Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Here and Then: Some Questions on the Self-Awareness of History

Greetings, History Fans!

I drank too much coffee and don't understand a word of this book on medieval political thought, so I thought I'd kick around some ideas that came up today in our Medieval Icelandic Research class.

Even though Hannah thinks I am always making fun of her, she brought up some ideas that I had been wrestling with as we read up on the history of the text known as Landnámabók, or affectionately known here and in English as The Book of Settlements. For all of you that didn't read our post on The Book of Settlements, it is a text that was probably composed in the thirteenth century that traces the settlement of Iceland, geographically and nearly person by person.

The copy of Landnámabók exists today contains elements of Icelandic narratives that came to define the classic Sagas of the Icelanders, or family sagas, as they are known. Yet, this text was considered solid historical fact for centuries. And why wouldn't it be? Things added up! The families could trace their ancestors to this book, most of the farms were correctly named in the correct fjords. Our professor's distant relative HIKED THROUGH ALL OF ICELAND JUST TO PROVE THAT THE SETTLEMENT PATTERN DESCRIBED IN THE BOOK WAS IN FACT LOGICAL!

The settlers used some very large boats.

Yet as scholarship expanded and different disciplines began peeling apart not only the sagas but medieval manuscripts and the land itself, some shadows of doubt were cast upon this book. Keep in mind, archaeology in Iceland did not begin in earnest until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even when it began, it existed solely to confirm medieval sources like Landnámabók. Archaeologists were limited by the weight not only of this text by the enormous amount of scholarly work that hung on the text.

For centuries Icelanders believed that they were the only nation that could positively identify its origins and it was due to this manuscript. During the nationalist movement of the 20th century, the members of the Icelandic School were convinced that there existed an original copy from the 13th century, even though the only copies they had dated after 1300. And of course, in the nationalistic spirit, the idea of this mapping out of the independent Icelanders settling their own island would be an enormous point of pride.

The pride in this idea continues to this day. As late as 2002, Sveinbjörn Rafasson published a work disputing some of the factual credibility in Landnámabók. It was met with a lot of resistance inside Icelandic circles. Yet, some of those who were critical were people like our professor's relative who had some legit claims that there was some truth to Landnámabók.

In the humble opinion of those of us at History Books, having read Landnámabók, as well as this terrific article by Adolf Friðriksson and Orri Vesteinsson titled "Creating a Past," the compilers of Landnámabók built upon "true" settlement stories; rather, stories that were at least believed to be true by those who told them, wrote them down, and listened to them. In this article, the authors make a good argument that the compiler of these settlement stories filled in some holes. Where there were no stories, some were invented. Where no names existed, settlers were invented or adjusted geographically to give it a ring of truth.

Because Landnámabók eluded critical analysis for so long, did it perhaps pass a Point of No Return, where it almost grew beyond reproach? So much of the country's image and history was built upon this single text. Even the Icelandic School scholars argued that where the sagas disagreed, Landnámabók's account was preferred as true.

Shot in the back over a matter of $80?!?!

The question arises, then, whether anyone was aware of this? Was the predominately-Icelandic Icelandic School aware of their nationalistic tendencies to overlook certain aspects? Did the weight of Landnámabók crush scholars who disagreed with the popular opinions of the day?

And do we find ourselves in the same predicament? As the "new philology" concepts rule current scholarship, will the leading ideas smother dissenting opinions?

Or are we even able, as historians or even as humans, capable of that kind of historical awareness to see the trap before we fall into it? The example I gave to Hannah was of fashion. How ridiculous the trends of the 80's looked to us in the 90's! Yet, eventually certain trends came back around without anyone appearing to think them at all ridiculous! Remember around 2001 when girls were wearing skirts over their jeans and I thought it was so silly I wrote a song about it?? The point is that none of these appeared out of place at the time. That's what was cool! Yet, when we look back later, we can say, man, I never should have worn those plaid pants in high school.

Is it the same with scholarship? Today, some of the thoughts of the Icelandic School are borderline ludicrous. Yet, at the time, they probably made perfect sense. This is part of what makes historiography so great. But it also makes me wary as a historian. Am I doomed to work within the confines that my predecessors laid before me? Are there historians and works of scholarship that hang heavy above us like Landnámabók, that no matter where we want to take our studies, we cannot avoid the semi-truths that lay in our paths?

I guess we will see!

Until next time, History Fans. Time makes fools of us all!

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