Research into medieval Icelandic gender and sexuality has found that even the heroes of Viking Age sagas were troubled by the thought that size really does matter.
Dr Carl Phelpstead of Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy presented a paper: ‘Size Matters: Penile Problems in Sagas of Icelanders’ to the International Medieval Congress, held in Leeds last week.
Dr Phelpstead analysed the cultural-historical significance of three remarkable accounts of penile problems in the texts know as ‘Sagas of Icelanders’, dealing with events supposed to have occurred in the 10th and 11th centuries. He undertook to see if Freudianism can illuminate the contents of these texts and found that, alongside some interesting differences, the meanings attributed to the penis in medieval Iceland are often remarkably similar to those of today.
Dr Phelpstead said: "Accounts of penile problems in the Sagas of Icelanders shed light on the cultural work of the penis in early Iceland by representing what happens when a man’s penis is not appropriately sized or fully functioning. These narratives reveal a relationship between the male genitals and men’s identity that is both familiar and alien to us.
"In the Sagas of Icelanders, as today, a man is expected to have an appropriately sized penis and to be able, when occasion demands, to make it even larger; an unexpectedly small penis or an inability to achieve an erection leads to mockery and humiliation."
In one example, in Grettir’s saga, a serving woman bursts out laughing when she sees Grettir Asmundarson naked. She remarks: "it seems to me extraordinary how small he is below - I would not have believed it if someone had told me". The defensive Grettir points out that his large testicles compensate for his small penis.
Dr Phelpstead mainly teaches English Literature and contributes to teaching Cultural Criticism a new subject at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy, available only in Cardiff, which uniquely offers the chance to study the whole range of cultural materials: from contemporary film to conceptual art, from poems to the police, from the history of sexuality to cyborgs.