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Past Awareness in Christian Environments: Source-Critical Ideas about Memories of the Pagan Past

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 400-410 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0033

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

The Present Forms Our Past

One of the central issues for those who try to scrutinize medieval texts is to contemplate how these texts can be used to think about still older times. For the present purposes, that would mean texts that were written long after the coming of Christianity to Iceland, but telling of events that are set in the earlier pagan times. In recent decades, scholarship has become more and more aware of how problematic this can be. Field-workers in folkloristics have even realized that all things people have to say about the past should first and foremost be treated as comments about the present, as Stephen Mitchell (2013) outlines in this issue with his discussion of the “performative turn” in folkloristics. Everything we have to say, both as scholars and persons in the real world outside academia, orally or in writing, reflects on our present conditions, interests, points of view, and so on.

An older generation today can, for example, still tell their grandchildren stories about what it was like to grow up in a world before radio, television, and computers, making the present role of radio, television, and computers central to their restructuring of their own past—even though that past was by no means defined in its own time by the lack of these relatively recent technological phenomena, discoveries of the future yet to be made from the perspective of the narratives. This was fundamentally no different in the medieval world, but it takes a long time and much reflection to rethink all the conceptions and misconceptions that have come down to us as an integral part of received and accepted scholarly wisdom that shapes our understanding and reading of medieval texts.

Before we engage in a debate about the historical authenticity of the medieval texts from Iceland as sources about much earlier pagan times, it can therefore be said with reasonable authority, without reading or analyzing anything in particular, that all the available texts should first of all be treated as sources about the time when they were written. Having said that, we cannot and should not ignore the fact that the same texts may also contain important information and be informative about their own pasts—just as the present generation of grandparents is able to mediate some information about the recent past, information they insist is authentic, correct, and historically accurate. But still, they mediate that information for reasons that are relevant in the present—and so the carousel continues.

Bearing all of this in mind, we can then start to proceed slowly with comparative material from other cultures and disciplines, in order both to understand the oral performative aspects of traditional stories and poetry, and how the religious and mythological ideas that we find in these writings can be put into some cultural context and practice, using other sources and the living frame from fieldwork in order to create our own ideas about the pagan past that is so vividly portrayed in the texts.

Pagan-Christian Labels Are Misleading

One of the main received frameworks for our reception and interpretation of the medieval texts is the scholarly obsession with the binary opposition Pagan/Christian. It is no doubt possible to uncover historical reasons for this and, perhaps, these reasons could even be traced back to the time of the original writing of the texts. Some of these texts were written by people who clearly had an agenda favoring the presentation of a historical view of a new and superior religion taking over from earlier paganism. That view leaves our attention fixed on the two main labels for historical eras: Pagan and Christian. But just as the opposition between oral and written has been modified in thinking about the oral background of written texts, so the ideas about the effect of a dominating religious idea on everything in the culture must be modified. We must therefore be very cautious in our initial approach when we present the problem of past awareness in the medieval Christian environment. What is meant by past awareness is hopefully not so problematic, but what is meant by Christian is not very clear at all.

One may ask...

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