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

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

—Ernest Renan1

The prologue to the Þórðarbók redaction of Landnámabók, 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 landnám:

Þad er margra manna mäl ad þad sie uskilldur frodleikur ad rita Landnam. Enn uier þikiunst helldur suara kunna utlendum monnum. þa er þeir bregda oz þui, ad uier sieum komner af þrælum eda illmennum, ef vier vitum vijst vorar kynferdir sannar. Suo og þeim monnum er vita vilia fornn fræde, eda rekia ættar tolur, ad taca helldur ad uphafi til, enn hógguast i mitt mal. enda ero suo allar vitrar þioder at vita uilia uphaf sinna landzbygda, eda huers huerge tilhefjast eda kynsloder.

(Jakob Benediktsson 1958, 157n333)

People often say that writing about the Settlement 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 Pálsson and Edwards 1972, 6) [End Page 110]

So, where do Icelanders come from and why does it matter? The passage above stems from a very late seventeenth-century manuscript of Landnámabók, 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 Arngrímur lærði's Brevis commentarius de Islandia (Einar Sigmarsson 2008; Arngrímur 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 Þórðarbók makes sense in the context of such early modern humanistic writing, but taking Landnámabók's complicated transmission history into account, the passage could also go back to one of its oldest redactions, such as Melabók or even Styrmisbók, and therefore to the earliest period of literary production in the vernacular in Iceland in the early twelfth century (Jón Jóhannesson 1941, 226; Sveinbjörn Rafnsson 1974, 81; the opposing view is voiced in Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir 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 þjóðir, a civilized people (or "nation," in Hermann Pálsson 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 þjóð 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 þjóð? Admittedly, the example from Þórðarbók is preserved only in an early modern manuscript, but there are other instances, for example, one of Icelanders' earliest preserved texts, the Fyrsta Málfræðiritgerðin (First Grammatical Treatise [1972]), written before 1175, 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 þjóð 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...


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