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Review of Bauman, Richard. "Performance and Honor in 13th-Century Iceland." The Journal of American Folklore 99 (April-June 1986): 131-150.

Bauman's research analyses thirteenth-century Iceland by applying sociological and anthropological thought to Sturlunga saga, finding that honour and verbal art were part of a larger moral system centred on performance. He begins by outlining his methodology and explaining his choice of text, then opens his argument by recounting some relevant passages from the saga. These passages are used to underscore the use of poetry as a route to fame and honour. Next, he investigates the substance of the sagas themselves, identifying that the making of poetry itself was worthy of commemorating in poetry, along with the typical saga themes of hospitality, bravery, heroism, and manliness; his conclusion is that poetry could be used to bestow honour as well as gain it. He identifies drengskapr as a wide-reaching term for the Icelandic moral ideal, then argues that it encompasses more qualities than simply martial prowess. He deems it appropriate to consider systems of honour as systems of communication, then supports this analogy with an analysis of the "enactment of honor" - the "performance of valor for the camera". This ends his argument, and he finishes his essay with a call for future research, particularly in gender studies.

The contextual focus of the article is, as suggested by the title, thirteenth-century Iceland, in particular, performance as shown in Sturlunga saga (see next paragraph). Academically, the article was written in the fallout of a 1980 essay by Clifford Geertz, which called for the "refiguration of social thought". This new paradigm would allow folklore studies to continue as a unified whole rather than being fragmented between literature, anthropology, the humanities, and the social sciences. It is Bauman's belief that folklore can contribute to this new paradigm via the study of performance.

While Bauman refers to the work of other scholars using other texts, his research focuses mainly on Sturlunga saga. He acknowledges the family sagas as a fairly accurate representation of Icelandic society in the Free State period - from about 930 to 1262 - in regards to social structures; however, he feels that the literary representations of speech themselves reflect the period in which the sagas were written and not the period in which the action is set. As such, Sturlunga saga fit his purposes better: the events of these sagas concentrate on the years between 1230 and 1262, and the sagas themselves were written down between 1212 and 1280, making them a reliable source for thirteenth-century Iceland.

As has been described above, Bauman is using a new methodology (described by Geertz), one that gives folklore studies more disciplinary autonomy than had previously been available. He divides the analysis of performance into three groups: performance as practice, cultural performances, and the poetics of oral performance. He uses the latter to examine Icelandic culture, citing his main influences as the Prague School poetics of Roman Jakobson and Jan Mukarovský, and linguistic anthropology, particularly the ethnography of speaking. His specific research into thirteenth-century Iceland is informed by Victor Turner, who wrote an analysis of Njáls saga.

Bauman's research has led him to the conclusion that honour and verbal art - in his study, focusing on poetry - are both part of a larger system of performance, performance being the "communicative mode by which moral values were enacted and sustained". It is fairly obvious that creating and reciting poetry was a means of acquiring honour in thirteenth-century Iceland; poets in the sagas are favoured with praise and material rewards, and are found at the sides of kings. Performance can also be used to bestow honour on others, such as in a praise poem to a king. Thus, it is easy to see poetry as a performance with honour and reputation as the goal. However, Bauman suggests that this is just a part of an integrated "performance complex", and that each "performance domain" sustains the others, all being equally important to the value systems of thirteenth-century Icelanders. He sees the displays of honour themselves - poetry or not - as being part of this performance complex, the honour-seeking behaviour itself being a performance domain. The display of honourable actions, therefore, is a performance seeking another performance: the recognition and praise of the actions in a verbal performance. These types of performances play into each other, reinforcing and contributing to the performance complex that is thirteenth-century Icelandic morals.

Bauman believes that this research carries significant implications for the future study of moral systems; regardless of the time and place in question, moral worth can be understood as having a performance component. He acknowledges that his essay has only pointed out this approach, and that a detailed study in this context ought to be done of thirteenth-century Iceland. He also calls for gender studies in this context, as to date these performance complexes have only been analysed in terms of "manhood" and the "masculinity" associated with ambitions of honour.

      Updated: 1 Feb, 2008
Text © Caitlin Henderson, 2007
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