Icelandic Philology and National Culture 1780-1918

Icelandic Philology and National Culture 1780-1918

In 2014, the Icelandic Research Fund awarded a three-year grant to the project Icelandic Philology and National Culture 1780-1918 (Íslenskar fornritarannsóknir og þjóðarmenning 1780-1918), hosted by the Reykjavik Academy. Principal investigators were Clarence E. Glad and Gylfi Gunnlaugsson. The main purpose of the project was to examine the work of Icelandic scholars who were engaged in the study and/or editing of Old Norse-Icelandic literature during ‘the long 19th century’, concentrating on the attitudes to nationality and national culture implicit or revealed in their scholarship.

We sought to establish the scholars’ role in the nation-building which assumed ever greater prominence in Icelanders’ cultural activities as the period wore on. An important aspect of our approach was to maintain a distinction between cultural and political nationalism, highlighting the independence of these scholars’ national discourse from the political discourse that accompanied the campaign for national self-determination. Their scholarly discourse was examined as part of the international discussion on the Old Norse-Icelandic cultural heritage and national culture in general. The Icelandic scholars engaged in extensive collaboration with their foreign colleagues; special attention was given to this, and the framework in which it took place. Finally, some emphasis was placed on examining the connection between the Icelandic scholars’ discourse and the reception of the Greco-Roman heritage.

The chief focus was on eight Icelandic scholars: Jón Ólafsson from Svefneyjar, Finnur Magnússon, Sveinbjörn Egilsson, Jón Sigurðsson, Grímur Thomsen, Benedikt Gröndal (Sveinbjarnarson), Guðbrandur Vigfússon and Finnur Jónsson. For comparative purposes, the attitudes of some foreign scholars active in the field were examined specially: P. E. Müller, Rasmus Rask, N. M. Petersen, C. C. Rafn and Rudolf Keyser.

Findings confirmed that Old Icelandic literature, and the work done on it by Icelandic scholars, played a significant role in Icelandic nation-building during the period. However, this conclusion must be qualified by the fact that they were generally more prepared than were most of their 20th-century counterparts to agree that other nations might have some claim to the cultural heritage preserved in old Icelandic manuscripts, and that it was not unreasonable of them to use it to mould their own national or transnational identities. These scholars did not ‘nationalise’ this heritage in Iceland’s name to the same extent as was done later on. The project revealed greater variety in their nationalist thinking than we had expected to find in advance.

In addition to the principal investigators, the original research team consisted of the following: Matthew J. Driscoll, a professor at Nordisk Forskningsinstitut, Copenhagen, Gottskálk Jensson, an associate professor at the same institute, Jon Gunnar Jørgensen, a professor at the University of Oslo, Annette Lassen, an associate professor at Nordisk Forskningsinstitut, Julia Zernack, a professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, and the doctoral students Simon Halink, at the University of Groningen, and Hjalti Snær Ægisson at the University of Iceland. In the latter stages of the project they were joined by Alderik H. Blom, a professor at the University of Marburg, Ragnheiður Mósesdóttir, a librarian at Nor­disk Forskningsinstitut, and Kim Simonsen, a postdoc at the University of Amsterdam. Throughout the project, consultation was maintained with Professor Joep Leerssen of the University of Amsterdam.

The main product of the project will be a collection of 13 essays in English; this has been accepted for publication by the Dutch publishing house Brill for inclusion in the series National Cultivation of Culture. It is expected to appear in the second half of 2020.

Essays that have been published in other peer-reviewed forums:

1) Clarence E. Glad: ‘Skjáskot úr hugarfylgsnum fræðimanns. Störf og verk Sveinbjarnar Egilssonar.’ Eds. Brynjólfur Ólason, Haraldur Hreinsson and Stefán Einar Stefánsson, Sigurjónsbók. Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2017, pp. 87-130.

2) Clarence E. Glad: ‘Anchoring the North. The Geography of North and South in the Construction of Icelandic Identity and National Literature.’ Eds. Joa­chim Grage and Thomas Mohnike, Geographies of Knowledge and Imagination in 19th Century Philological Research on Northern Europe. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 14-56.

3) Gylfi Gunnlaugsson: ‘Island.’ Eds. Julia Zernack and Katja Schulz, Gylfis Täuschung. Rezeptionsgeschichtliches Lexikon zur nordischen Mythologie und Heldensage (Edda-Rezeption 6). Heidelberg: Winter, 2019, pp. 300-317.

4) Gylfi Gunnlaugsson: ‘Norse Myths, Nordic Identities. The Divergent Case of Icelandic Romanticism.’ Ed. Simon Halink, Northern Myths, Modern Identities. The Nationalisation of Northern Mythologies Since 1800 (National Cultivation of Culture 19). Leiden: Brill, 2019, 73-86.

5) Simon Halink: ‘A Tainted Legacy. Finnur Magnússon’s Mythological Studies and Iceland’s National Identity.’ Scandinavian Journal of History 40:2 (2015), pp. 239-270.

6) Annette Lassen: ‘A Nordic Defense: N. M. Petersen’s Translations of 1839-1844.’ Eds. Joa­chim Grage and Thomas Mohnike, Geographies of Knowledge and Imagination in 19th Century Philological Research on Northern Europe. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 124-137.

One of the outcomes of the project will be a translation of the Latin essay De studii classicis by Benedikt Gröndal, which has not previously been published. Hjalti Snær Ægisson has been working on the translation. Publication is envisaged in 2020.

A doctoral thesis was written in connection with the project. Simon Halink defended his thesis, Asgard Revisited. Old Norse Mythology and Icelandic National Culture 1820-1918, on 11 October 2017.

The project, or parts of it, has been presented at the following seminars and conferences abroad:

1) Northern Myths, Modern Identities. The Nationalization of Mythologies in Northern Europe 1800-2014, University of Groningen, 27-29 November 2014.

2) Filologi og nationalisme i det lange 19. århundrede (med særlig fokus på Island), Den Arnamagnæanske Samling, University of Copenhagen, 11 February 2015.

3) Geographies of Knowledge and Imagination. Philological Research on Northern Europe 1800-1950, FRIAS, University of Freiburg, 11-13 June 2015.

4) The 16th International Saga Conference, Universities of Basel and Zürich, 9-15 August 2015.

5) Rethinking Cultural Memory (1750-1850), University of Copenhagen, 4-5 December 2015.

6) Icelandic Philology and National Culture 1780-1918, University of Amsterdam, 3-4 November 2016.

7) The 17th International Saga Conference, University of Iceland, 12-17 August 2018.

8) Cultural Mobilization. Cultural Consciousness-Raising and National Movements in Europe and the World, University of Amsterdam, 19-22 September 2018.