Love and Learning: Social Bonding and Friendship in Medieval Icelandic Education
Fimmtudaginn 21. nóvember 2019 kl. 16.30
Education in medieval Icelandic took many forms. It could be the more or less informal imparting of practical knowledge from a foster-parent to their child, or the careful training of an aspiring priest at a monastery or cathedral school, or something in between. These student-teacher relationships were a fundamental type of social bond throughout the medieval period. Such bonds were, of course, grounded by a number of different emotions, but these emotions are only rarely expressed in the extant sources. This paper will focus on some of the most explicit references from the biskupasögur corpus. These references are primarily expressions of love and friendship between students and teachers in the monasteries and bishoprics, and show a clear relationship to broader European and classical norms for expressing love and friendship. There is thus a fundamental tension and uncertainty in how much the emotional expressions may reflect real feelings, or even real expectations for the social expression of feeling, and how much they may be purely literary tropes.
At the eleventh-century school of bishop Ísleifr Gizurarson at Skálholt, as described in Jóns saga helga, Bishop Ísleifr and the future Saint Jón Ögmundarson are said to have been bonded through a love inspired by the virtue and promise Ísleifr saw in his student. In the fourteenth century, in Lárentíus saga, a similar type of relationship is described between bishop Lárentíus and his student Bergr Sokkason at the monastery of Þingeyrar. However, the saga describes slightly different relationships between Lárentíus and his other students. Finally, these examples from institutional schools can be compared to Guðmundar saga, where Guðmundr Arason is presented as having a more paternal affection for his students, who are also his foster-children. These main references to the emotions between students and teachers can likewise be compared to more implicit references in the other biskupasögur, notably Saint Þorlákr’s relationship with Eyjólfr Sæmundarson.
Bishops Ísleifr and Lárentíus and their students are both described in ways fitting classical Ciceronian ideals of friendship, which were widely disseminated in the medieval church. These ideals were particularly important in eleventh-century cathedral schools, and it is not impossible that they made their way to Iceland. Once in Iceland, they would have interacted with the emotions and expectations that had existed before Christianity between foster-parents and the children they raised and instructed.
Ryder Patzuk-Russell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Iceland. He is currently undertaking a three-year project exploring the liturgy of medieval Iceland. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation dealt with medieval Icelandic schools and education.
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