Power and Political Communication. Feasting and Gift Giving in Medieval Iceland
By Vidar Palsson
PhD Dissertation, University of California – Berkeley, 2010
Introduction: Feasting and gift giving were fundamental modes of political communication in medieval Iceland. Any exploration of the political narratives that twelfth-, thirteenth-, and fourteenth-century Iceland left behind soon produces references to veizlur and gjafir, “feasts” and “gifts,” with vinir and vinátta, “friends” and “friendship,” probably lurking close by.
These feasts, gifts, and friendships are echoes of a political discourse widespread in pre-modern Europe. Although they bear the unmistakable marks of the specific and the individual – as do all historically particular things by their nature -, they also speak to discursive and ideological traditions extending further back than those habitually labeled medieval, to which they are closely related. These traditions unmistakably link formal hospitality and exchange with amici and amicitiae.
The present study has a double primary aim. Firstly, it seeks to analyze the sociopolitical functionality of feasting and gift giving as modes of political communication in later twelfth- and thirteenth-century Iceland, primarily but not exclusively through its secular prose narratives. Secondly, it aims to place that functionality within the larger framework of the power and politics that shape its applications and perception.
Unlike modern friendship, its medieval namesake was anything but a free and spontaneous practice, and neither were its primary modes and media of expression. None of these elements were the casual business of just anyone. The argumentative structure of the present study aims roughly to correspond to the preliminary and general historiographical sketch with which it opens: while duly emphasizing the contractual functions of demonstrative action, the backbone of traditional scholarship, it also highlights its framework of power, subjectivity, limitations, and ultimate ambiguity, as more recent studies have justifiably urged. It emphasizes action as discourse.