From Iceland — It's Alright, Martin!

It’s Alright, Martin!

Published August 5, 2015

It’s Alright, Martin!

“Festivities are known to have occurred at Sæból by fjord Dýrafjörður, at Flankastaðir on Reykjanes, in Reykjavík and Árnessýsla county. They dwindled throughout the 18th century and seem to have fully vanished in its last decades. Since then, no dancing took place in Iceland until around 1880. During the one hundred years in between, the country’s inhabitants were probably the only danceless people in Europe and beyond.”

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The above quote comes from Fjarri hlýju hjónasængur —roughly translatable as Far Away From Matrimony— the late Inga Huld Hákonardóttir’s remarkable account of the history of sexuality and punishment in Iceland. I will try to be brief. We will get to a point.

Grand, just grand

After Lutherans decapitated a bishop to reform Iceland’c churches, new legislation, known as Stóridómur, literally The Grand Judgement, took effect in 1564. This law gave secular powers, the State and its executive officers, the ability to interfere in moral matters, which had until then belonged solely to the Church’s domain. “Moral matters”—as you must know, that’s Christendom’s euphemism for everything regarding sex.

Of the 72 people sentenced to death between 1600 and 1750, 40 were being punished for sexual breaches. Of those, 18 were female, 22 male. The most common offence penalised by death was incest. The act of incest was broadly defined as reaching to a person’s extended family, including in-laws and distant cousins, but only sexual relations between close relatives were punished by death. If a father raped and impregnated his daughter, both parties were, in the eyes of Stóridómur, considered equally culpable. History provides examples of both being executed. The law was not intended to protect individual persons from harm, but to protect God’s design from perceived immorality.

The most common incestuous offence of the 18th century was one man impregnating sisters, a violation considered as severe regardless of whether any of them was his wife or not. Adultery was also punishable by death, but in such cases death sentences were, from the late 17th century onwards, always lessened before it came to execution.

Social design

Other, non-capital, offences included childbearing out of wedlock. This may have been the most socially consequential part of the legislation: As matrimony was legally only available to people of sufficient means, and contraceptive methods were at best rudimentary, this clause in effect rendered sexual intercourse among the country’s lower classes a punishable offence. Whipping, stocks, fines and economic ruin were all applied as penalties. Meanwhile, marriage was not necessarily a safe haven: A royal decree from 1629 commanded time in a stock as penalty for quarrelsome husbands and wives.

Stóridómur served as an addition to, rather than replacement of, the Church’ interferences in moral affairs: after undergoing whatever penalty meted out by the State, any culprit would still have to make amends with God. During Catholicism, amends were a private affair between a parish member and his or her reverend. The reformed Church, however, demanded such amends to be made in public, witnessed by other parish members. Inga Huld finds no comparable 20th century practices “except perhaps the actions of German Nazis in the 1930s. If a Jew was caught with a prostitute, cardboards were hung on both of them, with self-incriminating inscriptions such as “Ich bin Schwein” and “Ich bin Judenhure””.

To the locals’ merit, public confessions proved less popular than the King had hoped for. In 1576 he wrote to complain about rumours that such gatherings were often attended by no more than four or five laymen.

A tale of two decrees

As the frequency of executions decreased, discipline was reinforced by other means. The 1746 decree Húsagatilskipun—House Discipline Ordinance— “commanded servants’ obedience and submission towards their superiors,” in effect making servants as dependent on their masters’ whims as the household’s children were. Upholding such discipline was possible due to the accompanying ban on free employment, known as Vistarbandið—The Stay-right-where-you-are decree, for lack of a better word. Effective from 1783 until 1894, this ordinance obliged those who did not own land to live within a landowner’s household. Impoverished people without a master were auctioned off by communal authorities and handed over to whomever would house them for the lowest compensation. Such auctions were not fully abolished until 1907. As for why this was not known as slavery, you will have to ask someone better informed.

Even if abolished a century ago, many consider these decrees to remain consequential to this day: “Authorities, executive officers and Alþingi supported the social class of farmers in upholding ancient social norms. For a thousand years they mostly managed to hinder the emergence of villages around good harbours” writes Inga Huld. You might not notice, but the notion of liberty is a novelty around here. Urbanity still struggles to be born.

Drink and dance and —look! It’s Jarvis Cocker!

As people acquainted themselves with the newfound formal, if not yet actual freedom of movement, some had already started moving about again in that other sense: after one hundred years of no dancing, the end of the 19th century saw some joy, slowly, returning to the country’s limbs. Locals may still seem somewhat stiff, and to this day most males prefer standing still when possible. Icelanders have nonetheless been dancing again for over a century now.

Authorities were not alone in fearing the unforeseeable consequences of all the hubbub: The 1909 Law Against The Import Of Alcohol was agreed upon in the country’s first national referendum. The law prohibited the import of any beverages containing alcohol above 2,25% of volume. Exceptions were only made for qualified chemical, medical and theological professionals. In 1922, to the despair of the country’s numerous teetotalers, an exception was also made for Spanish wines. This was due to an exchange agreement signed by the two countries, which included a fish-for-wine program. In 1933, another referendum saw the general prohibition fully lifted. Well, or fully … beer alone remained prohibited until 1989. (If you are not familiar with this oddity in the country’s history, ask anyone for explanations and they will act as if they understand while their speech fades to a mumble.)

As soon as the remaining ban on beer was lifted, the number of bars and cafés in Reykjavík multiplied. People started hanging out with non-relatives and everyone became a musician. Earlier this year, 2015, the ban on blasphemy was lifted. 2015. Blasphemy. Feel free to repeat that. It took the Pirate Party to abolish that one.

These volatile landscapes

Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir, an upcoming Alþingi MP on behalf of that same Pirate Party, has now stated her interest in abolishing, or at least curtailing, the penal code’s universal ban on pornography. The infamous paragraph 210 has been in effect since the 1940 penal code‘s inception, but in fact it has not been upheld since in 1990, when adventurer Jón Óttar Ragnarsson, then head of Stöð 2’s programming, was sentenced for the TV station’s late-night screenings of Danish comedies.

The Pirate Party member shared her thoughts on the matter at the end of the week in which everyone and their RÚV headlined that a Spanish, female director of feminist porn films had, inspired by the island’s landscapes and all that, stated her interest in shooting such a film in Iceland. Casting locals. And she can’t.

Luther never could take a hint, could he? As if beheading bishops, slaughtering innocents to more brutally oppress survivors, bending and twisting any soul he could reach to load with the burden of shame upon shame for centuries on end, while all the time, through the very same motion, stalling the growth of towns and cities, stifling our potential for cultural growth and pre-emptively ruining any attempts at Reykjavík city planning—as if that wasn’t enough, if he thinks he can come between an experimental pornographer and her cast and landscape scenery of choice, he hasn’t seen much of the 21st century, has he?

—Debates On Monday #25

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