Disability before disability in the medieval Icelandic sagas (ICMS, Kalamazoo 2019)

deadline for submissions: 
September 15, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
Háskóli Íslands; Icelandic Research Fund
contact email: 

This panel (2 sessions) will consider the ways in which disability is represented in medieval Icelandic literature, particularly in medieval saga writing. Panellists will engage with the concept of disability beyond the traditional bio-medical understanding of the term, exploring disability as a social phenomenon embedded in social arrangements and cultural conventions. They will seek to understand what constituted disability in medieval Icelandic society, culture, and history prior to the establishment of disability as a modern legal, bureaucratic and administrative concept.

Panellists will not attempt to arrive at a comprehensive definition of disability in the sagas or to provide diagnoses based on modern pathological criteria. However, while maintaining a distinction between the two, they may consider the relationship between impairment (biological dysfunction) and disability (a process of exclusion) in the medieval sagas.

Among medieval and early modern texts, the medieval sagas are unique in the nature and scope of primary material they provide. In contrast to other medieval non-literary sources (e.g. legal texts or chronicles), the sagas embed the material they provide within a coherent, episodic narrative context. Thus, the sagas can facilitate the understanding of how disability works in the community and provide an impression as to how (saga) society dealt with and reacted to disability. Several scholars have conducted research on disability and the medieval Icelandic literature (e.g. Bragg; Jakobsson; Metzler; Sexton) and others have examined medieval disability in a European context (e.g. Eyler; Lee; Metzler; Stiker; Wheatley). This panel will engage with and build upon previous research on this topic in both an Icelandic and wider medieval context.

We will welcome proposals for papers based on the analysis of individual figures, certain passages or whole texts, or specific kind of disabilities represented in the medieval sagas. As suggested above, panellists will approach disability as a social phenomenon and thus they may consider the interplay between disability and other social arrangements and cultural conventions in the texts including age, class, gender, and heroism, among others. Furthermore, since memory plays an important role in both the composition and the reception of medieval sagas writing, panellists may approach disability in the sagas in terms of cultural or historical memory, which are each tied to a community’s most vital social arrangements and cultural conventions.

Please submit a short, titled abstract (150–250 words) for 20-minute presentation to Ármann Jakobsson at armannja@hi.is. The deadline for proposals is September 15, 2018.