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The literary significance of clothing in the Icelandic family sagas
By Jane Christine Roscoe
Master’s Thesis: Durham University, 1992
Abstract: This thesis examines the occurrences of clothes and the particular ways in which they are used in some of the Icelandic family sagas in order to assess their literary significance. In a genre where few superfluous details are given by the writers, it seems reasonable to suppose that even a seemingly unimportant detail such as a comment regarding a man’s cloak is present for a reason.
The thesis is divided into three sections. Section One deals with the use of colour in dress, beginning with a general chapter on coloured clothes but continuing with an examination of specific colours such as red, blue, green and white. In the second section two contrasting items, head-dress and footwear, have been grouped together. The third section concentrates on major items of body clothing and is divided into three parts. The first five chapters concern individual and generally unrelated issues, whereas in the following three chapters clothing is associated in one way or another with the supernatural. Finally there is an examination of certain literary strategies used by the writer of Laxdoela saga.
At times a motif involving clothes can be seen to have a recognised received meaning, especially if it can be found in another saga or literary form. On the other hand certain incidents have been analysed specifically within the context of the saga in which they occur. During this study various likely influences on the medieval Icelandic saga writer have been taken into consideration – influences which may be derived from pagan and Christian mythology, cultural traditions, heroic sagas and romantic European literature. An awareness of any possible literary significance of clothes within the sagas can aid a clearer understanding of the text and of the motives of the authors.
Introduction: Descriptions of characters occur frequently in the family sagas either when the person is introduced or further on in the narrative. Physical attributes are commented on – a man may be described as tall or fair; aspects of temperament are given – courageous, magnanimous etc. Yet despite this we do not often hear about what the character is wearing – and when we do it can be difficult to discern why clothes are being mentioned at this particular point and why only in relation to a certain character.