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Durham University

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Publication details for Dr Thomas Spray

Spray, Thomas (2015). Northern Antiquities and Nationalism. eSharp (23 (Spring 2015): Myth and Nation): 11, 1-17.

Author(s) from Durham


From the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, northern Europe saw the blossoming of a far-reaching artistic and political movement: Romantic Nationalism. Combined with new concepts of Germanic identity this led to a fundamental re-consideration of northern Europe’s settlement myths and cultural heritage. Meanwhile the ever-expanding field of Germanic philology, with its notion of language as the defining characteristic of race, promoted the appropriation of myths from Old Norse across Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain.

In England the general public’s first introduction to these northern tales was in 1770 in the form of Bishop Percy’s Northern Antiquities: a heavily-edited translation from the French of Paul Henri Mallet. Sharing an education with Danish royalty, Mallet was introduced to such works as Snorri Sturlusson’s Prose Edda. Percy’s highly-popular work was republished and re-edited by I. A. Blackwell in 1847, simultaneously whetting the public’s appetite for more northern folklore and distancing them from the source material via editorial opinion.

Both Blackwell and Percy make it clear in their prefaces that the primary vision for their material is as nationalist history. ‘Pure blood’, the ‘noble savage’, and ‘genetic reinvigoration’: these are the concerns of the editors. This interaction with Snorri’s Edda for nationalist purposes demonstrates the methods by which traditional oral myths and tales become part of a divisive national image. This article will explore how these initial translators used their phenomenally influential position as gatekeepers of a previously little-known body of literature and myth. At the same time, this article will identify some of the key ways in which these early appropriations have affected our interaction with Old Norse literature in its modern editions. Is the shadow of Romantic Nationalism still controlling our engagement with Old Norse myth?