Icelandic Uniqueness or a Common European Culture?

By Bagge, Sverre | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Icelandic Uniqueness or a Common European Culture?


Bagge, Sverre, Scandinavian Studies


The Question Of Nordic, particularly Icelandic, uniqueness in the Middle Ages has often been the subject of discussion. The traditional opinion, dating back to the nineteenth century and closely connected to Icelandic and Norwegian nationalism, was that there was indeed a unique culture of the North, a culture not only different from the rest of Europe, but in many respects better: more rational and less superstitious, avoiding the extreme, not to say hysterical, expressions of medieval Catholicism, and producing a literature with greater appeal to modern readers than that of the rest of Europe.(1) A reaction against this view came in the post-war period, headed by heretics like Hermann Palsson and Lars Lonnroth,(2) who interpreted Icelandic culture, including the sagas, as part of the common culture of Western Christendom. This heresy gradually received the status of orthodoxy or at least respectability. In recent years, particularly with the studies of society, inspired by social anthropology, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the earlier view.(3)

Evidently, the question of uniqueness or common culture cannot be answered en bloc; one has to consider different works and genres. The sagas of the Icelanders immediately present a strong claim for uniqueness, the genre itself, as far as I know, having no direct parallel elsewhere. The kings' sagas can present no such claim; there is an abundance of histories of kings and their deeds from all over Europe during the whole period. If the kings' sagas arc unique, it must be because of distinctive features in their way of representing history, either in form or content. In my book on Heimskringla, which appeared some years ago (1991), I claimed that there was indeed such a uniqueness: Heimskringla, and to some extent also other sagas, were political history in a different sense, from their counterparts in most of Europe. I might perhaps add that, this claim was not--to my knowledge at least--based on Norwegian and certainly not Icelandic nationalism. It forms part of my general view that there is normally a dose connection between the writing of history and general attitudes and political arrangements in a particular society. My claim was not that the sagas were better history than everything else in contemporary Europe, nor that they differed from a universal pattern, but rather that the connection between historiography and particular social arrangements throughout Europe had been underestimated and that a closer look would reveal various kinds of uniqueness, not only in Iceland but also in other countries and regions of Europe. In particular, I pointed to the extreme south of Europe, notably the Italian cities, as a possible parallel in the way of treating political history.

In the following, I want partly to develop and partly to revise my earlier views. My comparison with European historiography in 1991 was mainly based on secondary literature and only a few original works. Since then, I have studied European historiography more extensively. Still, it is premature to attempt any kind of final comparison. The study of the kings' sagas as historiography is only in its beginning. Nevertheless, the corpus is limited, and it is fairly easy to get a general impression of what they are about. The corpus of Europan historiography is enormous, and a large part of it is still unedited. Few modern studies of it exist that can be used for comparison; most of the scholarly literature still consists of works aiming at exploiting the material for factual information.(4) A comparative study must therefore mostly be based on individual, original works. One simply has to start somewhere and see what comes out of it. As for myself, my main interest in recent years has been German historiography in the Earlier Middle Ages, roughly from the mid-tenth till the mid-twelfth century. There is nothing to indicate that these works were known to the saga authors. Nevertheless, this was an important tradition of historiography, written in close connection with politics and rulership and combining popular story-telling with Latin learning. …

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