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Fake News and the Agency of Women in Viking Age Iceland

[A note on pronunciation of Old Norse: ‘ð’ and ‘Þ’ are both pronounced ‘th’; ’æ’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’; ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘y’.]

We live in an era of ‘fake news.’  Fraudulent Facebook accounts and alternative facts have shined a new spotlight on the importance of equal and uncompromised access to the truth. Are biased information sources purely a modern symptom of today’s politics and the unregulated wilderness of the internet? The women of Viking Age Iceland might beg to differ. At times, disinformation and false reporting were utilized to devastating effect in the sagas recorded by medieval Icelandic authors. Even within this temporally distant and culturally distinct context, we can examine how fake news was wielded against medieval women in explicit efforts to undermine their agency.

In 1000 CE, on a small, glaciated island almost a thousand miles from mainland Europe, news meant oral testimony carried on horseback from homestead to homestead, or ferried across storm-tossed oceans on the tongues of travelers. In a world of slow, oral news, far removed from the infrastructure of modern media, we can revisit basic questions about the dissemination of information we moderns might take for granted. What was newsworthy? Where did news come from? Who was responsible for its circulation? How was information verified, and who was able to access it? All of these questions are difficult for scholars of the Viking Age to answer; written sources of the period are few, and those that do exist don’t privilege oral news. In other words, no letters, newspapers, or notice-boards tell us how information was presented in 11th-century Iceland. 

With limited contemporaneous textual records of Viking Age Iceland, we have to turn to alternative sources to piece together answers to these questions. What we know about the lives of Viking migrants and Icelandic settlers around the turn of the first millennium comes primarily from archaeological sources, genealogical records, and the later Icelandic sagas. The sagas were written in Old Norse during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, two or three hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, by Christian clerics, or other church-taught men, in large vellum manuscripts. The sagas relay entertaining legends of Icelandic settlement and details of fiery family feuds, but they are a problematic source for a historian of the Viking Age, given the centuries-wide gap between their creation and the time being described. Whether or not the sagas can be treated as settlement-era sources, they can tell us what 12th-century Icelanders believed or hoped life was like for their ancestors, and they can reveal the attitudes and morals of their later (elite, male) authors.

As is the case for many medieval written sources in Western Europe and beyond, the sagas and other Icelandic texts of the period privilege the actions and perspectives of men. Icelandic laws, first written down in the 13th century but likely codified in an oral tradition much earlier, suggest that women had little de jure authority, though they did have the right to divorce their husbands (for, among other reasons, wearing low-cut shirts). 

Despite the fact that women had fewer rights and limited access to wealth or education, the Icelandic sagas are notable among other medieval sources for their rich depictions of outspoken and intimidating woman characters wielding de facto power within the family and sometimes in society at large. The 13th-century Laxdælasaga, or Saga of the Laxdalers, is so sensitive to the experiences of women that some scholars even suggest it may have been written by a woman. 

Whether or not it comes from a woman’s hand, Laxdælasaga revolves around a host of complex women characters. Many episodes detail the frustrations of navigating social, legal, and physical structures created by and for men. One of these obstacles is the process of obtaining information, a relatively tedious project for everyone in the medieval world, but particularly so for women living on isolated farms, where news traveled only as fast as the fastest Icelandic pony could tölt

Generally confined to the home and discouraged from travelling on their own, women probably relied on male visitors to relay news from the outside world. Middlemen controlling women’s access to information results in notable and familiar problems for which we now have modern buzzwords, such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, ‘fake news.’ 

Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is one of the protagonists of Laxdælasaga, a beautiful and intelligent farmer’s daughter who nonetheless has difficulty finding and keeping a good man. Her first marriage to Þorvaldr is brief, unhappy, and ends in divorce. Her second husband, Þord, drowns at sea. Finally, Guðrún meets the dashing saga hero Kjartan Óláfsson. They flirt in secret, defying her father’s wishes, and fall passionately in love. 

Before they marry, Kjartan tells Guðrún he wants to seek his fortune in Norway. Angry, Guðrún demands that Kjartan take her with him on the voyage.

