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My name’s Chris Callow and I’m a Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Birmingham. My main research interests centre around medieval Iceland. Iceland is interesting because it’s one of the first places the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. It gets colonised from scratch, that means, so in practical terms it means that one of the things that historians are often interested in, and archaeologists, is what happens in that process of settlement, and how people settle and why they settle. We’re also interested in what happens to that society actually after people have settled there and what happens to people we might call Vikings to start with but really become farmers and low level kind of aristocrats.
Lots of my research for example has been focussing on precisely how we understand the kinds of sources that tell us about this period as well. For instance sagas form a big part of my research. Trying to work out how we understand Icelandic society through these sagas. Sagas are full of ghost stories, they’re full of stories about blood fueds, stories about dramatic incidents which seem far-fetched very often. So what do we do with those stories and what do they tell us about the origins of Icelandic society and how it changes. So as part of that, I suppose, I’ve looked at issues like the way female colonists are represented in Icelandic sagas. Can we understand Icelandic society through the way they represent powerful women in those stories about the colonisation of Iceland and I think to an extent, we can see that people are not frightened of labelling their ancestors as important women for example. At other times you can see some female characters who are represented in a very negative way as not being important people. So we might think about why that’s the case too.
I’m also interested in some of the economics that underpins all this. Icelandic society was relatively unsophisticated. It gives a nice way in to understanding societies which are not very well off. So looking at the relationship between Iceland and Norway, which is the main trade route – for Iceland anyway. Trying to work out who controls the type of goods that come in. Is it just the Chieftans in Iceland because Iceland doesn’t have a king – it’s very unusual in that respect – so I’ve looked at how we are trying to understand that relationship, what it means for Icelandic society, who gets their hands on the exotic things that come in from Norway? Even basic things such as beer, was seen as quite a luxury in Iceland.
Moving on from that, more recently I’ve tried to look at the wider issues to do with the origins of Icelandic society – how that fits into the bigger picture of the Vikings and the Viking diaspora. So I’m in the process of writing a book about the whole of the Viking diaspora. So there it’s more about understanding why people were writing about these things in the 13th and 14th centuries as much as anything. Again, that nuances our picture of what the Vikings were really about and how we should understand the way Viking society appears in our sources. They aren’t just murdering barbaric people, and if they are portrayed in that way, we need to think very carefully about why people in later generations are thinking that way. Why do they want to see their ancestors as blood-thirsty? Why do they want to see some of their ancestors represented in some other way?