Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Jan Alexander van Nahl

The Domestication of Uncertainty

A New Reading of the Old Norse Kings’ Sagas

Thursday, March 10, 2022, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Jan Alexander van Nahl

The Sturlungaöld is construed by scholars as a time of sociopolitical crisis, an assumption essentially built on the interpretation of saga literature. This crisis thus appears as something imaginary, fed by desires and fears — the experience of a break in continuity, stimulating the narrative construction of meaning, which reacted upon society. From this point of view, contradictions and ambiguities in the Old Norse sagas can be understood as tokens of time-conditioned instability.

It is against this assumption that my book “Kontingenz und Zufall in den altisländischen Königssagas” (https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783110759280/html) focuses on the three grand compilations of Old Norse kings’ sagas: Fagrskinna, Heimskringla, and Morkinskinna. The most important novelty of this study is the radical shift of the theoretical foundation: whereas earlier interpretations of the kings’ sagas have argued against the premise of an outstanding competence of the saga characters (even linked to a vague concept of luck), my interest lies in the framework conditions and thus the bounds of human action. Focusing on relevant histories of mentality, both scholarly and everyday attitudes of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries are taken into account: sweeping events and developments such as the crusades, the rediscovery of Aristotelian writings, the division of philosophy and theology, as well as the establishment of a new type of fictional literature.

The close reading of the kings’ sagas demonstrates a narrative potential which seems to strive for making sense of the often improbable course of Nordic history. This meaningful construct, however, is embraced by the obvious insight into the limitations of human interpretation. Still, these sagas are hard to dismiss as nothing but a farewell to the past, present and future. After all, uncertainty raises hope regarding the realization of human dreams. Thus, in the face of the narrative de-construction of history, the recipient is urged to find new coordinates in a world of ‘as if’, coordinates that contribute constructively to the relief from the burden of uncertainty.

The (political) message of the kings’ sagas could then be: whoever was competent to be a narrator was particularly qualified to establish order even in real life. However, another message would be: this domestication of uncertainty cannot be brought to a conclusion, the path is not finally determined. This ambivalence of power and powerlessness that defines human life until death is argued to be the significant core of the kings’ sagas.

Jan Alexander van Nahl holds an MA from the University of Bonn, and a Dr. phil. in Scandinavian Studies and Medieval Archaeology from the University of München (2012), where he also finished his Dr. habil. in Old Norse Studies in 2020. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iceland from 2014 to 2017, assistant professor from 2019 to 2021, and is currently associate professor in medieval Icelandic literature. He has published on Old Norse literature, digital humanities, Icelandic culture, and the societal task of academia. He is a member of the Academy of Sciences and Letters in Agder, Norway.

Streymi/Stream: https://eu01web.zoom.us/j/61490557702

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