Saturday, August 29, 2009

Science and Popular Legal Memory in Iceland

If you wish to gaze into the future and see one of the paths public memory of medieval law and society in Iceland will take in coming years, you could do worse than to share a morning cup of coffee—or, this being Iceland, two cups of coffee—with Adolf Fri∂rickson, Chair of the Institute of Archeology in Reykjavík.  I did so on a drizzly Wednesday morning about three weeks ago, two days after my wife and I touched down at Keflavík Airport.

We met in a shiny, modern coffee shop at the heart of downtown, within close view of some of the oldest, most quaint buildings in the city and a major construction site.  I had called Fri∂rickson because in preparing for my stint as a Fulbrighter, I had read his call to arms Sagas and Popular Antiquarianism in Icelandic Archeology.  The book contains a chapter on administrative and legal sites, such as the assembly sites my wife and I hoped to visit on our trip, and when I contacted Fri∂rickson and indicated I was a Fulbright fellow interested in his work, he immediately agreed to get together. 

Fri∂rickson argues that archeology here has yet to overcome the ideological tinge of its birth during the age of nineteenth-century nationalism, even though archeologists have long been critical of their intellectual forebears in the Archeological Society—especially their willingness to view the sagas more as transparent documentary records of settlement-era history than achievements of the literary imagination.  Fri∂rickson believes one important cure for archeology’s ills lies in the deployment of new scientific methods, such as the study of archeological phenomena across sites rather than the more traditional examination of whole sites individually.  Should archeologists fail to advance methodologically, he asserts, they will continue to echo Icelanders’ own highly active folk knowledge about medieval historic sites, their “popular antiquarianism.”  This folk memory often implicitly guides archeological work, most notably by tempting archeologists to use common place names as a record of a site’s historical significance.  Without new scientific methods, Icelandic archeologists will remain in the grip of a popular knowledge which, like nineteenth-century nationalist science, is itself deeply rooted in a thirteenth-century saga literature that reveals as much about the thirteenth century as the Viking age it depicts. 

Fri∂rickson is every inch the skeptical scientist (one of his most common replies to my questions was “we don’t yet have enough evidence to say”), and one story he told about his own self-questioning struck me as revealing of the substantive change a scientific approach can bring to historical knowledge—in this case, knowledge about how land in medieval Iceland was settled and divided.  There is a popular view of the settlement of Iceland as a rather neat, orderly process.  That view is drawn from the thirteenth-century Landámabók (The Book of Settlements), which describes in extraordinary detail who the original settlers of Iceland were and where on the island they made their homes.  The depiction of the settlement as a rational process of immigration and land-claiming served the interests of powerful thirteenth-century chieftains who sought to legitimate their rule through warped history, and the myth they created stuck—and it stuck not simply regarding which specific land claims were made during the settlement, but more generally in the view of the settlement as almost deliberative in nature.  Fri∂rickson called my attention to an image he thought put this view into pictorial form:  the cover of an edition of Landámabók which depicts a happy Viking nuclear family in a ship, smiling merrily on their way to a new land.

Fri∂rickson admitted that, unwittingly, he had once been in the grip of a misconception rooted in this very myth.  In his case, the misconception concerned settlement-era burial sites.  At present, Icelandic archeologists have uncovered about 330 burial sites in about 160 separate places (about 40 of these sites were previously undisturbed, “closed finds”).  The majority of these burials are located a good distance away from settlement-era farmsteads, at the edge of ancient property lines between farms and near well-worn medieval paths.  Individuals in these graves are bigger than those in the other graves archeologists have found on the island, and the graves include more women and children.  Then there are graves of a somewhat different type, a minority of the finds.  Individuals in these graves are poorer and, most notably, the graves are located quite near the main farm activity areas and away from ancient paths.  Why the difference?

When Fri∂rickson first decided to study the graves comparatively, he believed he would find that the more distant burials, those along property-line boundaries, were older.  He reasoned that when a family settles in a new place they bury their kin at the border of the property they have claimed, in part to assert their ownership of the land.  Graves would serve as markers of possession.  “You might think you would put your parents and grandparents at the edge of what you consider to be yours,” he explained, sipping his coffee.  But what he found was contrary to his hypothesis: the distant graves were younger.  And this fact about burial sites pointed to a very different view of the settlement:  not the “neat” process depicted both in Landámabók and in popular culture, but rather something potentially “savage.”  Picture not a smiling Viking family on a boat making its new home, but instead a group of hard men living in deep anxiety, huddled near their farmsteads, not wishing to venture far beyond the immediate area where they had settled.  Imagine the settling of land as guided by force, uncertainty, and fear.  This was a place, after all, where every social institution had to be restablished.  Only later, once property was secure, could graves be put at its margins.

A similar process surely took place not only regarding property but regarding law more generally.  This is a remote place, and what authority applies here has been a persistent question in Icelandic history.  What was law?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t initially created in rational, deliberative conditions (though it later may have been codified under them). 

In any case, what interests me about Fri∂rickson’s approach to archeology is how it promises to overturn folkloric conceptions of the meaning of the land—including the meaning of the assembly sites we visited on our trip.  In Fri∂rickson’s view, popular antiquarianism is a continuation of the way Icelanders have “done” history for centuries:  by telling stories about the landscape they so intimately inhabit (a landscape in which, because of the harsh environment, there are almost no historic man-made structures to be seen and to verify historical facts).  When a farmer or a community knows that a particular hill has long been called “Willard Hurst Hill,” for example, some historical event may well have taken place there, but it’s equally possible that the hill bears absolutely no relation to Hurst the Wise of saga fame.  It’s also possible that no historical event took place there at all.  Under scrutiny, much vernacular understanding of the landscape will be shown to be but an echo of some thirteenth-century need as voiced through nineteenth-century nationalist history.  Science historicizes with a hammer. 

In time, that hammer will fundamentally transform the landscape of legal memory here, perhaps severing many of the bands of vernacular legal remembrance which for generations have linked Icelanders to their environment.  The landscape of Iceland will be emptied of ancient legal memories, to be replaced by facts ascertained by specialists.  Icelanders’ relation to their land will be mediated by the knowledge of an international class of academic historians and social scientists.  There is no need to be nostalgic for the world of popular legal history that will vanish.  But it will be important in the distant future to remember that it has.  It also will be important to understand that science is not acting in an intellectual vacuum.  Just as today we view the work of the nineteenth-century Archeological Society within the context of an Icelandic nationalism that partook of a larger European moment, so too the transformation of popular legal memory in Iceland is but one component of the engine of economic and political integration of contemporary Europe.  The idea that blood can still be seen on the execution-block stone near an ancient assembly site, as described in my previous post, will disappear in the face of the cultural and intellectual forces that ground the new constitutional entity Iceland doubtless will shortly join.  Academic science will demystify the cultural basis of the nationalism which Europe seeks to overcome politically through its Kantian aspirations, at the same time that the popular memory of law will change as a consequence of the new legal order being created here through the slow force of political will. 

Or at least that’s part of the future story.  Because there are other futures of the landscape of legal memory in Iceland—futures of a rather different kind, at least in relation to the question of nationalism (after all, it takes but an hour watching the European Football Championship to make a person radically skeptical of the universalist claims of European bureaucrats and civil servants).  But these thoughts will have to wait for another time.  Right now, it’s time for my wife and I to read Journey to the Center of the Earth out loud and enjoy a Friday night in our new home.