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Christian Writers, Pagan Subjects: The Preservation of Norse Religious Imagery through Legal Culture in Iceland

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Bennett, Shaun. “Christian Writers, Pagan Subjects: The Preservation of Norse Religious Imagery through Legal Culture in Iceland.” (Under the direction of Dr. Julie Mell.)

The rich literary history of medieval Iceland has served as a phenomenal historical resource for life in medieval Iceland both before and after Christianity came to the island in the summer of the year 1000. The sources even offer a wealth of information on the Norse or “pre-Christian” religious practices of the Icelanders, while simultaneously avoiding negative moral judgments about their non-Christian past. The Icelanders who wrote down their histories in this unusually non-judgmental manner were themselves Christians, which raises the question of how such a writing environment was formed. Iceland produced a literary culture which utilized the writing system which Christianity brought to Iceland while refusing to separate itself from the rich “pagan” oral culture of the past. The products of that literary culture can be used to discover not only the official history of Iceland, but by utilizing tools such as narrative theory concepts such as intent and meaning can be drawn from the text to give a fuller understanding of the mindset of the writers and the audience. Through this research, this thesis argues that the major reason behind the unique literary environment of medieval Iceland was the manner in which Iceland converted to Christianity, an oddly secularized event which had little to do with actual religious belief. The term “secular conversion” can be applied in this case, as Iceland’s legal system was used to create a secular conversion which then allowed Iceland’s rich “pagan” past to survive and flourish in a literary culture.

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