Houses and domestic life in the Viking Age and medieval period: material perspectives from sagas and archaeology
By Teva Vidal
PhD Dissertation, University of Nottingham, 2013
Abstract: This thesis examines the representations of houses as physical structures in the Íslendingasögur with specific emphasis on the material aspect of housing culture in the Viking Age and medieval period, as well as the interactions between material culture and text. The Íslendingasögur were written in Iceland as of the thirteenth century, but look back onto the Viking Age (c. 800-1100 AD). Comparison with the archaeology of domestic space reveals that the house in the Íslendingasögur generally corresponds with medieval housing models, contemporary with the period of saga writing. However, there are also examples of structures which correspond to the models of the Viking Age. Descriptions of antiquated buildings are sometimes framed in statements that make explicit reference to the chronological separation between the Viking Age and the writer’s present time, suggesting a familiarity with the evolution of housing culture.
Detailed analysis of buildings in the sagas reveals domestic space in its context of use, and demonstrates how the physical nature of the house and farm framed the productive and social activities that went on within. The materiality of domestic life has particular importance for the dispensing of hospitality. Demonstrations of domestic space in use also allow for a better understanding of the relationship between objects and language, and elucidate some difficulties in translation and academic usage both in archaeology and literary studies. Material culture can itself influence the processes of composition in oral/written narratives such as the sagas, by inspiring the formation of narrative episodes. The built environment can also provide a contextual framing for narratives, acting as a mnemonic device facilitating the preservation and transmission of saga narratives.
Looking back into the Viking Age (c.800 – c.1100) is a task which requires the input of many types of sources, and many different disciplines of study. It is a period that is both historical and pre-historical. Accounts from outside Scandinavia and native material such as runic inscriptions, skaldic and Eddic poetry, and archaeological remains provide a glimpse into the earlier part of this period. Scandinavian texts however only make their appearance towards the end of the Viking Age. Indeed, the great flourishing of Old Norse literary production in Iceland did not occur until the thirteenth century. Sagas, especially the Íslendingasögur, are among the most cherished vestiges of the medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian past. Yet the chronological distance of several centuries which separates the recording of these medieval narratives from the Viking Age settings which they depict has made them a contentious and difficult source to use as witnesses to this period.