“Guðrún said: ‘I want to go with you this summer. Then I could forgive you for arranging this trip so suddenly. After all, it isn’t Iceland I’m in love with.’ ‘It can’t happen,’ said Kjartan. ‘Your brothers are young and your father is old, and there won’t be anyone to take care of them if you leave home. So, wait for me for three winters.’” [Translated from Old Norse by the author]

Kjartan’s decision to sail to Norway alone, despite Guðrún’s request, is a catalyst for the tragic conflict that occurs later in the saga. Like all good romantic dramas, Laxdælasaga involves a love triangle. Guðrún loves Kjartan, Kjartan loves Guðrún…and so does Kjartan’s closest childhood friend, Bolli. Because of their friendship, Bolli accompanies Kjartan on the journey to Norway, but he doesn’t forget about the woman left behind.

Though Kjartan doesn’t explicitly point to Guðrún’s gender as the reason for refusing to bring her along, his dismissal of her desire to travel highlights a clear division between gendered spaces in medieval Iceland. Women tend to the home while men are left to farm, to fish, to study, to vote, and to travel abroad. Kjartan reminds Guðrún of her responsibility towards her younger brothers and elderly father, who will be left unprotected if she were to pursue her desire to travel. 

Emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as grounds for impeding her movement appears in many modern studies of the migration of women. For example, women who emigrated from the country of Georgia in the 1990s were vilified for leaving their families behind. Referring to the “feminization of migration” in Georgia, social scientists Hofmann and Buckley observe, “most respondents described it as unnatural, challenging the male role as breadwinner and female responsibilities for childcare and eldercare.” The clear delineation of gendered occupations is deployed as a barrier to women’s movement outside the home as much today as it was a thousand years ago. Confinement to the home means prohibition from male spheres of political, social, and economic exchange—more often than not, the places where news happens. 

The knowledge and experience gained from travel abroad are traditionally available only to men. In Laxdælasaga, the first thing Kjartan and his followers do when they arrive in Norway is ask other men for tíðindi, or tidings. They catch up on the gossip, such as it was in early medieval northern Norway, undoubtedly including plenty of rumors about who won what battles, the best English beaches for landing a raiding party, and who the king’s sister currently favors. Disinformation and fake news, as we’ll see later on, can be a powerful tool of political and psychological maneuvering in a world without third-party fact-checking services. As the saga continues, Kjartan cozies up to the Norwegian king and starts to make a name for himself as a competent warrior and all-around Icelandic heartthrob. 

Bolli returns early to Iceland, leaving Kjartan at the Norwegian court. He heads straight for Guðrún, armed with all the instruments of modern psychological warfare. Bolli deliberately turns Guðrún against her former lover, describing how Kjartan is enjoying his newfound fame in Norway. He insinuates that Kjartan’s heroic qualities have caught the eye of the king’s marriageable sister, and implies that Kjartan has forgotten Guðrún and their old attachment. 

Guðrún at first refuses to believe him, but Bolli enlists the help of her father and brothers, who together spin stories about Kjartan’s reprehensible behavior and undermine Guðrún’s convictions, until she begins to believe that Kjartan is not the man she thought he was; a classic example of what would today be termed gaslighting. Without any way of communicating with Kjartan, and unable to travel to Norway to ascertain the truth for herself, Guðrún is coerced into marrying Bolli instead.

When Kjartan returns to Iceland a few months later, he is distraught to discover that Guðrún is married to his best friend. News of his arrival and the truth about his stay in Norway reaches Guðrún, revealing Bolli’s deceit. She confronts her husband about his campaign of misinformation, but he demures: “Bolli declared that he had said what he knew to be the truth.” You can almost imagine the deafening shrug. Here, news is weaponized against a woman by a man armed with the facts and determined to twist ‘the truth’ to his own ends. 

Kjartan, dead on the lap of Bolli. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Resentment rages between the three characters, even as Kjartan moves on and marries another woman. After a series of escalating offenses occurs over several years, Bolli, egged on by his brothers, finally takes up a sword against his friend. Kjartan, refusing to fight, casts away his shield and allows himself to be fatally stabbed. Bolli takes the dying Kjartan in his arms and pours out his remorse at being driven to such a terrible act. Soon after, Kjartan’s sons avenge their father by killing Bolli. 

