Old Norse Poetry in Performance (ONPiP) is an interdisciplinary project which aims to bring together literary scholars, actors and dramaturgs to explore the dramatic potential in the Old Norse-Icelandic poetic corpus. Triennial conferences, hosted at the University of Oxford, strech accross two days and focus on an array of themes pertaining to both eddic and skaldic poetry. Integral to the structure of each conference are performances by actors and dramaturgs seeking to put recent work on these texts into practice on a stage. Complementing such performances are papers presented by those engaged in research work on the dramatic mechanics and possibilities of Old Norse poetic texts.

ONPiP conferences operate as a focus for dramaturgs and academics to experience one another's approaches to a notoriously resistant and fragmentary literature, both in order to aid the construction of a historical understanding of Old Norse poems as performance texts and to establish a practical research platform that is at once experimental and scholarly. Conferences are open to research students, musicians and theatre practitioners, all of whom offer a pertinent and illuminating perspective on these texts.

In 1920 Dame Bertha Phillpotts published The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama, the first systematic argument that a substantial part of the eddic verse corpus had originally been designed for multi-participant dramatic performance. Professor Terry Gunnell re-opened the discussion in 1995 with The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia and followed this up with a series of articles on the same theme. In the past two decades support for this view has grown and Professor Gunnell has introduced the term “performance archaeology” to his work, calling in several publications for a serious study to be conducted involving live performances of these poems. Professor John McKinnell of Durham has conducted some small-scale experiments along these lines, but neither his work nor Professor Gunnell's stagings have yet been subject to any form of peer review.
The performance of skaldic poetry has received little attention from a dramatic perspective and yet, whether one considers skaldic verse purely as a form of political discourse or, additionally, as a source of courtly entertainment, it seems clear that the mode of poetic delivery plays an important role for both audience and skald (poet). In her book, The Structure of Dróttkvætt Poetry (1995), Kari Ellen Gade provides a useful overview of scholars who have treated the question of skaldic performance and those who regard the mode of recitation as an important mechanism for the comprehension of skaldic poetry. Gunnell’s ‘performance archaeology’ – initially concerned only with eddic poetry – seems an equally relevant avenue of research for tackling some of the difficult problems raised by these skaldic scholars.



                                 Dame Bertha Phillpotts
                                 Reproduced by Kind Permission of Somerville College Library

Frederick York Powell and Christ Church Library
Christ Church Library, inhabiting since the eighteenth century a tall, Georgian building situated to the north of Christ Church Cathedral and in close proximity to the college’s undergraduate accommodation, is one of the major research libraries in the world and home to and impressive range of collections. One of these collections, bequeathed to the library by the English historian, Frederick York Powell (1850-1904), consists of around 800 volumes of Icelandic and Scandinavian literature. Many of these volumes were given to him by Guðbrandr Vigfússon (1828-1889) whom Powell assisted in work on the Grimm Centenary Papers (1886), Corpus Poeticum Boreale (1887), Icelandic Prose Reader (1897), and Origines Islandicae (published posthumously in 1905).
Powell was an eclectic scholar and tutor with wide-ranging interests and knowledge. One of his varied academic occupations concerned the study and translation of medieval Scandinavian literature and his interest in the prose and poetry of the north may well have been kindled during his school days at Rugby where he read Sir George Webbe Dasent's translation of The Story of Burnt Njal (1861). Known as a generous and intelligent, if eccentric and disorganised, man who seemed more sailor than don, Powell’s presence at Christ Church had a lasting impact on the Oxford community — particularly in his capacity as delegate of the Clarendon Press where he advanced the scope of, for example, art publication, and occasionally irritated fellow delegates with intrusive editorial involvement. His active engagement in publishing as well as the large bequest of Icelandic books made to Christ Church Library — books precious to him both because of their content and because of their connection to his close friend and associate — reveal Powell’s commitment to playing his part in the preservation and study of historical traditions (particularly oral traditions). As his first, and sadly final, address as president of the Folklore Society in 1904 demonstrates, Powell believed that it was the duty of scholars to preserve and record, as much as it was to understand and decipher. This is especially true of orature which constituted for Powell — whether in the poetic practices of ancient druids, or the oral customs of Māori communities in New Zealand —  a ‘pagan university, in which […] a whole system of philosophy, mythology, and history is carefully handed down orally from generation to generation’.[1] In the world of the literate, this university was fast disappearing and Powell felt the urgent need to commit to writing knowledge and customs that may be lost otherwise:

It is not till tradition is committed to letters that its preservation is at all definitely assured. And this is a truth that, even in this century, is not yet sufficiently recognised. Societies such as ours must be the recorders. Our function as Recorders and Remembrancers is even more important than our function as Interpreters. Our opportunities for record are swiftly and silently slipping past. There will always be time for the Systematisers, but at present the Duty of Collection is to my mind paramount.[2]

As such the legacy of the Powell bequest (much of which is on permanent loan to the English Faculty Library for consultation in the Turville-Petre Room), is one of not only generosity, but of responsibility. To make use of this particular collection is not only to read, but to take part also in ‘remembrancing’.

Powell’s concerns are ones very much shared by Christ Church Library as is evident from the library’s continued collection and preservation of vast numbers of early printed books, pamphlets and medieval manuscripts. The burley academic could not have bequeathed his large collection to a more enthusiastic, and earnest, recipient.

[1] Frederick York Powell, “Presidential Address.,” Folklore 15, no. 1 (March 25, 1904): 13, https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1904.9719382.
[2] Powell, 23.

For further reading see:

-    H. A. L. Fisher, and Carolyne Larrington. “Powell, Frederick York (1850–1904), Historian.” Oxford Dictionary of National
     Biography, May 25, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35589.
-    Petch, Alison. “Frederick York Powell.” England: The Other Within, n.d. http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-
-    Powell, Frederick York. “Presidential Address.” Folklore 15, no. 1 (March 25, 1904): 12–23.
-    Rusell, John. “ART FOR THE FEW AND THE MANY.” The New York Times, June 19, 1983, Late City Final edition, sec. 7.

Code of Conduct

Old Norse Poetry in Performance aims to foster an environment in which all researchers, practitioners and members of the public who share a common interested in the art, languages and culture of the medieval Scandinavian world may pursue these interests freely and creatively whilst utilising the resources that the project generates. Such an environment can only facilitate these pursuits when it is free from all cultural prejudice, racism, harassment, and any related unethical behaviour. We therefore require that all those who wish to participate in this project respect the principles by which we are able to thrive as a scholarly and artistic community. Any person who does not abide by this code of conduct shall not be permitted to attend or contribute to any of the events or activities organised by ONPiP