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Peasant Response to Development and Reform in Iceland 1700-1870

Peasant Response to Development and Reform in Iceland 1700-1870

The project takes its leave in the attempts of the Danish and Icelandic authorities to reform and alter the way of living of ordinary people in Iceland 1700-1870. I want to focus not so much on the ideas behind the reforms, but more on the way in which, different groups among the ordinary people in Iceland respond to and make use of the initiatives of the authorities. The intention is to study how the meeting between authorities and ordinary people takes place, and to what extent ordinary people are part of forming their own world. As a result I hope to be able to come to a new understanding of a period in the history of Iceland, which has long been neglected by historians and therefore described as being without any "important" economic, social or cultural changes.

Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944, but in the 18th and 19th century the majority of the local officials were Icelandic. The Icelanders as such were mainly peasants living from husbandry and seasonal fishing. There were no towns or cities apart from Reykjavik, which came into being as such in the end of the 18th century. Trade was in the hands of monopoly merchants from Copenhagen until 1787 and thereafter free only to Danish subjects till 1855. The 18th and 19th century is in Iceland regarded as a time of trouble and decline by Danish and Icelandic authorities of the time as well as by many historians today. The Icelanders lived under conditions that were to a large extent influenced by epidemics, volcanic eruptions, and hard winters followed by severe decline of the population and setback in the "development" of the society. In the view of the authorities, though, the behaviour of the ordinary people was part of the problem because they apparently didn't know how to make use of the resources at hand. For instance they didn't exploit the fishing to the extent they could (and later do), and the same goes for farming. The authorities therefore made several - but not necessarily successful - attempts to reform and change the way of living of ordinary people in order to improve the situation in Iceland. These reforms were directed at many aspects of life: moral, education, health, technology, fishing and so on. It is my intent to focus on some of these reforms and compare the way in which they are put into work with a reconstruction of the way ordinary people actually live and respond to them.