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Studies in Old Norse Literature

We are Carolyne Larrington of the University of Oxford and Sif Rikhardsdottir of the University of Iceland and we have recently started up a new series for Boydell and Brewer, Studies in Old Norse Literature. When Caroline Palmer suggested it to us, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to showcase the interesting research going on in Old Norse literary studies. For Old Norse-Icelandic has, after medieval French, the largest corpus of texts dating from the medieval period and yet many of these remain unedited, or have not been re-edited since the nineteenth century. Old Norse-Icelandic literature is extraordinarily varied, encompassing a huge range of Christian, secular and heroic poetry and prose writings, treatises about language, encyclopaedias, saints’ lives, histories, ballads, short-stories, and much more. In the last twenty years, new, often electronic, editions of key texts in different genres have begun to appear, stimulating work across the whole domain of Old Norse-Icelandic literary study to find fresh ways of engaging with a whole range of genres.

Thus, in recent decades, previously overlooked or understudied genres have been coming to the fore as focus for literary-historical projects. From the 1990s onwards, the fornaldarsögur (‘legendary sagas’), epic adventures of heroes, trolls and monsters, once derided as fantastical and unserious in comparison with the much more famous Íslendingasögur (‘sagas of Icelanders’), began to attract critical attention. These sagas were no longer regarded as merely escapist fantasies, but rather began to be read as having serious things to say about gender, ethnicity, power, kingship and politics. A team of international scholars has been editing afresh the elaborate court-poetry mode known as skaldic poetry; though this work is still in progress it has begun to drive new insights into this complex, highly metaphorical form of verse. More recently still, eddic poetry, composed using the simpler metrical forms more suitable to relate the exciting narratives and dramatic dialogue of gods and heroes, has come back under the spotlight. Work on less-well-known poems, some questioning the existence of the divide between the two modes, is beginning to appear. The romance genre, including those sagas which are translations from Old French originals, adapted to Norwegian court tastes, and the indigenous riddarasögur (‘sagas of knights’), composed in imitation, have also excited critical interest, as cultural-historical research moves forward into the relatively neglected fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Iceland.

New cross-disciplinary emphases have made their impact in the Old Norse-Icelandic field. The implications of the ‘affective turn’, sometimes known as ‘history of emotions’ study, is represented by the first book in the new series, Sif Rikhardsdottir’s Emotion in Old Norse Literature. Exciting new comparative work across literary genres inspires Siân Grønlie’s The Saint and the Saga Hero, the second book in the series. Forthcoming titles include a study of changing thinking about Christianity, its theology and its institutions and their reflections in contemporary Old Norse religious literature. Different kinds of excitingly cutting-edge work harnessing the knowledge generated by neighbouring disciplines – whether psychology and social history in the analysis of varying Old Norse masculinities, cartography and geography in an investigation into medieval Scandinavian thinking about maps, or religious and art history in the study of distinctive Scandinavian manifestations of the cults of different saints – are fuelling future projects in our series.

The flexibility that the series offers allows room for the more traditional single topic monograph, looking in detail at particular areas, as well as essay collections which maintain a tight focus on a clearly delineated subject. The first three authors in the series are well-established authors with international reputations, but follow-up volumes will include cutting-edge work by younger early-career researchers. The series encourages well-thought-out proposals still in their early stages, where editorial knowhow can help shape the project, and completed manuscripts. As the series editors we discussed the possibility of moving forward a project on literary genre in medieval Scandinavian writing which has been bubbling under among various international networks for a good while, and with the addition of Massimiliano Bampi to the editorial team, the Critical Companion to Old Norse Literary Genre is in preparation; a project workshop is scheduled in Venice this spring in order to talk through key theoretical concepts and to sharpen our sense of key themes and striking individual case-studies.

We are delighted that an idea that was only properly formulated a year ago has taken off so spectacularly. The two books already published have worthily inaugurated the series, a third volume is in production and a steady stream of other projects are feeding into this exciting venture. We are both pleased and proud to have helped create a space where – given the international emphasis on interdisciplinarity above all – the thoughtful literary monograph can find a home, alongside, of course, literary-critical analysis that makes use of theoretical framings from related disciplines. Our series aims both to reach out to scholars whose interests lie in Old Norse-Icelandic and related fields and to enable researchers to communicate their findings both beyond and within the academic community of medievalists, highlighting the growing interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literary culture. We look forward to seeing how our series will develop and flourish, opening up provocative and refreshing new approaches to Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Proposals for Studies in Old Norse Literature may be sent to Boydell and Brewer, or to the editors (carolyne.larrington@sjc.ox.ac.uk) and (sifr@hi.is).

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