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Constructing the Past: Introductory Remarks

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 261-266 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0031

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Among the most transformational theoretical advances in the study of cultures in recent decades has been the exploration of memory. Since Maurice Halbwachs’s groundbreaking studies of what he termed collective memory (mémoire collective; 1925, 1950), with its emphasis on the social construction of memory, what is sometimes characterized as social remembering has been addressed from many different perspectives, and correspondingly described in many different ways, each characterization freighted with important theoretical concerns: ethnic memory, with its focus on the role of memory in pre-literate societies (e.g., Le Goff 1988); cultural memory, that is, the handing down of meaning over many generations, as distinct from the shorter communicative memory (e.g., Assmann 1992, 2006; Erll 2005); the creation of national identity and cultural memory through memorials, places of memory (Nora 1984–92, 1989; cf. Assmann 1995, and the essays in Ben-Amos and Weissberg 1999).

Increasingly important in disciplines of many different sorts in recent decades, this consideration of memory and its usefulness as a tool in approaching human history and culture has also been applied in recent decades to aspects of medieval Scandinavia (e.g., Jesch 2001; Hermann 2009; Harris 2010). And cultural memory studies in particular—the branch of current memory theory that, broadly speaking, investigates “the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts” (Erll 2008, 2)—has begun to make an impact on our views of Old Norse culture, revealing the potential of this emerging theoretical framework for opening new perspectives on our understanding of the Nordic Middle Ages (e.g., Glauser 2000; the essays in Hermann, Mitchell, and Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir, forthcoming).

The authors of the essays in this special issue of Scandinavian Studies look to contribute to this same discussion, addressing the question from a particular perspective, namely, how a focus on memory, in combination with the various other methodologies and approaches that fill the intellectual kit bags of Scandinavian medievalists, alters our understanding of the Old Norse world and the cultural goods deriving from it. With a consideration of how memory studies can and should intersect with the diverse theories we use in cultural analysis, these essays examine memory’s crucial role in the construction of, and society’s preoccupation with, the past in the Nordic Middle Ages. Importantly, the discussions here do not focus on problems of historicity, that is, what actually happened at some point in the past, but rather on how the past was constructed, valorized, recontextualized, re-enacted, and otherwise placed by each succeeding generation into a changed “contemporary” framework that gave the past meaning. With their focus on memory, the discussions in these essays challenge some of the most conspicuous and complicated debates in the study of the Nordic Middle Ages—debates that, when it comes to the textual material, are often concerned with source-critical investigations that are frequently articulated in the inadequate dichotomy of history versus fiction.

Emphasized in these essays is the immense relevance for medieval Scandinavian cultural memory of two seismic shifts in the nature of the Nordic world: (1) the introduction of Christianity and the gradual change of faith in Scandinavia, as the Conversion introduced new perspectives and new conceptual frameworks into the North; and the fact that these changes, in turn, presented an enormous challenge to writers and clerics in explaining the function, meaning and content of the pre-Christian past; and (2) the subsequent advent of writing and the altered media situation, a development that had a deep impact on the transmission of the past and offered radically new ways of accessing the past.

Although cultural memory-studies form the core basis for this collection, the discussions relate these studies to, and combine them with, theoretical stances that contribute in other important ways to the inquiry of medieval Norse culture (e.g., ethnohistory; speech act theory; performance studies; narratology; studies in mediality, orality, and literacy; gender studies). This issue of Scandinavian Studies thus emphasizes cases where an emerging symbiosis between cultural memory theory and other theoretical stances that inform research in medieval Norse texts and culture can revise current understandings of that world. Focused investigations of how the past and the concept of pastness itself...

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