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Racial Thinking in Old Norse Literature: The Case of the Blámaðr

Cole, RKE; (2015) Racial Thinking in Old Norse Literature: The Case of the Blámaðr. Saga Book- Viking Society for Northern Research , XXXX pp. 21-40. Green open access

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Abstract

There are not many kind words to be said about the notion of ‘race’. In the last century alone, it has shown itself to be a way of thinking that both lacks any basis in empirical reality (Montagu 1997, 121–44), and is liable to cause a great deal of human misery. But like a lot of bad ideas, it has been around for a long time. However erroneous or dangerous the notion of race may be, it is at least a highly convenient way to think about the world. Concepts which we would today label ‘racial’ existed long before Enlightenment figures such as Linnæus set about dividing humanity into the clades of Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, Europeanus and Monstrosus.1 Prior to these scientific endeavours, and the tendency beginning around the same time to deploy the word ‘race’ itself in an ethnic sense (OED 2014, s.v. race), the intellectual mechanisms that inspired racial schemas were at work. As will be seen, groups were still being rendered ‘Other’ on account of their lineage, their supposed hereditary characteristics and/or the shaping environments of their ancestral homelands. Individuals were presumed to exhibit certain qualities (physical, intellectual, moral) on the basis of their affiliation with these groups. Skin colour and geographical setting were used to amplify the alterity of fictional characters, forming recognisable tropes that enjoyed literary currency. These psychological developments constitute ‘race’ in all but name. The purpose of this article is to excavate their presence and function in Old Norse literature. The past twenty years has produced some interesting research into racial thinking during the Middle Ages. A special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2001 dedicated to the topic is particularly worthy of note. There Robert Bartlett elucidated a conception of medieval

Type: Article
Title: Racial Thinking in Old Norse Literature: The Case of the Blámaðr
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: http://www.vsnr.org/saga-book/
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the version of record. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > SELCS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1574404
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