HomePoetry and Politics in the Viking and Norman Diasporas (Ninth-Thirteenth Centuries)

HomePoetry and Politics in the Viking and Norman Diasporas (Ninth-Thirteenth Centuries)

Poetry and Politics in the Viking and Norman Diasporas (Ninth-Thirteenth Centuries)

Poésie et politique dans les mondes normands médiévaux (IXe-XIIIe siècle)

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Published on Wednesday, February 19, 2020


The conference will address the relationships between poetry and power in the medieval world, fostering exchanges between historians and scholars in the fields of Latin and vernacular literatures. The poems under scrutiny will be those composed in the Viking and Norman diasporas between the ninth and the thirteenth century, covering a wide geographical expanse, from Iceland to Southern Italy, through Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Kievan Rus’ and part of the Latin East. The main questions which will be studied are: (1) the specific context for the composition of political poetry (e.g. encomiastic or satiric); (2) poetry as a means for the representation of power or the transmission of moral or religious conceptions (e.g. mirrors for princes, didactic or gnomic poetry); (3) the reasons for preferring poetry over prose in order to convey political ideas.


Cerisy-la-Salle (29 september - 3 october 2021) .


At the meeting-point of literary and historical studies, the relationships between poetry and politics in the core centuries of the Middle Ages have already been the object of much scholarly work. In the Romantic period, works like Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland and the Poetic Eddawere rediscovered and immediately identified as the earliest “monuments” of European nations: at their very beginning, medieval studies usually read a number of poetical works as outstanding manifestations of the values and political genius of singular peoples which supposedly created them. And all along the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, many philologists and historians tried to make use of poetical works in order to write a history of political ideas and behaviours.

Since then, many approaches have allowed us to go on exploring those topics. Nevertheless, it must be said that, as opposed to the great historical-philological works of the first generations of medievalists, and even if there are important exceptions, many recent studies have been confined to one disciplinary field: history, French literature, Latin literature, Scandinavian studies, etc.: most of the time, a real dialogue between specialists of those fields remains to be built. This is why a first conference was held in Caen in 2014 on the subject “Around Serlo of Bayeux: Poetry in Normandy in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”: it allowed us to chart a preliminary vision of Latin poetry in Normandy, England and Southern Italy and to attain a better understanding of Serlo’s personality through comparison with other contemporary poets – famous ones like Dudo of Saint-Quentin or more neglected ones such as Raoul Tortaire. Yet, it remains that the study of poetry has often been conducted within the frame of each particular linguistic domain, without much comparison with works composed in other languages: the dialogue between Latin and vernacular poetry, as well as between different vernacular poetic corpuses, is a promising direction for research. This future conference will aim to encourage a wider dialogue between various disciplinary fields, so that new scholarly work emerges, at the crossroads of literatures composed in different languages in connected cultural and political worlds.

In French, the “worlds of Northmen and Normans” may equally be called “mondes normands médiévaux”, playing on the polysemy of the word “normand, which allows us to unite the Viking and Norman diasporas under a single label: indeed, Normandy finds itself in a pivotal position between diasporic cultural worlds which connect Iceland to Sicily through Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, Southern Italy, Kievan Rus’ and parts of the Crusader lands. These worlds cover many linguistic areas where diasporic contexts created the conditions for cultural transfers, textual exchanges and mutual influences; they can be treated as a useful field for the explorations of the topics mentioned above. For instance, around Duke Richard I and his wife Gunnor, scalds in the Scandinavian oral tradition could rub shoulders with Latin poets whose training rested in the study of written classics, while all of them had to opportunity to attend Romance poetic performances. Similarly, at the court of Roger II of Sicily, poets composing in Latin (or Greek) were in contact with others whose main medium was Arabic. Many analogous situations would have existed in the Viking and Norman diasporas.

The poetic genres and traditions of composition which may be the subject of contributions are indeed numerous and varied, but we believe it is relevant to consider them together. We may mention didactic and satirical poems in Latin; heroic or epic poetry in Old English or Old French, as well as “roman courtois”; scaldic poetry in Old Norse; encomiastic Welsh poetry; etc. The list is by no means exclusive, neither will we neglect those texts that let us know of oral composition in languages for which, particularly in the first two centuries under scrutiny,

written testimonies are scarce. A few landmark poetic or prosimetric works will of course hold our attention: let us think – and here again the list is not closed – of Dudo’s De moribus, theEncomium Emmae Reginae, Stephen of Rouen’s Draco Normannicus, William of Apulia’sGesta Roberti Wiscardi, Wace’s Roman de Rou, or the Knútsdrápur corpus. But this conference will also consider those sometimes very tenuous poetic fragments whose political dimension is no less crucial.

Our conference will consider the relationships between poetry and politics through three main approaches – of course, combining them when it appears necessary.

