The Princess and the Pirate
St. Ursula in Icelandic Literature 1200-1800
Þriðjudaginn 20. janúar 2015 kl. 16.30
St. Ursula is the idol-smashing heroine of an enigmatic post-Reformation poem, Úrsúlukvæði, which features Attila the Hun as her pirate adversary and has little in common with her legend as described in hagiographical works circulating in medieval Iceland.
The oldest manuscripts preserving Úrsúlukvæði claim a link with a Danish martyrology, Niels Heldvad’s Martyrologia sanctorum (1634). This book, however, cannot be the source for the Icelandic poet’s knowledge of St. Ursula’s martyrdom. A survey of surviving medieval Icelandic texts strongly indicates that Úrsúlukvæði has its origins — surprisingly enough — in a little-studied chivalric romance, Kirialax saga, which probably dates from the fourteenth century. In my paper, I will examine the transmission of St. Ursula’s legend in Iceland over a period often split into two distinct literary eras: the Middle Ages and the Age of Learning.
Building on the conventions of romance more than virgin-martyr legends, a new fear of attack and abduction by sea pirates shapes the narrative of Úrsúlukvæði, an anxiety I examine in the light of the Turkish Raids of 1627 and literary attempts of the seventeenth century to deal with issues of guilt and innocence, culpability and retribution: Can bad things happen to good people, or are we always getting our just deserts?
Katelin Parsons is a PhD candidate in Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland. She holds a Master’s degree in Translation Studies and is currently studying seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and social performance.