Icelandic Religious Culture and the Environment. Margaret Cormack

My project started as a study of evidence for the cult of saints in Iceland, a continuation of my book on that topic which dealt with the period before 1400. The book focused on different types of evidence for the veneration of saints, and addressed issues such as the overall popularity of different saints at different times, possible contrasts between church dedications (reflecting episcopal control) and saint-related objects (statues, vernacular saints’ lives) which are more likely to reflect local veneration. While I commented on obvious distribution patterns, electronic mapping of this data at different periods makes it easier to observe geographical and chronological trends, including travel routes and the introduction of new cults from abroad.

The project is now expanding in a number of ways. I am seeking partners with comparable data from other countries, and hope to devise a form to facilitate the entry of such data. Sticking to Iceland, the church inventories that contain evidence for saints’ cults also contain information that is worth mapping and analyzing. Personal names are an obvious choice for inclusion, though problematic, since Iceland uses patronymics rather than last names; it can be difficult to figure out which “Jón Jónsson” donated the new psalter.  Place-names, on the other hand, can reflect not only saints’ cults but quality and use of land, in the present and in the past. (They can also be difficult to interpret. Does “Ólafsfjörd” get its name from St. Olaf or from someone who lived there?) Books can provide evidence for intellectual history; they may be identified by presumed place of origin, being described for example as “Irish” or “foreign.” The number and condition of objects may be stated, and occasionally we have receipts that illustrate how church income was being used. Information about land and livestock owned by the churches provides insight into farming practices and the economic status of individual churches and of the Church as a whole. The agricultural and place-name data will provide valuable insight into the environment of Iceland in the first half of the last millennium.

Chronologically, the project is being extended into the first century and a half of the Reformation, to observe the effects of iconoclasm (many statues of saints in fact survived, and were even repaired and/or replaced, in the Lutheran period). Merely comparing the number and locations of churches illustrates population growth and/or movement in different parts of the country. I am also hoping to connect my data with that contained in other data-bases. A number of  projects focus on mapping manuscripts containing protestant hymns (and their scribes and contents) or other types of literature; there is a database of folklore; and may soon be a data-base of locations of games (games are associated with conflict in many sagas; the Polish student working on this project hopes to find out how the locations were chosen in the first place – proximity to meeting places, to major routes of travel, to hot-springs?) I am a co-applicant for a grant which will create a basic list of GPS location points and names of farms which will facilitate linking these databases. This linkage will allow users to look for patterns that may survive or develop; do folktales traceable to saints’ lives proliferate locally, or are they carried (by what routes?) to other parts of Iceland? Do locations associated with large numbers of books before the Reformation remain centers of literary activity afterwards? Do scribes move from place to place, copying manuscripts as they go? To reach such results, we need 1) a good computer programmer, and 2) qualified individuals to enter data (i.e. graduate students in Icelandic language or their equivalent).

To play with the database, go to:

Click on “Search the Database” to play with it. Note: in order to get the maps (which are, after all, the object of the exercise!) you will need a Google Plug-in, for which instructions are (supposed to) appear when you need it, though if you already have GoogleEarth installed you may not need to do anything.

To read about the kind of results this mapping will produce, go to:

Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, vol. 3 issue 2 (summer 2011) pp. 7-37.

I am looking forwared to hearing the papers, in particular to learning how it may be possible to trace the paths of individuals through time and  space.

2 thoughts on “Icelandic Religious Culture and the Environment. Margaret Cormack

  1. Exciting! I ran into problems running the Google Earth plugin from Chrome, which appears to be something that happens pretty frequently. Works fine in Safari and Firefox, though, so long as you follow the installation instructions. You’ll just have to tell the browser to trust the site when a pop-up appears.

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