Stories that make things real
in Northern memories and the English Middle Ages
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Focused on the historical relations between English and the Nordic languages and on the relevance of Nordic literature to British experience, memories produced by language and literature worked towards this same end of fashioning a medieval memory. Lacking the mythology of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, as well as the sagas’ detailed descriptions of daily life in the Middle Ages, English readers could find in Norse literature reasons to believe there had been comparable material in English literary history and that what Norse literature described equally might have been said about the English experience. Similarities between Old English and Old Norse likewise could be understood to affirm the essential sameness of those who spoke the languages. With the theoretical underpinning of Herder’s and von Humboldt’s reflections on social identity, the putatively shared language and literature identified in this way became much more than a scholarly diversion. Like tropes of travel, ethnicity, and personal identity, replicated references to sagas, Eddas, speakers, poets, verse forms, translation, unintelligibility, dialects, and languages (medieval and modern) fashioned a historical identity worth remembering for what it revealed about the modern world and for how it illustrated contemporary divergences from its historical origins.

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