Education, Love and Grief. A Micro-Historical Analyses of the 19th and the 20th Century Peasant Society in Iceland

Education, Love and Grief. A Micro-Historical Analyses of the 19th and the 20th Century Peasant Society in Iceland. Studia Historica 13. Published by the Institute of History and the Icelandic University Press, 1997. 339 pages. – (Menntun, ást og sorg. Einsögurannsókn á íslensku sveitasamfélagi 19. og 20. aldar. Sagnfræðirannsóknir 13 (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 1997)).

This book is an experiment. The attempt is being made to write about a certain time period exclusively from the perspective of individuals and to try to shed some light on issues which have not been part of the traditional historical inquiry. At issue here is the fact that the Icelandic cultural heritage includes considerable quantity of personal documents in the form of autobiographies, diaries, and letters from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and the twentieth centuries, documents which have not, heretofore, been used for the purposes of historical scholarship. But it is not enough to identify the importance of these sources: the great challenge is to figure out how they can best be put to use in the analysis of these time periods. The book elaborates on how microhistorical methodology can direct this kind of research; but, more importantly, it explores the possibilities which micro-history gives us as historians for dealing with topics with which we have not dealt before. In this sense, the book is an experiment which will, hopefully, be continued in the future.

The book is divided into three main parts, all of them further divided into a number of chapters. The first part – the introductory section – deals with the meaning of microhistory and its theoretical strengths. It is argued that microhistory is an important tool for historians to use, especially those who are trying to constructively use personal sources in historical research. This book does not follow the “Italian school” of microhistory which aims towards recreating historical sources which were originally made for a totally different purpose, and which concerns itself primarily with people who lived on the periphery who left behind no sources about their own lives. The sources which tell their story have always been created by the people in power, who, of course, left their own marks upon them. For that reason the recreation of these sources becomes a necessity.

This process of recreation becomes unnecessary if nineteenth century Iceland is the subject matter since a great number of ordinary people – people who did not live on the periphery – left behind personal documents of a different nature. The challenge for Icelandic historians, therefore, is to come up with a conceptual framework which captures the multi-dimensional nature of these sources and works towards a systematic analysis of different historical phenomena. This book is a first step in the direction of a full exploration of these kinds of sources and the possibilities which they give for historical analysis.

The main focus is on two brothers and on the diaries which they kept independently for decades: one for two and half decades, and the other for four decades. These two diaries are extremely large in scope and difficult to analyze. In addition to the diaries, part of their correspondence has survived: most importantly, love letters between the older brother and his future wife. All of these personal documents, together with additional documents which come from people who lived during the same time period and had a similar social status, give an unusually rich opportunity to explore unknown territory in Icelandic culture: namely, the connection between education and emotions.

The second part of the book is the contextual dimension of the analysis. In this part of the book the personal saga of the brothers is put into appropriate context by tracing the contemporary public debates about education. These debates are used as a background for the analysis of the diaries and the letters. This is a crucial part of the whole argument. The history of education has been an institutional history for the most part, focusing on certain issues: e.g. the level of literacy, the growth of the school system, and the increase in the student population. In recent years, a few European and American historians have started to ask questions about the interconnection between education and the family economy: How did the parents view education in the nineteenth century? Did they automatically accept it as a positive step towards a more prosperous life for their children? What were their goals? This research has taken us much further towards a fuller understanding of the development of the educational system. The fundamental theoretical assumption underlying research of this kind is that people do have a lot of say about their own daily affairs. They do not merely receive orders from above and follow them. They have their own plans and goals which greatly affect the development of formal institutions like the school system.

In this section, an attempt is made to take this theoretical development one step further: to the individual and his or her own feelings, desires, and expectations concerning life in general and education in particular. In other words, an attempt is made to put the discussion about education where it has the most meaning: in people¹s own personal lives.

The second chapter in this section traces the development in Iceland of legislation concerning formal education. Icelandic historians have generally concluded that these new laws, especially those at the beginning of the twentieth century, pushed Icelandic society towards more modernization. There is no question that these laws were important, but at the same time it could be argued that these steps were both small and inconsistent. This becomes apparent when one tries to approach the historical development of education from the standpoint of those who were supposed to enjoy these institutions. In fact, a large part of the population was left without little or no formal education, and few youngsters had any opportunity for further education after the age of fourteen. This was really the case well into the twentieth century, at least until the new school laws were passed in the thirties. It needs to be emphasized that historians have approached this development almost exclusively from the institutional point of view, and as a result, it has been described as one triumph after another.

