Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Memory, Mediality, and the "Performative Turn": Recontextualizing Remembering in Medieval Scandinavia

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Memory, Mediality, and the "Performative Turn": Recontextualizing Remembering in Medieval Scandinavia

Article excerpt


Scandinavia's longest runic inscription, the visually and textually imposing early ninth-century Rok stone, opens in a way that serendipitously illustrates the memory, media, and performance triad of this essay--"In memory of (aft) Vemoor stand these runes (runaR). And Varinn coloured (faoi) them, the father, in memory of his dead son. I say the folktale (sagum mogminni)." (1)

Rok, just like several thousand other rune stones, is concerned with memory in a most basic and obvious sense, in that many stones were expressly carved and erected as memorials to--"in memory of" (aft)--dead people. (2) Expanding the sense of what is remembered at Rok, however, is a phrase that appears repeatedly throughout its text-both verbatim and implied--sagum mogminni, usually translated as "I tell the folk memory." (3) Clearly, a compound of the "folk memory" sort evokes, not the individual memory of a bereaved relative for a dead kinsman, but rather a different sort of memory, memory that is shared, memories that are at once cultural and communal, what we might more readily recognize with a different appellation--namely, tradition; (4) and, indeed, the Rok text alludes time and again to narrative traditions largely unknown to us now.

The inscription's other repeated formulation sagum, "I say," "I tell," and so on, emphasizes the highly performative nature of the text, performances acted out both by its fictional (or perhaps historical) "I," and, more notably, by what must have been the repeated reading aloud of the text by each new viewer of the stone capable of the task. (5) One quickly understands, too, that the public declarations of sorrow and respect such memorial stones represent are meant as lasting elegiac "performances," acts to honor the dead that, given their lithic nature, are inherendy frozen in time. Yet these proclamations are also, as in the case of sagum, but now for the text in its entirety, re-enacted with each new attempt by a passerby to read the inscription. And it is not difficult to imagine that further performances--rituals or ceremonials of various sorts--accompanied the erection and dedication of such stones; it would be perverse to imagine that the stones were silently tipped into position without the accompaniment of familial or local ritualized behaviors of one sort or another. (6)

Finally, one cannot help but be struck by the obvious self-conscious mediality of the monument. Not only does the text note its own corporeal existence--"stand these runes"--but the father's, Varinn's, role in the physical production of the monument is expressly referred to. Knowledge of runic writing, or runacy (a neologism meant to capture for runic writing the same sense "literacy" has for alphabetic writing; cf. Spurkland 2004), and thus of the written word as a medium for preserving, even enshrining, memories and thoughts, had been used in Scandinavia for half a millennium at the time the Rok stone was carved. Although the epigraphic system associated with Christianity would in time become the principal vehicle for the written word in northern Europe, (7) beginning roughly at the time of Rok, even exemplified by Rok, runic writing entered into an era of enormously expanded use.

Throughout the Viking and the Middle Ages, Scandinavians were acutely aware of runic mediality, as they would also in time be about Latin and manuscript culture: the relationship between the self-conscious written text and its narrative was much more diverse and complicated than simply the fact of the story or sentiment being recorded, as a number of recent studies have emphasized, and as the example from Rok suggests. (8) In fact, it is anything other than happenstance that the Rok stone's opening focuses on memory, mediality, and performance: these functions were at the heart of such monuments, their production, and their performance.

The paradigm shift we have witnessed in recent decades in Old Norse studies away from formalist approaches, which were long in vogue, and toward so-called performance and media studies, premises well-suited to the contextualization of our inherited goods to their cultural moments, was long in coming (cf. …

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