In the midst of the excitement and commotion of Pope Francis’s Manhattan visit on Friday, September 25, an intimate group of scholars from the United States and Norway convened at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for a conference on Faith & Knowledge in Late Medieval Scandinavia, organized by Drs. Mikael Males and Karoline Kjesrud, both postdoctoral fellows at the University of Oslo.
The conference is the latest in a series of recent events at Fordham concerning the literature and culture of medieval Scandinavia. In 2012, Fordham hosted a symposium titled “Textual Interpretation in Medieval Vernaculars,” as well as an earlier conference in 2010, “New Directions in Medieval Scandinavian Studies,” which developed into a book, Eddic, Skaldic, and Beyond: Poetic Variety in Medieval Iceland and Norway, edited by Fordham’s Dr. Martin Chase, S.J., and released by Fordham University Press this past spring 2015. The theme of this latest conference grew out of conversations that took place between the two organizers regarding their respective interests. While Dr. Males studies the poetics of Old Norseskaldic verse and Dr. Kjesrud studies the reflection of power relations between social classes in literary genres, both often found themselves wondering how ideas about the divine were made manifest to subjects in medieval Scandinavian society. How did people acquire the tenants of their religious beliefs? In what terms and forms did they express them?
With such fundamental questions as these forming the conference’s unifying thread, the
day’s talks ranged over a wide field of topics. Among the presenters, Elise Kleivane (University of Oslo) discussed the availability of scriptural texts in Scandinavian vernacular languages – a talk which included the fascinating example of a church door ring bearing a runic inscription of the Ave Maria; Margaret Cormack (College of Charleston) reported on the progress of a project that aims to map statue purchases in order to document the spread of saints’ cults throughout Iceland; and Stephen Mitchell (Harvard University) surveyed the charms and spells of the late medieval and early modern periods that invoked pagan gods for the attainment of such ends as wealth and treasure or protection against rats. Taken together, these talks and others presented a revealing overview of the age’s social and intellectual landscape.
The day demonstrated the potential for a focused conference to illuminate a broad question using insights from a variety of disciplines. The attendees agreed that with further refinement and consolidation, the day’s material will make for a unique book project, and all expressed interest in a follow-up conference at which the contributors might present their progress.
By Andrew O’Sullivan
Drawing by Wilhelm F.K. Christie (image courtesy of Elise Kleivane: “the ring’s catalogue number is N 347 and it is from Tønjum church, a stave church that was destroyed in a storm in 1824. The dating of the ring and its inscription is uncertain, but ca. 1200 is not impossible.”)