“Insider or Outsider? The State of Medieval Iceland”
Special session, The Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2016 Conference: “Marginal Figures in the Global Middle Ages and Renaissance.” February 4-6, 2016.
Organizers: Daniel Najork (Arizona State University) and Sarah M. Anderson (Princeton University)
Iceland is notable for the continuity of its literary traditions, examples of which are extant from about the twelfth century onwards – not too long after the beginning of continuous settlement of the island in the early Middle Ages. The Icelandic language is renowned for its morphological and lexical conservatism, for the nearly complete lack of dialectal variation in the nine-hundred-year-long record of Icelandic (cf., e.g., the substantial dialectical variation found in Icelandic’s closest linguistic kin, Norwegian, through the same period), and for the success of its modern program of “language purism”. Until Norwegian overlordship commenced in 1262 CE, the island is also singular during the early medieval period (i.e., during the period of the Icelandic “commonwealth”, 930-1262 CE) for its kinglessness and for other cultural features not exampled elsewhere in the West. Both the linguistic and the literary continuity are crucial to the collective memory of Icelanders, and both emphasize Iceland’s special medieval legacy in the formation of Icelandic national identity. Yet, this identity can also seem frozen, monolithic, and fundamentally separated, island-like, from ideas that constitute the “medieval” elsewhere in the West, as if Iceland were, in fact, a real cultural ultimate Thule, not an imagined one.
This session raises the question of how medieval Iceland saw itself and of how it was – and is – seen in relation to “mainland” Western medieval cultures and ideas. Is Iceland on the margins, even marginal, if rich cultural phenomena like chivalry and kingship sign what constitutes the medieval? Or is medieval Iceland a different but exceptional place, a society that produced mind-blowingly cerebral skaldic poetry and that extraordinary narrative form, the saga? Did this country start the gender-equality that we are just catching up with? Is Iceland the ultimate outsider during the Middle Ages, or the definitive insider, the place that produced an astute critique of, and alternative to, the medieval West? This session invites papers that put these and similar questions about Iceland’s outside / inside state into circulation.