Conference Report: Vikings, Nosectomies, and a Saint

14 Apr

I’ve been horribly delinquent in my blogging lately. I’d like to say that will change in the near future but I fear this is not so. However it will change at some point. I’m equally behind on keeping up with the blogs I usually read.

On February 24 I went to campus for the second day of the Purdue Comitatus Annual Conference, subtitled, “North Atlantic Connections: Texts and Interpretations of the Medieval North.” Comitatus is a Purdue Medieval studies student group. I’ve been meaning to get to this conference for several years and the stars finally aligned so I could make it.

Based on the conference title I knew this likely wouldn’t be a program right in my wheelhouse however it was a bit closer than I expected. Most of the papers dealt with the Early Medieval Period and while the protagonists generally spoke Old English, Old German or Old Norse rather than Latin or Greek (not to say that I know Latin or Greek, just more about the people who spoke them) I was somewhat familiar with most of the topics.

Chad Judkins, a Purdue PhD student, opened with, “Writing the Viking Invasions and King Alfred’s Educational Program.” For the most part this was a continuation of the “Vikings received an overly bad reputation in historical sources” theme which has become prominent over the past couple of decades. Rather than bloodthirsty invaders in horned helmets intent on nothing more than killing folks for pleasure, it’s pretty widely recognized that their raiding was, mostly, economically motivated. Judkins expanded on this. 1

Judkins reviewed a variety of sources including Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alcuin and Asser. He showed that while Vikings were profoundly disliked, an economic decline seems to have been in effect well before their arrival. Alfred mentions a decline in literacy while Asser discusses how monastic life had become corrupted by wealth and was in decline prior to their arrival. As much of the destruction involved religious institutions including icons, books and churches, the ecclesiastical writers of the day will have believed both that a great deal of damage was done and that this was an attack on religion. Alfred implies that Vikings were a divine punishment, sent by God because of a decline in morality, virtue, monasticism and literacy, and Alfred is willing to use their return as a threat if this is not reversed. While this is a fairly standard type of paper, it was interesting and pointed out some specific sources I wasn’t aware of.

Next up was Phil Purser of Landers University, “Vapn-Wyf: Valkyrie Reflexes in Old English Literature.” He discussed how the Valkyrie was perceived in England and how she evolved from her Scandinavian origins. He believes that Valkyries were portrayed in three ways; as warriors, from a religious perspective, and from a contemporary popular perspective, particularly with laborers. How they were portrayed can provide some clues to their evolution from their Scandinavian origins.

As warriors, Valkyries are described as warrior women. As warrior women their role was not generally to carry a sword or spear but to provide wisdom and encouragement. He drew a parallel between Wealtheow in Beowulf and Valkyrie depictions, such as in the Old Norse verse, Eriksmal and in Danish visual representations of women resembling Valkyries bearing horns. Purser termed this as providing benevolent battle aid. 2

In religious representations Valkyries are depicted as horrible hags. Wulfstan (which I’ve not read) uses them in various ways to depict the evil of the Norse and gives them a relationship with witches. This is a distortion of the Danish Valkyrie who is something of a gatekeeper rather than a death-dealer, choosing men in their final hours for inclusion in Valhalla.

For the English working class the Valkyrie were invisible and harmful. Various charms are used to prevent or dispel their evil. Hag-shot, which is a source of mysterious physical pain is a Valkyrie affliction and flying “stinging women” were believed to cause side-stitch.

Marianne Kalinke from the University of Illinois gave a paper, “Tracking a Werewolf Through Space and Time” to discuss an example of manuscript transmission to Iceland. She uses the werewolf tale of Bisclaret to argue that this story came to Iceland directly from France rather than including a Norse intermediary. In the Icelandic tale Bisclaret is Tiòdel’s Saga. The general theme of the story is that a knight periodically disappears for several days at a time. After questioning from his wife he reveals to her that he is a man while clothed and a wolf while naked. He also tells her where he hides his clothes when he’s out wolfing it. The wife’s not too thrilled to find that she’s been spending her nights next to a wolfman and she coerces another knight to steal the clothes, trapping Bisclaret/Tiòdel in wolf form. When Bisclaret/Tiòdel doesn’t appear for some time he is declared dead and she marries the other knight. Later the king happens to come across an exceedingly friendly wolf which he takes back to his castle. To cut out several parts of the story, the wolf, while in the King’s company encounters his former wife and attacks her, tearing off her nose. As this behavior is very out of character for the wolf the wife is tortured (whole lot of things revealed about contemporary attitudes toward women but I won’t go into that here) and confesses her crime and reveals where the clothes have been hidden.

The common understanding of the original manuscript transmission has been that the story came to Iceland from an Old Norse source. Kalinke argues that it came directly from France rather than having a Norse intermediary. Her argument, which is very persuasive, at least to someone not familiar with other arguments, is based on elements of the story being common to the French and Icelandic versions and missing from the Norse version. The two elements she used were details of shapechanging and what happened to the wife when Bisclaret attacks her. I’ll focus on the wife. In the Old Norse version Bisclaret/Tiòdel tears off her clothes and leaves her standing naked in front of everyone. In the French and Icelandic versions her nose is torn off. Based on the original transmission route, she would have gone from having her nose torn off (French) to having her clothes torn off (Norse) back to losing her nose(Icelandic). Kalinke’s transmission directly from France to Iceland with a consistent nosectomy account is more logical.

There are obviously other areas to explore with this. For example, it’s possible that two versions went from France to Scandinavia and the clothes version is the only one from there which survives. But based on current manuscript evidence, Kalinke believes that a direct France to Iceland transmission makes the most sense.

Ben Wright, a Master’s student from Western Michigan University, used hagiography to illustrate Norse depictions in Early Medieval manuscripts in, “Illuminating the North: Northmen in Manuscript Pictures from Paris and Monte Cassino.” He focused on the evolution of the Life of St. Maurus. Hagiography has been one of my primary medieval interests so I’m afraid my notes do not reflect the main point of Wright’s paper.

The Life of Maurus was likely written by Odo of Cluny (Odo argued that it was written by a 6th century contemporary of Maurus) in the second half of the 9th century. In this vita the Devil is equated with Northmen and they are banished by Maurus.

What’s more interesting to me is how this vita evolved and its relative importance. Maurus ended up being used to provide additional ammo for various entities to make territorial claims. In particular a conflict between Monte Cassino and Saint-Maur-des-Fossès over control of Glanfeuil developed. In the story Maurus, a disciple of Benedict, founded Glanfeuil and his relics had been transported from there to Fossès when Odo and the monks were driven out by Northmen in 862. So Fossès had the relics. However Monte Cassino had been founded by Benedict.

In order to strengthen its claim, in 1033 Monte Cassino acquired an arm of Maurus as a relic. In 1071 Desiderius, the Abbott of Monte Cassino, had a richly decorated and illustrated book, the Codex Benedictus produced. However none of that worked. Fossès exerted control over Glanfeuil from 1058-86 however in the early 12th century Glanfeuil began to assert its independence which it achieved in 1133.

The Codex Benedictus.
The Codex Benedictus (photo from the University of Arizona)

Wright provided a slideshow which included various illustrations of how Northmen were depicted in various manuscripts and he discussed how up to 1133 Maurus had been shown as a Greek cleric (Monte Cassino would have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Empire) however after 1133 he was depicted in Western dress. This part of the presentation was good but for me the use made of Maurus in a power struggle was more interesting.

There was one final paper on the uses of humor in sagas which I won’t report on because I took really crummy notes, unfortunately (the paper and presentation were quite good). The day closed with some Old Norse readings (one of the grad students invited me to join their group – is there an unmet Ag School quota? – but I declined. I have enough trouble with Latin.)

1 A couple of months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. In flipping through the channels of very bad late night television, I came across a Viking movie where everyone, except Lee Majors who was the hero, wore horned helmets. I ended up watching the second half of it simply to marvel at how bad it was. Worst. Movie. Ever. At least dealing with Medieval History. And kind of funny.

2 In Eriksmal, “I stirred the Einherjar/Bade them Rise up,/Stir to their benches/Ready their ale-horns/For the Valkeries come bearing wine/at the coming of the prince.” This compares fairly well with Wealtheow’s role in lines 612-41 and 1161-1231 of Beowulf where she serves as hostess, cupbearer, and encourages the men.


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8 responses to “Conference Report: Vikings, Nosectomies, and a Saint

  1. Megin

    April 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Fascinating! Delighted to discover I’m not the only early medieval geek on the globe. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    April 16, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Thank you Megin. There are a few of us around though when I go to Kalamazoo I sometimes feel a bit lonely. Seems like there are more nonprofessionals interested in chivalry, Chaucer, or Richard III than Clovis, Theoderic and Jerome. Take care.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    April 20, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Good to see you blogging again! I was afraid WordPress had somehow proved fatal. As for the papers, the first one sounds, er, not so novel, but the others all interesting. A lively school you have there!

  4. Curt Emanuel

    April 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    WP hasn’t been the problem in any way. Just some unexpected things coming up and one expected thing being a bit more involved than I expected. That wasn’t a bad conference at all. It was put on by grad students for grad students but that was how Kalamazoo started out after all, or so I’ve been told. Unfortunately, the Medieval and Renaissance Studies (MARS) lecture series happens during the day, when Purdue pays me to do other stuff.

  5. Benjamin J. Cooper

    April 23, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Hi there! Landed on your blog whilst searching Google for something else (funny how these things happen) and have to say it’s brilliant and most fascinating. I’ll have to add this to my blog-reader thing and read it in between writing my own essays for Uni! By the way, one book you might be interested in, if you haven’t heard of it already, is E.H. Gombrich’s “A Little History of the World” – a delightful read, very entertaining, and yet most insightful at the same time.

  6. Curt Emanuel

    April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm


    Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it. I don’t know if this blog is worthy of the term “brilliance” but I try to avoid writing garbage (hopefully with some success). I noticed you just switched to WP. I hope that works out for you. It’s been good for me though I think I will look for a theme with black type (if I can choose that for this one I haven’t figured it out yet) on a white background and I need to do a little work on posting images as thumbnails.


  7. Phil Purser

    May 3, 2013 at 11:31 pm


    Hey, brother, Phil Purser here, who presented on the Valkyries in Old English at the conference. I’ve completed my dissertation, also on Valkyries, and it’s accessible via the web (published through the Georgia State University archives). Not sure how much of it I agree with anymore (that’s just how dissertations go, I suppose), but it’s done, and I guess that counts for something. So if you are interested, the thing is done and up for reading.

    So glad you enjoyed the conference, and glad to have a fellow geek out there. Medieval history is an endlessly fascinating thing. Ever read Robert Howard’s “Conan” short stories and novellas? Howard built a fanstactical medieval continent and infused it with numerous real-world elements from medieval and pre-medieval Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The Picts, for example, are one of Conan’s most hated enemy-races; those blue-painted savages are the most skilled and deadly woodsmen in the land…. Except, of course, for the bold Cimmerian, whose ice-blue eyes smolder with cold, mineral-fire, and whose sword arm rains flashing arcs of steely death down on his enemies.


  8. Curt Emanuel

    May 4, 2013 at 9:00 am


    Thanks for your comment. First, congrats on the dissert. Always a huge job and your comment isn’t unusual. Things often seem to get much more muddied once you really dive into the sources.

    I read very little fiction, even historical fiction any longer. I don’t know why though I guess I have a few thoughts on it but I almost always read non-fiction. When I think I need to clear my brain a bit I head toward history outside of early medieval where I don’t feel compelled to take buckets of notes.

    Have you defended yet? Hopefully your post grad-school job prospects are looking favorable. Take care.


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