The Matter of Gautland

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Hui, Jonathan York Heng 

The classification of late medieval literary cycles according to localised subject matter, such as the ‘Matter of France’, the ‘Matter of Britain’ and the ‘Matter of Rome’, has proven to be an enduring one in modern scholarship. This model has also been applied to Old Norse saga literature, particularly the fornaldarsögur, within which the ‘Matter of Hrafnista’ and the ‘Matter of Gautland’ have been identified as prominent examples. The latter cycle consists of Gautreks saga, Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar and Bósa saga ok Herrauðs, all of whose heroes are descended from and primarily based in Gautland (modern-day Götaland in central-southern Sweden). This cycle has not been explored in any great depth, to the same extent that other ‘Matters’ have been, and it is therefore the primary focus of this dissertation.

The dissertation begins with a brief overview of previous scholarship on the ancient and medieval Götar and Götaland. This subject has long been of interest to scholars, not least because of the common identification of the Götar with the Geatas mentioned in Old English poetry, most notably Beowulf, but the matter is made notoriously problematic by sparse and sometimes unreliable evidence. Following this overview, introduction is made to Michel Foucault’s theory of the heterotopia, a spatial framework which has only begun to be applied to Old Norse literature within the last decade. Indeed, this dissertation marks the first time that Foucault’s heterotopia has been used as the theoretical framework for an extensive analysis of any Old Norse texts. An important contention of this dissertation is that the depictions of Gautland in Old Norse literature collectively fulfil Foucault’s six criteria of the heterotopia, and furthermore that Gautland can productively be considered a literary heterotopia. Accordingly, after establishing the theoretical framework, I explore the main patterns of conceptualisation found in the depictions of Gautland across the main genres of Old Norse literature. The purpose of this survey is to provide context for a closer analysis of the construction of Gautland in the three ‘Matter of Gautland’ fornaldarsögur. Because these three sagas involve Gautish heroes and, accordingly, feature Gautland as an important space, they inevitably reflect a significant depth of conceptualisation of the region, and the rest of this dissertation employs the heterotopic framework to illuminate the ways in which this conceptualisation is manifested.

Each of the three ‘Matter of Gautland’ sagas is analysed in turn, and certain aspects of the construction of Gautland, which happen to correspond strongly to individual principles of Foucault’s heterotopia, are identified as common to all three. All three sagas deploy allusions to prominent traditions associated with Gautland, especially to the celebrated Brávellir and Ragnarr loðbrók legends, the effect of which is to imbue the Gautland of each saga with legendary veracity. All three sagas also construct Gautland within their own system of relational geopolitical space, although these constructions are manifested differently in each saga. Indeed, as well as common aspects, each saga also naturally contains many points of idiosyncratic distinction and nuance in their construction of Gautland as well. Both Gautreks saga and Hrólfs saga are argued to reflect contemporary Icelandic anxieties through structural aspects of their depictions of Gautland, while Gautreks saga and, to a lesser extent, Bósa saga, display a fundamental and significant interest in the geographical landscape of Gautland. In their emphatic correspondence with each individual principle of Foucault’s heterotopia, the collective perspectives of the three ‘Matter of Gautland’ sagas provide unique insight into the medieval Icelandic conceptualisation of Gautland as a literary space.

Quinn, Judy
medieval Sweden, Foucault, Götaland, medieval Icelandic literature, fornaldarsögur
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Jebb Fund