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Birds and Humans in the Old Norse World, c. 600-1500 AD



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Haley-Halinski, Kathryn 


The central aim of this thesis is to explore the complexities of human-bird coexistence in Scandinavia and the Norse North Atlantic from 600-1500 AD, primarily focusing on the period c. 800-1400 within this time period. In particular, this thesis explores if and how literary representations of birds correlated in any way with zooarchaeological sources concerning human-bird interactions. To explore this central question, I employ an interdisciplinary methodology that combines literary analysis of textual sources with interpretation of archaeological reports that include bird bones. I also employ the theoretical lens of Human-Animal Studies, as it centres the lives of animals and the interactions of humans and animals, rather than considering animals a ‘blank canvas’ for human desires, needs, and meanings. There are three key sections of this thesis. The first section is in a chapter on folk taxonomies, which explores one possible methodology for studying how medieval Icelanders understood and categorised the entities they referred to as fugl (‘bird’). The second section is a series of case studies concerning humans’ coexistence with specific kinds of birds: domesticated birds, wild waterfowl and songbirds, hawks and falcons, eagles, ravens, and swans. These case studies analyse literary sources, documentary sources, and archaeological reports to build a multifaceted look at these birds and how they were understood, interacted with, and thought about. In many cases, the imaginative uses of these birds appear to have been at a remove from human-bird interactions, but in some cases there was a significant overlap. For instance, ravens appear to have been held in relatively low esteem despite their mythological and literary significance, whereas the literary uses and real-life treatment of hawks and falcons appear to have been more closely related. The final section consists of a chapter on human-bird transformation and communication in Old Norse literature. This chapter considers the wider questions regarding how human and animal were defined. While pre-Christian concepts of human and animal are briefly considered, the majority of this chapter considers how Old Norse peoples reconciled Christian theological perspectives on what defines a human with their own pre-existing narrative traditions concerning human-animal transformation and interaction. This thesis is also accompanied by a list of Old Norse bird names and, where possible, their Modern English translations, etymologies, Modern Icelandic equivalents, and notes on their uses and attestation. This not only functions as a companion piece to the thesis, but is aimed to aid future research on birds in Old Norse textual sources by providing a collected vocabulary of bird names, a project that has not yet been done in Old Norse.





Quinn, Judy
Barrett, James


Old Norse, Medieval, Human-Animal Studies, History, Literature, Birds, Viking, Norse, Interdisciplinary


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (1985866)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1985866)
AHRC DTP funding