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Emotions in Njáls saga and Egils saga: Approaches and literary analysis



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Thorgeirsdottir, Brynja  ORCID logo


The fundamental question of this dissertation is how we as modern readers can understand the feelings depicted in literature written on the periphery of Europe over seven hundred years ago — that is, what might be hidden in the text that we, due to our unfamiliarity with the distant culture, might not fully grasp. My study analyses the emotional expression in Egils saga and Njáls saga, two particularly rich and complex thirteenth-century Old Norse Íslendingasǫgur (Sagas of Icelanders). The genre is notorious for the apparent emotional reticence of its narrative style. This dissertation challenges that notion from the fundamental premise that, to understand the literary representations of emotions in medieval literature, we must equip ourselves with a model of the knowledge systems of the culture that created it. To reach this goal, the study applies interdisciplinary methods of literary criticism, intellectual history, cognitive linguistics, anthropology, and manuscript studies, and is thus situated at the cross-section of these disciplines. To access the emotional depiction in the two sagas, I argue for the necessity of an approach from three angles: through the analysis of emotive words, bodily metaphors, and the performance and practice of emotions manifested in the sagas. I. Words. The emotion words in the sagas have hitherto not been comprehensively explored. In this section, I explain my construction of a digital database of the words used to express emotions in the two sagas. The database enabled the plotting of various variables, such as character, gender, social status, and speaker, against one another. This uncovered narrative patterns and formulas for action, as well as allowing the identification of anomalies and the production of the first lexicons of the two sagas’ emotional vocabulary. The results demonstrate that, contrary to what has often been assumed, the sagas contain a wide variety of emotion words that are applied systematically, precisely, and purposefully to achieve specific narrative aims. The conclusions provide a vital foundation for the analysis in subsequent sections. II. Body. The second and largest section is concerned with bodily metaphors and the interplay between Old Norse knowledge systems about the body and emotions and the learned European ones. As no study to date has mapped material evidence for learned Latin writings on the body and emotions in the Old Norse world, I identify and list manuscripts, fragments, and intertextual evidence for Old Norse thirteenth-century knowledge of Latin learned ideas on the topic. I apply this information in an analysis of the bodily expressions of emotions in the two sagas. Moreover, I analyse bodily depictions in skaldic poetry and investigate the use of the ‘hydraulic metaphor’ of emotions. The results demonstrate that, within these Old Norse works, emotions are physically conceived of as residing entirely in the breast, and not partially in the head, as is assumed in the learned Latin texts. However, Latin knowledge influenced emotional depictions in various other ways and can be viewed as a challenge posed to vernacular ideas, resulting in a dialectic manifestation of these knowledge systems that can be shown to surface in each of the saga texts. III. Emotional practice. Closely connected to bodily representations is the notion of how emotions are practised and performed through action. The third section investigates this by applying theories of performativity and emotional practice in the analysis of the two saga texts and by probing their relationship with the Old Norse system of honour and gender structures and the prominent emotive scripts in the two sagas. The results reveal the emphasis placed on strict emotional restraint and how behavioural codes differ according to the gender and social status of the characters.





Quinn, Judy


Old Norse, Old Norse literature, Emotions in literature, Medieval literature, History of emotions, Medieval medicine, Skaldic poetry


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge