Tag Archives: history

Nicholas Walton, Genoa “La Superba”. The rise and fall of a merchant pirate superpower (London: Hurst and Company, London, 2015)

Genoa is just a name for a place; the Genoese are an interesting people. Liguria is arguably the most isolated region of Italy, along with Sicily and Sardinia. The Genoese tend to go their own way in their view, ahead of their fellow Italians, to whom this simply confirms the reputation of the Genoese for being an arrogant and aloof people. […] Genoa led in the rise of capitalism, slavery, and colonization in the Middle Ages, international public finance in the sixteenth century, poor relief in the seventeenth century, republicanism in the nineteenth century. […] Genoa marched to the proverbial beat of its own drummer.

These quotations, taken from the Preface of another book about Genoa, can easily represent all the topoi of Genoese history that can also be found in this short introduction to the Ligurian capital. Genoa “La Superba” is an enjoyable mix of history, analysis, anecdotes and portraits of some Genoese historical figures (Andrea Doria, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi). This is not (only) a tourist guide and clearly not an academic book. In less than 220 pages, Nicholas Walton provides a vivid portrait and an accurate short biography of a City – forgive me the oxymoron – well-known for being unknown. Or – if not unknown – at least underrated.

Genoa and his historical relevance seem to have gone unnoticed largely because of the pride (some would say arrogance) of its inhabitants. It may seem paradoxical, but it is probably true. Locked between a harsh orography and a deep sea, Genoa managed to rise from obscurity to one of the richest and most powerful European city-states. Devoted mainly to financial and commercial interests, the Genoese played a key role in European history until the 18th century. However, during this time, Genoa remained largely a Republic of families, based on clans and tribal relations, and on the primacy of the private over the public: a peculiar political body whose key institution was the powerful Bank of Saint George, a unique financial organization which combined government function and the running of a public bank. Perhaps because of this mix of pragmatism, economic soft power, near-Calvinist austerity and a characteristic egocentric pride, Genoa remained for centuries in the shadow of the other historical Italian cities, such as Rome, Florence and its secular nemesis, Venice. Today, even if its role has been recognized by historians, Genoa remains largely underrated by the broader public.

Genoa “La Superba” can be particularly appealing to those interested in discovering Genoa and its history, since it provides a useful and quick guide for beginners. The book spans ten centuries, from the rise of the Genoese thalassocracy, during the First Crusade, to the present days, including the financial golden age in the 16th century and the industrial era between the 19th and the 20th century. As Roberto Sabatino Lopez once said, a city is, first of all, a state of mind. In this sense, some excursus to “ethnological” aspects (such as a chapter devoted to the pesto sauce, a symbol of cultural identity, or another devoted to the Genoese attitude towards football) can be a useful way for introducing the reader to the “spirit” of the city. In the same way, some apparent oversimplifications (such as the definition of Andrea Doria as “the Steve Jobs of the Mediterranean”) can be considered as useful analogies for exemplifying – for a broader public – a much more complex historical reality.

Nicholas Walton sketches the history of a “merchant pirate superpower” with a brilliant, humorous and sympathetic style. Indeed, due perhaps to his familiar ties with Genoa, Walton shows throughout the pages of this book some display of Genoese pride, such as in the pages dedicated – not surprisingly – to the Museo navale of Venice, full of scale models from the golden age of transatlantic shipping:

Again and again, the ships catch the eye with their elegance and that special aesthetic only generated by mechanical and industrial ingenuity. The Conte di Savoia is there, as is the Cristoforo Colombo – the sister ships of the Rex and the Andrea Doria respectively. Other names are just as evocative, like the Virgilio and the Michelangelo. It was an era when Italy began to take on the industrialised giants of the Western world, and do it in style. But again and again, the ships displayed in the museum in that great Adriatic city carry the name of its Tyrrhenian rival across their sterns: GENOVA.


Maurizio Isabella & Konstantina Zanou (eds.), Mediterranean Diasporas: Politics and Ideas in the Long 19th Century (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

This book consists of ten case studies of politics and ideas in the Mediterranean region. They are innovative and thought-provoking, particularly because they reveal that, due to long-distance cultural exchanges, the region was more diversified than previous research has suggested. For the most part, these contributions are biographical explorations of prominent characters, intellectuals and political activists. Broadly speaking, all of them exhibit the influence of Western liberalism, the ideology that helped to shape political systems and political discourse throughout Europe and North America in the course of the long nineteenth century.

This new book focuses upon intellectual networks and the circulation of ideas. All the individuals who are examined in these new studies share a diasporic background, as they spent at least part of their life separated from their principal cultural milieux. That experience clearly influenced their political outlooks, as a number of contributions in this volume reveal. In other words, these are surveys of a cultural transfer, even over long distances, within and outside of the region. Given the title of the book, one might have expected a more comprehensive regional survey, with more detailed elaboration of political thought in the Middle East and North-Africa. However, a 200-page collection of essays is really too small to be able provide such a wide survey and the editors’ decision to concentrate on European areas between the Balkans and Iberian Peninsula is sensible.

Until the end of the medieval period, the Mediterranean Sea was Europe’s main highway for cultural and material exchanges. Following the opening of the Atlantic route and the rise of the European powers on the Atlantic seaboard, the Mediterranean lost its central role. Historiography has generally intimated that these changes turned Mediterranean populations into receivers, rather than sources, of innovation in the modern age, including political and cultural innovation, and not least the liberal ideology. As this new book exemplifies, that interpretation oversimplifies the role of southern European intellectuals, as they undoubtedly contributed to the development of the liberal movements of the Continent.

Liberalism is one of the most difficult ideologies to define, particularly if we also examine it from a North-American perspective, where its content has been expanded considerably. It goes without saying that all liberal thought takes the individual to be an essential unit of society. What varies, however, is how inclusive liberals consider their ideology to be and, in particular, to what extent they regard the less cultivated/educated, as well as members of the lower social strata, to be capable of becoming full-fledged citizens. In this volume, the term “liberalism” is on the whole used in an inclusive way, socially and culturally. Moreover, the authors generally posit a close relationships between liberalism and nationalism, comparing the self-determination of the individual, on the one hand, to the independence of (imagined) nations on the other. But a detailed scrutiny, and deconstruction, of the symbiosis between liberalism and nationalism is not what one would expect to find in a collection of essays like this one.

Finally, as in most examinations of intellectuals and political activists, these are studies of male characters. That reflects the gender system of the nineteenth century. The authors might have examined the absence of female characters, but, again, the compact size of the collection allows little room for the many relevant discussions that might have found a place in a larger work.

All in all, this publication is significant and substantial. By focusing on the dynamic and multiple interactions between different cultural regions, this book enhances our understanding of political culture in a trans-Mediterranean mode.

Caspar Jørgensen & Morten Pedersen (eds.), Industrial Heritage in Denmark: Landscapes, Environments and Historical Archaeology (Aarhus: Kultur Styrelsen & Aarhus University Press, 2015)

As stated in the preface of the current work, “Even though, with good reason, Denmark is often perceived as an agricultural country, industry is also a very important sector in the Danish economy, employing as it does a large number of people and having an appreciable influence on the Danish society in general”. This work is a manifestation of this statement, focusing on the history of Danish industry for (mainly) the last 150 years and how this legacy is today reflected in landscapes, urban planning and concrete structures.

Continue reading Caspar Jørgensen & Morten Pedersen (eds.), Industrial Heritage in Denmark: Landscapes, Environments and Historical Archaeology (Aarhus: Kultur Styrelsen & Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Jules Pretty, Sea Sagas of the North: Travels & Tales at Warming Waters (Stroud: Hawthorne Press, 2022)

I welcome this book, a keen Icelandic reader of the coastal culture and communities more or less connected here in the North Atlantic and the North Sea east to Öresund since the Viking Age. Besides the general public, students in teacher education, humanities, and social sciences could get inspired by the tales and the method. I can easily relate to the content of the book. We need to tell stories of the sea, old and new.

The book contains a dedication, contents, preface, maps, pictures, glossary, timeline, on spelling and pronunciation, on time, distances, weights and measures, comments on the text and stories, on the illustrations, acknowledgments, directions on a walk with the author, on the author, advertisements, and invitations to promotions by the author. The way the book reaches out to the reader is pleasing.

The author takes us on a journey through time that spans from the oldest epic poems to the present, built on a variety of sources. The most important texts are Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic medieval literature, of those the Norse Mythology on heathen gods the most important. The tales are of the interconnectedness of people in Iceland, eastern England, Shetland Islands, Norway, Faroe Islands, Denmark, and the now drowned Doggerland.   The author wants stories to make us think in a different way than we now do. The moral and political message of this book is that we can make decisions that save us from the scenario of destruction of nature and human societies that otherwise might wait. Past mistakes can be fateful, being in military command in medieval times, or negligence regarding the safety of fishermen in modern times. By dividing the great gifts of the earth more equally amongst us, and by respecting nature as we did in the times of Ægir and Rán, when nature and human society were one, we might turn the tide. We do have a choice, the Neolithic people we learn about who lived on and fled Doggerland did not.  The author works with the fact that after the innovation of technology that made it possible for the Norse to attack undefended monasteries on the coast of England, crossings were created that have been there ever since. I find that the author’s location of the invaders in Lofoten shows a high level of optimism about the technical possibilities of the 8th century for sailing a thousand nautical miles, and the long way upstream. The Limafjord in contemporary Denmark must be the most likely place they came from. How much or how little should the method of narrative tale let scientific implications interfere with a good story?

The peoples of the North were as much or as little connected with the rest of the world as all other nations were with their rest. Perhaps more, as sea voyages were safer travelling on roads until the New Age. The technology to travel the sea was expensive, but there are many mentions of Icelandic rulers on their way to and from Norway spending the winter in Shetland. English, German, Dutch, Basque, French, Norwegian, Belgian, and of course, Faroese sailors utilized the fishing banks around Iceland for over 500 years.

For some reason, an ancestor of mine, living on the now remote Langanes in the North-East, always had French jenever on offer, or so the story goes. Communication between foreign fishermen and, the local population may have decreased with the mechanization of fishing. The anger in one of the cod wars when Tjallinn (aka the Charlie), which was the Icelandic term for British trawlermen, rained broken locks, chain links and rotten vegetables on the crew on deck of a boat from my fishing village is memorable. They should have met them outside the ballroom!

The first Icelandic trawler was bought from Great Britain. Many words of English origin are still used on the deck of an Icelandic trawler, for example the fishing gear itself troll (trawl), and the excellent word spanni (crocodile spanner), which gracefully obeys all the inflections and grammatical rules of the Icelandic language (singular: spannispannaspannaspanna, plural: spannarspannaspönnumspanna). I do not find the word in the online version of a modern Icelandic dictionary, and on the online translation website the word is explained as a wrench, which the tool is not. Coastal culture does not necessarily have much space in the culture of a nation even though it, for long based its prosperity in large part, on the sea. But, when we sing/scream the national anthem (written in Edinburgh, 1873) at the start of national soccer matches, King Gilgamesh´s search for the eternal flower is there: “Eternity’s flow’r, with its homage of tears”.