The tragic conclusion hints at an unexpected but relatively lucid Viking Age moral. A great deal of grief originates from Bolli’s decision to modify facts, and from Guðrún’s isolation from the masculine realms of movement and information exchange. If Guðrún had accompanied Kjartan on his journey as she requested, if she had been supplied with all available information or been able to verify the news she received some other way, the saga’s tragic conclusion might have been avoided. Based on the arc of this episode, it would seem the author of Laxdælasaga regards the obstruction of a woman’s movement and access to information as inappropriate and potentially perilous. Manipulation of facts and deliberate misinformation leads to two deaths and an unhappy ending for everyone involved. 

Other brief but telling episodes in medieval Icelandic literature hint at a tacit approval of the movement of women. We see Viking Age heroines throughout the western diaspora (Iceland and the British Isles) commissioning their own ships, setting out on long journeys, and striving to form their own networks of information exchange through kin and marital ties. It may be that these women are simply literary figures playing out imagined fantasies that would never have been possible for real women of the time; or, perhaps these examples reveal some awareness of the importance of the agency of women. 

In this modern era of fake news and alternative facts, we might do well to remember some of the simpler lessons of Icelandic history. Honesty, as a medieval Icelander would probably tell you, is the best policy. Obscuring the truth leads only to blood feud and bitter regret.

Karia, Then and Now

The Cows of Alabanda

For historians, it is easy to view the past as a hermetically sealed world, like a petri dish that we can subject to tests and analyses without fear of contamination. However, this failure to admit that we are implicated in the very thing we are trying to study can allow ideas and practices to fester, unnoticed until some jolt forces us to confront them. Too often, however, this perpetuates problematic ideologies and ignores the fact that many of these historic sites have a modern presence — with modern people living modern lives — too. It wasn’t until I had the chance to travel to the places I had been studying that I received such a jolt that led me to question my role within my field, and my field’s role in the world.

Well, how did I get here?

On a hot afternoon in June of 2017, I found myself wandering over the remains of Alabanda, and around the small cluster of houses of the modern village of Doğanyurt that perch atop them. Alabanda was an ancient city in the Southwest corner of what is now Turkey, and through the centuries was inhabited by native peoples, Greeks and Romans before being abandoned. 

When returning from my research in the field, I found some buildings, a tomb, a theatre, the course of a wall running up over the hillside; the blare of the call to prayer. For someone who studies the ancient Aegean World, it was an idyllic end to the day.  

Image of the ruins of a Roman Theater in Alabanda. Photo taken from above with rocks and dried shrubs in the foreground. Semicircular stone structure with trees in the background in the middle of the image.
Alabanda. View looking down at modern village over the ruins of a Roman Theatre (Photo by author)

When I headed back to my rental car, I found a local farmer was watering a small herd of cows nearby. Summoning up all the Turkish I had learned over the past year, I greeted him with a simple “Merhaba!” (Hello).

He seemed nonplussed that I should know even that much Turkish, but we managed to strike up a very simple conversation. I asked him what he thought of the ruins, and the fact that he lived on top of the ruins of a 2000 year old city. 

“Not much,” was his philosophical reply. He explained that he and his father had been employed to help excavate the city whenever the archaeologists came by, but beyond that, he did not profess any particular attachment to the heaps of stone and brick.

“And you,” he rejoined, “what brings you here?”

I struggled to formulate an answer. To be sure, in Turkish, I only had the vocabulary of an 8 year old, but as I stood there face to face with this man and his cows, it wasn’t my vocabulary that made it hard to formulate my response. What indeed was I, an American student from Suburban Philadelphia doing wandering around this out-of-the way village in southwest Turkey? 

Reflecting on this experience has opened a whole host of other questions about my position in my field and in the world, as well as the responsibilities someone who studies people long dead has to the living. 

Getting into Classics

Here at Brown, I am in the Ancient History Program, which is co-sponsored by the Classics and History departments. I identify more with the Classics department because that is the world I have lived in, well, half my life I suppose. I had the fortune of being able to take Latin classes starting in 7th grade, and even Ancient Greek in 9th. I stayed in Classics because I had good teachers and liked learning the languages. It wasn’t till the end of college that I really became interested in studying history, rather than literature. 

