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Cultural Memory and Gender in Iceland from Medieval to Early Modern Times

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 378-399 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Thanks to the humanistic movement of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many of the great Icelandic manuscripts from the Middle Ages were collected, transcribed, and preserved.1 Ever since Michael Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record in the late 1970s, there has been a growing research interest in the field of medieval literacy and memorial culture in a European context (Clanchy 1979, 202). In the Icelandic case, much more can be done.2 Clanchy underscored that for a long time after the introduction of literacy, an oral culture continued to exist: written words were, for instance, communicated by being read aloud, and throughout the Middle Ages, memorial culture continued to be a mixture of the oral and the written. In this context it is important to remember what Elisabeth van Houts has convincingly argued, namely that writing was not only produced by an isolated group of men in monasteries, since women, as well as laymen, actively participated in textual production (van Houts 1999, 1–2, 2001, 1–16).

This paper will first focus on the fact that the transmission of certain texts and stories became an important part of the cultural memory of the Icelanders, while other texts were forgotten and lost. Second, we shall ask who the bearers of the textual transmission were, and why some stories became more popular than others. The third question to be treated is what role gender played in collective memory in Iceland during the time of transmission from the medieval to the early modern period. Throughout this paper I will focus on the transcription and preservation not only of literature, but also of legal documents as well as devotional literature and—to a certain degree—various artifacts.

In his Varieties of Cultural History from 1997, Peter Burke underlined that the social history of remembrance is selective, adding that it is our task as historians to identify the principles of selection (Burke 1997, 45). To be able to study this problem historically, one needs to identify how memory in past times was made and produced. Normally in social and cultural studies, this memory is related to communication of a collective character through some sort of media. Here we shall focus on some of the medieval media used for transmitting memory in the Icelandic context (Hermann 2009). There was a selective remembrance of the past, and—following Peter Burke—our task is both to identify this selection and to determine the principle behind it. Not all historical sources are media for cultural memory, but the earliest textual production of the Icelanders was to a very high degree, in a way that gave storytelling an entirely new platform.3

Something similar can be said about the printing revolution of the early modern period. After the Reformation, printing technology was introduced in Iceland, and greater stress was laid on publishing religious texts, not least the Bible, in the vernacular. Thus, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a shift in media from handwritten manuscripts on parchment or paper to printed books occurred, which had profound consequences for the art of memory, sometimes even described as “the death of the medieval memory” (Le Goff 1992, 81–82). That point is open to debate, but it is certain that with the introduction, first of paper in the fifteenth century, then of printing in the sixteenth century, it became easier and cheaper to make all kinds of transcriptions. Just as important was that the new faith introduced with the Reformation had consequences with regard to the type of books being published. The Reformation was followed, as we have already noted, by a growing interest in new religious literature in the vernacular, but it also made some of the Latin writings from the medieval period—for instance, collections of Canon Law and ecclesiastical statutes, or sermon collections—outdated.4

Canon Law and Latin Manuscripts

With the Christian religion, the Latin language was introduced in Iceland. Icelandic history was written in the vernacular, but during the twelfth century, how to place the history of Iceland in the context of a general Christian history became common knowledge (Hermann 2003, 2007). According to Rosamond McKitterick, Canon Law was extremely important in shaping...

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