The great poet Snorri Sturluson would not have minded being mixed with his namesake Snorri goði Þorgrímsson, “the wisest of those who were not prescient”, as in a tale based on the Saga of Burnt Njál. For those of us who are used to distinguish, between the contemporary stories of the 13th century and the dramatic works written about life in the first centuries of Iceland’s settlement, this is unfortunate. Still, it does not change the value of the narrative.

It is a pleasure to have a story told. Child slavery in England in the early 20th century is a surprising exposure. One will think of the glory days as a deckhand in high summer on a shrimp fishing boat far north of Iceland. Three on board; the captain, my father who was a schoolmaster in the winter and a sailor in the summer like any other half-and-half East Anglian, and a proud 16-year-old. There was no trawling at night and the teenager took the night shift but got to sleep until noon on the morning-towing instead. We worked maybe two hours at a time when the troll was taken, otherwise not much to do. You were not allowed to fall asleep during the night shift on the wheelhouse. The orange midnight sun coloring the sky, the sea, and the other shrimp boats. Buzzing on the radio, those on the other boats chatting. The transmitter reached foreign radio stations which helped to stay awake; Radio Luxembourg presents Status Quo playing Rockin’ all over the world!

Dirk Booms and Peter John Higgs (eds.), Sicily: Heritage of the World (London: The British Museum, 2019)

The remarkable connection between the North and the South

Booms, D., J. Higgs. (2019). Sicily: Heritage of the World. London, The British Museum.

This journal is about the relations between the south, The Mediterranean, and the north, the Arctic, the Nordic countries and generally the northern Europe. Half of the book under review here is specifically about this relation, the Norman influence on Sicily and its institutions, starting about the year 1000 and lasting until the middle of the twelfth century. The other half is about archaeological excavations in Sicily of objects and artistic works from the period of Greek influence in Sicily lasting from the eight century BC until third century BC. The book is a result of a conference related to the exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, that opened in 2016 at the British Museum in London, giving a deep background to the exhibition.

Not having seen the exhibition at the Museum is a drawback for a reviewer of this book. When you add to it that the reviewer is not an archaeologist or a historian specialising in these periods but only an interested amateur the objective of giving a reasonable appreciation of this book and what is in it becomes a tough job but not an impossible one. The reason is that the authors in this book write clearly, are obviously knowledgeable in their areas of expertise and can convey to the reader complex issues and knowledge that is specific, detailed, and wide. There are 18 chapters in this book, 11 about the Greek influence and 7 about the Norman contribution to the culture and identity of Sicily.

The ancient Greek world is fascinating and important for European understanding of their continent and societies. It is often assumed that there is a direct link between ancient Greece and modern Europe, but this is a simplification. The Middle Ages, the influence of the Muslim culture on southern Europe, the Muslim conduct of science, have made the link to ancient Greece more complex than we often are willing to admit. Sicily was a Greek colony and was not central to the development of Greek societies and is often considered not as important as Athens or Sparta. Such views often become paradigms in research and skew our vision of what really took place because it often depends on the initial premisses what we see.

Sicily is strategically placed in the Mediterranean, a place to which people have migrated and settled and made their own in their social practices and culture. It should come as no surprise that some of the historically dominant powers in this area have colonised parts of Sicily and influenced its culture and society in various ways. Ancient Greece was one of those powers and it left a long-lasting legacy in Sicily in buildings and various types of objects that area examined in these papers. They look closely at how indigenous people reacted to Greek and Phoenician settlers and how the cultures reacted, how the mixing of cultures increased artistic and technological activity, there are reinterpretations of old finds in the light of new discoveries, how isolated marbles that are to be found in many modern museums were originally parts of groups of works that created narratives that are missing when the work is observed in isolation.

Normans arrived from the northern part of Europe, the Nordic countries, Normandy and other places, sometimes as pilgrims, sometimes as mercenaries. Some came by land from France through Iberia onto Italy, others came by “austurvegur” on boats on the rivers in Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and many becoming “væringjar” or mercenaries in Byzantium. Some of these Normans arrived in Sicily and gradually established themselves there having to fight the established authorities reigning at the time that were Muslim. Gradually the Normans became more powerful and influential. Some of the Muslims were not pleased with their absent authorities in Egypt or Ifriqiya (roughly modern Tunisia and eastern Algeria) and seem to have preferred the Normans who were present as authorities. The research presented here investigates the processes of interaction between the new rulers and the settled population and the former authorities. Other papers deal with the legacy of the Norman period even lasting to the present.

This is an interesting collection of papers on the history and development of Sicily. Anyone interested in this history would do well to read this collection of papers on various aspects of these subjects. The text is very good and informative, and the pictures add substantially to the text.

Weaving a Journey: 19th-Century Iceland in an Italian Female Narrative

In his essay The Traveller’s Mind (La mente del viaggiatore, it.ed.) Eric J. Leed analyzes the western cultural model, which requires man to be mobile and woman to be static, in a consolidated mirroring of sexual identities (Leed 1992: 328); nonetheless, in the last part of his book the author considers that, in recent times, women moved “no longer constrained by those images of the mobile male and sedentary female” typical of the past (ibid: 335), and wishes for a greater interest in their travelogues.

Studies on female hodoeporics (Monga 1996: 6) are widespread nowadays, especially thanks to women scholars; however, the panorama of Italian women travelogue writers who “embarked with determination on a spatial and mental adventure traditionally denied to their sex” (Frediani et Al. 2012: 8) is still under investigation[1].

  1. Women’s travel writing: forgotten accounts

As a nation, Italy has a relatively recent history: it was unified only in 1861, after the turmoil of the Risorgimento. At the end of the century, aspiring to increase its position on the international scene, the new-born country was starting its colonial expansion; consequently, readers were developing a taste for adventure in exotic countries. An important representative of such narrative was Emilio Salgari (Verona, 1862 – Turin, 1911) who, even without an extensive travelling, built a remarkable repertoire by reworking the historical and geographical sources he found in libraries; his work is still well known and his books have involved, thrilled and educated not only his contemporaries, but many generations of Italians.

The literary production of Maria Savi Lopez (Naples, 1846? – 1940) met a different course and was almost completely forgotten. As an ante litteram ethnologist and a folklorist she mainly focused on the legends and traditions of the western Alps, albeit writing some travel books set in Northern Europe; her fascination for this area was affected both by her Romantic interest in folklore and history, and by her Positivist philosophical approach.

Nei Paesi del Nord (In Northern Countries, 1893) is a fictionalized account that deals with a journey to Iceland, a country very little known to Italians at the time: as evidence, in 1824 the renowned Romantic poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi had chosen an Icelander to represent the vain escape of man from Nature. In his Dialogo della natura e di un islandese (Dialogue of Nature and an Icelander) the protagonist embodies the author’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism: “[…] who likes or benefits from this very unhappy life of the Universe, preserved with damage and death of all the things that compose it?” (Leopardi 2003: 624).

  1. An unknown author…

Few biographical information exist about Savi Lopez, so it is not possible to say whether she actually visited Northern Europe or was, like Emilio Salgari, a voyageuse en fauteuil. I follow the considerations of historian Giovanni Levi, one of the pioneers in the field of microhistory who, in his essay about contemporary Greece I tempi della storia (The Times of History), reports an obvious, albeit far from trivial, observation: “The rich leave more documents than the poor, men than women, adults than children, and – evidently – the literate of the illiterate” (Levi, 2009: 43-44), thus underscoring how cultured people have more consistent means to be remembered and see their personal events set in history, while culturally disadvantaged categories are more easily forgotten. As a consequence, Levi argues for the need to go beyond the merely documentary level, and affirms that history is not only the result of a thorough analysis of documents, the conservation of which, albeit deceptively rich and sufficient, is often distorted and incomplete (ibid.: 45). According to him, “the historian’s use of brain and imagination is in fact proportionally inverse to the amount of traces available, the less we have, the more we must strive to understand, to interpret the fragments, to reconstruct. Scarce documentation warns us: documents are useful, but history must look at them with suspicion, always attentive to what left no trace, but nevertheless had relevance” (ibidem).

I have therefore tried to investigate Savi Lopez’s life, following the few existing traces, using both her works and the rare documents available, while interpreting, as Levi affirms, what left no trace in spite of its relevance.

Indeed, the biographical events of the author contrast with the hypothesis of a journey to Iceland: as a girl, Savi Lopez was forced to follow her father, who fled Bourbon political persecutions, from Naples to Turin; here she studied (privately, as no higher education was available for women at her time) and developed a strong interest in the folklore of Western Alps. Her marriage lasted only a few years: she soon became a widow with an eight-year-old son to look after. Back to Naples (then part of the reign of Italy) she earned her living as a teacher, as well as a reporter and a writer; as it was a habit among women writers at the time, her literary production was mainly addressed to the young generations and her aim was mainly educational. Albeit she cannot be considered a scholar, all her life she was a well-known expert in the field of Italian traditions and continued to collaborate with outstanding academics: among them, Angelo de Gubernatis, Professor of Sanskrit in Florence, and Giuseppe Pitré, the founder of Italian folklore. Last, but not least, she was on friendly terms with important Italian writers, such as Giosuè Carducci and Antonio Fogazzaro,

  1. … a traveller or a voyageuse en fauteuil ?

At Savi Lopez’s times reaching Iceland was neither easy nor customary[2]: communication took place by sea, usually to and from Scotland and Denmark, and concerned mostly trade and fishing; besides, scientific interest was more oriented to the surrounding ocean (notably, the “North-West passage” that might connect northern Europe and America) than to the forlorn island in the far north. Nonetheless several scholars, interested in its weird landscapes and geological nature, had reached it; among them, the Swedish scientist Uno von Troil, who in 1772 embarked to observe the active Hekla volcano and the famous Geyser, which soon gave its name to all other geysers worldwide[3]; and Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, more interested in Icelandic history, who tried to explain “the causes that so spectacularly changed the character of this ‘distinct and peculiar race of people’, from a nation producing the great medieval saga literature to the apathetic and feeble people he found in 1810” (Agnarsdóttir, 2010: 235). Among these early travellers, only one woman: Ida Pfeiffer, an Austrian self-taught scholar who visited Iceland in 1845 for a few months. Pfeiffer explored both the geological and the botanical field, and in 1846, once back in Vienna, published Nordlandfahrt: Eine Reise nach Skandinavien und Island im Jahre 1845 (A visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North in 1845).

Even if Savi Lopez can be situated among the few Italian women travel writers of her time, it is quite unimaginable that this middle-class woman, a mother and a teacher, could afford expensive trips abroad or long absences from Italy. Last, but not least, her book was first published in 1893, when Iceland was not yet known as an international tourist destination – the first cruise from Hamburg took place in 1905[4].

Savi Lopez was always very scrupulous in verifying her sources, as her works about Alpine folklore prove; therefore, she may have read the books of the first visitors, especially Pfeiffer’s report, with its sound scientific accuracy and wide amount of details. Besides, most of her information were certainly sourced from the encyclopaedias of the time, that contain the legends, historical topics and scientific information she reports: among these, the Manual of Natural History of Blumenbach, translated into Italian in 1826, and the Annals universal statistics, published in Milan in 1832, as for scientific information; the Literary and Artistic Scientific Museum published in Turin in 1846, dealing with sagas and folklore; the Universal ancient and modern biography (Venice, 1828), that reported legendary characters; Danish Greenland – Its People and Its Products, written by Dr. Hinrich Rink in 1877, regarding the Inuit people. Last, but not least, the well-known review “L’illustrazione italiana” (Italian Illustration) had published some impressive photos of the Hekla volcano 1878 eruption.

  1. The characters: interweaving relationships

Savi Lopez gives voice to her characters, a heterogeneous group composed of few men, a woman, and three young teenagers, to develop the narrative discourse. The comfortable living room of an English castle (an exotic setting in the eyes of 19th century Italian readers) frames the opening of the book. Here, the readers meet the protagonists: Lord Holland, the owner of the mansion and the organizer of this journey, eagerly waiting for the arrival of the steamer Vittoria that, after a brief stop in Denmark, will sail to Iceland. On board, besides Captain Fowl (the Lord’s trustworthy old friend), will sail his two teenage children, Rolf and Amy; Sir James, another good friend of the Lord’s, and his young daughter Silvia; eventually, miss Margaret, Amy’s governess.

All these characters are mostly masks, perfectly recognizable to the readers, reliable in their narratives, credible in their statements, without psychological implications: once outlined, they act as intermediaries, lending the readers their concrete, sensory perception and driving their cognitive re-elaboration. Therefore, in the reassuring context of the steamer, in company of these conventional characters, the narrative can concentrate on the unknown exotic destination.

The protagonists are sketched in different ways; female figures respect the gender(ed) stereotypes of the time: the two young girls, (the first English, the second of an Italian mother), are physically contrasting and, while young Amy is “beautiful and blonde, like her brother, who could be thirteen” (Savi Lopez 1920:2), Silvia, Amy’s friend, is “beautiful and dark […] taller and stronger […] seeing her, one would say she was born in some distant southern land”(ibid.:4); though her Italian origin (already obvious in her aspect) is revealed later, her sturdy aspect implicitly contrasts to a certain weakness and fragility in Amy, and Silvia assumes a reassuring role to her younger friend. The third female figure, the governess Miss Margaret, is “tall and dry, with pale blond hair, long teeth, very pale blue eyes with no expression”(ibid.:8): she represents the typical English spinster, an unattractive figure, but certainly suitable for her role and dutifully attached to young Amy.

On the contrary, male characters are never depicted, so encouraging the readers to build their own images, based either on the characters’ own statements, or on the qualities and skills they show during the journey.

The Captain is introduced by Lord Holland: “An old sea dog […] accustomed to guiding his ship with great skill in the midst of dangers”(ibid.:10); an emotional Lord recommends his children to him: “[…] you are boarding the joy, the glory, the hope of my old home”(ibid.:13), he says before the steamer sets off.

Sir James, Silvia’s father, is characterized by his knowledge, and the assertive tone of his own words.

Young Rolfe, Amy’s brother, proves to be a curious boy, eager to challenge unknown experiences. As for the Swedish scientist Franz, welcomed on board after his shipwreck, the author merely informs that both he and his son are provided with dry clothes by Sir James and Rolfe.

The characters show their diverse relationships according to the canons of the time: men are characterized by frank, cordial comradeship, and mutual esteem; all the children show deference, respect, and unconditional trust towards the adults[5]. The two girls’ interest is a continuous stimulus to men’s explanations; sensitivity is almost exclusively entrusted to them, as well as irrational fears and homesickness; Rolfe often shows his impatience and curiosity, but also some general knowledge; all the children are thoroughly aware of the importance of their journey and do their best to make the most of it, composing their herbaria with Icelandic species during their trips inland. Eventually the governess, the only adult woman in this microcosm – literally embarked on an adventure that she would have gladly avoided – decently bears all her female anxieties and stands apart, silently aware of her subordinate role both by gender and by social status; she seldom shares her limited knowledge with the group.

The narrative content undergoes a fixed division: the Captain, an experienced traveller, describes competently the environment, and reports some of his sailing memories, as well as stories learned from other seamen; moreover, his thorough knowledge of Northern folklore and traditions allows him to narrate Scandinavian legends. Sir James, instead, is meant to deepen some cultural and artistic aspects, in few cases supported by Miss Margaret. Dr. Franz is mostly entrusted with the geological description of Iceland. Eventually, Rolfe sometimes acts as a sort of cultural mediator, turning this wide range of information into a simplified language for the two girls, indirectly facilitating also non-specialist readers at home.

While the ship’s crew is completely ignored and the Icelandic guides remain anonymous, few subsidiary characters confirm the reliability of the narrative: the first one is the Scottish girl in Bornholm, who survived her family after a sinking and was adopted by a generous Swedish family; her moving story involve both the travellers and the readers, who partake in her tragic destiny. An Icelandic shepherd hosts the group during their trip to the mountains and witnesses his love for his home country, where he chose to settle back after living abroad. Eventually, the Akureyri host tells the visitors about superstitions and myths still widespread in Iceland.

  1. An educational itinerary

The educational aim of this expedition is made clear by Lord Holland’s words to his children: “You know well that since last year I wanted to take you on a suitable educational journey”(ibid.:2); the destination he chose is “that island that appears abandoned by God”(ibid.:7), as Sir James defines it.

The narrative follows the itinerary, leading the readers through an unknown path, rich in cultural destinations as well as weird natural events, constantly interwoven, as it is shown in the following summary.

Sailing from the English Channel across the North Sea and along the dunes of the Jutland peninsula, an amazing experience is immediately offered the party: a typical Nordic sunset, characterized by a “bizarre feast of light, a fantastic dance of colours“(ibid.:22) that leaves the travellers “an unforgettable impression”(ibidem).

The day after, in a general excitement, the steamer reaches Copenhagen: “soon everyone arrived in the beautiful city, that is rightly called ‘cheerful’ by its inhabitants”(ibid.:41).  This visit lasts only one day, then the tourists visit Roskilde, the ancient capital, by train; once back on board, a bad turn in the weather keeps the steamer offshore before resuming its journey to Bornholm; this unexpected stopover gives the Captain the opportunity to tell several shipwrecks that occurred in that area, as well as episodes of the historical conflicts between Sweden and Denmark.

In Bornholm the group meets a Scottish girl, adopted by a local family after a shipwreck, an outstanding example of solidarity among the poor offered to the readers. Then, after reversing the course, the Vittoria heads out to the open sea and, on their way to the Faroe Islands, passengers experience the vision of mirages. A new, remarkable sight awaits them around the archipelago: icebergs appear, both fascinating and threatening at the same time.

The Captain gives some information about these islands and their inhabitants, then the group visits Tórshavn; here the narrative highlights the bleak landscape and the persistent bad smell of fish, dried along the streets.

The monotonous sailing in the open ocean is enlivened with the narration of legends, until the ship faces a storm, and everyone has to stay below deck; at night the survivors of a Norwegian vessel, shipwrecked on its way back from Iceland, are rescued; among them, the Swedish scientist Franz Nikold with his young son.

During the last part of the sailing to Iceland the Captain tells some anecdotes about Greenland and the Greenlanders, called in the book “Eskimos”; later, it is the Swedish scientist’s turn to narrate his terrible shipwreck, while sharing his sincere enthusiasm for the “island of fire and ice”(ibid.:151).

When the travellers finally arrive on sight of the coast and Sir James describes its characteristics his daughter Silvia shows her excitement, while Miss Margaret is disappointed because of the grey, monotonous landscape. After the puffins on the Vestmannaeyjar the image of Reykjavík appears: just a small city, almost devoid of any cultural interest, warns the Captain.

Once landed, the group reaches an emporium, where they meet some natives; on the main square, they notice Thorvaldsen’s monument, while in the streets they can see the typical Icelandic horses. The tour ends with a visit to the Cathedral and the Parliament, the only outstanding buildings in the city.

The excursions into nature are more interesting: at the “hot water springs”(ibid.:196) the party observes women cooking and washing clothes in the open air. A horseback ride takes the group to

Þingvellir, where the first Parliament in history had met since 930. During this excursion, the absolute lack of inns forces the travellers to share a shepherd’s shelter: quite surprisingly, the man had travelled abroad to several European countries, but he eventually preferred to return and live in his homeland. He is happy to answer their questions about the winter on the island and tell them about the Hekla volcano.

The following day the group visit the geysers: here they meet some Icelanders that, already used to welcoming the few English tourists, gather to sell such “souvenirs” like typical wood and bone handicrafts, as well as hats and woollen gloves.

The Captain has to juggle icebergs on the way to the last destination, Akureyri; the town is pretty, with small houses and flowers on the windowsills, but unfortunately the stench of fish hanging to dry spoils the air everywhere. An invitation to lunch allows the visitors to meet a local family and hear the description of the long, gloomy Arctic night from the very voice of the natives. Here, in this extreme northern spot, the group can observe the midnight sun and witness the killing of a white bear, which had just attacked some men.

On their way back seals and whales are often spotted from the deck of the ship. Back in Reykjavík, passengers are pleasantly surprised to find Lord Holland, who decided to join them despite his health problems. All together they joyfully return to England, and the narration ends with Silvia’s meaningful comment: albeit satisfied with the experience, she remembers her Italian homeland, “more beautiful, more cheerful than any northern country!”(ibid.:230).

  1. A tightly woven narrative fabric

Savi Lopez’s narrative relies on a wealth of information combined into different threads, according to a precise hierarchical order, and mostly reported by her characters.

Weaving a widely different range of information in a tight plot, alternating legends and historical topics, interposing scientific elements to memories, comparing events and actual experiences she creates a narrative fabric, varied and compact at the same time, where her educational and documentary purposes remain hidden in the foreground of an adventurous journey.

