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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

The Self in Social Spaces: Conceptualizations and Representations in the Textual and Material Culture of Medieval Scandinavia

Alternative title: The Self in Social Spaces: Konseptualisering og representasjon av "selvet" i tekstuell og materiell kultur fra Skandinavia i middelalderen

Awarded: NOK 7.2 mill.

Project Number:


Project Period:

2016 - 2021


Subject Fields:

In 2021, the PI of the project Stefka G. Eriksen is finalizing her monograph " Minds and Mentalizing in Old Norse Literature and Culture. To mentalize is to think about thinking, feeling, imagining. This is a cognitive ability that is embedded in the human mind, but it may be improved and developed in various ways, for example, by reading literature. The main research question in the book is how various Old Norse genres and texts triggered their readers' abilities to mentalize. This will increase our insight in the role of Old Norse literature for the development of its readers' self-perception, in juxtaposition to other peoples, cultures and religions, in the past, present, and future. The book will be finished by the end of 2021. In May 2021, the PhD student of the project, Karen Holmqvist, submitted her PhD dissertation for evaluation. Her dissertation discusses how the medieval self is expressed and represented in various types of runic inscriptions, and how different choices are made with regard to self-expression depending on the positioning of the inscription, the language, and the script-system used. The dissertation consists of four published articles and her public defense is planned to take place on the 23rd of November. In 2021, the project?s participants have presented their work at a few digital conferences. The PI has given papers at the following conferences: Multimodal Communication (China, Hunan University, December 2020); Leeds International Medieval Congress (July 2021); Cognitive Futures in the Arts and Humanities (Ösnabruck, September 2021). She has also published columns in the Norwegian paper Morgenbladet, the web-site, and presented her work at open public seminars (Foreningen middelalder Oslo; Collegium Medievale; Forskningsuken NIKU).

The project has had great impact on the participants? careers, on various sciences, and public debates. The PI has, for example, been invited to give a keynote lecture at an international conference on Multimodal Communication and to contribute to a session on ?Cognitive Engineering in the Middle Ages?, organized by Mark Turner, at the international conference Cognitive Sciences in the Arts and Humanities (Ösnabruck, September 2021). The project has proposed a new conceptualization of the self and has approached Old Norse sources from new theoretical perspectives, inspired by cognitive studies. The project has provided an excellent arena for cooperation between disciplines, such as philology and literary studies, history, art-history, and archeology, as well as cognitive studies, psychology, and sociology. The PI and the PhD candidate have both communicated new knowledge about the self, self-awareness, and mentalizing in the Middle Ages to a broader public audience (see results).

A central concern of the humanities is to understand how the self relates to its world and to history, and consequently how this relationship is conceptualized and represented in textual culture. This project will contribute to the discussion by redefining the self as a result of the cognitive process of self-awareness, without neglecting the significance of the self's embodiment and surrounding culture. The main area of investigation will be Old Norse literature which contains traditional medieval genres in translation, as well as highly distinct genres, such as the Icelandic family sagas. These sagas are individual and family biographies from the period of settlement of Iceland, stories about social feuds and honor, pagan past and Christian identity. The sagas exhibit significant debts to foreign cultural impulses while simultaneously being unique compared to other medieval, and modern, literatures. Thus, the Scandinavian material has great, but as yet unexploited, potential to elucidate (1) the significance of self-awareness for one's own agency in literature, depending on the linguistic, discourse, and cultural context; and (2) the link between the cognition and agency given to literary characters and attitudes to cognition and agency in contemporary social spaces. This investigation will utilize theories of 'distributed cognition' (cognitive sciences) and 'artefactual textuality' (philology), both of which foreground human agency and the cognitive processes that underlie the production of textual culture. The two main questions will be studied based on different types of textual material (manuscript versions of literary texts and charters) and by systematically combining methods that previously have only been used independently. This theoretically and methodologically innovative study of unique material will contribute fresh perspectives to discussions of the medieval and modern self, in Scandinavia and in Europe.

Publications from Cristin

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam