‘Edda and “Oral Christianity”: Apocryphal Leaves of the Early Medieval Storyworld of the North’

November 18, 2015

Until the end of the eleventh century Scandinavia was still to a large extent an unknown and frightening world to the Western Church. From around 1100, however, under the age of the crusading movement, it quickly became a firmly integrated part of Latin Christianity and of the culture of Carolingian heritage

This transformation of Northern Europe in the high Middle Ages received prominent literary expression in Saxo Grammaticus’s Latin chronicle, Gesta Danorum, from the decades around 1200, and in the explosion of vernacular history writing in Iceland in the first half of the thirteenth century. A central theme in this literature is indeed the integration and conversion of the indigenous culture of the North into the Christianity of the Latin Church. It might even be fair to say that the central assignment for the authors of these texts was to write the northern past into the history of Western Europe and of the Latin Church.


The most original contribution to this project was without doubt Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, from the 1220s. Snorri tried to make the poetry and the referential system of the Old Norse poetic tradition understandable to young  poets in his own time. Since the seventeenth century, however, Snorri’s Edda has primarily been used as a source for the reconstruction of a pre-Christian Scandinavian, Germanic, and even Indo-European past. Together with the so-called Poetic Edda – a fairly loose collection of poems, mainly brought together around 1240 – Snorri’s Edda came to be fundamental for German Romanticism.


Since the publication of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie in 1835 — the first of its kind in an extensive row of monographs with slightly varying titles on the same subject — the romantic perspective on these sources has held a firm grip on the interpretations of the pre-Christian religion of the Scandinavian North. Grimm’s mythology was founded in a fierce scientific battle over the source value of the Eddic material, a battle that had already been fought in 1812 in the once famous clash between the young Grimm brothers and the first professor in history at the University of Berlin, Friedrich Rühs. To the Grimms the Edda material, and in particular the Eddic poetry, was a pure expression of the pre-Christian Germanic ‘Geist des Volkes’, untouched by Christian influences. To Friedrich Rühs it was a product of Christian culture and erudition (‘das Werk der Cultur und Erlernungs’), a creation of the Icelandic Middle Ages. As the Grimms and Romanticism won a complete victory in this battle, the dominating opinion to the present day has been that the Eddic material represents a pre-Christian, Old Norse Germanic society and should be interpreted in the context of this society unless otherwise proved, even though from a methodological point of view the opposite position should be demanded, that is, that the Eddic stories represent thirteenth-century Icelandic society unless otherwise proved.

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Originally Published

Henrik Janson (2013). ‘Edda and “Oral Christianity”: Apocryphal Leaves of the Early Medieval Storyworld of the North’, in: The Performance of Christian and Pagan Storyworlds. Non-canonical Chapters of the History of Nordic Medieval Literature, L. Boje Mortensen och T. Lehtonen, (Turnhout: Brepols ), pp. 171-197.

Henrik Janson
University of Gothenburg, Associate Professor, henrik.janson@history.gu.se