PhD Research Proposal

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Personal Transformation in Medieval Scandinavian Literature: Three Case Studies

"In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora" (I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities) -- Ovid, Metamorphoses

The literature of early medieval Scandinavia reflects a world in transition: Oral culture is giving way to written; regional autonomy to nations governed by kings; and widespread conversion to Christianity, to name just a few. These are macro-level transitions, but underlying and contributing to them are myriad stories of individual and personal transformation.

My proposed thesis will take a micro-level, case study approach to explore the theme of transformation in medieval Scandinavian literature, focusing on three different types of personal transformation that occur with some degree of frequency in the sagas, and potentially in other types of tangential literature: Becoming an adult, becoming a ruler, and becoming a Christian.

In medieval Scandinavian studies, there is no shortage of research and writing on religious conversion, or on narratives about kings and rulers. The transition between childhood and adulthood is somewhat underrepresented, but has attracted recent scholarship (ref). Taken individually, none of these topics would be promising for a dissertation-length project. However, considering them together under the lens of "transformation" would allow for comparative analysis of themes, language, and processes that might otherwise remain obscure. It would also allow for a more interdisciplinary approach, grounded in literary analysis, but drawing from psychology, anthropology, and history of religions.

The case study approach presents the additional possibility of adapting one or more of the case studies independently, for publication in a journal or presentation at an academic conference during the course of the doctoral program.

Becoming an Adult

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a near universal phenomenon, well attested across the sagas, and particularly so in family and legendary sagas (Larrington). Recent scholarship has placed considerable focus on the legal age (Callow, Lewis-Simpson) and rites of passage (Danielli, Haggerty, Schjodt) by which this transformation occurs, or the distinctive characteristics that separate childhood and adolescence from adulthood (Hansen, Ross).

Along with Hansen, my thesis presumes the existence of "a children's world and an adults' world," distinct from one another (ref), and will examine the processes by which characters in the sagas (and possibly poetry?) move from one to another, navigating social expectations, changes of age and status, critical decisions, rites of passage, and interpersonal relationships. Grettis Saga and Egil's Saga have frequently been deemed "coming of age" stories for their respective male protagonists, while Laxdaela Saga and Njal's Saga afford the opportunity to examine female characters (Guðrún and Hallgerd) transitioning to adulthood.

In particular, I'm interested in questions of recognition and regression. Does a saga character recognize, internally, a specific point at which he or she has transformed into an adult? What role, if any, do ritual and ceremony play in the public recognition of that transformation? Are there instances where personal and public recognition of transformation are not aligned? After the transformation to adulthood is recognized, does the individual ever revert back to behavior associated with childhood? Conversely, are there instances where an individual exhibits adult behavior or skill prior to the actual transformation? How long is the transformative process, and what are the significant catalysts?

Approaching the texts through the lens of modern psychological or anthropological analysis could also prove fruitful in understanding the transformative process in medieval Scandinavian literature. However, this should be done with caution, recognizing that Erikson's stage theory or Van Gennep's rites of passage applied over-zealously to a text written by an anonymous author in the 13th century are not likely to give extensive insight into the mind of an actual 10th century Icelandic teenager. Rather, it is my hope that these interdisciplinary approaches might supplement a critical literary analysis, and point in the direction of common perceptions about transformation in the culture which produced and transmitted the stories.

Becoming a Ruler

While the above transformation is near-universal, the process of becoming a ruler--specifically, a reigning King or Queen (footnote: discuss Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe, Duggan, 1997)--is by nature a selective transformation experienced by a relative few. From the 19th century, the great debate surrounding medieval Germanic and Scandinavian Kingship has been about the sacral nature of the office(ref - varying definitions of sacral kingship in McTurk article, also Sundqvist's "Religious Ruler Ideology"). Recent scholarship has focused on the appropriate methodology used to support claims about royal ideologies, with some scholars (Ross, Sundqvist) calling for a text-centric approach that is limited in its conclusions to what can be self-supported within the available sources, and skeptical of broad generalizations that do not take into account gender biases, regional variances, and editorial uses of earlier texts, among other concerns. Other scholars (Schjodt, Nygaard) have expressed more confidence in using the comparitive study of religions and sociological models to draw cautious conclusions where textual sources are limited.

