Approaches to paganism and uses of the pre-Christian past in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Snorri Sturluson
Peter Sigurdson Lunga
University of Oslo: Master’s Thesis, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, Fall (2012)
The dissertation is a comparative analysis of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s and Snorri Sturlusson’s descriptions of paganism and uses of pre-Christian history. What was the function of these pre-Christian narratives, and what apporaches were used by the two authors to construct a complete image of the past, acceptable to their contemporary societies? The dissertation identifies three main approaches to paganism: rejection, glorification, and modification and discusses the two authors’ use of these in light of Classical, patristic and early medieval sources, as well as the religious and politcal circumstances in medieval England and Scandinavia. One of the main arguments in the dissertation is that the two authors’ use of demonisation as a rejecting strategy has been exaggerated by modern scholars. Moreover, both Snorri and Geoffrey clearly projected contemporary ideas onto pre-Christian history in order to use it for political purposes, either as legitimation for royal and aristocratic dynasties, or as exemplary images of idealised rulership which could influence the powerful.
Historians of high medieval England or Scandinavia, who wanted to provide their patrons’ families with a long, unbroken dynastic history, faced a number of difficulties when reaching beyond the respective conversions to Christianity. Early medieval pagan communities were normally illiterate, and the native sources to the pre-Christian history were parts of an oral tradition often presenting conflicting accounts of fundamental political events, mixed with local legend and pagan mythology. The writing of pre-Christian history happened long after the conversion and written accounts could therefore not provide high medieval historians with absolute secure historical narratives from the pagan era.