Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

A Pre-Modern Nation? Icelanders' Ethnogenesis and Its Mythical Foundations

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

A Pre-Modern Nation? Icelanders' Ethnogenesis and Its Mythical Foundations

Article excerpt

To forget--and I would even say--to get one's history wrong are essential factors in the making of a nation.

--Ernest Renan (1)

The prologue to the Poroarbok redaction of Landnamabok, Icelanders' Book of Settlements, gives the following reason for why Icelanders should pay attention to the study of genealogies and read texts about their origin and Iceland's settlement, the landnam:

   Pad er margra manna mal ad pad sie tiskilldur frodleikur ad rita
   Landnam. Enn uier pikiunst helldur suara kunna udendum monnum. pa
   er peir bregda oz pui, ad uier sieum komner af prelum eda
   illmennum, efvier vitum vijst vorar kynferdir sannar. Suo og peim
   monnum er vita vilia fornn trade, cda rekia a:ttar tolur, ad taca
   helldur ad uphafi til, enn hogguast i mitt mal. enda ero suo aliar
   vitrar pioder at vita uilia uphaf sinna landzbygda, eda huers
   huerge tilhefjast eda kynsloder. (Jakob Benediktsson 1958, 157n333)

   People often say that writing about the Setdement is irrelevant
   learning, but we think we can better meet the criticism of
   foreigners when they accuse us of being descended from slaves or
   scoundrels, if we know for certain the truth about our ancestry.
   And for those who want to know ancient lore and how to trace
   genealogies, it's better to start at the beginning than come in at
   the middle. Anyway, all civilized nations want to know about the
   origins of their own society and the beginnings of their own
   people. (Hermann Palsson and Edwards 1972, 6)

So, where do Icelanders come from and why does it matter? The passage above stems from a very late seventeenth-century manuscript of Landnamabok, which was written when addressing misconceptions of Iceland was a leading theme in much of the country's literary output. This type of writing is represented, for instance, by Arngrimur lasroi's Brevis commentarius de Islandia (Einar Sigmarsson 2008; Arngrimur the Learned's Brief Commentary on Iceland), which he specifically composed to contradict foreign misconceptions about Iceland--such as late Baroque beliefs in the inferiority and lack of cultivation of the people of the North, or the then-common notion that the gateway to Hell was to be found in Iceland. The above quoted passage from Poroarbok makes sense in the context of such early modern humanistic writing, but taking Landnamabok's complicated transmission history into account, the passage could also go back to one of its oldest redactions, such as Melabok or even Styrmisbok, and therefore to the earliest period of literary production in the vernacular in Iceland in the early twelfth century (Jon Johannesson 1941,226; Sveinbjorn Rafnsson 1974, 81; the opposing view is voiced in Gudrun Asa Grimsdottir 1995, 50).

It is interesting that the passage directly confronts the idea that Icelanders stem from slaves and criminals, and claims that it is a hallmark sign of vitrar pjodir, a civilized people (or "nation," in Hermann Palsson and Edwards's 1972 translation), to know their own ancestry. Can we read this passage as an awareness that Icelanders are a group that self-identifies as a separate pjoo or people? Can we even justify speaking of an early and pre-modern Icelandic nation, seeing that some Icelanders--witnessed by the texts they compiled--thought of themselves as being members of a uniquely Icelandic pjoo? Admittedly, the example from Poroarbok is preserved only in an early modern manuscript, but there are other instances, for example, one of Icelanders' earliest preserved texts, the Fyrsta Malfrodiritgerdin (First Grammatical Treatise [1972]), written before II75, that reflect on the role of the vernacular and written texts in creating an Icelandic identity. This text specifically mentions and distinguishes the terms land and pjoo when referring to Icelanders and people elsewhere. In his short treatise, the anonymous author expresses his aim to provide Icelanders with their own alphabet to account for the phonetic peculiarities of the language, which had just begun to be written down:

I flestum londum setja menn a boekr annat tveggja Jjann frodleik, er par innanlands hefir gorzk, eda pann annan, er minnisamligstr pykkir, po at annars sta[dar hafi h]eldr gorzk, eda log sin setja menn a boekr, hver pjod a sina tungu. …

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