Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Rebecca Merkelbach

Alternative Histories of the Settlement?

Story-Worlds and the Fictionality of the ‘Post-Classical’ Sagas of Icelanders

Thursday, February 6, 2020, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Rebecca Merkelbach

The ‘post-classical’ Sagas of Icelanders comprise a group of 14 of the Íslendingasögur which have been dated to the late medieval period, and were thus supposedly composed after 1300. Due to their assumed late date of composition, attitudes to these sagas have been almost universally negative, and only in recent years has it been acknowledged that ‘scholars have unfinished business’ with them, as Chris Callow has stated. One of the many ways in which business with these sagas is unfinished relates to their overt fictionality, to their frequent inclusion of the paranormal and fantastic, and to the way in which they play with motifs derived from folktale or romance. It is to this aspect of these narratives that I will offer a possible new approach.

Introducing the concepts of worldbuilding and story-worlds to the study of saga literature, this talk aims to firstly explore the constituents of the world(s) built by ‘post-classical’ saga narratives — their settings, characters, events, and laws. This will then enable a reassessment of their fictionality, a feature that has bothered previous scholars who considered the Íslendingasögur a genre whose main mode is historiography, and who have therefore neglected the ‘post-classical’ sagas because they did not fit this mode. This shift in focus will also allow a new approach to the ‘post-classical’ sagas as a literary product of the late medieval period — a product not characterised by decline, as most literary saga scholars have believed, but by change and subversion. Ultimately, I will present an approach that considers the ‘post-classical’ Íslendingasögur, in their subversive fictionality, as reflecting the needs and concerns of the present that gave rise to them: as alternative histories of the settlement, as stories that needed to be told to accommodate new socio-cultural developments in late medieval Iceland.

Rebecca Merkelbach holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, and is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen, working on a re-evaluation of the ‘post-classical’ Íslendingasögur. Her monograph, Monsters in Society: Alterity, Transgression, and the Use of the Past in Medieval Iceland, came out with MIP/De Gruyter in October 2019

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.