Archive for December, 2010

Jólabókaflóðið, Part I: Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

I have rather a backlog of recent books to announce. Many thanks to everybody who’s sent notices of publications to me (and, in a couple of cases, even actual books!), and apologies for the tardiness.

In the run up to Christmas I shall try to tell you about as many of these new books as possible–who knows, it might not be too late to buy one for a family member or co-worker! (If you click on the links here and then subsequently purchase the volume at Amazon, a tiny percentage is returned to me, which I put towards the costs of hosting ONN.)

Anyway, the first latest book is:

Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, by Stephen A. Mitchell

Stephen A. Mitchell here offers the fullest examination available of witchcraft in late medieval Scandinavia. He focuses on those people believed to be able-and who in some instances thought themselves able-to manipulate the world around them through magical practices, and on the responses to these beliefs in the legal, literary, and popular cultures of the Nordic Middle Ages. His sources range from the Icelandic sagas to cultural monuments much less familiar to the nonspecialist, including legal cases, church art, law codes, ecclesiastical records, and runic spells. Mitchell’s starting point is the year 1100, by which time Christianity was well established in elite circles throughout Scandinavia, even as some pre-Christian practices and beliefs persisted in various forms. The book’s endpoint coincides with the coming of the Reformation and the onset of the early modern Scandinavian witch hunts. The terrain covered is complex, home to the Germanic Scandinavians as well as their non-Indo-European neighbors, the Sami and Finns, and it encompasses such diverse areas as the important trade cities of Copenhagen, Bergen, and Stockholm, with their large foreign populations; the rural hinterlands; and the insular outposts of Iceland and Greenland. By examining witches, wizards, and seeresses in literature, lore, and law, as well as surviving charm magic directed toward love, prophecy, health, and weather, Mitchell provides a portrait of both the practitioners of medieval Nordic magic and its performance. With an understanding of mythology as a living system of cultural signs (not just ancient sacred narratives), this study also focuses on such powerful evolving myths as those of “the milk-stealing witch,” the diabolical pact, and the witches’ journey to Blakulla. Court cases involving witchcraft, charm magic, and apostasy demonstrate that witchcraft ideologies played a key role in conceptualizing gender and were themselves an important means of exercising social control.

Proverb Conference in Saskatoon

Richard Harris writes to let us know of a conference to be held next year on the theme of Proverbia Septentrionalia. The Uses of the Proverb in the Medieval Cultures of Northern Europe.

It will be held at St Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Canada, on 11-13 November 2011. A Call for Papers has just been issued (click the link above). Here’s what the conference website says about its aims:

At this conference we will examine the uses of the proverb in the medieval cultures of northern Europe, in particular how such phrases are employed in literature and in non-fictional writings.  The discipline of paroemiology, or the study of proverbs, recognizes their origins as often preceding the literate stage of societies.  In fact, they must have made up a significant element in that formulaic framework by which knowledge and wisdom were fixed and transmitted generationally in the communities of pre-literate humanity.  The still unmapped syntactic structure of the paroemial form lent itself both to mnemonic efficiency and to rhetorical persuasion—even today, there are cultures in Africa where litigation and governmental advice are expressed proverbially, and the conduct of law in our own societies still employs proverbial material occasionally, just as do our politicians.

Aristotle was of the view that proverbs constituted the remains of man’s early philosophy which survived through their brevity and cleverness, and whole books of sacred texts are devoted to these formulaic dictums upon just and wise behaviour.  In this context, the entertainment of The Fables of Aesop is surely subordinate to their grounding in the wisdom often encapsulated at their close with a sentence of proverbial nature.  The fact of proverbs arising from the oral heritage of a culture has led some to opine, with Francis Bacon, that “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs,” but whether such pursuits are productive is doubtful.  Of greater use to the discipline is the acknowledgement that proverb texts have, and indeed may be defined by, their own generative structure, a structure to which Archer Taylor referred, if unconsciously, when he observed, “An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not.”

The presence of this structure in texts incorporated in poems and stories marks such passages not merely as instructive in themselves, but also as resonating with accepted communal wisdom in ways that can help us understand the works in which they occur.  Papers are welcome at this conference on any aspect of proverbial material in north European medieval literature and culture.