Environmental Memory in the Medieval Icelandic Sagas

Abstract: Pre-modern literary texts constitute a source material that has so far been neglected in environmental humanities research. This material can shed light on how past societies utilized natural resources and perceived environmental risks and environmental change as well as on how knowledge about environmental conditions was passed on as a part of cultural memory. Iceland’s medieval saga literature is particularly suitable for an interdisciplinary study of pre-modern human ecodynamics. The sagas not only narrate the history of Iceland from the first settlement around 870 AD until the late Middle Ages; they also describe past environmental conditions in the context of an almost exclusively agricultural society that was confronted with a variety of environmental risks, ecosystem changes, and climate change during the Viking Age and the Middle Ages.

In this project, the medieval Icelandic sagas were, for the first time, analyzed from a literary studies point of view with a focus on environmental aspects while integrating current research in environmental archaeology and environmental history. The project’s focus was on four topics on which no prior research existed: the literary representation of (1) natural resources and sustainability, (2) environmental risks, (3) environmental change, and (4) the connection between environment and memory. The project was theoretically grounded in theories of cultural memory, which were refined by the inclusion of environmental aspects.

The exploration of medieval perceptions of environmental aspects based on the original sources offered insight into how a pre-modern society dealt with environmental risks and problematic changes. With its focus on the socioecological resilience of human communities, the project created a basis for further interdisciplinary environmental humanities research incorporating literary source materials. By helping to develop a long-term perspective on environmental issues, the project’s results also function as a contribution to socio-political discussions of topics such as sustainable development and anthropogenic climate change.

Support: This project was supported by Wenner-Gren Foundations through a two-year postdoctoral scholarship.
Project publications: “Miljö och minne: att skapa ett långtidsperspektiv på hållbarhetsfrågor [Environment and memory: creating a long-term perspective on questions of sustainability].” Hållbarhetens många ansikten: Samtal, forskning och fantasier. Eds. Edit Andresen, Gustav Liden, and Sara Nyhlen. Sundsvall: Mittuniversitetet 2017, pp. 117-125.
“Memory in the Environmental Humanities.” The Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies. Eds. Jürg Glauser, Pernille Hermann, and Stephen Mitchell. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter (forthcoming).
“Aesthetic Appreciation of Landscape in the Sagas of Icelanders.” Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe. Ed. Matthias Egeler. Turnhout: Brepols (forthcoming).
Aus der Vergangenheit lernen? Die Bedeutung der mittelalterlichen isländischen Literatur für die Umweltdiskussion der Gegenwart“, in: Culturescapes Island: Zwischen Sagas und Pop, ed. Culturescapes, Basel: Merian 2015, pp. 45-52.
Environmental Scarcity and Abundance in Medieval Icelandic Literature, in: The Imagination of Limits: Exploring Scarcity and Abundance, edited by Frederike Felcht and Katie Ritson, RCC Perspectives 2015, no. 2, pp. 37–43.
Further publications are currently under review.


PhD project (completed)

Project title: Nature, Culture, and Activism: an Analysis of Environmental Literature from Iceland and Norway
Advisor: PD Dr. Thomas Fechner-Smarsly

(Institute for German Studies, Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Bonn, Germany)

Abstract: Does literature contribute to environmental awareness and to the solution of ecological problems? What characterizes an environmental text? Which ethical arguments referring to environmental questions are used in such texts? What is the relationship between these texts and contemporary environmental movements as well as the ecological ideas drawn upon by such movements? And, finally: What is the relation of the local, the national and the global to each other in environmental literature?

In order to answer these questions, I am combining approaches from three disciplines of the environmental humanities. The first is ecocriticism, a subfield of literary and cultural studies which addresses environmental questions. The second is environmental history, which not only researches past environmental conditions and interrelationships between humans and non-human nature, but also the history of ecological ideas and of environmental movements. The third discipline is environmental ethics, which’s theories allow a differentiated analysis of ethical arguments drawn upon in environmental literary texts. Methodologically, I use Hubert Zapf’s model of literature as cultural ecology, according to which literary texts have a triadic structure: They function as a cultural-critical metadiscourse, as an imaginative counterdiscourse and as a reintegrative interdiscourse. I connect this model with a more neutral definition of cultural criticism (Kulturkritik) developed by Georg Bollenbeck. In this way it becomes possible to define more closely the characteristics of environmental literature and to comprehensively take into account the historical and cultural contexts of such literary texts. The contrasting comparison of Icelandic and Norwegian environmental literature shows that perceptions of environmental questions are to a very high degree culturally shaped, and that in particular ideas of national identity have considerable influence on the characteristics of the respective ‘environmental imagination’.

My sources are works by five Icelandic and five Norwegian writers, published between 1970 and 2013. The Icelandic texts are the essay „Hernaðurinn gegn landinu“ („The War Against the Land“, 1970) by Halldór Laxness; the novel Gunnlaðar saga („The Tale of Gunnlöð“, 1986) by Svava Jakobsdóttir; the trilogy Skurðir í rigningu („Trenches in the Rain“, 1996), Sumarið bakvið brekkuna („The Summer Behind the Hill“, 1997) and Birtan á fjöllunum („The Light on the Mountains“, 1999) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson; the non-classifiable book Draumalandið. Sjálfshjálparbók handa hræddri þjóð („Dreamland. A Self-Help Book for a Frightened Nation“, 2006) by Andri Snær Magnason; and the diary novel Jarðnæði („Land Tenure“, 2011) by Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir.The texts from Norway are Erik Dammann‘s essayistic book Fremtiden i våre hender („The Future in Our Hands“, 1972), Knut Faldbakken‘s two-part novel Uår – Aftenlandet („Bad Years – the Occident“, 1974) and Uår – Sweetwater („Bad Years – Sweetwater“, 1976), Sidsel Mørck‘s documentary novels Stumtjenere („Silent Servant“, 1978) and Ikke til salgs! („Not for Sale!“, 1983), Gert Nygårdshaug‘s novels Mengele Zoo (1989) and Chimera (2011) as well as Jostein Gaarder‘s young-adult novel Anna. En fabel om klodens klima og miljø („Anna. A Fable about the Planet‘s Climate and Environment“, 2013).

Support: This project was supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation through a PhD scholarship .
Status: The PhD thesis was submitted at the University of Bonn in January 2014. The thesis defense took place in April 2014. The thesis was published in October 2014 under the title Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen. Ein interdisziplinärer Beitrag zu den environmental humanities in the series Texte und Untersuchungen zur Germanistik und Skandinavistik.

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