From Myth to Fact in Legal History

With vivid detail, Mark Weiner of the Legal History Blog recounts his discussion with Chair of the Institute of Archeology in Reykjavík, Adolf Fri∂rickson. Weiner’s entry is a superb reminder of the importance of legal scholars interacting with others outside the discipline to gain insights that they might otherwise miss.

As Douglass North insists, “Incorporating institutions into history allows us to tell a much better story than we otherwise could.” Indeed, one can hardly understand the past without being sensitive to its guiding institutions, & necessary to achieve such understanding is cross-disciplinary study & participation. The following passage reveals how valuable this interaction can be toward comprehending the path dependent character of societies:

Science historicizes with a hammer. …In time, that hammer will fundamentally transform the landscape of legal memory here, perhaps severing many of the bands of vernacular legal remembrance which for generations have linked Icelanders to their environment. The landscape of Iceland will be emptied of ancient legal memories, to be replaced by facts ascertained by specialists. Icelanders’ relation to their land will be mediated by the knowledge of an international class of academic historians & social scientists. There is no need to be nostalgic for the world of popular legal history that will vanish. But it will be important in the distant future to remember that it has. It also will be important to understand that science is not acting in an intellectual vacuum. Just as today we view the work of the nineteenth-century Archeological Society within the context of an Icelandic nationalism that partook of a larger European moment, so too the transformation of popular legal memory in Iceland is but one component of the engine of economic & political integration of contemporary Europe.

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