From Iceland — Queer History In 19th Century Iceland: Ólafur Davíðsson's Diaries

Queer History In 19th Century Iceland: Ólafur Davíðsson’s Diaries
Björn Halldórsson
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Among the grants awarded this year by Rannís, The Icelandic Centre for Research, is a project by a young classicist named Þorsteinn Vilhjálmsson, who has taken on the task of transcribing the diary of Ólafur Davíðsson. “He was a unique man,” says Þorsteinn. “He died by misadventure aged forty—he fell off his horse while drunk and drowned in the Hörgilsá river. He was always considered a bit odd, and articles of the time make a point of stating that he never married. In his own time, he was mainly known for being a scholar, and published collections of folklore. But he also left behind this diary.”

“Everybody understood that it was these boys who would lead the nation towards independence.”

Ólafur kept the diary during his time at Lærði Skólinn, the Reykjavík Junior College, in the late 19th century. He documents with narrative prowess his own exploits, as well as those of his fellow students—the sons of the upper classes. A selection has previously been published in Icelandic, but older editions made sure to omit certain parts of Ólafur’s writing—particularly references to his relationship with another young student, Geir Sæmundsson, who later became a priest of some standing in Akureyri. As such, it is a unique document of queer history in Iceland.

Cuddles and embraces

“Ólafur himself doesn’t have access to the vocabulary that we might use today to describe his relationship to Geir,” explains Þorsteinn. “The word ‘homosexual’ had just recently appeared in Germany at the time, and I sincerely doubt that Ólafur would have ever come across it. Instead, he simply says that he ‘finally has a crush on someone,’ and refers to Geir as his girlfriend and sweetheart. He feminizes him in the text, also pondering at length what it means to be in love with a man. I think it’s unlikely that the two of them ever had sex, per se, but they shared a bed, and there are many rather sweet references to cuddling and kisses being exchanged.”

“The word ‘homosexual’ had just recently appeared in Germany at the time. I sincerely doubt that Ólafur would have ever come across it.”

The diary also gives an intriguing insight into the daily lives of the young men of the upper classes at the time, the same ones who would come to have a great impact on Icelandic society. “They were the country’s finest,” says Þorsteinn. “A lot of them went on to become leading figures; priests and politicians and council members. But they were also very human, as can be seen in Ólafur’s descriptions of their bouts of drunken exuberance and various shenanigans.”

The hopes of the nation

The arrogance of these young men can be quite striking at times, Þorsteinn points out. “They referred to everyone who didn’t attend the school as ‘dóni’ which is a word derived from a Latin phrase from Virgil’s Georgica.” Today, the word “dóni” has become common parlance for an uncouth person.

People in Reykjavík certainly thought the boys to be arrogant, Þorsteinn explains, but the public also took a certain pride in them. “Everybody understood that it was these boys who would go overseas and educate themselves and then return to lead the nation towards independence. However, their hubris also meant that people took some small delight when they received gossip that one of them had drunk away his education and prospects, or even his life, as they were wont to do once they got to the worldly city of Copenhagen.”

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