More and more, I became interested in studying the native inhabitants of what is now modern Turkey. Now these peoples have long been known to Classicists but only indirectly: here is no surviving literary tradition in their own languages so much of what we think we know about them comes from Greek and Roman sources. Unfortunately, the one-sided and often prejudiced views of the Greeks and Romans seeped into later views of the natives (as Edward Said documents, Orientalism has a long pedigree). 

Map of Ancient Anatolia, depicted with land in shades of ivory with ocean in brown.
Map of Ancient Anatolia © Finley, M. I. (1977). Atlas of classical archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The upshot is that we don’t actually know much about these peoples. With my research in the Ancient History Program here at Brown, however, I am trying to rectify that situation by looking at other kinds of evidence, such as material culture and the small amount of inscriptions written on durable materials that has survived. But in order to do this, I have had to step beyond the bounds of what most consider the traditional turf of Classics.  

Classics is usually defined as the study of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, their history, culture, literature, etc. For centuries, it has been a cornerstone of elite, liberal education in the West. As such, it has remained a generally conservative field, slow to adopt innovations in theory and practice. Moreover, it has a lot of colonial, racist, and sexist baggage: the Spanish conquistadors saw themselves as new Romans, bringing civilization to the New World; the Nazis idealized the ancient Spartans as models for the Ubermensch; and the Alt-right is using Stoic philosophy to “prove” that women are irrational and emotionally unstable.

Scary stuff, and not something that makes one proud of one’s field. But as one who loves my field nevertheless, and wants to help it change for the better, I see setting a new research agenda as one small way  to tackle this baggage. At least, this is what I thought as I headed to the coast of Turkey in 2017.

Colonization of the past 

On the one hand, I felt I had to attempt to slough off my field’s colonialist baggage by focusing on other ancient Mediterranean cultures besides the Greeks or Romans. Post-colonial theory has made its way into Classics, and with it the realization that — surprise, surprise! — the Greeks and Romans may not be the best sources of information about all the peoples they traded with, fought, and conquered. So I hope that in my research, I am helping to de-center the Greeks and Romans.

But on the other hand, while trying to escape the colonialist perspective of our sources, am I just perpetuating the colonialist practices of western academia? One of my favorite quotes is L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But just like any country, the past can and has been colonized. In this case, I am talking about the process by which American and European scholars claimed Greco-Roman history as their own, thus denying it to the modern inhabitants of places like Greece and Turkey. So, when I went to Turkey just to look at its ancient monuments, and asked people if they cared much about them, was I not just perpetuating this trend? 

Fringes of Classics 

Even apart from these questions, my choice to study the ancient inhabitants of Turkey has consequences for my possible career in Classics. Although  the field is trying to evolve, I still feel very much like this research lies on the fringe. Even to my own colleagues I often have to explain a lot (like, why DID I take a class in Hittite, a language even older and deader than Latin?) And yea, it makes me nervous about the job market; what school needs someone to teach their students about the Lydians, Karians or Lykians —  names no one has heard of? It may be hip to say you’re studying “ancient subalterns,” but can you make a career out of that in a field that in many ways is still focused on a canonical set of texts?

Is this a pigeon? meme, with a man in glasses gesturing toward a stone structure with Greek letters and the caption reading "Is this classics?"
Well, is it? (Meme modified by author)

Now I admit, researching on the fringe has pushed me to make connections with other departments; I’ve taken classes in Archaeology and Assyriology and the connections I’ve made with people in those departments have meant the world to me and my research. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I came to Brown was the promise of low disciplinary walls — and in this I have not been disappointed. I do believe there is much to be gained in questioning disciplinary boundaries. 

So, to end this the way I end all my papers: I don’t have any clear-cut answers. 

As with any career, being an academic requires a balancing act between the practical and aspirational. What I can say is that it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of being a grad student, focusing only on what you are doing and not thinking about why you are doing it and who it might affect. 

Karia, Then and Now
Karia, then and now.Left, a carved stone from the temple to Zeus at Alabanda; right, a shop in the resort town of Bodrum. The axe was a symbol associated with Zeus in ancient Karia. (Photos by author).

