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Waterways as Landmarks, Challenges, and Barriers for Medieval Protagonists

Crossing Rivers as Epistomological Hurdles in Medieval Literature

Albrecht Classen


In light of recent ecocritical approaches to literary analysis, this paper endeavors to analyze how creeks, rivers, and other waterways function in a variety of medieval and early modern texts. As the discussion of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Titurel, of the Nibelungenlied, Njál’s Saga, Dante’s Inferno, and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron indicates, the inclusion of creeks or rivers within the narrative context indicates that major events are to occur in the protagonist’s life. Life and death are determined by the experiences at, on, or even in the river. Even if the poets do not necessarily discuss the waterways as such in their geophysical properties and dimensions, the consistent reference to and inclusion of rivers in those literary works illustrates the true extent to which pre-modern poets were already fully aware of the epistemological function which waterways could carry in human life.