In my own research, I aim to seek a methodological middle ground, which considers multidisciplinary approaches and models, but does not rely on them to speak where the texts and sources do not.

Whether under the traditional heading of sacral kingship or the more recent religious ruler ideology, the bulk of scholarship has focused on the static qualities or functions or the ruler, while little attention has been given to the process by which a non-ruler becomes a ruler. The very notion of sacral kingship presumes that rulers are "born and not made." However,this seems rather at odds with the narratives found in Heimskringla and the Volsunga Saga, where kings often must go to great lengths to gain (and then keep) their crowns.

My questions for this section are similar to those in the preceding section: Does public recognition of the ruler generally align with self-recognition, and what happens when this is not the case? Jens Peter Schodt has written on the rituals that may have been associated with kingly coronation, but the texual evidence for such a ritual is scant, and in any case it can be argued that a coronation ritual merely recognizes a transformation that has already occured, or one in process, and does not initiate or conclude the transformation (footnote - although it may play a part in effecting it, and likely the subject of the coronation hoped it would conclude it). If not a coronation ritual, are there common narrative features that mark the beginning or conclusion of a royal transformation? To what extent to stories of royal ascension reflect the biases of their authorial context?

I have limited my definition of "Ruler" to reigning Kings and Queens, but it might be helpful in the course of research to explore comparisons with other types of governmental authority figures (i.e. goðar, law-speakers, regents, etc.).

Becoming a Christian

  • a progressive transformation, experienced selectively at first, and then by increasing numbers of individuals.
  • Primary Sources: Njal, Hallfreðr, Heimskringla
  • Secondary Sources: Abram, Antonsson, Gronlie, Rambo
  • Historiography:
  • Research Questions:
  • Limitations:

Why Me? Why Aberdeen?

This research project will allow me to bring together my previous undergraduate work in literature as well as my graduate degrees in education and divinity, both of which are concerned with personal transformation. Often, I find that in studying narratives and cultures that are geographically and chronologically removed from my own, fresh perspectives and insights present themselves in regard to my present work and context, far more so than if I were to focus directly upon them. In my vocation as a minister, I have a vested interest in the processes and rituals by which those in my community experience growth, maturity, and transformation. Long before I was a minister, however, I was an avid enthusiast for Northern Eurpoean mythologies, literatures, and languages. This research project thus sits comfortably at the intersection of my personal, academic, and professional interests, and will prove useful to my congregation, which will also be my primary funding source for completion of the program.

Several factors make Aberdeen University and the Centre for Scandinavian Studies the ideal institution for me to pursue this research. Among them are a stated commitment to an interdisciplinary approach, a unique focus on early medieval Scandinavian context, and a geographic centrality among Scandinavian points of interest. Dr. Hannah Burrows' expertise in Norse language, texts and legal sources will be valuable resources, and her thoughtful, attentive approach as an advisor has been commended by several students currently under her supervision. Finally, Aberdeen's willingness to accomodate my need for part-time and distance study is essential, and greatly appreciated.

Primary Sources

  • Bayerschmidt, Carl F., and Lee M. Hollander, translators. Njáls Saga. Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse L., translator. The Saga of the Volsungs. Penguin Classics, 2000.
  • Kunz, Keneva, translator. “The Saga of the People of Laxardal.” The Sagas of Icelanders, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 270–421.
  • Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Scudder, Bernard, translator. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Penguin, 2005.
  • Scudder, Bernard, translator. "Egils Saga." The Sagas of Icelanders, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 3-184.
  • Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Translated by L. M. Hollander, University of Texas Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2005.
  • Whaley, Diana, translator. “The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet.” Sagas of Warrior Poets, Penguin Classics, 2002.