The author means to characterize the Icelandic environment as exhaustively as possible: above all she ranges from folk stories about trolls and giants to the Sagas about real or imagined ancestors, often containing supernatural elements; then, she deals with historical events, as well as accounts about the island’s social organization and politics, with regards to its contacts with the rest of Europe; she also sources information from mythology, thus explaining the origins of both natural phenomena and religious habits. The author is also accurate in describing the natural environment, the geological structure, and the climate of this exotic island. Whenever it is possible, she lets her travellers observe and filter the topics through their actual experience.

To emphasize the sense of extraneity with the destination – an exotic place totally new to her Italian readers, reached only after a long, dangerous, and demanding sailing – the author widens the gap between the text and her readers choosing a castle on the English coast as the starting point to this adventure; this gap is furtherly reinforced by the protagonists, who are not Italians but English travellers.

As a balance to this estrangement, Savi Lopez provides a reassuring and familiar microcosm: the steamship Vittoria, where the group always returns after their excursions, a steady scene where the narrative develops through their conversations.

The somewhat heterogeneous distribution of the chapters clearly shows a hierarchical order of the content: Iceland occupies five chapters, and five more ones, set on board the steamer during navigation, explain a vast range of cultural phenomena: from sagas to popular legends, to the Arctic physical and geological phenomena. The remaining four chapters break this interwoven structure, offering a descriptive frame: the first sets the narrative scene, another one describes the Faroe Islands, and two are dedicated to Denmark and Copenhagen.

The author assumes a heterodiegetic and omniscient role to provide information, often quoting “our travellers” as spokespersons, creating a complicity among the three parties in her work: herself, the characters, and her readers[6]. These travellers often share her omniscient role, talking about a variety of topics (from legends to history, from botany to the physical phenomena of the Arctic); in this realistic environment her audience of non-specialist readers is encouraged to identify and feel involved, both emotionally and rationally.

  1. Thread 1: Folklore and legends

Savi Lopez’s first narrative thread covers her main interests: myths and popular legends, mixed to historical subjects, are developed since the very start of the journey and all along the navigation. This subject is mainly let to the Captain and Sir James, who often take turns in the dialogues: while sailing towards Denmark the first hints at “the old times”(ibid.:59) when “on Christmas Day King Klinte-Konge [received] many gifts at the Stevnsklint reef, where he was believed to be living”(ibidem) near the coasts of Denmark. Gifts to the temple of Odin were also brought in the village of Lejre. Sir James follows, describing the Valhalla and the privileges of glorious dead warriors.

While the steamer heads to Iceland, among the mists of the North Sea, the Captain narrates the legend of Great Father Ocean’s palace, destroyed by Christopher Columbus when “he crossed the old borders of the world”(ibid.:118), thus eliminating ancient beliefs; however, some old stories survive, like the ones about legendary female figures living almost everywhere in marine waters: the Mediterranean Sirens are known as Mary Morgan in the English Channel and in Brittany, and are called Mermaids in the Baltic Sea, in the North Sea and in the Atlantic Ocean. He also reports the story of Perlina, King of North Sea’s daughter, that he had heard from other sailors: she used to live on the mainland for some years as the guest of a couple of sovereigns until, returning to the beach, yielded to the call of her fellow creatures and, taken by nostalgia, she swam back into the abyss.

During their stay in Reykjavík the group returns to the steamer every night and here the conversations sit between legend and history: the Captain maintains Sagas act as a system that preserves culture, both oral and written, providing “many memories of these nations”(ibid.:173). Saga herself was in fact personified: “In the ancient epic songs of the old Edda it was said that goddess Saga was sitting night and day next to god Odin, the inventor of poetry and, like him, she used to drink from a golden cup, drawing water in the great river that represented history; therefore, we understand that, according to the concept of the peoples of the North, poetry and tales must find their position in history”(ibid.:174).

The narrative proceeds with Sir James developing the topic introduced by the Captain: he describes first the figure of the skalds, the Icelandic singers, then the old and the new Edda, with its cosmogony based on the Giants, the first inhabitants of the world, still alive in the Icelanders’ imagination; of which the legend of the Stone Woman, a huge stone located between Breiðafjörður bay and Faxaflói Bay, stands as an appropriate example.

Few guides and a shepherd during the trip inland witness popular beliefs; the shepherd describes the fickle and evil trolls and witches, including the fearsome hundred-headed Gryla. These good and bad spirits still play important roles in the natives’ difficult daily life.

Superstitions about the weird characters who populate the island are confirmed by the Akureyri’s host: during the long and boring winter nights people tell how “the giants of the cold season, also called Trolls, according to popular beliefs jealously guard immense riches; they command a whole people of miserable castaways who, according to our rough neighbours in Greenland, have their noses cut off; they own herds of whales, seals, polar bears; and when they sit on enormous icebergs, wearing a shimmering mantle of ice upon their shoulders and a crown of diamonds on their long white hair, there is no king of the earth who can equal them in grandeur and majesty”(ibid.:225).

  1. Thread 2: Tales of kings and pirates

The three teenagers traveling north represent the ideal audience for some historical episodes of the countries visited; here, more than focusing on accuracy, the narrative concentrates on the characters’ relational and emotional aspects.

While sailing towards Denmark the Captain talks about wars between the Danes and the Swedes; the story of the city of Viborg and the adventures of King Erik are instead entrusted to the voice of Miss Margaret. During the excursion to Roskilde, the ancient capital of Denmark, Sir James illustrates some historical events: first the victory of Valdemar in Estonia and his return from that land, laden with riches; then, the Danes’ fights against pirates, and their freeing of Christian slaves. Sir James also tells about Queen Margaret, a sort of ante-litteram feminist, who defeated and humiliated her cousin Albert of Mecklenburg. He had advised her to sew, instead of competing with men for power; in response, the queen defeated him and “commanded him to be brought before her in feminine clothes, wearing a madman cap, with a tail long 19 arms […] because he had said that he would wear the crown only when Margaret would have been his prisoner »(ibid.:57).

The visit to Bornholm in search of a “Nordic Museum of antiquities”(ibid.:66) unfortunately shows just a ” dunghill of ancient peoples”(ibidem), a rather chaotic heap of weapons, tools, and ornaments in stone and bronze, says the Captain. Once ashore, the party observes the runes and Sir James provides explanations about menhirs, or dolmens, like the English stonefenge[7].It is again the Captain to tell the story of Egill, the pirate who resided on the island in King Canute’s times: this king was undoubtedly “the greatest king in the North”(ibid.:70), as he “conquered England”(ibidem).

On the way back along the Jutland, the Captain reports the story of Vejle, first seat of King Gorm the Elder, and later of Christian II; Sir James follows, to deepen the character of Gorm the Great. Eventually it is the governess, Miss Margaret, who describes a female figure: Queen Thyra, wife of Gorm the Great, who was committed to spreading Christianity. Then the Captain describes Ahrus, the most important city of Jutland, and tells the story of Gustav Väsa’s imprisonment on the island of Kallö. A new story told by the Captain deals again with a pirate, Palnatoke, enemy of King Harald Blatand, son of Queen Thyra.

In Cronborg fortress’s basements, built in 1585 to resist the Swedes, legend has that Ogier the Dane, knight of Charlemagne, lays still asleep; this fortification resisted 1659 siege by Charles X of Sweden and also this story is told by two voices, Sir James’s and the Captain’s.

Finally, young Rolfe is entrusted with the narration of a recent historical event: the 1801 battle between Horatio Nelson and the Danes, that the Admiral had defined as the bloodiest of all his 105 battles.

Whereas Denmark occupies a great deal of the historic narrative, history of Iceland is very essential. The trip to Þingvellir allows Sir James to illustrate the organization of the old Parliament, showing the stone seats, the Logberg, or rock of the law, where laws and judgments were released; and eventually the “blood stone”(ibid.:183), where convicted were executed. Sir James asks his small audience to try and visualize a session of the Almannagjá: “tall warriors”(ibidem) protected the priests and judges, while people could watch them from a high platform. In this place, on June 4th, 1000, the chieftain Snorri, returning from Europe, delivered his famous speech that converted Icelanders to Christianity, “a great change as regards habits and religion, that took place without strife and bloodshed on the island”(ibid.:184). Eventually, Sir James traces a brief history of the Althing, from its abolition during the Danish rule to its restoration in 1843, ending with Iceland’s autonomy in 1874.

Also the Swedish scientist Franz participates in the historical narrative: he starts describing the early Norwegian settlements in Greenland in 868, and their sailing from Iceland to Greenland, where they remained until 983. Afterwards, the journeys were mainly directed southwards to Europe, and only a small number of people remained in Iceland, subdued by Hakon of Norway in 1264, until the island was finally ceded to Denmark in 1830.

Eventually, Sir James explains the scarcity of monuments and community buildings in Reykjavík: for a long time the Icelanders had preferred to hold their Parliament in the open.

  1. Thread 3: science, nature, religion

Sailing unknown waters can only but stimulate curiosity among the passengers (and presumably, among the readers too) about the marine environment; the Captain, the only expert in this field, describes the sandy coast of Jutland, focusing on the phenomenon of moving dunes, extremely dangerous to sail since any storm changes their morphology.

Further on, between the Faroe Islands and Iceland, the passengers experience mirages, which the children had only read of as typical phenomena of desert areas. It is again the Captain who explains why navigation becomes more difficult near the Poles: the approach to the magnetic pole disturbs the compass needle and makes it less sensitive. In front of Reykjavík harbour he also provides a technical note about a dredger, “stealing the deepest secrets from the sea”(ibid.:163).

Icelandic geological nature is described by Dr. Franz, the Swedish expert just rescued on the steamer. Instead, the author herself tells of the most surprising natural events that await the party around Akureyri: the dangerous icebergs and the amazing midnight sun.

Eventually, it is again her voce to provide few features of northern economy: fish processing takes on a crucial importance both in the Faroe Islands and the city of Akureyri, while Bornholm is famous for its granite and agricultural products. Savi Lopez also highlights the spread of Catholicism, which contributed to decrease false beliefs and superstitions; conversely, albeit Lutheranism was the most widespread creed in the author’s times, she omits any hint to it.

  1. Thread 4: Italy

The presence of Silvia, Sir James’s young daughter, keeps the image of Italy alive with her frequent observations and comparisons all over the narrative; her observations provide the readers a reassuring sense of superiority. Since the beginning “the laughing villages and crowded hotels”(ibid.:9) of Piedmontese valleys, where “flowers are gathered in bundles”(ibid.:10) are contrasted with the “poor land of Iceland”(ibidem). Any image described by Silvia is invariably in favour of her distant homeland: Aosta Valley castles are more interesting than the Danish ones; Pompeii is richer in archaeological finds than Bornholm; Icelandic volcanoes are less fascinating than the Vesuvius; the beauty of the Gulf of Naples and the Apennines win over the desolation of the Icelandic landscape.

