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16. Orality and Literacy in the Sagas of Icelanders

Gísli Sigurðsson

Subject Literature » Medieval Literature

Place Northern Europe » Scandinavia

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631235026.2004.00019.x


The study of medieval Icelandic texts from a literary and historical perspective has come a long way since the pioneering efforts of seventeenth-century scholars, who tended to place great faith in the veracity of early written texts and to believe that sagas were reliable sources about actual events in the real world of the Viking Age. The work of these scholars had yet to meet the challenge of the important developments in philology, source-criticism and the literary treatment of saga texts that took place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ( Malm 1996 ). The nature of textual transmission in manuscript form came to occupy the attention of Árni Magnússon around 1700, and historians have since recognized the importance of the detailed codicological and textual examination of any work before plausible conclusions can be drawn as to that work's relationship with the reality it purports to describe. Early scholarship placed great trust in the reliability of oral tradition, and believed that the role of a scribe writing down a text for the first time was merely that of a recorder. An early written text created in this way was thus regarded as the most reliable and authoritative of all potentially available sources. The problem of understanding exactly how an oral text could be captured in writing had not yet been appreciated or explored. In the wake of nineteenth-century advances ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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