Book Review

Intellectual Culture in Medieval Scandinavia, c. 1100–1350, ed. by Stefka Georgieva Eriksen


Matt Firth (Reviewer) – Parergon 35 (no. 1, 2018)

This edited collection of thirteen essays seeks to reframe our understanding of how the intellectual aspects of Scandinavian literary and material culture evolved in the years 1100 – 1350. The contributors to this volume undertake to place the cultural pursuits of medieval Scandinavia within the wider intellectual milieu of Western Europe. In doing so, their focus is upon the influence of European intellectual culture on the development of Scandinavia’s own regional intellectual identity, or rather how Scandinavian intellectual culture adopted, adapted, and interacted with foreign ideas.

Eriksen has drawn together an excellent collection of articles, notable for their quality and refreshing variety. Introducing the volume, she presents some definitions that provide important context. Firstly, insofar as the contributions reference a Scandinavian vernacular, this is Old Norse. Thus, the literary cultures of Norway and Iceland are preferenced over those of either Sweden or Denmark. Similarly, the literary cultures of Western Europe – Latin, Old French, and German – are preferenced as those which influenced Scandinavian intellectual culture. The desire of the editor to tightly define manageable parameters for her contributors is understandable, that this is at the expense of a more inclusive view of European inter-cultural exchange is unfortunate. Secondly, ‘intellectual culture,’ as understood within the volume, is broadly defined, including, alongside scholars, those who pursued art, architecture, liturgy, music, medicine or literature (p. 7), and the book is richer for it.

Conceived as a supplement to Eriksen’s introduction, Gunnar Harðarson’s contribution surveys Old Norse intellectual culture, highlighting some of its noted thinkers such as Snorri Sturluson and his nephew Sturla Þórðarson. In so doing, Harðarson considers intellectual interaction as represented within Old Norse literary sources. The intent here is twofold – to demonstrate the multi-disciplinary nature of Scandinavian intellectual life, and to demonstrate the ubiquity of Latin intellectual culture.

Following this, Ian P. Wei opens the first of the book’s three thematic divisions, Negotiating Identity, with an article focusing on the intellectual culture of Paris, touching only lightly upon Scandinavia. While this may seem an odd contribution, it is contextually important to establishing ‘mainstream’ Latin intellectual culture. Wei asserts that this intellectual culture was more malleable than often assumed and that, rather than introducing broad normative moral assertions into Scandinavian intellectual society, allowed for an adaptable framework of intellectual discourse. Moving into architectural identity, Kjartan Hauglid examines Romanesque stone churches in Norway and their adaption of foreign architectural styles, arguing that the commissioning of such buildings was an expression of secular power. Turning then to Iceland, Bjørn Bandlien explores learning and text production, arguing that learning and social identity were closely associated in the primarily rural region. To this end, texts were authored not only for a learned clerical audience expecting classical and biblical references, but to a lay audience which anticipated tales of honour and regional association. Closing the section, Kristoffer Vadum takes as his case-study an Icelandic hagiography of John the Baptist by Grímr Hólmsteinsson. Vadum highlights the presence of significant passages drawn from canon law within the text, and uses these to explore the reception of canon law in medieval Iceland, its interpretation, and its use in political discourse.

Section two, entitled Thinking in Figures, opens with a chapter by Rita Copeland which focuses on the teaching of grammar and rhetoric more broadly across Western Europe. She highlights the increasing trend toward the use of vernacular, and examines how this process altered interpretations of common tropes. Following this, Åslaug Ommundsen looks at the fragmentary evidence of Latin education in Norway and Iceland. Mikael Males contributes an examination of grammatical studies in the context of Old Norse and how Latin grammatica was adapted to native traditions. Closing the section, Mats Malm analyses the cultural absorption of Latin learning through examples drawn from both Iceland and Sweden, demonstrating the importance of regional circumstance on the interpretation of Latin traditions.

The final section, Worldly Existence and Heavenly Salvation, opens with Sigurd Hareide’s examination of Old Norse interpretations of Latin expositions of the Mass. Remaining within the ecclesiastical sphere, Kristin B. Aavitsland examines the patronage of church art, with a particular focus on the altar of the Lisbjerg church, and what it may tell us of the self-perception of the commissioning elites. Eriksen draws the volume to a close with her chapter examining Old Norse literary representations of the body and the soul, concluding that Scandinavian intellectual culture was reliant on the interrelation of emotional, spiritual, and ethical development, alongside the search for knowledge.

Each contribution to this volume is valuable in its own right and, despite the noted limitation of the studies to the development of the intellectual cultures of Iceland and Norway – there is much here of interest. Intellectual Culture in Medieval Scandinavia is a welcome resource for anyone interested in inter-cultural exchange and the history of ideas as it pertains to medieval north-western Europe.