Masculinities in Old Norse Literature

Jessica Clare Hancock and Gareth Lloyd Evans introduces their new book on our blog today. Masculinities in Old Norse Literature is the first full investigation of masculinities in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. They explain the current interest in medieval Scandinavia, and the gap their research fills in the market.

There’s currently huge interest in the Vikings, and in motifs and stories from medieval Scandinavia; the recent World Tree project demonstrated that these make appearances on huge numbers of items from bikes to crisps. Many of these uses are clearly gendered, with the products’ marketing relying on a concept of Norsemen as having a powerful and aggressive masculinity; and it’s implied that this masculinity will be transferred to the consumer who buys a beer, deodorant or jacket connected to Thor or a figure in a horned helmet.

Such gendered notions of Vikings were also evident in the responses of astonishment when a 2019 paper argued that a grave belonged to a female Viking warrior (there’s a productive discussion of this finding by Professor Judith Jesch). More worryingly, there’s a growing trend for the misappropriation of Norse identities, particularly these harmful forms of masculinities, in acts of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This all means that it’s vital to understand the masculinities actually explored within medieval literature – the Old Norse-Icelandic texts that discuss and originate tales of the Vikings, Norse gods and medieval Scandinavians. This was the impetus behind Masculinities in Old Norse Literature: the collection of essays provides evidence for alternative masculine identities that do not necessarily conform to stereotypes of burly Vikings getting belligerently drunk after a day’s ultraviolent raiding.

Of course, other scholars have investigated gender in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Pioneering studies emerged from the 1980s and 1990s, by female academics such as Carol Clover, Helga Kress, Jenny Jochens, and Judith Jesch. Initially, it was crucial to focus on the neglected areas of women and female characters. Thanks to these ground-breaking researchers, work was then begun on men and masculinities. Continuing to focus solely on femininities would have had an othering effect, suggesting that masculinity was a simple norm that didn’t need addressing – thus contributing to harmful gender hierarchies.

Masculinities in Old Norse Literature
Edited by Gareth Lloyd Evans & Jessica Clare Hancock

Yet until very recently, the work on masculinities in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, albeit often innovative and insightful, was ad hoc and so it was difficult to understand the range of possible masculinities or to see how this emerging field was shaping up. In 2019, Gareth Lloyd Evans published a monograph, Men and Masculinities in the Sagas of Icelanders, which analysed masculinities in the Sagas of the Icelanders (one of the most prominent and popular genres of Old Norse-Icelandic literature). In this year, work was also being completed on our book, Masculinities and Old Norse Literature – this volume is jointly edited by Evans and Jessica Clare Hancock.

Masculinities in Old Norse Literature brings together work across the many genres of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, including both sagas and poetry, to give a fuller picture of the breadth of masculinities depicted in these texts. Although sometimes the kind of dominant, war-like masculinity that’s captured popular imaginations is featured and commended, there are plenty of occasions which show resistance to these kinds of ideas, or offer other ways of performing masculinity – such as the power possible in revealing an appetite for peace rather than conflict, or in the expression of emotion. Equally, these texts demonstrate the intersectionality of masculinities which vary according to age, disability, social roles or family positions. There are even occasions where female masculinities are explored through women who disguise themselves as a knight or scare off attackers with a bared breast.

Key questions addressed in the book include:

  • How does masculinity develop in boyhood and through the process of sexual maturation?
  • Do family rivalries engender hypermasculine behaviour?
  • Can the theory of inclusive masculinity illuminate medieval relationships?
  • How do physical or emotional ailments affect masculinity?
  • What are the implications of sharing a bed with another man or questioning his sexual behaviour?
  • Do religious communities enable alternative masculinities?
  • How do female masculinities alter our understandings of gender identities?

Bearing in mind recent misappropriations of Old Norse-Icelandic tropes, symbols and narratives, we have a responsibility, shared by many medievalists, to show how wrong these are: not just ethically, but in their refusal to recognise the actual reality of masculinities in Old Norse-Icelandic myths, legends, sagas and poetry. Even where masculinity might be more obviously centred around a warrior identity, violence is problematic as often as it is praiseworthy. The misuse of Old-Norse-Icelandic sources to support misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, and homophobic discourse is a threat to medieval studies in general, and Old Norse research in particular. It is intended that Masculinities in Old Norse Literature will play a part in providing a counter to dangerous and inaccurate uses of the narratives of medieval Scandinavia, clearly demonstrating that the deconstruction of harmful binaries and toxic masculinities is not an invention of the modern world but something that has been possible for over a thousand years.

This guest post was written by Jessica Clare Hancock, Lecturer in Educational Development at City, University of London and Gareth Lloyd Evans, Lecturer in Medieval Literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Masculinities in Old Norse Literature
Edited by Jessica Clare Hancock and Gareth Lloyd Evans
9781843845621, Hardback, £48.75 or $64.35

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