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Part project 4: Konrad Maurer and the Construction of the Freistaat

Amrei Stanzel

In the 19th century, Iceland came into the focus of European scholars due to its special founding history. Prompted by Konrad Maurer’s (1823–1902) works, which underlined the legitimacy of Icelandic independence from the Danish-Icelandic constitutional dispute of 1848 onwards, the narrative about Iceland’s past developed into an elaborate founding myth in the course of the 19th century. As evidence for his point of view, Maurer, like many after him, cited Old Norse-Icelandic literature, above all Íslendingabók and Landnámabók which he declared to be the most credible testimonies to the historical events in question, but also the Íslendingasögur. Maurer focused on the period from Iceland’s founding of the alþingi (people’s assembly or parliament) at around 930 until its loss of independence to the Norwegian crown in 1264 and called the polity of this time the Icelandic Freistaat (Free State). Somewhat later the Icelandic equivalent þjóðveldi emerged, being cited by Maurer’s close friend, the politician and scholar Jón Sigurðsson (1811–79) and thereafter most prominently by the historian Bogi Th. Melsteð (1860–1992). Like Freistaat, the nowadays highly canonized þjóðveldi is a product of the 19thcentury and does not originate from the medieval texts to which it refers. Furthermore, its discursive implications evolved over time. Late 19th-century authors such as W.P. Ker (1855–1923) and Charles Conybeare (1853–1919) emphasized the love of freedom and noble egalitarianism of the first Icelandic settlers, projecting their contemporary national-liberal desires onto medieval Iceland. In the early 20th century, Icelandic historian Jón Aðils (1869–1929), building on the work of his predecessors, strongly advocated the time of the þjóðveldi to be Iceland’s gullöld (golden age), to whose glory Iceland is to return.

Using Konrad Maurer’s Freistaat as a starting point, the aim of this part project is to retrace the narratives on Iceland’s past and their evolution until the early 20thcentury and to identify the key actors who were dominant in their discursive arrangement and dissemination. The PhD project will show how the network of academic actants – which are to be understood here as actor-networks in the sense of the overall project – with their aforementioned terminologies and narratives not only shaped the self-image of Icelanders in the struggle for independence, but how in the process, in particular, a very ahistorical conception of state identity was applied to the Icelandic Middle Ages.

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