How Did Deaf and Non-Speaking People Communicate in Medieval Iceland?
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June 5, 2022

How Did Deaf and Non-Speaking People Communicate in Medieval Iceland?

By Yoav Tirosh

In my research on deaf and non-speaking people in medieval Iceland, one question that particularly stuck with me was whether those who could not or did not want to engage in verbal communication had any other tools at their disposal.

I talk about deafness and non-speaking together, though in modern times these are entirely separate issues. As Irina Metzler points out, “most congenitally deaf people, in the days before special education became available, were also functionally mute, even if physically capable of speech.”  It’s always important to remember that modern categories and definitions of disability often don’t align with medieval attitudes, something that is even more strongly felt in the case of Old Norse texts.

There is very little direct evidence for communication of deaf and non-speaking people. Still, it’s clear that medieval Icelanders were aware of this need. If you piece together the technologies and methods available, you can assume that many of these were implemented by people who were struggling to communicate with the hearing. It’s important to remember the lesson that Emily Cockayne has taught us about the teaching of sign language to deaf people in early modern England; while the phenomenon existed, it only reflects the lives of a privileged few rather than the overall population of deaf people. Most of the cases that I address are of upper-class people who were involved in politics and therefore their lives and actions were recorded.

Flateyjarbók’s Tale of Thorstein Bull’s-leg (Þorsteins þáttr uxafóts) presents the example of Oddný who is non-speaking from birth, the sister of the Northeastern Icelander Þorkell Geitisson. The siblings’ relationship is a loving one and they communicate in a unique way; Þorkell speaks and Oddný responds by cutting runes on a rod. Þorkell was a major political figure in tenth and eleventh-century Iceland, and we should not be surprised that his sister had the social and financial means to learn how to communicate through a writing system.

Reconstruction of a wax tablet – photo by LessayCatus / Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that literacy in runes (what Terje Spurkland called “runacy” and letters could be used for communication when vocal communication was otherwise unavailable or unwanted. One technology that would allow this is wax tablets, which were portable and multi-use; essentially a medieval whiteboard. Wax tablets were a ubiquitous medium for writing (and especially composing) in continental Europe, and were found in Iceland as well: Evidence of this can be found in a 1541 tally of the possessions of the episcopal see at Skálholt, where two wax tablets are recorded. In Laurentius saga (Lárentiuss saga byskups), Bishop Lárentius is described as writing down book quotes on a “vaxspjald” while he reads, so his deacon could later copy it down. At the end of Sturlunga saga’s Sturlu þáttr, it is related that saga author Sturla Þórðarson makes a prognosis about a sick man based on work with his wax tablets. The patient died, as Sturla’s successful prognosis showed it would. The use of wax to communicate in the case of a toothache that does not allow one to speak is evident in the 13th century Augustinus saga, where the saint writes his words on wax.

Some scholars have argued that monastic sign language was not a language at all. These argue that the use of grammar would have been suppressed since it would go against the very principles of the Benedictine Rule. This gestural system was used widely in European Benedictine monasteries and was intended to communicate the monks’ basic needs. Although it did not function as a sign language such as the one that Deaf communities use in modern times, it could, potentially, allow deaf and non-speaking people to express their most immediate requirements.

The fact that we have no evidence for this gestural system being used in Iceland does not mean that it was unknown or unused. As Scott G. Bruce points out about the monastic community at Cluny, the use of signs in place of words had become so prevalent that it was almost taken for granted. It is safe to assume that Icelanders were aware of its use in Canterbury, where Icelanders visited to see the shrine of Thomas Becket. The use of the monastic sign-language there is particularly noteworthy, since in the sign lexicons they produced, the signs were glossed in Old English translation as well as Latin. As Bruce argues, the local adaptation could indicate an actual (and not just theoretical) use of this system.

We know that some of the Icelandic monks adhered closely to the Benedictine Rule, as is exemplified in Laurentius saga, which I already referred to above. This saga stresses that during Lárentius’s time as a monk he strictly adheres to the times of silence. More importantly, in the Saga of Bishop Jón of Hóla (Jóns saga helga) the text describes the anchoress Hildr, who would only communicate through gestures or speaking with a low voice. While it is not clear if the gestures the anchoress employed were based on the monastic sign language, it is clear that these were seen as a legitimate solution for cases where verbal communication was not possible.

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The importance of communication was felt strongly in the legal context, where people were asked to exercise their rights and therefore needed some form of access to the justice system. The Norwegian Frostaþing Lawbook provides special instructions for a man whose tongue is cut by another, allowing him to cut runes with the perpetrator’s name, point at him with the handle of his axe, or give gestures that indicate his identity:

He shall then point at that man [who did the deed] with the handle of his axe, and then he shall become an outlaw. But if he [the perpetrator] is not at the assembly, then he shall inscribe his name if he knows runes, but if he does not then he shall make those gestures so that a person can know the truth most accurately.

The use of runes shows that the case of Oddný—who communicated with her brother through their mutual runacy—was not the exception but sometimes quite literally the rule. The option of communicating through gestures is also taken as a necessity, and shows a legal and societal concern for those whose ability to use their tongue has been lost. It is noteworthy that these laws do not address a case where a person experiences hearing loss. Is this person out of the legal game, or was it presumed that through runes and gestures their rights would be ensured?

You can read more about this topic in my article “Deafness and Nonspeaking in Late Medieval Iceland (1200–1550),” which was recently published in Viator.

Dr. Yoav Tirosh will soon begin a postdoc on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his page. You can learn more about his comics on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.

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Further Readings:

Bragg, Lois, “Telling Silence: Alingualism in Old Icelandic Myth, Legend, and Saga,” Journal of Indo-European Studies 32 (2004): 267–98. ()

Ármann Jakobsson, Anna Katharina Heiniger, Christopher Crocker, and Hanna Björg Sigurjónsdóttir, “Disability Before Disability: Mapping the Uncharted in the Medieval Sagas,” Scandinavian Studies 92 no. 4 (2020): 440–460.

Waugh, Robin, “Language, Landscape, and Maternal Space: Child Exposure in Some Sagas of Icelanders,” Exemplaria 29 no. 3 (2017): 234–253.

Tracy, Kisha G. “Speech: Medieval Representations of Speech Impairments,” in A Cultural History of Disability in the Middle Ages, edited by Jonathan Hsy, Tory Pearman, and Joshua Eyler (Bloomsbury, 2019): 99–114. See also Kisha Tracy’s interview on The Medieval Podcast.

Top Image: Scene from a medieval embroidery held at the National Museum of Iceland – photo by June 5, 2022 at 08:37AM

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