- Minor Knowledge and Microhistory: Manuscript Culture in the Nineteenth Century by Sigurđur Gylfi Magnússon and Davíđ Ólafsson
Apart from the names of the authors, there is nothing about this book, neither the title nor table of contents, nor indeed the publisher's blurb or Library of Congress Subject Headings, that would suggest that it deals with manuscript culture in nineteenth-century Iceland. But so it is. There is nothing wrong in this, to be sure, as one of the more interesting things about pre-modern Iceland is the continued importance of chirographic transmission in the dissemination of at least certain types of texts, long after the arrival of the first printing press in the early sixteenth century. Iceland is not unique in this respect, but it is certainly among the élite, both as regards the extent and the tenacity of its post-print manuscript culture. The authors, Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Iceland, and his younger colleague Davíð Ólafsson, Adjunct Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the same university, have written extensively on this topic, though hitherto chiefly in their native Icelandic. This book therefore provides a welcome opportunity for non-Icelandic readers to familiarize themselves with the work of these two scholars and the fascinating subject with which they deal. But the reader expecting to find a general introduction to or comparative study of 'everyday writing practices among ordinary people in the long nineteenth century' may well be surprised to find the book so focused on Iceland.
To be fair, the authors do put their study of Iceland within a broader context. The first of the book's three main sections, comprising chapters 1 to 3, sketches the theoretical and methodological background for the study, reviewing developments within book history, new literacy studies and 'new' or 'material' philology. Chapter 2 provides a particularly useful overview of studies done over the last twenty-five years or so which have challenged the idea that the introduction of moveable type in Europe in the fifteenth century and the ensuing 'print revolution' led to the almost immediate demise of handwritten communication, showing instead how the two media continued to exist side by side for several centuries, serving different, but overlapping, audiences and transmitting different, but overlapping, types of texts. Chapter 3 presents the tenets of microhistory, an approach which Magnússon has enthusiastically championed for years and which informs the book as a whole. [End Page 91]
The central section of the book, chapters 4 to 6, frames the sociological context for the inquiry, looking at such things as housing and personal hygiene in nineteenth-century Iceland, the history of literacy and education, and the nature of the 'vernacular literacy practices' at the time, in particular the kvöldvaka, or 'evening wake', where, during the winter months, members of the household were entertained through readings and recitations of literary works—more often than not from manuscripts rather than printed books.
The final section, chapters 7 to 9, looks at five 'case studies', individuals, all male and from the west of Iceland, who worked as crofters, fishermen, and labourers but nevertheless devoted considerable time and effort to the production and dissemination of texts of various kinds. It is this section which is likely to be of the greatest interest to most readers, presenting as it does the curious Icelandic phenomenon of ordinary Icelanders with no formal education sedulously compiling and copying texts of every imaginable kind, seemingly, in most cases, solely for their own amusement and that of the members of their households.
Such people are known in Icelandic as alþýðufræðimenn, which may be translated into English as 'lay scholars' (the word alþýða means simply common or ordinary people). The authors refer to them as 'barefoot historians', explaining in a footnote that...