Memories of England in the Sagas of Icelanders

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Narrative is fundamental to the transmission of a culture’s memory and experience across generations. Cultural memory theory states that the retelling of narratives, of history, is fundamentally a creative process: a group’s recollection of a past beyond living memory, shaped by their social identity and interpreted in the act of remembering. This exemplifies the Íslendingasögur [sagas of Icelanders], texts that purport to be histories, but display the editorial innovations of generations of storytellers.

Composed around the thirteenth century, the Íslendingasögur are accounts of the lives of Viking Age Icelanders, commonly featuring identifiable historical events, places and figures. Among these is Viking Age England, depictions of which are the focus of this paper. Icelanders were, according to the Íslendingasögur, common visitors to English shores, and the manner of their interactions illuminates how later Icelanders remembered England.
This paper will begin by surveying Anglo-Icelandic contact in the sagas, categorised as either trade, conflict or settlement interaction. It will then briefly consider the detailed descriptions of the English court found in Gunnlaugs saga and Egils saga, and their correlation with the historical record. It will close by discussing how such passages can be read in the light of cultural memory theory, and how the centuries between setting and textual authorship shaped Icelandic memory of England. In so doing, it seeks to demonstrate that concern to preserve a collective ‘storehouse of experience’ was foundational to saga authors who, in the Íslendingasögur, both memorialised and constructed a meaningful past for Icelandic audiences.
Period22 Apr 2021
Event titleOxford Medieval Graduate Conference: Memory
Event typeConference
Conference number17
OrganiserOxford Medieval Studies
SponsorsSociety for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity
LocationOxford, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational