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Northern Narratives: The Poetics of Cultural Contact between Germany and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NORNS (Northern Narratives: The Poetics of Cultural Contact between Germany and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

My project was concerned with the literature of northern Germany and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. The aim was to develop an inclusive approach to textual production from the western Baltic in this period. Existing scholarship has tended to approach the material in terms of rival national perspectives and to emphasize differences as much as commonalities. I wanted to create ways of overcoming these divisions. This matters not only in an academic context but also for society as a whole because of the historical perspective that it provides for current debates about regional, national, and European identities. I chose to pursue the project at the Centre for Medieval Literature (CML) in Odense because the Centre’s physical location in Denmark, and its cross-linguistic and interdisciplinary profile, were so well matched to my aims. My most important conclusion was that narrative form is far richer than is accounted for by approaches that focus on an opposition between sources in one language and derivations in another. One example of this is ‘Hertig Fredrik av Normandie’: it is one of the first verse romances in Swedish but is based on a German source that has not survived. Existing scholarship has nonetheless sought to identify what the Swedish text borrowed from its German forerunner; my research showed why this discourse of ‘originality’ is methodologically problematic, and advocated a broader comparative approach to ‘Hertig Fredrik’ instead.
My work produced three draft journal articles. In them, I developed a framework for understanding the circulation of stories in medieval Europe without being constrained by modern national literary histories. I also deepened my knowledge of Germanic philology by learning Old Norse and developed a new specialism in vernacular chronicles from northern Europe. During the second year of the Fellowship, I organized an ambitious international conference in collaboration with a colleague at the Freie Universität Berlin (July 2017). It presented the case for continuity in the language, content, and imagery of medieval European texts and stories that were adapted and refashioned in different regions.

I have begun disseminating my findings with an article in the ‘Modern Language Review’, a leading journal in the field. I also communicated insights from my work in my blog (category ‘NORNS’). I have already exploited the foundation laid by my work on northern chronicles in an invited presentation at an international workshop on power and rulership (October 2017). Further exploitation of my results in future could cover additional languages and genres from northern Europe. It could also adopt a comparative perspective and relate the processes I have described to analogous ones on a wider, even global scale. My awareness of these possibilities is a direct result of the new intellectual horizons that were created by working alongside colleagues at CML, whose research probes the boundaries of Europe as a frame of reference for literary history.
The project succeeded in advancing beyond research that has focused on identifying sources and reconstructing historical pathways by which texts moved back and forth across the medieval Baltic. It also made an important contribution to the tradition of scholarly efforts to establish a dialogue between German and Scandinavian Studies; this conversation, not least because of its contemporary relevance, deserves long-term funding and support in order to secure its survival. In this regard, CML was an important source of ideas for formats and frameworks that I could employ and adapt to foster such exchange if I were, for instance, to lead a research group of my own at a Modern Languages department.

The project’s societal impact was similarly democratic and educational: I wanted to show how learning about the Middle Ages can help wider society to question oversimplified understandings of migration and national identity in Europe. Two highlights of how I developed these implications of the project can be given here. The first is the presentation, ‘Shared Identities in Medieval Germany and Denmark’, that I gave to a class at Frederiksberg Gymnasium in Copenhagen; the topic had an immediate relevance because many students were from minority backgrounds (April 2017). The second is the public performance of narratives between East and West by the actress Serap Güven (born in Turkey, living in Brussels) that I coordinated at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin (July 2017).