Besides, while she declares her equal love for both her parents’ countries, Italy and Great Britain, it is the first that prevails in her discourse: ” [Italy] acquired so much glory on the sea […] introduced us to the New World, and is now preparing to be respected and powerful more than ever”(ibid.:5): Silvia’s observations allude to the greatness of the Medieval Maritime Republics (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi in Italy, and Ragusa on the Croatian coast) that ruled the Mediterranean; to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, and eventually to the leading role of the new state, the so-called Third Italy[8] in the contemporary international arena.

Italian recent history is also alive in Silvia’s words: she grows furious at the mere mention of Horatio Nelson, who caused the death of Neapolitan Admiral Caracciolo; only Sir James’s assertion – that the “reliable Italian battleships”(ibid.:6) would be able to keep any foreign threat away from the peninsula – reassures her.

Last, but not least, Italian artistic primacy is reaffirmed by miss Margaret, who describes Thorvaldsen’s educational journey and his cultural debt to the peninsula.

  1. A thread apart: Greenland and the Inuit

Greenland stands apart from the steamer’s route; however, its folklore, history, nature, and culture are strictly interwoven into a one-night narrative thread that reports the scarce, stereotyped and not always accurate notions of the author’s times.

Greenland appears as a land of uncertain borders, where the pagan, ignorant and semi-nomadic people live, says the Captain. This gloomy environmental situation leads them to be extremely superstitious and to believe in mysterious presences; they spend a nomadic life in tents in summer, while in winter they stay in common residences “divided into as many parts as the families who live in the house”(ibid.:138); their clothes consist of “some rather tight trousers, and a jacket with a tight hood around the neck, with such small openings where one can only pass one’s hands and head through”(ibidem). Only their talent allows them to survive in that hostile nature: they invented ice fishing, and manage to assemble very protecting clothes and extremely robust boots.

A question of Miss Margaret’s allows Sir James to illustrate some historical details: contacts between Greenland and Iceland remained regular for several centuries, but around 1450 “no one cared about Greenland anymore”(ibid.:139). However, the few residents seemed to have no memory of that first colonization: in fact in 1585, when John Davis landed with his crews, the inhabitants considered them as supernatural beings, showing the same reaction as the South American Indians in front of the Spanish Conquistadores.

According to the Captain, Greenlanders maintain ‘primitive’ beliefs: despite their Christianization, superstitions remain alive, and magical powers are bestowed to the Ingersuits[9], both benign and evil spirits similar to human beings, that live in elegant residences. The Captain adds that local legends are preserved intact by a strict oral tradition: the narrator can “vary […] the expression given to words and gestures; but he is not even allowed to change a syllable, because everyone knows them and, as soon as they hear the slightest variant, they warn the narrator of his mistake”(ibid.:140). The Captain ends with the moving story of Iliarsorkik[10], “less boring than many others”(ibidem): the boy, a little orphan rejected by the village, has to show his courage facing and defeating a bear to be accepted in the community.

Overall, the Captain justifies the natives’ frame of mind: in fact “theirs is a country where earth, sky, and sea have such an aspect that almost force those who see them to imagine foreboding events”(ibid.:145). In addition, sometimes they hear “certain very loud cries, [that] one cannot know whether they come from the atmosphere or from the sea”(ibidem), considered “bad omens”(ibidem); from the mountains “a deafening noise, as if struck by a lightning […]”(ibidem) echoes, while “blocks of ice scattered over the endless plains sometimes have the appearance of monstrous animals, of gigantic people”(ibidem); moreover, sometimes bears land on icebergs and attack the poor Greenlanders. Finally, in addition to real dangers, the natives imagine the existence of Kajarjaks[11], a kind of gigantic spirits causing violent storms. While this narration arouses amazement and fear in the two girls, it seems to stimulate young Rolfe’s (and possibly some readers’) sense of adventure – leading him to imagine wild adventures in the Arctic area.

  1. Conclusions

Such a fluid narrative situation creates a “suspension of disbelief”, as S.T.Coleridge defined it  in his  Biographia  Literaria, that encourages the readers to identify with the travellers of a weird journey, feel a wealth of new emotions and learn a huge amount of information about Iceland, a neglected area of the world.

Conversely, the rigidly defined structure guides and supports their imagination, both during their explorations and in the reassuring setting of the steamer, ending their adventure back home. Consequently, the readers achieve a complete and exhaustive, albeit not always accurate, image of Iceland.

The characters mirror the readers: young people give voice to curiosity, enthusiasm, in some cases even fear and hesitation in front of the unknown; adults represent reliability, culture and experience, while the only female figure, fragile “by nature”, does not hide her apprehensions and reveals her own sensitivity. Eventually, the author arranges a complex intersection of characters and themes, offering her readers a unique opportunity to get acquainted with Iceland while remaining comfortably seated in their armchairs.


N.B. All translations into English are by the author.



AGNARSDÓTTIR, Anna, “In Search of “A Distinct and Peculiar Race of People”: the Mackenzie Expedition to Iceland, 1810”, in 1700-tal Nordic Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 10:11; DOI:10.7557/4.2619

COLERIDGE, Samuel  Taylor (1817). Biographia  Literaria, https://web.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/biographia.html

CUTINELLI, Francesco (1890). “Maria Savi Lopez e l’ultimo suo libro”, in Rassegna pugliese di scienze, lettere e arti”, Volume VII, n.18-19, pp.285-286.

FREDIANI, Federica (2007). Uscire. Reggio Emilia: Diabasis.

FREDIANI, Federica; RICORDA, Ricciarda; ROSSI, Luisa (2012) Spazi segni, parole. Milano:Franco Angeli.

LAWSON LUCAS, Ann (2017) Emilio Salgari. Una mitologia moderna tra letteratura, politica, società. Vol. 1: Fine secolo. 1883-1915. Le verità di una vita letteraria. Firenze: Olschki.

LEED, Eric J. (1992). La mente del viaggiatore. Bologna: il Mulino.

LEOPARDI, Giacomo (2003) “Dialogo della Natura e di in islandese”, in Armellini, G.- Colombo, A. (edit), La letteratura italiana, vol.B, p.624. Bologna: Zanichelli.

LEVI, Giovanni (2009). “I tempi della storia” in Historical Review / La Revue Historique, Institut de Recherches Néohelléniques, vol. VI pp.41–52.

MASOERO, Marisa (1985). Introduzione In: Maria Savi Lopez. Leggende delle Alpi. Ivrea: Pheljna, p. XI.

MASOERO, Marisa (1993). “Maria Savi Lopez. Un racconto, alcuni versi e saggi” In: Marco Cerruti (a cura di), Il «genio muliebre». Percorsi di donne intellettuali fra Settecento e Novecento in Piemonte. Antologia. p. 91-135. Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso.

MONGA, Luigi (1996). “Travel And Travel Writing”, in Annali d’Italianistica L’Odeporica/Hodoeporics: On Travel Literature, Volume 14. pp. 6-54.

PERUGI, Rosella (2019). Altrove. Viaggiatrici italiane nell’Europa del nord. Doctoral thesis, UTU: Turku.

PFEIFFER, Ida (1853) Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North. London: Ingram, Coke &Co..

ROSSI, Luisa (2005) L’altra mappa, Diabasis, 2005; R.Perugi, Altrove, Doctoral Thesis, Turku University, 2019.

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (1893). Nei paesi del Nord: Danimarca ed Islanda. Torino: G. B. Paravia. (this  article  refers  to  1920  edition)

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (2002). Nani e Folletti. Palermo: Sellerio.

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (2008). Leggende del mare . Palermo: Sellerio.

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (2014). Leggende delle Alpi Ivrea: Il Punto-Piemonte.

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (2016). La donna italiana del XIV secol., Liber-liber: e-book

SAVI LOPEZ, Maria (2018) Tramonto regale. Liber-liber: e-book

STEUART MACKENZIE, Sir George (1811) Travels in the Island of Iceland: During the Summer of the Year MDCCCX. London: Thomas Allan ed., https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=4xwCAAAAYAAJ&pg=GBS.PA72&hl=it

VON TROIL, Uno (1780). Letters on Iceland: containing observations on the civil, literary, … history; antiquities, … customs, … &c. &c. made, during a voyage undertaken in the year 1772, by Joseph Banks, … Written by Uno von Troil, … To which are added, the letters of Dr. Ihre and Dr. Bach to the author, … Also Professor Bergman’s curious observations ….London: Robson,  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Troil%2C%20Uno%20von%2C%201746-1803



[1] Among others: L.Rossi, L’altra mappa, Diabasis, 2005; F.Frediani, Uscire, Diabasis, 2007; F. Frediani, R. Ricorda, L. Rossi, Spazi segni, parole, Franco Angeli 2012; R.Perugi, Altrove, Doctoral Thesis, Turku University, 2019.

[2] Ida Pfeiffer writes that she had to wait several weeks in Denmark, before she could find a cargo ship for Iceland (Pfeiffer 1856:20).

[3] U. von Troil, 1780: Letters on Iceland […] the definition is given in letter XXI, p.247-“hver”.

[4] Another Italian traveller, Giulia Kapp Salvini, took part in this cruise and left a travelogue: Le capitali del Nord (Hoepli, Milan 1907).

[5] An example can clarify this statement: before leaving, both Amy and Rolfe are worried to leave their father alone, but express their apprehension in very different ways: while the boy, staring into his father’s eyes, offers directly to give up the trip, Amy instead looks for a physical contact sitting at the bottom of her father’s chair, in a subordinate position, and silently expressing the same purpose by stroking his hand.

[6] The sentence –“our travellers”- and the possessive “our” will be repeated several times (pp. 13, 31, 42, 180, 181 …), to consolidate the relationship between readers and protagonists.

[7] The Author compares the site of Stonehenge, well known to her English travellers, to explain the value of these Danish remains; the letter f instead of h may be a misprint.

[8] It was Giosuè Carducci, one of the outstanding poets of the time and Nobel Prize in 1906, to appoint as “Third” the recently unified Italy, resulting from the struggles of Risorgimento, to mean it as a leading power, heir to the greatness of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

[9] The author uses the English spelling to report the names of these, as well as the following, spirits.

[10] See above, n.9.

[11] See above, n.9.

Huw Lewis-Jones, Imagining the Arctic: Heroism, Spectacle and Polar Exploration (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017)

Tales of exploration are necessarily shrouded in doubt. Whilst exploration trades in discovery, its truth claims are often ambiguous and reliant on a handful of first-hand accounts. Even when achievement seems clear-cut, its value is often questioned, even before we get to the complex entanglements of exploration and colonialism. Huw Lewis-Jones has written a book about how Arctic exploration was made to seem heroic in nineteenth-century Britain, by returning explorers and their biographers, as well as wider cultural apparatuses of spectacle, display, and performance. He outlines the ways in which heroism was constructed and why Arctic exploration proved so valuable for doing so, particularly in relation to the discussion and promotion of the Navy.