At Alabanda, and everywhere else I visited in Turkey, I could not escape this question of who; for everywhere around me, people were making their living on its ruins, through tourism connected to it, and under biases baked into it. The question of who owns that past and who gets to shape it is far from academic. 

Welcome to The Ratty

Public scholarship is a critical component of research work here in 2020. Reaching out to wider public audiences allows scholars to generate interest in their subject matter, cultivate relationships with other scholars, institutions, and funding sources, and combat dangerous ideas that pervade often insular fields. Yet despite the value of public outreach (and the high quality of our education here at Brown), we are not provided with any training in how to engage in such scholarship.

That’s where The Ratty comes in.

The Ratty is a blog for graduate students at Brown University that is designed as both a platform for showcasing public scholarship but also a means by which students can get the training they need to become public scholars. 

Graduate students will write and publish an article that presents their research in a way that the public can grapple with but that doesn’t speak down or obfuscate complexity. They will work with our team of trained editors to create an article geared toward a public audience building from standard academic research models. Through this process, grad students will learn more about the differences between academic and public writing, will gain experience in pitching and editing, and in the end will be able to point to a digital publication of their writing and a digital author page of their contributions.

With The Ratty, we’re trying to fill a couple of gaps we’ve noticed from our own experience: the gaps in public scholarship training, but also the gap in just experiencing the editing process. Much of the time we submit papers to our professors and we get their feedback, but that’s it — you can choose to never open that feedback document and never submit a further edited version of your work. But it’s in that second back-and-forth that you really start to make big changes and real productivity happens in your writing. 

This interaction, however, can be pretty emotionally trying, especially if it’s something you’ve never experienced before. Sure, we’ve all probably been gutted by critique on papers from teachers, but we haven’t necessarily had to push back against their critique and we haven’t had to respond to any of the more emotional changes that have been asked of us. That part of the editing process can be vicious, and this is true in grad school as well as in academic publishing. It’s another one of our goals with The Ratty to help students get used to the editing process in a way that is a little kinder. The world is often unkind, and we don’t have to be that way. 

But we’re not limited to articles! The Ratty also wants to work with students who are interested in showcasing their research in other media — videos, comics, mixed media, etc. While our editors are specifically trained to work with public writing, we also understand that writing isn’t always the best way for students to showcase research, and it’s not always the way that the public is most interested in engaging with you. If you have ideas for other formats and styles of presentation, The Ratty is interested in hearing about it.

We’re also interested in using The Ratty to help train graduate students in Public Scholarship in other ways. Every day we interact with interesting people on Twitter, Instagram, etc. who are really committed to public scholarship, and they all do it in very different ways. So, we are planning to host a yearly speaker series, “The Ratty Presents,” where we bring in people who engage in public scholarship from lots of different fields. This will hopefully allow us to continue to evolve our understanding of public scholarship and push the ways in which The Ratty can help graduate students at Brown engage with the public.

There is real life inspiration for our logo: Daryl (2018-2019), who has carved a place in our hearts and in our branding.

So that’s what The Ratty is and what we hope to do with it, but why is it called The Ratty? Our inspiration is, perhaps obviously, our community’s nickname for Sharpe Refectory. “The Ratty” is something that the students call this dining hall — it’s not University-sanctioned, but the nickname is still known and used outside of the study body. The Ratty, too, is a student-led initiative. A lot of people are frustrated with how the job market has changed, the rules for PhDs have changed, but our training hasn’t been updated to reflect that at all. The Ratty is about taking back at least one aspect of our education. We’re going to take the reins and train ourselves in how to do those things that we know are important.

Right now, the entire team of The Ratty — from managing editors down — are women, people of color, or both, which speaks volumes about who feels like they need to push the boundaries of academia. These are the people who feel like they’re kept out of the traditional model that we’re still trying to use to train our PhD students. This further solidifies our commitment to working to bolster our training through The Ratty in order to help especially those people that academia often leaves behind.

So join us! You can pitch us to work with our editors in bringing your research to a public audience, and we’re always interested in training more editors. The Ratty is reclaiming student space in scholarship, making it public and loud. Sometimes it takes a small rat to make a big change.