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PhD project

Science in Medieval Fiction.

Science, Fictionality and the Reception Learned Writing in Old Icelandic Romance 1300-1550

(working title)

The scientific revolution, contrary to many popular beliefs, did not arise ex nihilo, its roots lie in the Middle Ages. It was at that time that the systematic study of nature, motivated by the theological desire to increase the understanding of God’s creation and fuelled by the translation of scientific treatises from Arabic, gained institutional support in the founding of the first European universities. At the same time, another new but far-reaching development took place in continental and Northern Europe: the blossoming of fictional literature in the form of the romance genre. This mode of storytelling offered both its authors and audiences a platform to engage with subjects in a new way which was freed from many of the constraints of more conventional kinds of literature. And it was here that we see the transmission of medieval science make a lateral movement: from the medium of factual writing to fictional literature – from treatises, encyclopaedias, maps, charts, and medical texts to narrative tales.

A few brief examples will introduce the matter presently: In Cligés written by Chrétien de Troyes a young empress wants to feign a fatal illness in order to trick her husband and be together with her secret lover. A common enough plot device, yet the text uses the occasion to discuss contemporary medical practices as the empress craftily has her urine sample manipulated so that she can fool the doctors at court and even the physicians from Salerno. Building on Chrétien’s Yvain, ou le Chevalier au Lion an Old Icelandic romance (Sigurðar saga þǫgla) tells of a brave knight who frees a noble lion from the clutches of an evil dragon. The narrator uses the opportunity to go on a lengthy digression detailing the zoological characteristics of the lion. Another story (Hektors saga) reports of a shining suit of armour that is able to effortlessly repel any blows struck against it. The explanation is delivered promptly: the astonishing defensive properties are not powered by magic, but by minerology. An adamas gemstone was crafted into the helmet and the stone’s ability to make its wearer invincible is transferred onto the armour. The text follows this claim up with an extensive quote from a lapidary listing the gemstone’s qualities according to medieval mineralogical lore.

Using the genre of Old Icelandic romance as the object of my study, this project investigates how the texts used scientific writing and how their dealing with learned and factual sources impacted the genre’s developing understanding of fictionality. It also researches the romances’ role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in Old Icelandic society. The general approach to this examination of science in medieval fiction is guided by the fundamental assumption that the interaction between literature and science is based on a reciprocal effect. This essential claim lies at the heart of the field ‘literature and science studies’ and holds that while science inspires literature and opens new avenues for narrative exploration, poetics and literary conventions also have a constitutive influence on scientific writing and the scientific community. Examining the validity of this claim is left to the analysis of the historical manifestations of literature and science and has been the chief subject of scholarship in this field. It is likewise at the forefront of the present study and its investigating of the scientific material in Old Icelandic romance.

What does science do for the narratives and what do the narratives do for science? These are the two central questions which are at the core of the project’s research. To answer them it is necessary to look at a subset of concerns that will be examined in particular. Asking what science does for the narratives revolves around determining the narrative functions of science in the romances and is analysed with the means of narratology and close reading. The second question, what the narratives do for science, requires being pursued in two directions, both of which can be approached through the lens of reader response theory, particularly Wolfgang Iser’s Wirkungsästhetik, and using the tools of the study of intertextual references. First, on a textual level it examines if the romances in their use of the factual material altered its presentation in some way and how these alterations affected the portrayal of science. This is a crucial issue at this early stage in the development of fictional literature, asking how extratextual facts were dealt with in the narratives and how the audiences were expected to handle the tension between fictionality and factual matter. The second line of enquiry asks if the romances played a role in the dissemination of knowledge in late medieval Iceland as the high amount of scientific content in some of the romances seems to indicate. As agents of knowledge transfer the romance writers would have been using the popular medium of fictional literature to instruct their audiences both about the value of science and education but also about particular scientific content. To that end, my research examines how three scientific areas, mineralogy, zoology and the study of monstrous races, are portrayed in Old Icelandic romances in the period from 1300 to about 1550 and to what degree these depictions were based on scientific writing available in Iceland at that time.


Science in Medieval Fiction in the context of ‘Literature and Science Studies’

When considering the role science and learning played in the intellectual history of the Middle Ages it is important to widen the scope beyond medieval scholars and their writings and also look at the paths of dissemination and cultural engagement with this knowledge. This is particularly vital as modern academic scholarship is still prone to draw a dividing line between the sciences and humanities even when discussing historical periods for which such a separation would have been clearly anachronistic. Such practices are a leftover from the Two Cultures debate of the past. C.P. Snow’s lament over the growing chasm between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’ has itself become a trope.[1] But it proves difficult to shake off and continues to shape university politics as well as the conceptualising of a perceived opposition between the sciences and the humanities. As the focal point of literature and science studies sets in at a significantly later date, my research provides a much needed historical perspective on the development of the use and representation of science in literature.

The project ascertained that in late medieval Iceland science and literature were deeply intertwined and informed each other. Incorporating scientific facts into fictional narratives had symbiotic effects. On the one hand, the romances’ fascination with far-away places and astonishing exploits could be indulged by drawing on natural history with all its marvels. At the same time the facts equipped the fictional narratives with an anchor to the real world by pointing out that all these wonders were not fabrics of the imagination but actually represent accepted knowledge of the natural world. It also offered them an alternative to the supernatural by explaining protagonist’s outstanding feats or extraordinary abilities as the ingenious application of scientific knowledge or technology rather than magic. On the other hand, the romances provided a stage to science. The stories presented education and the practical use of scientific facts in a favourable light and played a key role in the popularisation and dissemination of science. But the romances also supplied a forum to view scientific facts from a new and more dynamic angle. The narrative’s fictionality gave an opportunity to act out thought experiments and speculate about ramifications in a more open and unrestrained fashion than would have been possible within the confines of strictly factual writing.




[1] Charlotte Sleigh: Literature and Science, Basingstoke/New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan 2011, p. 3.