Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Management of the Celtic Fact in 'Landnamabok.'

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Management of the Celtic Fact in 'Landnamabok.'

Article excerpt

SCHOLARLY DEBATE ALONG THE Ireland-Iceland axis has waxed with emotion and waned with lack of evidence in the address of two issues: 1) the Celtic component among the original settlers of Iceland in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, and 2) the possible formative effect a) of the Irish epics on the emergence of the saga genre, or b) of Irish poetry on Icelandic skaldic verse (historical survey in Gisli Sigurdsson 1988, renewed polemic in Jakobsen 1988, review of the poetry issue in Holland and Lindow 1994). Before one hastens to shade, from the present critical vantage point, various aspects of this intentionally bald statement of the two contentious questions, a clear distinction must be recognized. Whatever stand one takes on oral-traditional/literary influence from Celtic to Norse, no one disputes the overall historicity of the individual entries in Landnamabok (The Book of Settlements) that ascribe birth or residence, and ties of kinship, marriage, fosterage or bondage originating in Ireland, the Hebrides and parts of mainland Scotland to about a fourth of the original settlers, and Norwegian origins to the remainder. The modem anthropological perspective would confirm the Celtic constituent, which will be further defined below, in the traditional range of 15 to 25 percent, on the basis of indices as varied as cranial configuration, pigmentation, eye color, blood type and its susceptibility to disease (Stefan Adalsteinsson 1989; debate on the settlement time-table in Margret Hermanns-Audardottir et al. 1991, general review of issues in Renaud 1991).

Comparing the nature of testimony on which the two debates draw, related to settlement ("demographical") and to story-telling and poetry ("literary"), one understands that the latter has of necessity largely been qualitative in nature. What is surprising is the degree to which the former has been quantitative. In the following, elements of the two debates and the two approaches are merged in a consideration of Landnamabok. The ancestor of the various recensions (to use the internal metaphor), Ari's Book of Settlements, is thought to have been composed in the early twelfth century, while the oldest extant version dates from about 1275. No formal generic or stylistic link will be sought between Landnamabok and Irish historiography, nor will the Icelandic literary artifact be scrutinized for its evidence on simple numbers of immigrants with Celtic affinities. The concern of this study is rather the attitudinal stance taken by the compilers of Landnamabok towards the two-pronged immigration, to be seen in its own terms as from the North (Norway) and from the West (Ireland, Scotland). We should not expect that medieval Icelandic historians made our conception of objectivity their goal or had the means for comprehensive accuracy in the reporting of physical fact. But we cannot dismissively characterize Landnamabok as ingenuous collective family legend. It is, rather, a coming to terms, at times explicit, at times tacit, with the historical facts of settlement viewed from the perspective of thirteenth century Icelanders who were descendants and heirs of the landtakers and their various identities. Some in this generation were themselves caught in a process of dispossession, both territorial and societal. In ways that others have charted (Jon Johanesson 1941, Kuhn 1968, Boyer 1973, Rafnsson 1974, Sorensen 1977, Hastrup 1984 and 1985), Landnamabok in its present forms provides legitimation for the property-based Iceland that evolved after the saga age, a proto-state, in institutional terms, that would be later marked by civil unrest on a scale greater than that of family feud, by the concentration of land and power in a small number of families (assisted by their control over the ecclesiastical establishment), and by the vigorously advanced interests of the Norwegian crown and church. In quite different ways, which this study will seek to illustrate, Landnamabok records the disappearance of other constituents of settlement-era Iceland, in particular, the institution of slavery and, closely allied, Celtic ethnicity or affinity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.