As a cultural history of Arctic exploration and travel, Lewis-Jones’s text sits alongside the work of Robert David, Jen Hill, Hester Blum, Adriana Craciun, and Shane McCorristine, among others, as well as Beau Riffenburgh’s work on exploration and its reception. The book is divided into six chapters, each showing, as Lewis-Jones puts it, “a common theme: to recapture the ways that explorers were imagined and why” (5). These are roughly chronological through the nineteenth century but show the range of the discussions which evoked or constructed heroism. The book is also well illustrated, with almost 100 black and white images. These are mostly contemporary press images, but significantly add to the theme, even if Lewis-Jones could at times refer to them more directly.

The introduction and first chapter set out the ways in which Arctic exploration served a particular type of naval heroism, one which drew heavily on the “romantic and imaginative potential” (24) of travel in the region. In the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, Arctic exploration provided a potent source of heroic peacetime behaviour, as well as a justification for continued material support for the Navy. Moreover, Arctic travel was utilised in the construction of particular kinds of heroism, creating a lineage back to a heroic past of chivalric values whilst simultaneously representing an “energetic, self-confident and patriotic” (34) Britain.

Admiral Lord Nelson was a central figure in nineteenth-century naval heroism and Lewis-Jones’s second chapter considers how he was connected to the Arctic through a famous, and possibly apocryphal, encounter with a polar bear on a voyage to Svalbard as a young sailor. Lewis-Jones’s focus here is the importance of myth to heroism and the recirculation of “Nelson’s bear” as a key moment in Nelson’s life in later biographies. The significance of this as an Arctic encounter also meant that future Arctic exploration could be justified, with more young men given the opportunity to encounter their own bear, metaphorical or otherwise.

The third chapter continues to explore the construction of heroism, focusing on the reception of expeditions and perceptions of success. Here Lewis-Jones considers the aftermath of John Ross’s Victory expedition, which returned to Britain in 1833 after four years away, and the relationship between celebrity and hero, in their permanence and visibility. Ross’s involvement with public spectacles such as panoramas granted him celebrity status, but his poor relationship with key figures in the Admiralty such as John Barrow left him “in the borderland between fame and disgrace” (189), an inspiration to some but not fit to be lauded as a hero.

The subject of the fourth chapter is John P. Cheyne, whose plan to travel to the North Pole by hot air balloon left him similarly isolated from official Arctic exploration. Lewis-Jones emphasises that Cheyne’s failure to realise his scheme was as much due to his inability to convince important figures of its value as its impracticality. Lewis-Jones stresses that public opinion towards Arctic exploration was neither consistently positive nor interested, with each expedition having to convince significant figures of their worth, particularly if they wished to be funded directly by the Admiralty. Despite Cheyne’s prominence as a public lecturer, his expedition remained unrealised. As Lewis-Jones notes, failure can be as interesting as success when considering cultures of exploration.

This is made clearer in the fifth chapter, where Lewis-Jones considers the legacy of John Franklin and its use at the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891. At a time when the British Navy felt increasingly threatened by other European powers, Arctic exploration was “relaunched in the service of peacetime naval propaganda” (249). Franklin and Nelson were key figures in the Exhibition and were called upon to serve as symbols of Britain’s enduring naval and imperial power. This use of heroes continues to the present day, as Lewis-Jones shows in his final chapter, with particular focus on Stephen Harper’s use of the discovery of the Franklin Expedition’s ships to underpin Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic. This is combined with Lewis-Jones’s personal reflections on exploration and its persistently contingent nature in the present.

Lewis-Jones’s use of a wide range of archival material to consider the malleable and contested formations of heroism linked to Arctic exploration is impressive and allows a nuanced and detailed picture to emerge. However, it would have been valuable to think beyond the limitations of the idea of Arctic “blank space” and consider how this itself was constructed as part of imperial discourse. An overly narrow focus on exploration rather suggests that this “Arctic blank” is real and the absence of any discussion of Arctic Indigenous peoples or sense of the Arctic as a “contact zone” is limiting. A discussion of the strangeness of Arctic exploration, as McCorristine includes in his work on Arctic dreams and hauntings, would have contributed to a richer examination of the contingency of heroism. Lewis-Jones acknowledges the absence of comparison to other national cultures of Arctic heroism, a reasonable and necessary limitation, but the recent work of Max Jones on Fridtjof Nansen as a transnational hero is interesting for thinking beyond just national or comparative frames. Some discussion of the place of gender in heroism beyond naval masculinities would also have been welcome.

Overall, this is a valuable and interesting perspective on the construction of the Arctic as a region in the nineteenth-century British imagination, as well as having wider significance and interest for considering the importance of reception and performance when thinking about travel texts.

Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

For the best part of the twentieth century, descriptions of the Black Death, 1346-1353, were a recurrent theme in almost all serious works on the general history of Europe and most European countries.

Continue reading Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Care, socialization and play in Ancient Attica: a developmental childhood archeological approach, by Maria Sommer and Dion Sommer, is an archeological study based on a collection of material relating to childhood in ancient Attica, dating back to 480-300 B.C. It reconstructs in front of our eyes a deeply human world of care and play in ancient Attica and empirically depicts how the growing field of childhood archeology with its historical contextualization can contribute important knowledge to developmental psychology.

Continue reading Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

The challenge is tackled in two volumes; “historiemetvetanda – historiebruk” [history usage] rewieved here;  and “historisk kunskap” [historical knowledge], in a separate volume, not covered here.

The authors constitute a group who have a background in history teaching and research in history teaching. They cover all three levels of schooling, from compulsory school through upper-secondary and university level.

Continue reading Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

Teaching History in a multicultural society

Trends and tendencies in Nordic schools


Perhaps the most succinct explanation of the crucial role that history plays in the life of us humans is the Ingsoc slogan from George Orwell’s novel 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

We cannot, of course, control the past in itself – at least not as long as we presume that ‘the past’ has some kind of objective existence. What can be controlled, however, is how we construct and reconstruct our interpretations of the past. Which, when all is said and done, is what history is about.

The core content of Orwell’s wordings is reflected in the concept ‘Historical Consciousness’, which for the last 30 years or so has played a central part in the Scandinavian debate on history teaching and learning. Within that debate, the multi-faceted definition proposed by Karl-Ernst Jeismann in his article ‘Geschichtsbewußtsein’ (1979) has served as an obvious point of reference.


Jeismann’s definition starts with a quote from Theodor Schieder, which in itself is a definition of the concept ‘historical consciousness’ as an ever-present insight that every human being, and every form of social life, is embedded in time, i.e. has a past and a future that is neither stable nor unchanging or without conditions. He then goes on by stating what can be seen as one of the fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental, element of the concept:


More than being just knowing or taking an interest in history, historical consciousness comprises the relations between interpretations of the past, understanding of the present, and perspectives on the future (ibid. p. 42).


Linking together the past, the present and the future opens up for a corollary, namely, that history is not a mirror image of the past, but our (present) reconstruction of it. Historical consciousness, writes Jeismann, is thus a mode through which the past, as imagination and experience, is made part of our own time. This also means that the past as reconstruction is dependent on and formed by our present questions, needs, and interests. Jeismann here quotes the French philosopher Raymond Aron:


History is the reconstruction of the lives of the dead, by and for the living. The interests of times present are what make man – thinking, suffering, acting man – explore the past (Aron 1961 p.17).


If history is a reconstruction of the past that springs from the needs and interests of our time and our place – our lifeworld – it also follows that the form, the content, and the reflective depth of our historical consciousness will differ from person to person, from group to group. Historical consciousness can have the character of a cliché or watchword, or it can be reflected, thought-out, and open to new encounters and experiences. Implied is (a) that everyone has and makes use of (some kind of) historical consciousness, and (b) that one’s historical consciousness, situated in a social context, is constantly changing, added to, and passed on to others.



Jeismann finally stresses the importance of historical consciousness as shared, collective experiences – or as shared and collective stories of experiences. When elements that unite dominate over elements that divide, it will contribute to defining as a group those who share the stories. Historical consciousness as collective experiences can therefore be seen as ‘a necessary element for the creation and the upholding of human societies’ (Jeismann 1979 p. 43).


This aspect, which highlights the connection between, on the one hand, historical consciousness as an individual, personal relation to past, present, and future, and on the other hand as a collective relation, is what gives history its political and ideological charge and also explains why history has had its given place in the curriculum of the compulsory school, from the 19th century onwards. The education policy of the nation-state is one where the narrative of the ‘imagined community’ is honed, polished, and above all transferred to generation after generation of school children as part of ‘the skills and sensibilities which make them acceptable to their fellows, which fit them to assume places in society, and which “make them what they are”’ (Gellner 1983 p. 37). Through its monopoly of legitimate education the nation-state, controlling the present, has strived to control the past in order to control the future.


Intense battles over school history textbook content have recently been fought in Greece and Japan (Repoussi 2011; Ogawa & Field 2006). As late as 2013 the UK Department for Education published a proposal for a new history curriculum, aiming at ensuring that all pupils would know and understand ‘how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world’ (Department for Education 2013a p. 3). After heavy criticism from teachers’ associations and academic bodies the curriculum was rewritten and now aims at ensuring a knowledge and understanding of ‘how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’ (Department for Education 2013b). Remaining from the first proposal, however, is the idea that British history can be told as ‘a coherent, chronological narrative’ (ibid.), which, apparently, is supposed to be shared by all as ‘our history’.


The dream, so dear to education policy makers, that school history ought to assimilate young people into a unifying master narrative has, however, become more and more imaginary. As pointed out by Andreas Körber (2011), history is, inevitably, affected by contingency:


…due to their multi-dimensional plurality, humans exhibit different needs for temporal orientation. Because of the different times, societies, social groups, cultures etc. they live in, they will quite naturally be using different concepts, operations, patterns of explanation and of narrating which in turn will result in different narratives […] And as for people living and acting within the plurality of today’s societies, it becomes vitally important to (be able to) handle this contingency of narrative orientations (ibid. p. 157).


Teaching history as an assimilation project, built on a single, unifying master narrative, is no longer possible, nor is it desirable. A multi-culturalist approach – to each his or her own history, not to be questioned or criticised – may at first seem to be an attractive alternative but runs the risk of developing into what Thomas Hylland Eriksen somewhat drastically has labelled ‘apartheid with a friendly face’ (Eriksen 2005), or at least into societal fragmentation rather than cohesion. Does this also mean that we must renounce Jeismann’s idea that some kind of collective historical experience is necessary for upholding a sustainable society?


One viable alternative might be to promote a common understanding, not of what history says but what it does. Or, in other words, a collective experience of history as form rather than as content. Or, yet again, to promote a cognitive awareness of one’s own as well as other’s historical consciousness, understood both as a state (something that we have) and as a process (something we use in everyday life).


In order to achieve this, the scholars involved in the research project FUER Geschichtsbewußtsein, launched in the year 2000, have suggested that four core competencies or fields of competence are crucial for the development of a reflexive historical consciousness, namely the competencies of inquiry, methods, orientation, and subject matter (Schreiber et al. 2006; Körber 2011). The first three can be seen as related to the procedural dimension of historical thinking, the fourth to the substantive dimension of historical ‘facts’.


Starting out from the understanding that historical consciousness as a process starts with an uncertainty, a need for orientation, and a question, the first dimension of competency is the Inquiry Competence (‘Fragekompetenz’). This is described as ‘the capability to transform [a] perceived uncertainty into some processable form of historical question in order either to reconstruct a historic narrative or to analyze given historical narratives of other people for their historical questions, and to understand them’ (Körber 2011 p. 149).


The second procedural dimension, Methods Competence (‘Methodenkompetenz’) comprises the subject-specific, i.e. historical, methods used for gaining and processing knowledge:

to categorise, to put bits and pieces in their chronological order, to integrate information into a narrative structure but also to identify and de-code the structure of existing narratives. Central to this field of competence is the capability to both re-construct and de-construct historical narratives.



The third and last of the procedural dimensions, Orientation Competence (‘Orientierungskompetenz’) contains the skills and abilities needed for using the knowledge gained from the re- and de-construction of historical narratives. Here four core competencies are discernible, and they all relate to the aim of the FUER project: developing a reflexive, and also a self-reflexive, historical consciousness. They are also of utmost relevance when considering the role of history and historical narratives in a pluralist society:


the ability to revise one’s own concept of history as a field of knowledge, including concepts and categories used in historical thinking;

the ability to revise one’s concepts of the past and the present world, i.e. one’s picture of other people and/or other times;

the ability to revise one’s own relation to the past and the present, i.e. to revise one’s own identity, including one’s relation to the actions (commendable or deplorable) of one’s ancestors or members of one’s own group/culture/nation;

the ability to revise one’s own ideas of what can be done in the present and hoped for in the future (Körber 2011 p. 150).


The three procedural dimensions are all linked to a fourth, somewhat improperly named Subject Matter Competence (‘Sachkompetenz’). Contrary to what may first come to one’s mind this dimension has nothing to do with the memorising of names, dates, or particular events. The FUER project nevertheless used the label:


…on the grounds that the ‘subject matter’ of historical teaching and learning is not the past, but rather ‘thinking about the past’. Therefore, in our model, this ‘subject matter competence’ stands for the command over/ability to use and apply rather abstract first and second order concepts, categories, knowledge of procedures and methods etc (Körber 2011 p. 151).


Waltraud Schreiber and Sylvia Mebus have sketched a graphic representation of how the four fields of competence are present in the process of historical thinking:


Figure 1: Historical thinking competencies

idin article kgha

after Schreiber & Mebus 2006 p. 13.

Being in possession of these competencies means being able to scrutinise and challenge established ‘master narratives’ handed down by authoritative (or authoritarian) institutions, among them the school. It also means being able to scrutinise and challenge narratives prevalent in one’s family or peer group, and, ultimately, to scrutinise and revise one’s own ontological narrative. Being in possession of these competencies therefore means being able to exercise a certain amount of control over how history is presently written.


That history can, and should be viewed as a process rather than a well-defined body of knowledge, and that this process is present not only as a cognitive activity in the classroom or the scholar’s study but also in our everyday life, is an approach that is reflected in the history curriculum in all Nordic countries, most markedly in Denmark and Sweden where the concept ‘historical consciousness’ was introduced in the 1990’s. In the Danish curriculum, history’s crucial role in human life is described thus:


People make decisions out of their experience and knowledge of the past, their ideas about the present, and their expectations for the future. That is to say that a time frame – history – is a prerequisite for being able to understand oneself and the world as an entirety, as well as to reflect on possible actions.

History is furthermore used to establish and strengthen the consistency of real and imagined communities.

History is thus an integrated aspect of our lives. It is a basic condition of human existence that we are shaped by, as well as co-creators of, history (Undervisningsministeriet 2014 p. 3).


The resemblance with the Swedish curriculum is obvious:


Man’s understanding of the past is interwoven with beliefs about the present and perspectives of the future. In this way, the past affects both our lives today and our choices for the future. Women and men throughout the ages have created historical narratives to interpret reality and shape their surroundings. A historical perspective provides us with a set of tools to understand and shape the present we live in.


Teaching should contribute to pupils developing their understanding of how historical narratives are used in society and in everyday life. By this means, pupils should develop different perspectives of their own identities, values and beliefs, and those of others (Skolverket 2011 p. 163).


To what extent have the curriculum aims been achieved? Has school history abandoned the long-standing tradition of transferring a canonical master narrative of the nation’s past? Thanks to recent studies from Denmark and Sweden, presented at the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians in 2014, we have at least a provisional answer: history education is undoubtedly heading towards its aims – but progress is slow and there is still a long way to go.


Nanna Bøndergaard Butters (2014) has performed a study built on observations of history lessons in three classes (4th, 8th and 9th grade) in an urban Danish folkeskole (compulsory school) with 60 % plurilingual students (42 different languages were represented among the students), followed up by teacher interviews. A central part of the study was to investigate whether teachers planned for discussions around concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. All teachers declared that they had not introduced these concepts. One teacher mentioned lack of time and the demand to reach the curriculum’s learning outcomes. Another confessed that she never had thought about these concepts as related to the history subject. A third ‘solved’ the challenge of pluralism by simply denying it:


If their histories are given room in the course, you mean? But they too are part of this history… Actually, I’ve stopped thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For me, it’s important that no one is left behind, I am aware that they come from different places and different cultures, but a Danish home can be just as different as the home of a bilingual. I simply do not see veils, or ‘here’s a Somalian girl’ (ibid.).


More common was an approach where society’s heterogeneity and plurality were acknowledged in principle, but where a traditionally taught history of Denmark kept its role as a unifying narrative.


Butters’ results have been confirmed by Claus Haas’ findings from a nation-wide survey among History teachers in the Danish folkeskole, followed up by qualitative interviews with 20 teachers (Haas 2014a, b). Again, the interviewees at the same time acknowledged diversity and saw Danish culture and history as the obvious unifying factor:


In my opinion, education should prepare them for the multicultural society which they are about to enter as citizens. But I still believe that… what I like about the curriculum’s canon after all… is that somewhere… a tiny bit of common thread through something… that we all can feel that right here in our multi-cultural, heterogeneous society, there still is something that bind us together somehow. I think that is a very good idea (Haas 2014a.).


Borrowing a concept from Gregory Ashworth, Haas characterises the typical Danish approach towards pluralism as ‘Core +’. In Ashworth’s definition, this concept slightly resembles the classic ‘melting pot’ metaphor, but with the difference that a substantial core of history and heritage is preserved. To this core can be added ‘such other social groups as are seen to be unthreatening to the existence of the core and even contributing a useful addition

to its variety’ (Ashworth 2007, p.20). However, Haas stresses that this approach is not the outcome of a deliberate choice – when present in the interview answers, it is conceptually vague and marked by a lack of critical reflection.


A certain vagueness and lack of rigour is also present in the preliminary results from a Swedish survey carried out as part of a research project on interculturalism and history education conducted by the historians and educationalists Per Eliasson, Maria Johansson, and Kenneth Nordgren (Eliasson 2014). The survey results indicate that history teachers are interested and eager to promote ‘orientation competence’ of the kind proposed by the German FUER project. They clearly see the relevance of and the possibilities inherent in their subject, but it is uncertain whether they actually contribute with narratives challenging or adding to the textbooks’ ‘master narratives’. It is also uncertain whether they, tied up in the straight-jacket of a detailed curriculum, can find the time for classroom work focussing on multi-perspectivity and different interpretations and explanations in history.


According to a deceivingly simple but extremely fruitful explanatory model, outlined by the Swedish political scientist Lennart Lundquist (1992), Successful implementation of a reform or programme requires that those who are supposed to carry it out on the shop floor

have the understanding, the ability, and the will to implement the programme.


When it comes to the implementation of history education that is meaningful and sustainable in a society marked by a multi-dimensional plurality, we can therefore ask whether Lundquist’s three requisites are met. Interview answers suggest that they lack the ability due to a shortage of appropriate learning material and best-practice examples and also of time needed – curricula do not stress procedural knowledge only, there is a huge portion of factual knowledge that must be given time if the learning outcomes are to be fulfilled. They also lack a profound understanding, firmly grounded in theory and established practice. There is, consequently, much to be done in teacher education institutions as well as in the field of continuous professional development, e.g. developing and defining conceptual frameworks for inter-cultural teaching and learning (both generic and subject-specific) as well as integrating inter-cultural perspectives on teaching and learning in subject-related courses in teacher education programmes.


The good thing is that the perhaps most important factor, a willingness to teach for a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, is present.





Aron, Raymond (1961): Dimensions de la conscience historique, Paris: Plon.


Ashworth, Gregory J. (2007), ‘Plural pasts for plural publics in plural places: taxonomy of heritage policies for plural societies’, in: Groote, P., Ashworth, G & Haartsen, T (eds.), Public Places, Public Pasts, Groningen: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, pp. 13-26.


von Borries, Bodo (2008): Historisch Denken Lernen – Welterschließung statt Epochenüberblick. Geschichte als Unterrichtsfach und Bildungsaufgabe, Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich.


Butters, Nanna Bøndergaard (2014): ‘Når elever gør kultur og bruger historie’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Department for Education (UK) (2013a): History: Programmes of study for Key Stages 1-3. February 2013. London.


Department for Education (UK) (2013b): History: Programmes of study. September 2013. Internet: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study


Eliasson, Per (2014): ‘Förutsättningar för en interkulturell historieundervisning’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2005): ‘From obsessive egalitarianism to pluralist universalism? Options for twenty-first century education’. Keynote speech, NERA conference, Oslo 10 March 2005. Internet: http://hyllanderiksen.net/Obsessive.html


Gellner, Ernest (1983): Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell.


Haas, Claus (2014a): ‘(Fler)Kulturelle paradokser i historieundervisningen – om en national kerne + kulturs hegemoni’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Haas, Claus (2014b): Staten, eliten og ‘os’: erindrings- og identitetspolitik mellem assimilation og livet i salatskålen. Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.