Secondary Sources

  • Abram, Christopher. “Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives: The Case of Óláfr Tryggvason and Hallfreðr Vandræðaskáld.” Speculum, vol. 90, no. 1, 2015, pp. 114–157.
  • Antonsson, Haki. "Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia: A Synthesis." Saga-Book, vol. 34, 2010, pp. 25-74.
  • Callow, Chris. "Transitions to Adulthood in Early Icelandic Society," Children, Childhood and Society, S. Crawford & G. Shepherd, editors, Oxford, 2007, pp. 45-55.
  • Danielli, Mary. “Initiation Ceremonial from Norse Literature.” Folklore, vol. 56, no. 2, 1945, pp. 229–245.
  • Grønlie, Sian. “Conversion Narrative and Christian Identity: 'How Christianity Came to Iceland'.” Medium Ævum, vol. 86, no. 1, 2017, pp. 123–146.
  • Haggerty, James. "Initiation Rituals in Old Norse Texts and their Relationship to Finno-Karelian Bear Cult Rituals." Unpublished master's thesis, University of Oslo, 2014.
  • Hansen, Anna. "Representation of Children in Early Icelandic Society." Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sydney, 2006.
  • Hansen, Anna. "Fosterage and dependency in medieval Iceland and its significance in Gísla Saga", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 73-86.
  • Koester, David. “Icelandic Confirmation Ritual In Cultural-Historical Perspective.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 67, no. 4, 1995, pp. 476–515.
  • Lewis-Simpson, Shannon. "The challenges of quantifying youth and age in the medieval north", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 1-16.
  • Larrington, Carolyne. "Awkward adolescents: Male maturation in norse literature", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 151-166.
  • McTurk, Rory. "Scandinavian Sacral Kingship Revisited." Saga-Book, vol. 24, 1994, pp. 19-32.
  • Nygaard, Simon. "Sacral rulers in pre-Christian Scandinavia: The possibilities of typological comparisons within the paradigm of cultural evolution." Temenos, vol. 52, 2016, pp. 9-35.
  • Percivall, Nic. "Teenage angst: The structures and boundaries of adolescence in twelfth-and thirteenth-century Iceland", Youth and Age in the Medieval North, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, editor. Leiden: Brill, 2008, pp. 127-150.
  • Ross, Margaret Clunies. ‘From Iceland to Norway: Essential Rites of Passage for an Early Icelandic Skald’, Alvíssmál, vol. 9, 1999, pp. 55–72
  • Ross, Margaret Clunies. “Royal Ideology in Early Scandinavia: A Theory Versus the Texts.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 113, no. 1, 2014, pp. 18–33.
  • Schjødt, Jens Peter. Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion. Victor Hansen, translator. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2008.
  • Schjødt, Jens Peter. “Ideology of the Ruler in Pre-Christian Scandinavia: Mythic and Ritual Relations.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, vol. 6, 2010, pp. 161–194.
  • Sundqvist, Olof. "Religious Ruler Ideology in Pre-Christian Scandinavia : A Contextual Approach." More than Mythology : Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Religions, 2012, pp. 225–262,
  • Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding Religious Conversion. Yale University Press, 1993.

Fun Quotes / Inspiration

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland

"Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends . . . Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking. Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.” ― David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters

"few things have more transformative power than people and stories.” ― Shane Claiborne

"Oh king, eh, very nice. An' how'd you get that, eh? ― Monty Python: Quest for the Holy Grail


  • SW: 1,947 words - (341 intro & thesis; 486 historiography; 667 chapter breakdown; 152 conclusion; 301 why aberdeen)
  • JH: 950 words - (305 intro & thesis; 388 themes & historiography; 101 methodology; 153 impact)