There is no doubt that laws and regulations can greatly affect the general public. But there are other things which also affect their decision making. One of these is the general discussion which takes place in the society, for example in newspapers and journals. Since Icelandic peasant society was completely literate, people of all classes followed the general discussions about topics like education. Journal and newspapers articles were often read aloud at the winter-eve gatherings and then discussed further by the whole family, young and old alike. In this part of the book I used over 50 newspapers and journals, published in the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the first part of the twentieth century, to follow the major arguments about education and to show how those who expressed their opinions wanted to see the educational system develop.

Needless to say, the general discussions are rather complicated and shift direction from one time to another. Overall, one can argue that the debate was split between those who wanted to build up the educational system swiftly to meet the demand which they argued came from the general public and those who urged caution and believed that the educational system should continue to be built on home education. The former argued, in part, that schools were needed so that the people could function in a modern society and participate within the newly established nation state. The latter group, which was both larger and dominated the discussions, pointed out that it would be too expensive to build schools all over the country and that the government needed to prove considerable responsibility, to show that the Icelanders were worthy of their new constitutional freedom. The latter group connected their argument to the changes which were taking place in Icelandic rural society, in particular the massive emigration to America and the migration to urban areas within Iceland. They argued that it was the general population’s desire for more education which had led to this development and, in order to prevent this, it was necessary to tighten the grip on children and servants. The master of the household was, therefore, challenged to control his flock: more discipline in the society would solve this serious problem.

These first two chapters in this part of the book, the one concerning laws and regulations, and the other which concerning the contemporary debates, deal with the formal side of the development of education in the country. It is important to show how the formal side of the educational system developed because it illustrates the conditions under which the general public functioned. Adolescents, for example, often attempted to seek more education, but were usually prevented from doing so, one way or another. But before they made an attempt to get more education they had first to make up their minds as to whether it would be worth the effort to do so. They had, after all, been reading and listening to warnings about the dangers which could follow the desire for more education. One would think that a logical conclusion for most of them would be to stay in their home communes and work as servants, gradually moving up into the class of independent farmers.

One dilemma in all this was the fact that both groups, those who wanted more public education and those who argued for continued home education, built on the same foundations: a desire to shoulder the responsibilities which came with the new independent freedom. This argument was originally made by some of the most prominent romantic poets in the country, including Jónas Hallgrímsson, who encouraged the general public to progress and they used their ancestors from the Saga age as models which were worth following. For children and adolescents, this message was certainly understandable and, more importantly; they understood it their own way. And this is exactly what is explored in the third and the last chapter of the second part of the book.

In this chapter, an attempt is made to show just how deep ran the two brothers yearning for education and how extensive was the knowledge which they managed to acquire despite great difficulties. Although they took great part in the daily routine at their family farm they used every moment they could find to read, write, calculate, and speculate about their surroundings. They collected books in greater quantity than one would expect from sons of a poor farmer, and they took time off from their work for one winter to study at the pastors house. All this was expensive and their gain was neither obvious nor certain. One wonders, at least, why on earth they took all this trouble to get more education when it was both expensive and difficult. That is the subject dealt with in the last part of the book.

If there was no, or at least no obvious, economic gain to be made from their longed for education and almost all other circumstances worked against them, then the answer must be found within themselves. The question is then how can their psyches be explored: their dreams and their world views? How can we connect their desire for education with their emotional states? The route which has been taken in this book is to focus on two very distinct emotions: the one which follows death, and the other which usually goes with courtship. Grief and love are not picked randomly from amongst the many different emotions. They are the emotions which are most noticeable in both the diaries and the letters. These are emotions which call forth strong reactions, and the brothers, for good reason, expressed them in their own particular ways.

I have argued in another study that children often had a hard time coping with a reality which consisted of a lot of work, isolation from the rest of the family for a large part of the day, and the often untimely death of relatives and friends. To be able to deal with all that hardship they turned to literature and, especially, the Icelandic Sagas where they found some relief and moral guidance. This interaction between work and education (which I cannot really do justice to here in this brief exposition) is responsible for the fact that people in nineteenth century Icelandic peasant society were universally literate, a situation which was somewhat unusual in comparison with other peasant societies in Europe at that time. One of the things which they learned from the Icelandic Sagas was to meet their destiny with calm and resignation. When they stood face to face with death of a close relative, like a mother or father for example, it is noteworthy how soon they managed to recover from the ordeal and keep on with their daily duties.

These two brothers, whose diaries and letters have been examined in this book, had a constant exposure to death from an early age. Five of their brothers had, for example, died when they were young and their mother died when they were still in their teens. It is striking to notice, therefore, how reserved they are in their dealings with death on numerous occasions. They explain in their diaries what has happened, but withdraw all other emotions from that description. In most instances, it is as neutral as it can possibly be.

