An interview with Professor Kristen Mills by Lydia Gingerich ’19

Though spring has just begun, forecasting for Fall 2016 is rapidly approaching. We asked Professor Kristen Mills to talk a bit about the two courses she’s offering through the Hurford Center next year.

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Living with the Dead: Attitudes Towards Death in Medieval Britain

How have individuals and communities conceptualized their relationship with the dead? This course will examine changing attitudes towards death by considering entwined discourses about burial, the dead, and the afterlife, from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period, focusing on Britain. The medieval Church’s teachings about the place of the soul in the Christian afterlife vied with a range of popular beliefs about restless spirits and walking corpses. Topics to be studied include burial practices, the location of graves, saints’ bodies, the doctrine of purgatory, and tales of the restless dead.

Vikings: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies

Horned helmets, dragon-prowed ships, goblets made from enemy skulls, magical hammers: In this course students will study depictions of the Vikings from the Viking Age to the present day.

The Viking Age spanned less than three centuries in the early medieval period, yet the idea of the Viking has been deployed almost continually in the intervening centuries. What is it about the Vikings that continues to fascinate successive generations?

We begin in the Viking Age, studying the Vikings through the scant textual records that the Vikings themselves left behind, as well as through the writings of the English who were continually attacked and invaded by Northmen until the Anglo-Norman Conquest in 1066. We will then read a selection of texts written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including Icelandic sagas about their Viking ancestors and the main sources for pre-Christian Norse mythology, to examine how medieval Icelanders used the idea of the Viking to construct a proto-national identity during the period of Norwegian colonialism. After this we turn to the idea of “the North” in the literature of Early Modern and Victorian England, and we will conclude the course by reading three recent novels that reimagine Viking history and mythology for a modern audience.

What inspired you to design these courses? Are they linked by any common questions, or are you imagining very different focuses and concepts?

The “Living with the Dead” course is tied to my research on medieval attitudes towards death and to the theme of this year’s Hurford Center faculty seminar, “Attending to the Dead.” “Vikings” grew out of my interest in Old Norse literature and its reception. I took a fantastic course on Icelandic sagas in translation, taught by Tom Hill, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, and I’ve been wanting to teach a similar course for a while.

How are you planning to structure these classes?

Both classes will be structured chronologically. “Vikings” will begin (naturally) with Viking Age sources; we’ll be reading Anglo-Saxon texts, including selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Battle of Maldon, and Asser’s Life of King Alfred, that depict the Viking incursions into England, and we will also look at runic inscriptions and read Old Norse poems that are thought to have been composed during the Viking Age (although it is often difficult to be sure). We will then read a selection of sagas composed in medieval Iceland that are set during the Viking Age, along with the two main literary sources for pre-Christian Norse mythology: the PoeticEdda and SnorraEdda. We will then turn to the literature of the so-called “Viking Revival,” a post-medieval period of intense interest in, and imitation of, recently translated medieval Scandinavian texts, that peaked during the Victorian era. The course will conclude with several recent texts, including Neil Gaiman’s  American Gods and A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, that draw on and rework Norse mythology.

“Living with the Dead” will begin around 500 AD, and proceed forward chronologically from there. We will be examining textual sources alongside archaeological evidence and funerary art. As I’m currently imagining it, the course will extend slightly beyond the Middle Ages, in order to allow us to consider the effects that the religious and societal shifts that occurred toward the end of the medieval period had on ideas about death and dying.

What departments are these courses in?

“Living with the Dead” is being offered through the English department, and “Vikings” is being offered through Comparative Literature.

What are the texts you’re most excited about examining in each course?

In both courses there is an abundance of sources from which to choose, and I’ve selected those that I’m most interested in, and which I think will be the most illuminating for the students. It is hard to pick favorites, but I’ll try!

In “Living with the Dead” we will have a section on what happens when things “go wrong,” as it were, and the dead hang around pestering and/or terrifying the living. We’ll be reading about walking corpses, incorporeal ghosts, processions of the damned, and all manner of unquiet dead. I’m planning to teach those texts in the weeks leading up to Halloween. For “Vikings,” Laxdælasaga is a simply gorgeous text, and I’m also very excited about the Eddas. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which will be one of the final texts that we read in the course,  should also be a lot of fun.

Death is a (if not the) defining, universal human experience. Why is medieval Britain in particular a compelling lens to look at death and the living through?

Studying death in any culture would be compelling (at least to me!), but I am a medievalist who works on Britain, so that is the material that I am most familiar with. That said, there are other reasons why Britain makes a good subject for study. Britain went through tremendous social and cultural changes during the Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxons arrive after the Romans leave, but there were already a number of Britons peoples living on the island, so you have cultures colliding and borrowing and clashing at the very start of what we consider the medieval period. The Britons would have been Christian, for the most part, and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were pagans, so clearly there were very different attitudes towards what death meant, how one should think about the dead, what constituted proper burial practices. Medieval Christianity  forbade cremation, because the idea was that the body would rise whole from the grave at the end of time, so you needed a corpse, and ideally you wanted it in one piece in one grave. There are exceptions, particularly in the cases of kings or saints, whose bodies might be divided up and placed in different locations, but generally you wanted the corpse to be as whole as possible. The Plague hits Europe in the 14th century and wipes out a very large portion of the population—estimates vary, but we’re looking at between 30 and 60 percent—and this creates an impetus for art, both textual and visual, encouraging people to contemplate their own death and to make sure that they are prepared for it: memento mori, “remember that you will die.” Of these motifs, the one that is best known today is probably the danse macabre, “the Dance of Death,” which is the inspiration for the closing scene of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

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What is it about the Vikings that continues to fascinate people?

Well, medieval peoples were fascinated and frightened by the Vikings, and many of the cultures with which the Vikings had contact wrote accounts describing them. Scandinavians travelled more widely than any other European culture during the Middle Ages —they went to what is now Russia, they were in Constantinople, they sailed to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland. Despite having a relatively small population, medieval Iceland created and preserved a large corpus of saga literature, much of it set in the Viking Age. At this point the Vikings are already exerting a strong hold on the imagination of the literati, and the world of the Viking Age depicted in the sagas is vivid and compelling (though not always factually accurate!).

After the Middle Ages, when medieval texts start being translated into modern languages, the Vikings again capture an international audience. When we think about medievalism and the Victorians we tend to focus on King Arthur and all of those lovely Pre-Raphaelite paintings of knights and ladies, but there was a very strong interest in “the North,”as well.

In the 1800s there were claims that the Vikings sailed to Boston and other locations in the US—there is a statue of Leif Erikson in Boston that commemorates his supposed voyage up the Charles River to what is now Cambridge. Catharine Wolfe of Newport, Rhode Island, operating under the belief that a local ruin was evidence of a Viking settlement, designed her country house around the theme of “Vinland,” complete with stained windows designed by the William Morris, himself a great enthusiast of medieval Scandinavian literature and culture.

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