Trauma, psychology and saga-writing

In Málstofur by Elín Björk Jóhannsdóttir

Trauma studies in literature have concentrated more on the literature of the 20th and 21st century than that of past societies. The methodological difficulties of studying complex psychological phenomena in literature from a society about which we possess limited information are obvious. The aim of the session is to show by example how trauma studies can open up new perspectives on the texts of medieval Iceland and to engage a discussion about how psychology and related disciplines can add to our understanding of the medieval literature of Iceland.

Föstudagur 9. mars

Stofu 052 í Aðalbyggingu Háskóla Íslands
Kl. 15.00-17.00

Torfi H. Tulinius

Fyrirlesarar og titlar erinda

9. mars kl. 15.00-17.00

Applying concepts from psychology and psychoanalysis to narratives from a distant past raises at least two problems. One is that these texts are the expression of a culture vastly different from the present in terms of values, social mores and representations. Another is that, while creating the illusion that the characters are ‘real’, narratives only provides representations of human beings as seen and portrayed by the individual or communities responsible for the narratives. Though it is very tempting to view characters in the same way we would consider people of flesh and blood, attempts to do so run the risk of being anachronistic and based on too little evidence. A recent development in historical research, the history of emotions, provides methodological tools to deal with the first problem, with the notions of emotional communities and emotive scripts. However, it does not seem to address the second one in a satisfactory way. In the paper I will discuss how viewing the narratives in themselves as the expression of individual or collective psyches may help solve this second problem.

An understudied period in Icelandic history, the 15th century offers us, unfortunately, an abundance of events that could have been experienced as traumatic. First and foremost the 1402-3 plague that wiped out a large portion of the Icelandic population, which set the tone for the remaining century, which focused on territorial renegotiations and inheritance disputes. Another concern of this century was the relative indifference of the Kalmar Union monarchy in Iceland and the vastly growing presence and influence of the English on the island (causing Björn Þorsteinsson to dub this century the “Enska öldin”). This English presence came with the price of several acts of piracy and violence, such as the kidnapping and rough handling of the hirðstjórar Hannes Pálsson and Balthazar van Damme. In this discussion these dramatic events in Icelandic history will be looked at through the prism of trauma, both personal and collective, and the question of how these would have influenced 15th century literature, particularly saga manuscript compilation. This paper will provide several strands of thought as to how trauma could have influenced literary and editorial decisions made in this period, and directions for future research.

Psychological trauma as a concept was coined and developed throughout the 20th century. From observations in war-veterans to the aftermath of the Second World War and its far-reaching effects on entire cultures, research on trauma has expended into many fields of study. However, trauma as an experience existed long before being conceptualized as such, and each culture in its own time had its unique ways to express and relate to traumatic events. This enquiry aims at discussing the connections between traumatic experiences and paranormal events in saga literature through a comparison of their modus operandi. A paranormal encounter is, after all, a violent and distressing encounter, and as such carries potential traumatic responses. Through similar disruptive effects, trauma and the paranormal turn the past into an everlasting present. This analysis will help to show that the paranormal in the sagas was an expression of traumatic experiences on their own terms.

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