Experiences of Dis/ability from the Late Middle Ages to the Mid-Twentieth Century

Mining for Dis/abled Lives in Museum Archives and Coming up with Unruly Matters of Absence- Arndís Bergsdóttir

This paper is about absence. It argues that the absences that seem to dominate the outcomes of museum mining need to be approached as matters – unruly matters – that are significant to the historical narratives of dis-/abled bodies and lives. The paper offers an approach to absence as matters that matter. It describes mining Icelandic museum archives for objects that matter in the lives of dis-/abled bodies have yielded a disproportionate number of artifacts. And how the 5 objects encountered seem riddled with misrepresentations where lived lives and experiences are rendered absent within realms that foreground spectacles, pathologies and the normalization of abled bodies. What is at stake are not only displacements from public historical narratives, but the subtle absences brought about by stereotypical depictions. Here, fixed images create a narrow lense that promises perfect vision, yet removes valuable aspects of lived lives and experiences. This paper draws on the relational aspects of new materialist approaches and offers insight into absence as relevant matters of heritage that come to matter through complex webs of relationships. Thus, absences do not call for presences, for absences are not hollow nothings  – but they do need to be recognized and trusted.

Disability and Dreams in the Medieval Icelandic Sagas- Christopher Crocker

Making use of Michael Bérubé’s work on disability studies and literature, this paper will explore the relationship between disability and the conditions of narrative in medieval saga writing. Drawing on examples from several Icelandic sagas, it will demonstrate how a deeper understanding of certain of the narrative methods employed by saga writers become evident through a close examination of the sagas’ representations of disability – that is, of characters with atypical or nonconformist bodies or minds. Representations of disability, for example, frequently involve straying from the sagas’ supposed default impersonal and objective narrative style, providing access to the inner experiences, thoughts, and feelings of certain saga characters. In this and perhaps other respects, disability can function as a means through which a saga’s reading audience becomes more deeply immersed in the narrative. Conversely, other disability representations in the sagas seem to insist upon forms of human embodiment that inescapably elude such insight towards characters who cannot participate in the telling of their own stories but can only be narrated at some distance by others. In both cases, a disability studies approach provides important insight toward how saga characters relate to the narratives in which they appear.

Differently Human or Simply Supernatural- Eva Þórdís Ebenezersdóttir

“Whether we recognize it or not the life of disability is both a story that we live and a story that we tell, and it is surrounding us.” (Titchosky and Michalko, 2014). In 19th century Icelandic folktale there are complex stories of family ghosts that wreak havoc in people’s lives, affecting behaviour and health in each generation. In a time before the modern idea of disability these stories tell of differences and human diversity. The legends include different levels of exclusion and othering caused by a change in individual behaviour. Intersectionality also comes into play as gender, social status and age affect how the narratives deal with why and how some individuals are, or become, different from others. By examining this material with historical discourse analysis, the aim is to bring forward underlying power relations that influence marginalisation and show how supernatural beliefs shaped people’s understanding and reaction towards those who were thought to behave differently. To show that an individual could be believed to be different because she was hunted by a family ghost, or that she was indeed a supernatural entity herself; a ghost, haunted or disabled, different enough to become the topic of legends.

Lived lives of the different bodied dead – A bioarchaeological approach to disability in Medieval Iceland- Haraldur Thór Hammer Haraldsson

People with impairments of all kinds, be it physical or cognitive, have been a part of humanity since its very beginning. These people, who have formed an integral part of every society in Earths past to the present have gone relatively unnoticed in the archaeological record. Their remains have been excavated, document and studied, however their stories, their lives, have not been the focal point of archaeological enquiry. This study aims to bring the embodied experiences of skeletal remains of different bodied people to the forefront. One of the main ways in which we intend to bring these embodied experiences of the dead to life is to produce a fictive – yet factual- osteobiography, a story that incorporates all the observable evidence from the skeleton as well as available literature with the intent to build a life story of a different bodied person from Iceland’s past. Problematic issues associated with these methods will also be raised, such as giving names to skeletal remains, “filling in the blanks” in academic work and how imagination and intuition are used to produce such stories. This talk will argue that these methods are vital to give the best probable insight into the lived lives of past peoples with different bodies and their contemporary societies when the available and observable evidence is scarce.

The Shelter from the Storm- Sólveig Ólafsdóttir

Researches into the Life-Threads of physically and psychologically disable Icelandic people during bygone ages, shed a light on the interesting role of those who provided individuals in a fragile position a shelter from the inhospitable Icelandic farmers society. Those could be specific family members or even unrelated individuals in the same household. The relationship between the powerless individual and its caretaker could be formalized by the local authorities but was more often informal and very emotional. It became very visible if the powerless lost their shelter because of various reasons. This presentation will trace Life-Threads of two individuals, Bjorg Olafsdottir, (1831-1904) and Kaprasius Gudmundsson (1853-1893). Both of them had “a shelter” from harsh environment which disappeared during a critical time of their life. 

Disability, Punishments and Poverty in Iceland (1500-1800)- Hanna Björg Sigurjónsdóttir

The paper focuses on the interplay between disability, punishment and poverty in Icelandic society during the 16th, 17th and 18th century. Through this period natural disasters, economic hardship, extreme weather condition and plagues impacted upon the lives and conditions in Iceland making it difficult for many to survive. Severe penalties for steeling were pursued and punishments included both death sentences and physical punishment, such as markings, scourges and mutilation. During these three centuries at least 76 individuals accused for stealing were executed and much higher number of people were mutilated. In addition to obvious physical pain, the punishment not only marked the body but also restricted people’s ability to provide for themselves. The goal of the project is to obtain information about this marginalized group and increase knowledge and understanding of the position of doomed individuals in times of hardiness and harsh punishments - punishments that acted to produce disability in a manner that has so far received little scholarly attention.


Verkefnið Fötlun fyrir tíma fötlunar er hýst af Rannsóknasetri í fötlunarfræði við Háskóla Íslands.
Háskóli Íslands | Sæmundargötu 2 | 101 Reykjavík | Netfang: hbs@hi.is

Öndvegisverkefnið var styrkt af Rannsóknasjóði nr. 173655-051