SCANDINAVIAN 220: Family and Kinship in Viking and Medieval Scandinavian Textual Culture

Th 1-4 , Dwinelle 6415. Instructor: Kate Heslop

Units: 4

In this seminar we will investigate the work done by family and kinship in the textual cultures of Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia. Kinship, once an important category for historians and anthropologists, also of the Middle Ages, has fallen a little by the wayside in these fields in recent decades. A new study declares that ‘the fact of the matter is that kinship did not exist in Europe during the Middle Ages’ (Hummer, Visions of Kinship). Notwithstanding this scepticism, essentially anthropological concepts such as in- and out-groups, exogamous marriage, affinity, agnatic vs cognatic descent, and fictive kinship loom large in studies of medieval Scandinavia. Genealogy is taken to be a central plank of Scandinavian memory culture; the family sagas, as their name suggests, are thought to concern family groups; pride in royal descent is argued to be an important motivation for the writing of texts from Nóregs konungatal to Ragnars saga; and the existence of a family of the gods is taken as unquestioned fact. More recently, sociologically and historically-oriented work has explored related specific topics such as the interplay of family and friendship (Jón Viðar Sigurðsson), the role of marriage (Bandlien), and the significance of the ‘maiden king’ (Kalinke).

In this seminar we will read some of these classic studies alongside the Old Norse primary texts where ideas of family and kin come into play, and ask what discourses do these concepts participate in? What kinds of interpersonal relationships are claimed as familial, what is the force of such claims, and how well do they match up with our contemporary, biologically-defined notion of family? We will attempt to answer these questions on the basis of close readings selected from eddic and skaldic poetry, runic inscriptions, ‘family sagas’, the Prose Edda and the translated and indigenous romances.

Primary readings will mainly be in Old Norse; much of the class will consist of close reading and small group discussion of the primary texts. Secondary readings will be in English and in the modern Scandinavian languages.

Prerequisites: At least two semesters of Old Norse language studies (or equivalent).