Tuesday 18 August 2015

Sagas and Space: the 16th International Saga Conference, Universities of Zürich and Basel

Every three years the Old Norse community descends upon a city (or two) for the International Saga Conference. This summer brought us to the universities of Zürich and Basel for a week’s worth of papers and discussion on a variety of subjects across the field, from 9–15 August. The title given to this year’s conference was ‘Sagas and Space’, inviting submissions to thematic strands ‘Constructing Space’, ‘Mediality’, ‘Textuality and Manuscript Transmission’, ‘Reception of Old Norse-Icelandic Literature’, ‘Continental Europe and Medieval Scandinavia’, ‘Literatures of Eastern Scandinavia’, ‘Bodies and Senses in the Scandinavian Middle Ages’ and a wide range of other topics. Between Cambridge scholars present and past, representatives of the ASNaC department could be found in every one of these thematic strands.

Monday saw doctoral student Maria Theresa Ramandi present on the Legend of St Agnes in Old Icelandic translation as well as a roundtable discussion on eddic poetry led by Dr Judy Quinn and featuring Dr Brittany Schorn. In Basel on Tuesday both presented additional papers on eddic material (on the artifice of intimacy in eddic dialogues and modes of poetry in prosimetric sagas) and doctoral students Rebecca Merkelbach and Joanne Shortt Butler represented the Íslendingasögur with papers on mediality and monstrosity, and on characterisation in Eyrbyggja saga respectively. On Wednesday Dr Elizabeth Ashman Rowe presented her current research on the Icelandic annals, offering a tantalising glimpse of forthcoming publications on these neglected texts. After a day off for trekking in the Alps, exploring the manuscript collection of Saint Gallen abbey, cruising on Lake Lucerne or just getting better acquainted with Zürich, the conference wrapped up on Friday. Doctoral student Caitlin Ellis mapped out the political geographies of eleventh-century kings Knútr Sveinsson (Cnut the Great) and Óláfr Haraldsson, whilst Dr Paul Gazzoli explained the manuscript tradition and re-interpretations of the Latin Life of St Anskar, a missionary saint associated with the conversion of Scandinavia. 

ASNaC alumni from around Europe added to the representation of the department, with papers and contributions by Drs Rosalind Bonté (Brepols publishers), Eleanor Heans-Glogowska, Emily Lethbridge (Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, Reykjavík) and Jeffrey Love (Stockholm University). Doctoral students Katherine Olley, Jonathan Hui and Victoria Cribb also swelled the ranks of Cambridge delegates, partaking of discussions, developments and opportunities to meet colleagues old and new. The week was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with friends and peers from all around the globe, as well as those from collaborative projects such as the Languages, Myths and Finds network, Árni Magnússon Institute Manuscript Master Classes, Skaldic Poetry Project — and even to form brand new research networks! Rebecca Merkelbach led the formation of an Old Norse Network of Otherness (ONNO), comprised largely of early-career scholars from around the world whose work focusses on the marginal and medial aspects of Old Norse literature. The interests of the network include the breaking-down of binaries, the development of spectrums and continuities [and] the de-marginalisation of otherness”. This is but one example of how the conference successfully fostered enthusiasm, creativity and new ideas amongst everyone who attended. 

Saga Conference 2015

At this, the 16th International Saga Conference, we also received reminders of conferences past and of the important legacy of these academic gatherings that were begun by Professor Hermann Pálsson at Edinburgh in 1971. Under the enthusiastic guidance of Judy Quinn, the first coffee-break in Basel was taken up by delegates participating in a series of sixteen photographs recording the history of the saga conference since its inception. From the cheers of support, it was worth forgoing coffee to see how important this meeting has been to the field, ensuring contact and discussion between members of the community (both senior and junior) throughout the years. Appropriately, this year’s photoshoot coincided with the launch of a website archiving all available saga conference papers and abstracts. It will doubtless prove an invaluable asset to the ongoing research of many of us.

Finally, Friday afternoon confirmed the location and date of the next meeting in 2018: Reykjavík, Iceland, 12–18 August. Previous conferences have focussed on many genres of saga, but never yet on the genre that has perhaps contributed most to bringing people to the field: the Íslendingasögur. How appropriate that we should return to Reykjavík for this theme. Roll on 2018 and the 17th International Saga Conference!

Joanne Shortt Butler
With thanks to Judy Quinn for additional information.