Jeismann, Karl-Ernst (1979): ‘Geschichtsbewußtsein’, in Bergmann, Klaus et al. (eds.), Handbuch der Geschichtsdidaktik, Vol. 1, Düsseldorf: Schwann, pp. 42-45.


Körber, Andreas (2011): ‘German History Didactics: From Historical Consciousness to Historical Competencies – and beyond?’, in Bjerg, Helle, Lenz, Claudia & Thorstensen, Erik (eds.), Historicizing the uses of the past: Scandinavian perspectives on history culture, historical consciousness and didactics of history related to World War II, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 145-164.


Lundquist, Lennart (1992): Förvaltning, stat och samhälle. Lund: Studentlitteratur.


Ogawa, Masato & Field, Sherry L. (2006): ‘Causation, controversy and condition: recent developments in the Japanese history textbook content and selection process’, in Nicholls, J. (ed.), School history textbooks across the cultures: international perspectives and debates, Oxford: Symposium Books, pp. 43-60.


Repoussi Maria (2011): ‘History Education in Greece’, in Erdmann, E & Hasberg, W (eds.), Facing, Mapping, Bridging Diversity. Foundation of a European Discourse on History Education, Schwalbach am Taunus: Wochenschau, pp. 329-370.


Schreiber, Waltraud et al. (2006): Historisches Denken. Ein Kompetenz-Strukturmodell, Neuried: ars una.


Schreiber, Waltraud & Mebus, Sylvia (eds.) 2006: Durchblicken. Dekonstruktion von Schulbüchern, Neuried: ars una.


Skolverket 2011: Curriculum for the compulsory school system,

the ­pre-school class and the leisure-time centre (Lgr11), Stockholm. Internet: http://www.skolverket.se/publikationer?id=2687


Undervisningsministeriet 2014: Læseplan for faget historie, København. Internet: www.emu.dk/sites/default/files/L%C3%A6seplan%20for%20faget%20historie.pdf

C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)


More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, asks this relevant question regarding the old Nordic belief systems and religions in a publication comprising together a vast array of scholars of Pre-Christian Scandinavian cultures and a handful of views on the Sámi-Finnish tradition. The 286-page book opens new horizons in the understanding of the past and the present of the Northern part of Europe.


Central to the diverse papers are the overarching themes of narrative studies, the role of rituals and the discussion of regional difference and distribution, and perhaps secondly also religion as a communal practice. Price opens the book with an in-depth and conclusive view on “Mythic Acts”, stressing the need of assessing burials, rituals and other practices as series of “performances” sometimes spanning over decades in the same geographical place, such as the gravesites in the Oslo Fjord. He refers to such a process as the “theatre of death” where these “performances” have taken place. Furthermore, in his splendid essay, he makes the case for the need to combine archaeological data with ethnographical, anthropological and other textual sources. He makes a strong case for diversification of views regarding the pre-Christian Nordic context, given the reported 500,000 different grave- and other dug sites, stressing the need to avoid any “unified view”. Price also proceeds to provide the reader with an eyewitness’ account of a “Viking” funeral along the Volga River in Russia, through the text of Arab geographer and historian Ibn Fadlan – such a description remains a pivotal text on the topic, despite the possibilities of misinterpretation and culture-specific lenses that Fadlan’s testimony gives rise to. Again, the notion of performatory function of the rituals comes to the fore.


Jackson investigates the merits and limits of comparative philology. He positions the crucial difference of nomadic and settled communities of the “pre”-Indo-European peoples of the Steppes as a topic worth paying attention to in the linguistic context. One can almost see the vast expanse of the pre-historic Indo-European society from India to the West Fjords in Iceland, spanning continents, nations, cultures, over time and space. Jackson investigates the rituals of the past using key linguistic possibilities, employing such concepts as the “blót” qua shared cultural heritage. Dumezils’ notion of an “Indo-European” ideology is mentioned, but Jackson stresses that the “present now” of any belief system makes the unique characteristics of such systems.


DuBois makes an excursion into the diets and deities of the Scandinavians and the Sámi. This is a good overview of the differences between the settler-farmers of Scandinavia and the hunter-gatherers belonging to various Sámi Nations. He positions different animals as a source of cultural-religious similarity and difference between the two cultures – as a result the Nordic communities hold in reverence mostly domesticated animals, as opposed to the Sámi, who have preserved other worldviews centred on “wild” animals, even though the reindeer, as a semi-domesticated herd animal falls between these categories. Within the Scandinavian life-world, the role of sheep and goat is very interesting. Differences come to the surface with regard to fish and their cultural interpretations in the communities. Interestingly, some animals, such as horses, have a meaning for both peoples, but they are of a very different kind – to the Sámi the horse possesses a demonic association. DuBois discusses the notion of a “mythic lag” on community change – how some attachments from “prior” systems [hunter-gatherer] manifest “still” or persistently in the “more advanced” life stage of a people.


As he is the only author who, to a certain extent, discusses Sámi worldviews and compares them to the Scandinavians, his text requires some reflection. The article has merits. At the same time, it has serious flaws too, for the viewpoint is fixed upon the Finno-Ugric side. According to DuBois, “both Scandinavians and the Sámi differentiated themselves from each other through the religious imagery related directly to the species they chose to consume”. It is true that the Sámi stress their connection with fish and reindeer as opposed to domesticated animals, but there is a set of reasons for this. DuBois avoids stressing the Scandinavian and, since the 1800s, the Finnish colonisation of the Sámi across the region; meaning the hunter-gatherer-herder systems as opposed to invading and expanding farming settlers. It is reasonably safe to assume that already the early historical meetings [while trade was certainly also a part of them] between the farmers and the Sámi in various parts of the region led to land use conflicts, as the subsistence rounds of the hunters required large, stable old-growth territories, as opposed to the needs of the farmers to clear forests for farms. As several Sámi scholars and leaders, such as Elina Helander, Jelena Porsanger, Pauliina Feodoroff and others have done, the emphasis in the cultural discourses on reindeer and fish, and other “wild” foods and animals, are also mechanisms of resistance against invasion.


DuBois utilizes some photographs from Eastern Sápmi (or Finnmark) in Norway in his article. They should be seen in a critical light. Especially the famous “Grease Stone” of Mortensnes (p.81) receives special attention. Having worked in the villages and areas around the stone since 1996, I have another opinion. My Sámi friends indicate strongly that the stone is, in fact, a Scandinavian imposition on their landscapes – while other stones and other sites of Mortensnes are indeed of the Sámi world. DuBois utilizes little-known and well-established sources from the Sámi side, but the big change and sites of resistance are not expressed clearly enough.


Raudvere establishes religion as a mechanism to interpret local reality. Cosmic histories and transcendental realities of past community life are a text for the scholars but a lived reality for the people themselves. She utilizes Völuspá to explore ritual and meaning. Readers could have benefitted from a more thorough discussion on the various versions of Völuspá.


 Nordberg presents a significant methodological paper on the study of Old Norse religion. Importantly, he stresses the need of geographical diversity and difference.A Map could have helped this article. Secondly, Nordberg importantly distinguishes between farms and coastal fishing villages, and stresses the shifts within religions in times of change. Some old colonial ghosts loom within the text with the references to “advanced religions” [of farming societies] – such terms having been deconstructed a long time ago to their proper place by postcolonial research.


Stark and Anttonen offer us the only views of the Finnish-Karelian tradition. They dwell little on the difference between the Scandinavian and the Sámi tradition; however Stark reminds us that “some elements of the Finnish folk practice…clearly have Finno-Ugric roots…[deriving from] Eurasian shamanism.” According to her, these constitute a “loosely structured ethno-theory for illness aetiology.” This is in line with the claims by Clive Tolley, who has not found evidence of shamanism in the Old Norse religion. Stark employs a strong feministic view on the recorded texts and identifies the year 1860 as a big change for the Nordic traditions and the complex cultural layers of religious imagery. Anttonen, by quoting at length the earliest Nordic folk tradition text by Agricola, investigates the influences and context of Finnish and Karelian deities in early times. He argues that no single coherent pagan system existed here and makes the case for the slow speed of religious change. Both texts are an important and distinct introduction to the Finnish tradition and its difference compared to the Sámi and Scandinavian ones. Stark’s conclusions could benefit a Finnish popular audience too.


Sundqvist investigates the sacral kinship and proposes a “religious ruler ideology” instead as a defining term. It would consist of relationships with the mythic world, its rituals, symbols and cultic organisation. He convincingly argues that there is a need of an all-inclusive rethink – and using empirical materials makes a strong case between the Swedish-Norwegian situation and the strongly independent Icelandic Commonwealth, leading to the conclusion that there was no uniform religious ruler ideology in the Nordic space.


Schjödt brings the far-reaching volume to its close by offering new aims and methodological discussions. Shortly stated, contemporary sources such as archaeology and the medieval sources, such as cultural texts of the time, need to go to together to widen the scope of studies on the Old Norse religion. Sagas and Eddas are to be viewed as a blend of skills of the author, oral traditions and influences of the time-space in which they were composed. Models, discourse analysis and comparative views will open the doors to new understandings. The hunt for the “original text” remains an enigma, even though, according to Schjödt, an Indo-European kernel of stories and myths existed – but, despite this and Dumezil, the “old” religion was not a coherent worldview, rather a “discursive space of diversity”.


Technically, this surprisingly good book could have benefitted from maps. Contemporary views of Norse religion, the role of Sigur Rós in Iceland and other followers would have enlightened the views expressed in the book too. A clear distinction between Karelian hunter-societies in the period 1600-1800 and the Sámi hunters, as opposed to the colonial impact of the farming societies of Scandinavia, would have made clearer the expanding nature of the Old Norse world. And lastly, what happened to the dragons?


And thus we come to a close of “More Than Mythology” – in the opening line I asked, borrowing from Schjödt, what kind of evidence is needed to propose convincing interpretations? The main problem with the critical study of religion is that it is often done by people that do not believe. Therefore the “materials” are seen as “texts” and interpretations abound, but yet the “source” is missing.


I am pondering this in the Karelian village of Selkie, one of the westernmost of our communities, where a hundred years ago Kalevala-style incantations and poems were collected by the scholars of that day. Snow has fallen on trees and our fishing season for open waters is at a close, boats are up and we eagerly await for the arrival of proper lake ice so that we can spread the nets under the ice again. As I reflected about the More Than Mythology, on the lake, the last of the migratory birds flew by on their way to the south – soon we will meet again, I said to them. And the realisation came to me – if we are to understand the views of our ancestors, we need to live in that nature, or remnants of that nature, that sustained them – that is the source. Then the scholar, removed from the yearly cycles of the European North with his analytical or even her feminist apparatus, can return to see that time and space are not a line, indeed many things remain, of the “old” and of the “new”, of the things the wind only whispers of, but which are already emerging.