Finnur Jónsson’s Iceland: The periphery of the north at the centre of attention


  • Kim P. Middel


Iceland, self-awareness, historiography, Montesquieu, government, Mallet


On the far northwestern edge of the Occident, during a period of hardship, the eighteenth-century Icelandic bishop, Finnur Jónsson, succeeded in rewriting Icelandic history, bringing it into the realm of contemporary thought, while remaining firmly grounded in Icelandic literary heritage. His achievement, the Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiæ (1772-1778), would find great acclaim among European scholars and marked a new phase in thought on the Icelandic self. Commissioned to produce a Church history of Iceland, Finnur found himself presented with a unique opportunity to put Iceland on the international map, as the work was intended for the country's greater glory and the public good. There was just one problem: if his story was to find success outside Iceland, it had to be universally recognizable. Both form and content had to live up to the international standards of the day. Contemporary thought broached subjects such as freedom, but how was an Icelandic author, whose country was under foreign rule, to describe his country's history in such terms? It would seem that these were serious obstacles. This contribution aims to illustrate how Finnur managed to construct a picture of Iceland under such circumstances, and how his decisions contributed to a positive reception of Iceland abroad. I propose that his decision to write in Latin, the use of modern textual criticism and enlightened ideas about the North, enabled him to present Iceland to a wider European audience. Using such ideas enabled him to highlight Iceland's past as one of freedom from dependence, long before nineteenth-century nationalists did so. Finally, I will discuss the consequences of this focus as a decisive factor in the development of Icelandic self-awareness over the longer term, thus aiming to contribute to the broader debate on the creation of new identities.