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The Place of the Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 133-150 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0001

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The status of the deformed and disfigured in medieval Norse society is somewhat ambiguous. For instance, in Sturlunga saga we find powerful chieftains and landholders such as Þorgils skarði, Skeggi skammhöndung, or Halldórr slakkafótr apparently unimpeded socially by cleft palates, withered hands, or slack feet. Then, there is the Norse pantheon of the Prose Edda, which presents gods who are one-eyed (Óðinn), one-handed (Týr), and blind (Höðr). Yet, in those same source texts mutilating an opponent by, for example, cutting off a hand, handhögg, or foot, fóthögg, in order to render a permanent, visible injury is a viable means of rendering disgrace. How do we reconcile these divergent attitudes particularly since the term used for both acquired disfigurements and congenital deformities, örkuml, is the same? We might ask if there is an intrinsic, negative moral valence to disfigurement and deformity in Old Norse society—in other words whether physical impairments mark its victim as disabled—a culturally rather than biologically coded category (Metzler 1987, 3–10). This study examines the special case of exposing deformed infants as prescribed in Old Norse laws. Though integrating other sources as well, emphasis is on the early Christian laws of Norway and Iceland—the oldest extant laws in Scandinavia—and the focus is, thus, on these two countries.

Important discussions of infant abandonment in medieval Scandinavia are found in Pentikäinen (1968), Boswell (1988), Clover (1988), Jochens (1995), Wicker (1998), Mundal (1987, 2005), Jakobsson & Sigurjónsdóttir (2008), and Mejsholm (2009). In approaching a general understanding, these primarily focus on the social and economic rationale behind the practice. With regard to the detailed descriptions of impairments in Old Norse law, these remain, despite careful scrutiny, enigmatic and the object of (at times wild) speculation ranging from hard evidence of intensive inbreeding in Norway (Jochens 1998), through fantastic exaggerations meant to frighten parishioners (Landro 2010), to having a purely theoretical, interpretive significance (Mundal 1987). Since these early laws seem to capture aspects of the Christianization process, questions have arisen concerning how exposing infants with birth defects fits into the prevailing versus emerging worldviews. Is the practice’s basis in Christianity or prior folk, i.e. heathen, practice? Christianity, with its emphasis on the physicality of sin, has been at the forefront of discussions (Pentikäinen 1968Pentikäinen 1987; Bragg 1994, 2004).

This study attempts to address all of these issues at some level but particularly aims at exploring what appears on the surface to be less pragmatic but equally real grounds in Old Norse society for exposing infants. Aside from economic and social motives, examining the role that fear of the supernatural and monstrous plays in exposing severely deformed infants and considering the significance this has for determining status (or lack thereof) in society are of prime importance. As far as the realism of descriptions is concerned, the laws are regarded here as serious attempts to cope with real world problems via the means and systems of understanding available at the time and are therefore not taken as flights of fancy.

Rather than categorically assigning negative attitudes to one camp or the other—heathen or Christian—the middle road seems more prudent, i.e. the negative moral sense of deformities found in twelfth-century Old Norse laws likely represents a convergence of prevailing folk and Christian attitudes or is an expression of a system in flux. At any rate, with the establishment of Christian laws in Scandinavia, infant abandonment came to be categorically abolished. If anything, then, Christianity improved the chances of survival among those born with physical impairments.

Reconstructing the practice of infant abandonment in medieval Scandinavia is fraught with challenges. Old Norse source texts are notoriously difficult to date since manuscripts often outstrip the content they contain by several centuries. One must also then consider that the source texts themselves may have differing purposes and audiences in mind. Lastly, synthesizing these and in addition integrating archaelogical or sociological evidence, when available, have proven a complex interdisciplinary undertaking. Therefore, it is worth analyzing source materials in detail in order to achieve a assessment of when and how the practice of infant...

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