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I’m gearing up to start teaching a new class next week, a comparative world literature class based on the theme of “revenge.” We’ll be working with a lot of different texts from around the world, including a few of the Icelandic Sagas, a little Borges, Macbeth, and so on. It’s going to be a great opportunity to introduce students to the social and cultural applications of cognitive science, via concepts of “machiavellian intelligence,” theory of mind, and so on.

My interest in the Sagas is somewhat tangential to my main research interests, which arrive about a thousand years later (although I have studied and translated just a smidgen of Old English — a fascinating language!). So I was very excited when a medievalist colleague tipped me off to the fact that Robin Dunbar had done some work on conflict resolution in the Sagas — a topic that he and I have both lectured on previously. I’m passing on the link to a very brief, but thought-provoking article, from the Spring 2007 Research Intelligence, on Dunbar’s work in this area.

This is a very fascinating little piece — Dunbar’s argument is that “berserkers,” fighters who went into a trance or rage before entering battle and who were considered quite fearsome and dangerous, often served as a deterrent for vendettas against their family members. In other words, having a berserker in the family was more likely to prevent acts of revenge against their family. What’s more, dealing with berserkers who became a problem seems to have been a collective effort — the literature indicates that community members waited until they became drunk and then worked together to kill them in their weakened state.

A lot of very interesting material suggested here, with lots more in an earlier article from Dunbar et al in Ethology and Sociobiology 16 (1995). I’m looking forward to seeing how the students are able to use this sort of work in reading Elizabethan revenge — seems to me that a revenger such as Middleton’s Vindice presents an interesting comparison to the “berserker-deterrent” model.