Firstly, poetry may be placed and studied in its political context(s). Some works, particularly poems of circumstances (e.g. with a satirical or encomiastic dimension) can illuminate the specific powers games of the moment; on the other hand, a sound study of their context is indispensable if we are to understand them. No historian would be able to say much about the battle of Brunanburh without considering the Old English poem inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; conversely, without precise contextualisation, its rhetoric would remain opaque to literary scholars. It happens even sometimes that, the political context being obscure, the very meaning of the lines remains an enigma: for example, when Serlo of Bayeux raged against the interdict which hit priests’ sons or against abuse of power on the part of the abbot of St Stephen of Caen, or when Garnier of Rouen wrote in defence of his master against one monk “F.” from Mont-Saint-Michel. Yet, if poetry may indeed become a source for political history of the most factual kind, and even for the reconstruction of mere sequences of political and military events, it demands a treatment that takes into account the specificities of its genres and techniques of composition: “conquest poems” such as Bishop Guy of Amiens’s Carmen de Hastingae proelio, the Song of Dermot and the Earl or Raoul of Caen’s Gesta Tancredi have indeed been either treated as priceless historical sources or rejected as “purely poetic” visions.

Secondly, poetry may convey wider political messages, reflecting political values or promoting particular representations of relations between existing powers, or even a full-fledged ideology. One of the most obvious cases it that of poems which have been composed as mirrors of princes, or which have been read as such. For instance, didactic and gnomic poetry is particularly prone to convey messages in which ethics and politics converge: this is as true of Rígsþula as of Daniel of Beccles’s Urbanus magnus. Another interesting case lies in works which, in the context of the Gregorian Reform, aim to defend one particular approach of the relation between temporal and spiritual powers, or between secular and regular clergy: that is the case with Geoffrey Malaterra’s poem on the virtues of legitimate marriage, or with Serlo of Bayeux’s opinion that there is no better choice for women than becoming a nun. A third case would be that of religious, and more specifically hagiographical poetry, often sponsored by men and women of princely rank: poets may emphasize their piety, particularly in prefatory and dedicatory poems, creating idealized portraits of Christian rulers. For example, previous work has already highlighted the fact that both Bishop Odo of Bayeux and his niece Adela of Blois sponsored works of religious poetry.

Thirdly, if poetry has sometimes been used as a tool for politics, relations of power have also supplied occasions, and even pretexts, for poetical composition. Historians have often shown how the elite could harness the poet’s work to their own power games, but that should not hide the fact that poetry may have its own legitimacy, and a real degree of autonomy, even in poems labelled as circumstantial. In that respect, the study of audiences aimed at or effectively reached by poems, along with the poets’ degree of sensitivity to either political or aesthetic issues, is at the heart of this third aspect. We should also question the motivations which drove authors, whose characterization as poets or historians is not always clear-cut, to choose poetic genres or discourse: the borders between politics, history and poetry will be under scrutiny. Whether considered from the point of view of authors or from that of audiences, prosimetric works are a useful vantage point here: clearly, choosing prose or poetry means talking politics differently, but concentrating on sources where the switching takes place within the same work or performance may shed a singular light on the precise reasons for such a choice. Similarly, it may be interesting to consider verse rewritings of prose works (they are frequent, for example, in the field of hagiography), or the insertion of pre-existing poems into a prose narrative (a common practice in Icelandic sagas).

Submission guidelines

The conference will be held from 29 September to 3 October 2021 at the Centre culturel international de Cerisy-la-Salle (Normandy). Proposals for papers – a title and abstract (no more than 500 words), along with a short CV (no more than one page) – should be sent to the organizers, Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel (marie-agnes.avenel@unicaen.fr), Laurence Mathey- Maille (laurence.mathey@univ-lehavre.fr) and Alban Gautier (alban.gautier@unicaen.fr),

before 30 April 2020.

Apart from some monographic studies which may be seen as essential, we will favour papers which, within Viking and Norman diasporas, aim to compare situations in several cultural areas or polities, or to discuss the relations between texts written in different languages.

Selection committee


  • Centre Culturel de Cerisy-la-Salle
    Cerisy-la-Salle, France (50)


  • Thursday, April 30, 2020


  • poésie médiévale, politique, Normandie, îles Britanniques, Italie, Scandinavie, Rus’ kiévienne, pouvoir, latin, vernaculaire


  • alban Gautier
    courriel : alban [dot] gautier [at] unicaen [dot] fr
  • Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel
    courriel : marie-agnes [dot] avenel [at] unicaen [dot] fr
  • Laurence Mathey-Maille
    courriel : laurence [dot] mathey [at] univ-lehavre [dot] fr

Information source

  • Marie-Agnès Lucas-Avenel
    courriel : marie-agnes [dot] avenel [at] unicaen [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Poetry and Politics in the Viking and Norman Diasporas (Ninth-Thirteenth Centuries) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, February 19, 2020, https://doi.org/10.58079/14hr

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