Seasonal Setting and the Human Domain in Early English and Early Scandinavian Literature

icture of King Harald from the 14th century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók.Seasonal Setting and the Human Domain in Early English and Early Scandinavian Literature

Paul Sander Langeslag

University of Toronto: Doctor of Philosophy, Centre for Medieval Studies (2012)


The contrast between the familiar social space and the world beyond has been widely recognised as an organising principle in medieval literature, in which the natural and the supernatural alike are set off against human society as alien and hostile. However, the study of this antithesis has typically been restricted to the spatial aspect whereas the literature often exhibits seasonal patterns as well. This dissertation modifies the existing paradigm to accommodate the temporal dimension, demonstrating that winter stands out as a season in which the autonomy of the human domain is drawn into question in both Anglo-Saxon and early Scandinavian literature. In Old English poetry, winter is invoked as a landscape category connoting personal affliction and hostility, but it is rarely used to evoke a cyclical chronology. Old Icelandic literature likewise employs winter as a spatial category, here closely associated with the dangerous supernatural. However, Old Icelandic prose furthermore give winter a place in the annual progression of the seasons, which structures all but the most legendary of the sagas. Accordingly, the winter halfyear stands out as the near-exclusive domain of revenant hauntings and prophecy.

These findings stand in stark contrast to the state of affairs in Middle English poetry, which associates diverse kinds of adventure and supernatural inter- action with florid landscapes of spring and summer, and Maytime forests in particular. Even so, the seasonal imagery in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes clear that Middle English poets could use the contrastive functions of winter to no less effect than authors in neighbouring corpora. In partial explanation of authorial choices in this regard, it is proposed that winter settings are employed especially where a strong empathic response is desired of the audience.


Click here to read this thesis from University of Toronto


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