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  • The Chronotopes of Íslendinga saga:Narrativizations of History in Thirteenth-Century Iceland
  • Lena Rohrbach


Sturla, sonr Þórðar Gilssonar, bjó í Hvammi vel þrjá tigu vetra. Hann andaðist, þá er hann hafði sjau vetr ins sjaunda tigar. Þá var lokit deilum þeira Páls prests í Reykjaholti.

Sturlunga saga1

(Sturla, the son of Þórðr Gilsson, lived at Hvammur for nearly thirty winters. He died when he was 67. By then the quarrels with Páll the priest in Reykjaholt had come to an end.)2

These are probably the first sentences of Íslendinga saga, Sturla Þórðarson's grand oeuvre on contemporary Icelandic history, written in the 1270s and dealing with events from the end of the twelfth century until the submission to the Norwegian crown in 1262.3 The sentence is representative for what, in the following, I [End Page 351] identify as the major chronotope of Íslendinga saga: a biographical chronotope that is distinguished by definition in space and a definition of time by means of events and localization in space. The sentence also prefigures, as I argue, the prominence of the house as the basic local chronotope of Íslendinga saga.

Inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope, I discuss how history is narrated in space in Íslendinga saga and interpret Sturla's choices as conceptualizations of history influenced by, and at the same time playing with, spatial concepts of his time.4 Unlike concepts of the literary motif that as such also can be applied to the mention of spatial phenomena, Bakhtin's chronotope is preoccupied with the narrative potentials that underlie the spatial framework of events. Space within the concept of chronotope is not a passive entity, but rather the active determinant of narrative. Íslendinga saga exhibits a very peculiar way of narrating history in space within the context of saga literature. On the one hand, it draws on dominant chronotopes of the genre in general, and on the other hand, it seems to subvert the genre conventions of narrativizing different spaces. This distinct spatialization of events in Íslendinga saga provides a dense intertextual web that situates the events of thirteenth-century Iceland in the time depth of Icelandic history.

Medieval Icelandic Spaces

A comprehensive investigation of medieval Icelandic spatial concepts has been undertaken by Sverrir Jakobsson. Unlike previous, structuralist approaches to medieval Icelandic space, Sverrir departs from a dichotomic distinction between center and periphery. He characterizes the spatial concepts of medieval, pre-state Iceland of the mid-thirteenth century as complex and homologous to power relations, and mirroring the lack of a central secular political authority that provided the Church with an opportunity to play a strong role in the formation of spatial and temporal concepts (Sverrir Jakobsson 2010a, 3). Assenting to the prevailing view in scholarship that medieval concepts of space were, like temporal concepts, anthropocentric and subjective, and that the empty space between the subjective spaces did not matter, Sverrir Jakobsson follows Dick Harrison's assessment that it is the transitional [End Page 352] spaces between center and periphery in particular that are qualitatively significant spaces (Sverrir Jakobsson 2005, 80; Harrison 1996, 13–4).

While, as a historian, Sverrir Jakobsson was mainly interested in major spatial and geographical entities, in the participation of medieval Icelanders in a medieval Catholic worldview, and in what Bakhtin called the real-life chronotope (Bakhtin 1981, 85, 99), I examine the construction of a historical narrative, the narrating of history by means of spatio-temporal relations. The intertwining of space and time as a narrative constituent has been pointed out before in saga studies, not least in connection with the memory studies that have been pursued intensely over the past years. Jürg Glauser called landscape a guarantor of memory, and elaborates that in

textual memory spaces, time (in the opposition, significant for the history of religion and mentality, between þá "then" and "now"), space (as mapped and semioticized landscape and as diverse loci of memory), and origin (with the stress on mythic beginnings and on a genealogical model for the construction of origins) work together and guarantee that narratives can convey meaning from the time of the forefathers into the...


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