When the adventurer Richard Burton coined the phrase ‘Iceland on the Brain’, he meant the near obsession that many British travellers had with Iceland, its sagas and poems, and natural landscape. A similar brain fever has focused on the brief Viking settlements in North America. Its earliest cases can be diagnosed about two centuries ago, and its symptoms have included poems, novels, travel books, translations, inscriptions, artefacts, archaeological digs, legislation, films, comics, video games, statues, restaurants, music camps, racism, and even a theme park. Having gripped Canada, the United States, and South America, the fever now has spread across the globe. Variously attached to the whimsical, the socio-political and the downright toxic, the condition may not so much have infected individuals as been actively sought out and embraced by them. It is almost as if Vinland has become a kind of free-floating yet powerful signifier.
This book provocatively argues that much of what English writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered about medieval English geography, history, religion, and literature, they remembered by means of medieval and modern Scandinavia. These memories, in turn, figure in something even broader. Protestant and fundamentally monarchical, the Nordic countries constituted a politically kindred spirit in contrast with France, Italy, and Spain. Along with the so-called Celtic fringe and overseas colonies, Scandinavia became one of the external reference points for the forging of the United Kingdom. Subject to the continual refashioning of memory, the region became at once an image of Britain’s noble past and an affirmation of its current global status, rendering trips there rides on a time machine. The book’s approach to the Anglo-Scandinavian past addresses the specific impact of Nordic materials in framing conceptions of the English Middle Ages and positions the literature of medievalism less as the cause of modern Anglo-Nordic interests than as the recurrence of the same cultural concerns that animated early modern politics, science, and natural history. Emphasising multilingual non-literary traditions (such as travel writing and ethnography) and following four topics – natural history, ethnography, moral character, and literature – the focus of Northern Memories is on how texts, with or without any direct connections to one another, reproduced shared tropes and outlooks and on how this reproduction cumulatively furthered large cultural ideas.
Northern Memories concerns how English writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered Scandinavia, especially Iceland and Norway; how by remembering Scandinavia and its people they furthered contemporary sentiments not simply about that region but about the emerging global role of Great Britain; and how they often did so by selectively collapsing the contemporary world and the Middle Ages, providing memories of both in the process. More than simply a literary issue, the construction of an Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity served as an organising principle for cultural politics, providing ways to read past and present alike as testaments to British exceptionalism. Much of what English critics of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries remembered about medieval English geography, history, religion, and literature, they remembered by means of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. As British visitors and thinkers encountered the Scandinavian ‘present’ in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, they similarly found evidence for the British past. Rather than a source study that traces the genealogy of cultural ideas, political contacts, or literary influences, this book is above all a theoretical inquiry about the persistence, independent imitation, and reproduction of Nordic tropes for the imagining of Britain and its medieval past.
Three focuses of British travel writing from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were natural history, science, and recreation. Throughout this period and often independently of one another, widely separated writers on these topics utilised a set of consistent yet contradictory images to represent their experiences. In explicit detail they described beauty but also filth, and dangers to which they responded with expressions of awe, uncertainty, and disgust. From these contradictions emerge coherent ways to look at the modern world – especially the contrasts between Britain and Scandinavia – as well as to remember the world from which it developed. The collective impact of replicated tropes rendered visits to the modern-day Nordic regions as rides on a time machine to the British medieval past.
Early modern discussions of British ethnographic history turn on a recurring set of references to Asia, migration, tribal unity, ancestral peoples, pagan practices, genealogies, violence, language, Christianity, mythology, and the Norman Conquest. Produced across the centuries I consider and circulated by writers who often had no direct influence on or even knowledge of one another, these tropes enable memories of a past that supports a specific socio-political present. They offer ways to think about the Nordic regions, Britain, and the historiographic connections among them that sustained national identity by means of historical division. At issue in such cultural memories is the establishment of some kind of continuity between past and present, which depends on distinctions between the two historical moments. Emerging from many early modern discussions of England’s political history was the belief that the Nordic and English peoples were of the same race and that as such they were categorically distinct from other races, especially from the French and sometimes even from the German ones. Evidence for this unity could be found in population movements and the attendant historical interactions, religious practices, and social characteristics.
By the Anglo-Scandinavian heuristic, travelling in Scandinavia could serve as a virtual trip through time. The region was necessary, familiar, and even, at times, charming. Yet it was the past: what Britain had been and, in an increasingly evolutionary outlook on human experience, what Britain had moved far beyond. Almost like a folk museum, the Nordic region was a place where travellers could talk with people in period costumes, eat period foods, watch period handicrafts being made, buy souvenirs, and walk through a carefully preserved period landscape. The region was necessary, familiar, and even, at times, charming. Yet it was the past: what Britain had been and, in an increasingly stratified view of human experience (Evolutionary Time, according to Johannes Fabian) what Britain had moved far beyond. Clothing, religion, lifestyle, occupations, buildings, personal habits, food – all of these therefore had authentic and immediate interest as what might be called tropes of tactile historiography, potentially revealing something about moral character, whether that of the current Nordic peoples or of the Britons imagined to have evolved from them.
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.
Historical memory is situational, the result of a cultural process of construction and representation. As obviously ruinous, perverse, and even demonic as the Nazis’ methods and beliefs were, their use of Nordic imagery and ideas depends on many of the same kinds of historiographic manoeuvres and even some of the same tropes that are traced in this book. As much as the Nazis’ notions of world dominance differed from the aspirations of every English writer considered, both groups shared the strategy of incorporating a Nordic past in their cultural memories. What might be called a parallel descent from Germanic prehistory thus has unsettling epistemic implications. If memory is conditioned not only by what is being remembered but by who is doing the remembering, as many critics maintain, then the process itself – the tropes it uses and the fact that it combines them – is in some ways subject-neutral. It is such malleability and reproducibility that would allow for the creation of competing views from the same recirculated images – totalitarianism as well as fantasy. These may be the qualities that give historical memory its greatest power.
From Iceland to the Americas, an anthology of thirteen original critical essays, is an exercise in the reception of a small historical fact with wide-ranging social, cultural, and imaginative consequences. Medieval records claim that around the year 1000 Leif Eiriksson and other Nordic explorers sailed westwards from Iceland and Greenland to a place they called Vinland. Archaeological evidence has in fact verified this claim, though primarily by way of one small, short-lived Norse settlement in Newfoundland, which may not even have been Leif’s. Whether or not this settlement was his, however, the contact associated with him has had an outsized impact on cultural imagination in and of the Americas. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, indeed, novels, poetry, history, politics, arts and crafts, comics, films and video games have all reflected a rising interest in the medieval Norse and their North American presence. Uniquely in reception studies, From Iceland to the Americas approaches this dynamic between Nordic history and its reception by bringing together international authorities on mythology, language, film, and cultural studies, as well as on the literature that has dominated critical reception. Collectively, the essays not only explore the connections among medieval Iceland and the modern Americas, but also probe why medieval contact has become a modern cultural touchstone.