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Bears and bearskins in the medieval North

A Research Project on Human-Bear Relationships in the Medieval North

Research funded by the Lars Hellberg memorial fund

Exploring the Intersection of Literature, Laws, and Archaeology

In short:

Bears have a longstanding importance in the cultures of northern Europe, including among the Sami and the medieval Norse, but no work has yet explored the human-bear relationship as represented across Icelandic sagas, provincial laws, Old Norse poetry, place name evidence, archaeological material, and ethnographic accounts from circumpolar communities. Adopting this broad interdisciplinary approach and tapping into under-researched data such as place names with animal elements, the proposed project will re-evaluate the relationships between humans and bears in medieval Scandinavia, examining the potential for understandings of bears and their relationships with humans in these sources that cast new light on longstanding interpretations of bears (in Viking-Age depictions) as solely figures of violence and related to warriors and hunters.

From Beyond the Northlands bear_edited.j

Polar bear (walrus ivory), Greenland. (Figure 6.3a in Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough. Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, Oxford University Press, 2016). 


Combining Multiple Disciplines for a Deeper Understanding

The project seeks answers to the following questions:

  1. How did experiences of living alongside bears translate into medieval Scandinavian texts and later oral tales?

  2. What role might place names play in our understanding of historic human-bear relationships?

  3. How were bear remains used in mortuary practice, and how might these be re-interpreted with a wider range of data?

Harriet Evans Tang


Dr Harriet Evans Tang is a researcher specialising in Old Norse studies, animal-human relations and archaeology. You can view her CV here.

An image of hogback grave markers with bears on either end.

© Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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