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Serial Defamation in Two Medieval Tales: The Icelandic Oelkofra Thattir and the Irish Scela Mucce Meic Datho

William Sayers

Oral Tradition Volume 6, Number 1

Ireland and Iceland in the early medieval period display similarities in cultural development that cannot be simplistically referred to the conditions of insular societies on the European fringe. In both the spread of literacy in Latin was matched by a readier accommodation with the native tradition than in many parts of western Europe. This resulted in two relatively early vernacular literatures, with a keen but not uncritical appreciation of their pre-Christian native cultures and oral traditions serving to generate a rich and varied corpus of texts. The Icelandic family sagas dealing with the period after the Settlement are widely known and admired; the earliest Irish tales, cast in the epic mold and purporting to describe a world more remote than a century or two, have a more limited readership. As a backdrop for the literary scholar and of prime importance for the student of cultures, both islands preserved an extensive body of legal texts, whose value for determining the degree and kind of “historicity” of the literary material is increasingly being recognized. The two societies seem to have been very prone to litigation and to its more violent alternative, feud. Ireland pursued feud through the kin group; Iceland favored political alliances around local chieftainships (Byock 1982). But economy and social organization certainly differed in relatively bountiful Ireland and resource-scarce Iceland. Both had a hierarchical system, at one time with slaves at the bottom, but compared to aristocratic Ireland we might see Iceland as relatively more egalitarian, in that the common social unit, the freeborn, landed farmer, might aspire to a chieftainship, at least during the period depicted in the family sagas. The historical relations of the two parent societies in an earlier era— Viking raids in Ireland and the Western Isles, Norse settlements there, then the fresh emigration some generations later from Celtic lands to newly discovered Iceland—are additional compelling reasons to pursue cultural affi nities if not direct dependencies.

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