It is argued in this book that they got their emotional outlet through their writing and their desire for education. Their world was precarious but by keeping a steady diary they felt that they had some control over their lives. It was for that reason that they “documented life” as it was called. They were, in fact, willing to do whatever it took to fulfill their need for education, simply because it was a need and not a recreation. It was their statement about their own existence: what it meant and how it was fought. Their expression – or more precisely, their lack of expression – of grief is indeed extremely striking. But the fact that they withdrew their emotions from the actual event does not mean that they did not have strong and passionate feelings. In fact, their feelings were so strong that they needed to search for an outlet which they found in education. In the light of this argument, it becomes interesting to see how they dealt with other feelings such as love.

Although love is a more difficult topic to examine since the sources are more concentrated and not as numerous as those about death, one can still see that it is in line with the way that the two brothers expressed grief. In nineteenth century Iceland, parents still attempted to control their children’s relationships with the opposite sex. Arranged marriages were certainly part of the cultural scene in the late nineteenth century, especially for those who were part of the upper class. The lower classes had to use other methods of restraint. Sometimes people were successful but sometimes they were not. If young people, like the two brothers who are part of this study, had any desire to advance themselves in society they had to give both discipline and conditions to their love. The conditions upon which their love rested (especially the love of Níels Jónsson and Guðrún Bjarnadóttir) were linked with education and the desire to reach out for more schooling or any other form of learning.

This is actually a vital part of the argument of this book. Life in general was shaped by the various material strains which people faced. The people who lived under these circumstances had of course strong emotions which they often had good reason to express but, at the same time, their situation required that they control them. In fact, a full and direct expression of emotions was unthinkable. Letting the emotions run free could prove fatal for that particular individual and his or her family. Life had to go on, no matter what. But instead of becoming introverted and deprived of all pleasure in life, people in the nineteenth century turned to education which gave them a form and a focus for their emotions. This becomes clear when one considers the great interest which the general public had in poetry, a literary form which was extremely structured and dealt with all imaginable human emotions. Both brothers collected poetry, especially the younger one, and obviously used it for the expression of their feelings when it was necessary for them to control their joy or sorrow.

This inner control which is so noticeable in the life of the two brothers was very much guided by their interest in progress. It is argued in this book, in fact, that because of constant exposure to the often untimely death of close relatives and friends, people were always prepared to deal with the situation. Grief theories, especially those which deal with anticipatory grief, maintain that individuals who have considerable time to prepare for loss base their dealings with death on hope, in particular on the hope that the dying person will eventually recover. In this book the hypothesis is put forth that this hope, which is usually directed towards an individual, can also be applied on a much larger scale, especially when grief is a constant phenomenon in a person’s life. The theory of anticipatory grief is then adapted to the society in gereral, with one outlet of that grief being progress: hope is turned towards the advancement of society as a way of making life more bearable and more liveable. Reaching forward becomes a way for people to overcome grief. And this is exactly what the two brothers, Halldór and Níels Jónsson, did. To take steps forward was part of the brothers identity and an unavoidable need in their search for a better life. It is this context which gives the public debates and the governmental measures concerning education real meaning.

This story is in one sense a tragedy, but at the same time it is a triumph. The tragedy becomes apparent when one realizes that all of the people who are part of this book had big dreams, dreams which they really pursued and worked for systematically, with encouragement from romantic poets and liberal politicians of the time. But their desires were never met. Conservative voices dominated the direction of education, with the result that only the few and the wealthy had the opportunity to get more education. The two brothers, despite all their efforts, ended up doing what their father had done, tilling a soil which was inhospitable and which did not compensate for a promising future. The tragedy is for this reason on a much larger scale; it was, in fact, a social tragedy, because the society did not allow individuals like these two brothers to live up to their full potential.

At the same time their story is a triumph, especially if we view it from a more personal perspective. They managed to do more than anyone could really expect of poor farmers in the latter part of the nineteenth century. They became pillars of their community and well respected by rich and poor alike. They managed to overcome one hurdle after another and keep their dreams alive. The younger brother pointed out in a letter to his older brother that he thought that they could have done more with their lives, but then he adds: “Why even thinking about that, it is quite uncertain that we would have in fact felt any better.”

This book touches on the foundations of Icelandic culture, its possibilities for growth and development at a time of great social change, as mirrored in the lives of these two brothers and the people connected to them. This is a micro-history and one of the first studies in Iceland which uses the conceptual framework which that methodology offers. It is hoped that this is just the first step of many in that direction.