Friday, January 17, 2014

Sagas and Scarcity: A first-time reader on the frontier

by KARL STEEL

Over the past few months, as a kind of preparation for NCS Iceland, and also just for fun, I've read, in translation, maybe 14 sagas (or 12 family sagas+ Harald's Saga and the Volsung Saga) and a fair chunk of the Poetic Edda. I've read all the great ones: Njal, Egil, Grettir, Laxdæla, and a swelling list of deeper cuts. Apart from Njal and the Poetic Edda, which I read in 1989 or 1990 (!), during a Freshman great books course, I'm coming to this material as an absolute novice, with no knowledge of the scholarship and virtually none, I'm sad to say, of the language.

Sagas can't be read by the bushel without a few notes. While I've long since given up on keeping one Thorstein separate from the others, I can still, as I did above, flag features particular to particular sagas. You might notice, for example, the "many prose metaphors, especially about weather" and "talking wounds, diagnosed with onions."

Talking wounds, in a sequence where someone ends up terribly wounded for showing insufficient compassion:
Then one of the Trondheim yeomen came into the barn as Thormond and the woman spoke together. He was curious to learn about the king's men. Many of them were sorely wounded, and from those wounds to the innards or the head issued that terrible sound that comes from such deep cuts to the flesh.
(103, Martin Regal trans., Penguin Comic Tales and Tales from Iceland)
There's a lot, maybe too much, to mention for a medievalist new to this material. There's nothing like this in the chivalric literature of England and France, whose knights, as most of us know, do nothing but eat, pray, love, and fight.

Just one thing, today, when I'm stewing with a virus on my couch: compared to texts from Western, continental Europe, Icelandic sagas describe a society that's just plain poor. Iceland is not resource rich, not in people, and not in goods. It seems cut off from the main trade routes of medieval Europe, with its trade being, primarily, cloth in exchange for Norwegian lumber. In Iceland, 60 men is an army; 15 men fighting is a battle worth memory; killings happen over what seem to be petty annoyances, or at least petty annoyances to us, the sleek and comfortable: beatings from porridge ladles, borrowed horses, insults--particularly sexual insults. Or fights are over resources: grazing land, decent grassland for making hay, and especially, meat from beached whales.

Also notable, and perhaps related to the poverty, is the lack of division of labor, perhaps notable to me only because I've been reading The German Ideology during my breaks (and, on this, "Division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears" (159, Marx Engels Reader: applicable here, or not?). Warriors are also poets are also farmers (expected to bail hay alongside their slaves) are also porridge cooks are also assassins (often minimally honoring the law when they wake up their victims just before they, uh, bury the hatchet) are also shepherds are also driftwood-gatherers are also craftsmen, able to repair a boat or smelt a silver sow as an insult or to measure the beams of a church to try to match a king's great architecture. A few, but not many, know how to make a weapon.

The generalized character extends to gender relations. Certainly, the sagas are as sexist as any medieval literature, and often worse. But it's impossible to imagine a woman in the sagas as retiring as Chrétien's Enide or as nervous and inept as Lady Bisclavret. If Enide were a Thordis, she would have denounced her husband before his men, and Eric would have stormed out in shame to fight and, probably, die; if Lady Bisclavret were an Aud, she'd have divorced her husband and had her 4 brothers track him down as a witch. In the sagas, so far as I know them, women goad their men into vengeance (as you know from reading, say, Volsung/Nibelungenlied: the precise opposite of the Melibean queen as intercessor!), often fight alongside them, join expeditions to the new world, and often make their own decisions about who to marry and, especially, who to divorce.

I might expect that frontier literature of any sort has the same features (those who know this stuff can chime in below), although the difference here, at least for Iceland, is that Iceland's only human "natives" were a few Irish monks who scattered (if they were lucky) when the Norse first showed up.

8 comments:

Fridrikr inn gamli Tomasson said...

Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking post. I think it's time to break out the Complete Sagas and get reading in earnest. Talking Wounds and How To Cure Them - sounds like a fine class title.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks much Fridrikr, and glad to have a chance to look at your blog. Very impressive!

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: I've been reading sagas by bits and bobs over the past few months too and have similar reactions (quite a striking contrast between these and the late-medieval French and English romances). Re: "frontier" and poverty - I hadn't quite thought about these works in that way before but it makes sense. Seems to nicely connect to the pragmatic style and narrative economy in the text, yes? (esp re: the excessive flourishes and fancy digressions in Continental courtly romance...)

Karl Steel said...

On the other hand, there's something in the fact that Icelanders became the court poets of Norway. So when I say that they exported cloth, I should also say that their other chief export was poetry.

I know people routinely marvel at this, so I'm just joining them: an island w/ a human pop. of 70,000 at its medieval peak produced the largest body of vernacular prose in the Middle Ages. In a society like that, nearly everyone had to have had some kind of literary chops.

Karl Steel said...

...which feeds into that whole 'division of labor' thing.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's kind of old at this point but Carol Clover composed a radical reassessment of gender roles in the sagas in 1993: "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe," Speculum: 68. Her argument is that gender didn't matter so much as active/passive, maybe being "weaponed" was more significant than biology; etc. Basically she asked why we expect an easy sex binary to hold everywhere we look. What do women in the sagas actually do?

I like the scarcity point, and wonder how many other places it would have applied to in early Europe. The sagas give a glimpse of a frontier society with many important hierarchies (esp slave/outlaw/freeman), and many more arriving.

Karl Steel said...

What do women in the sagas actually do?
Excellent observation. Now wondering when witchcraft a legitimate weapon and when not? Mostly it's bad, and mostly the work of women, and in the cases of male witches, it seems to taint them in some (gendered?) way. There's the saga (Vatnsdœla?) in which a wicked woman walks backwards around her house chanting IN IRISH. She's a bad woman and comes to a bad end, like her son, iirc. Bizarre and certainly not mappable, as I see it, into a passive/active binary.

jebmcl said...

"that terrible sound that comes from such deep cuts to the flesh."

Taking that utterly out of context and thinking of the theme as women as goad. Can't help but think of Isag's sword in the Goddodin. As the sword sings through the air and bites into his foe, it explodes and resonates out of the heads of mothers.

Terrible and powerful. When it resonates from the mouth of women on the battlefield in song, such cutting words have the power to turn the streams of war.

Without such a song the Gododdin as a people cease to be, as it motivates the kill and survival. It is ensnaring and intoxicating.

A seriously scary sound system.