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Craftsmen and Wordsmiths: An Investigation into the Links Between Material Crafting, Poetic Composition and Their Practitioners in Old Norse Literature



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Grant, Thomas 


In his first verse, the precocious poet Egill Skallagrímsson declares ‘eigi mun þú finna betra þrevetran óðarsmið mér’ (‘you will not find a better poetry-smith of three years than me’). Such metaphors are highly conventional in the skaldic poetry of the Viking Age and beyond. However, the link between the composition of verse and the construction of material objects was regarded as a topic of particular importance by Scandinavian poets such as Egill. In fact, connections between poets, craftsmen, their arts and their products resonate across the corpus of Old Norse literature—not only in skaldic metaphor, but also in historical, mythological and saga material. To judge by the frequency of their appearance in this literary corpus, these connections were clearly considered to be highly significant in Viking-Age and medieval Scandinavia. Nevertheless, they have received little attention in scholarship to date. This thesis investigates the nature and extent of the links between poets and craftsmen, and between poetic composition and material crafting. It investigates both what the origins of these connections were, and what they suggest about the artisans and creative processes concerned. This thesis begins by establishing precisely which poets and craftsmen form the focus of this investigation. As these figures appear in a large variety of different sources, it is also important to discuss the different categories of evidence considered in this thesis, and to confront any difficulties involved in their use. The first chapter proceeds by considering the links between poets, craftsmen, their arts and their products which are made in skaldic poetry. In the second chapter, skaldic poetry, sagas and archaeological material are analysed to build a picture of the links between historical poets and craftsmen working in late Viking-Age Scandinavia. This chapter considers the similar ways in which these figures interacted with the political elite, and the correspondences between the creation, dissemination and use of their products. The third chapter considers what skaldic and eddic poetry as well as Snorra Edda reveal about the mythological configuration of poetic composition, crafting and their practitioners. It explores the shared association of poetry and crafted goods with the distant past and with geographically remote spaces in the Old Norse cosmos, and the implications of these associations. In the fourth chapter, the shared characteristics of poetic composition, crafting and their practitioners are considered in the context of the Íslendingasögur. As many of the connections explored in the earlier chapters recur in this corpus, it constitutes appropriate evidence with which to draw the investigation to a close. In my conclusion, I reconsider the findings of each of the chapters and suggest that a deep conceptual similarity between poetic composition and skilled crafting runs throughout Old Norse literature, and that this encouraged the frequent associations between them which can be detected in this corpus. I also argue that poets and craftsmen were frequently connected on account of their shared role as threatening but highly necessary creator figures.





Quinn, Judy


Old Norse, Mythology, Oral-Material, Sagas, Iceland, Scandinavia


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge