Monday, July 12, 2021

Oren Falk's "Violence and Risk in Medieval Iceland"

Oren Falk is Associate Professor of History and Medieval Studies at Cornell University.

He is a cultural historian of medieval Europe, educated in Jerusalem, Israel, and Toronto, Canada. He works primarily with Icelandic sagas; his recurring interests include histories of violence, gender, folklore, and ecology, as well as historical methodology. Falk has written on unexpected absences - things that ought to be there but aren't - such as wives, beards, and heirs apparent, and on equally surprising presences: pregnant warriors, sodomitic cats, and outlawed rituals.

Falk applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Violence and Risk in Medieval Iceland: This Spattered Isle, and reported the following:
What do we know about the history of violence? Less than we might think, this book argues, because – although we historians have been studying it since forever – we haven’t really analysed ‘violence’ itself as a concept. What parts of the past do we call violent? What assumptions do we take for granted when we do? How do we theorize ‘violence’ in a specifically historical way? And what is it that we explain when we write its history? Astonishingly, such questions seldom get voiced, much less debated, by historians.

This Spattered Isle proposes a cultural history model for understanding violence. Page 99 drops the reader into the middle of Chapter 2. Chapter 1 presented my model, which cuts along three axes: power (what violence does), signification (what it means), and risk (how it meshes with our sense of agency). Chapter 2, a proof-of-concept analysis of an unimportant battle no one’s ever heard of, demonstrates how the model works. By page 99 [inset left, click to enlarge], readers will have met Arnórr, a reckless chieftain willing to run great risks, and his scheming ally Sighvatr; they come together to attack Bishop Guðmundr, holed up at Helgastaðir, a farm in northern Iceland. We now witness them intensifying their assault on day two of the siege: by focusing on their risk calculus, I try to explain when and why they dialed the pressure up or down, even with victory seemingly within reach. (Only ‘seemingly’ because, as we learn on the next page, an X Factor was about to intervene, flipping their calculus on its head.)

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 then move beyond the case study method to explore the mechanics of Icelandic feuding, why medieval Iceland never experienced war, and the sagas’ zero-sum game, in which human violence elbowed natural disaster out. An Epilogue hints at the extendability of my model beyond medieval Iceland, and an Appendix looks under the hood of my source critical methods.

So, on page 99, Ford Madox Ford would find a fair representation of the book’s analytic doggedness and of Chapter 2’s close reading technique; what he’d miss out on, though, are the broad vistas that fan open in the book’s later chapters.

(Glossary of terms appearing on page 99: bœndr = farmers; goðar = chieftains; récit = the surface of a text; histoire = the text’s imaginary depth; vígflaki = mobile fortification.)
Learn more about Violence and Risk in Medieval Iceland at the Oxford University Press website and follow Oren Falk on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue