized or localized.

The Icelandic context in which Stjorn I and other works with Christian Latin origins existed was one in which history had largely been defined, as in the sagas, in terms of land and ancestors. …

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