View Full Version : The Incorporation of Oral Historical Tradition in the Early Historical Texts: Snorri's Ynglingsasaga and Nestor's Primary Chronicle

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006, 09:27 AM
Elena A. Melnikova

The Incorporation of Oral Historical Tradition in the Early Historical Texts: Snorri's Ynglingsasaga and Nestor's Primary Chronicles.


The role of oral tradition, an important source of early history writing, was especially great for the formation of historiography in the northern and eastern periphery of the Christian world. The memories Scandinavians and Eastern Slavs had of their origins, their relations with kindred nations and their wars with enemies were the only existent source of information for the reconstruction of their remote past. These recollections were transmitted orally for centuries and were first put into writing only in the eleventh (in Ancient Russia) and twelfth centuries (in Iceland). By that time the peoples of both regions had adopted Christianity, and early historiographers, men of learning, absorbed together with Christian theology and culture the Christian perception of historical process and the concept of world history as the history of the Christian nations. The Bible and the works of the Church Fathers suggested a kind of linear history progressing from the Creation to the triumph of Christianity and then its collapse before the Judgement. This concept of history was in dramatic contrast to the attitude to the past then prevalent in the pagan world, where oral historical tradition had its roots. At the same time the Bible, Church Fathers, and early Christian historians provided patterns for history-writing that again contradicted the methods of presentation of oral history.

Thus the main task for the authors of the first national (‘barbarian’) histories (Goffart 1988) in Northern and Eastern Europe, who strove to incorporate their own peoples into the family of Christian nations and to present their past as an integral part of world history, was to adapt the oral – and pagan – historical tradition of their nations to the standards of Christian history writing (Weber 1987). Therefore oral tradition had to be reviewed and selected, and the appropriate parts of it had to be reinterpreted, rearranged, and modified in such a way as to conform to the annalists’ aims. The usage and modification of oral tradition by authors of ‘barbarian histories’ as well as the mechanisms of its incorporation in the narrations varied greatly. Old Norse and Old Russian history writers had some common grounds for their treatment of national historical traditions.

On the one hand, the European North and East of the preliterate period were tightly connected economically, politically, and culturally due to a great number of Viking bands moving hither and thither, and settling for some time or forever in Old Russian towns (Franklin & Shepard 1998; Mühle 1991). The Old Russian historical tradition of the ninth and tenth centuries emerged and took shape among the professional warriors who were members of princely retinues. Until the mid-tenth century most of them were Scandinavians, and only in the tenth century did Slavic warriors began to penetrate this circle. Sharing the same activities and interests Scandinavian and Slavic comrades-in-arms possessed common historical memories and common historical traditions. On the other hand, a certain simultaneity and similarity of the main social and political developments in the Northern and Eastern European worlds could result in the emergence of similar traditions and their interpretations.

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006, 02:15 PM
First off, I'll say that I didn't read the entire pdf, just the excerpt that you posted.....

I think it is great that you are posting about oral traditions. I think the oral traditions are one of the most misunderstood things in today's society because people of today have a difficult time fathoming how it was back then. A really good book on the subject (in my opnion) is Ong's "Orality and Literacy." Although, I have not read this book in over 10 years, so please do not ask me about it. :P Here is a review on the book: http://www.engl.niu.edu/wac/ong_rvw.html