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From children's point of view: childhood in nineteenth-century Iceland.

In their book Growing up in America, Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner challenged historians to explore more fully the following five questions relating to the history of childhood:

1. What have been the attitudes of adults toward children and childhood?

2. What are the conditions that shape the development of children?

3. What has been the subjective experience of being a child in the past?

4. How have children and childhood influenced adults?

5. What have been the social, cultural, and psychological functions of children?(1)

It can be argued that most of these questions have in recent years received considerable attention from historians all over the world, and the results have produced some of the most exciting scholarship in the field of history.(2) One question, however, has been to a large extent neglected by historians. It is the third; vis. What has been the subjective experience of being a child in the past?

Indeed, most scholars have simply ignored this part of the history of childhood. Others have expressed some disappointment about the limits which the sources put on them, arguing that they have no alternative but to accept the perspective given by parents and society. Vivian C. Fox and Martin H. Quitt mentioned the challenge of getting at children's point of view in their book Loving, Parenting and Dying: "That is an extremely difficult if not impossible task, for the children of the past remain almost entirely inarticulate to us. We cannot assume that they were the completely malleable receptacles of adult wishes and behavior. How they internalized adult actions cannot usually be known."(3) Constance B. Schulz addressed the same issue when discussing education in eighteenth century America: "These studies are particularly remarkable because most of the extensive literature on eighteenth-century education focuses on institutions, and adult perceptions of those institutions, without considering the role of the children themselves in the learning process. Visualizing learners as 'essentially passive,' these studies of education have, in the words of Barbara Finkelstein, proceeded, 'as though children were cavernous holes into which are poured status, skills, books, curricula, and out of which emerge formed human beings.'"(4) Those very few studies which have made an attempt to shed light on the actual childhood experience have primarily emphasized urban, late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century societies, employing both autobiographies and oral history.(5) The intention in this article is to focus specifically on the history of childhood in a rural society from children's point of view.

The following discussion will give us insight into the world of children as they experienced it themselves, illustrating how they carved their own niche in society while meeting the challenge of the hostile environment encountered by many of them in their everyday lives. Furthermore, we seek to obtain a new perspective within the otherwise well established category of the history of childhood and add to the extraordinary flavor of this literature. Already much is known of issues such as infant mortality, the character of children's work participation, parental expectations toward their children, parent-child relationships, the informal and formal education of children, and reforms and social policies related to children. All this has given us a remarkable view into the social and cultural development of different societies in time and space. It is hoped that this article will encourage other historians to use available sources in much more constructive and imaginative way in their approach to the history of childhood.(6)

It is argued here that we know a great deal about the "normative behavior" of children but much less about the "actual behavior" in any society at any given time. We have a good idea how the society at large expected children to behave but less about how they experienced life themselves. In reality, the only way of truly "getting into the head" of the people who lived through some specific historical change is to have their own personal testimonies. Those testimonies are most likely to be found in personal letters, diaries and autobiographies. The problem is of course that the general public in former times did not traditionally leave behind written statements about their lives in any form or shape.(7) This was especially true amid the peasantry where literacy was rare - and often, did not go beyond the ability of the peasants to write their own names - and the exceptions normally carried with them strong biases which were not well suited to tell us much about the feelings and desires of the majority of the population.(8) In any case, we may say with certitude that children are the least likely of any group to have left a written snapshot into their daily affairs. Therefore we are usually left with descriptions from educated contemporary observers who, for one reason or another, showed the initiative to write about the general public and children's lives from the outside.

This is where the Icelandic case adds to our understanding of how people in general - and children in particular - experienced their closest environment. Through it we may also learn how they met those difficulties they faced and how the experience molded their individual character. The uniqueness of Icelandic nineteenth-century peasant society stems from the fact that it enjoyed universal literacy. Even more remarkable - and, we might add, the basis for this study - is the fact that so many of these literate peasants chose to record the everyday events and experiences of their lives in autobiographies. This desire can be traced to the traditional literature of Icelandic society - the medieval Icelandic saga - which was universally read by poor and rich alike. This literature primarily dealt with individual peasant affairs in the early settlement of Iceland, from the ninth to the twelfth century, and had a major influence on Icelandic culture throughout the island's history; indeed, it continues to do so to this day. As a result of the influence of the Icelandic saga, many ordinary people felt the urge to tell their life stories, regardless of the fact that most often they did not see themselves as having accomplished anything noteworthy during their lifetime. It is for this reason that we have an unusually rich source of information relating to peasants' everyday life experience.

It needs to be emphasized that the autobiography and its use in historical study present some methodological problems. Since they are usually written forty to sixty years after the actual events took place, how representative can this source be? Also, how much was the autobiography influenced by the mentality of the time when the author wrote his or her memoirs? It is argued here that in spite of these problems the autobiography can be used very effectively, especially when the data base is large enough. In such instances the individual autobiography can reasonably be compared with a group of others on the same topic. The most important limitation of the autobiographies of which we must be aware for this study is the fact that they were not written by children, but rather by adults reflecting on their own childhood. The resulting testimony is the closest we can hope to get to children's experiences (with the exception of the child diary) in former times.

This study is based on approximately 240 autobiographical accounts, nearly all of which go into great detail about the first twenty to thirty years of life as it was experienced between about 1830 and 1900.(9) These 240 autobiographies were written by people of all walks of life, both males and females, and give a surprisingly large sample for a society numbering 78,203 people in the year 1900.

Looking at childhood through children's eyes, even with the remove of personal recollection, allows exploration of several major themes. First, it revives some aspects of Aries' contentions about the harshness of premodern childhood. Aries' arguments have been widely attacked, particularly by medievalists and early modernists eager to defend the parents of their periods.(10) Clearly, the more extreme contentions about neglect of childhood as a life phase must be rethought. But refutations of Aries that ignore differences in the childhood experience in past periods also can go too far. The Icelandic case has, to be sure, some unusual features. But it captures some aspects of a peasant experience relevant also to parts of Europe and elsewhere. Recollections of childhood remind us of realities and perceptions that reflect rural conditions and expectations that were not the same as those of more modern times; the historicity of childhood - Aries' central contention finds renewed significance. Yet responses to peasant childhood also varied, as we will note in conclusion. The Icelandic experience suggests the bases for divisions among peasants rooted in a combination of social inequalities and distinctive personalities - another finding applicable to peasant histories in other regions.

Nineteenth-Century Icelandic Society

There were, as one might expect, a number of factors which greatly influenced an individual during his or her life course in the nineteenth-century Icelandic peasant society.(11) First and most striking was the topography. Iceland is an island of 103,000 square kilometers, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, and covered by lava, black sand deserts, hills eroded of all soil, mountains - often decked with snow, with green valleys stretching toward the shore which encompasses the island. These conditions, combined with the stunted growing season of the northern latitudes, greatly constrained farming yields. The farmsteads themselves were scattered throughout the countryside, usually with a good distance between each of them. Isolation was the norm rather than the exception. Communication was extremely difficult due to the lack of roads and the hindrance of big rivers and glaciers. Each farm was in this sense an island with minimal contact with the outside world, especially during the long, dark, and cold winter months. In addition, periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - often resulting in famines and widespread hunger - contributed in making Iceland a hard place to take anything for granted.

Secondly, owner-occupancy was the exception rather than the rule. Only ten percent of farms were run by their owners at the beginning of the nineteenth century, resulting in families constantly drifting from one farm to another looking for a suitable place to settle down.(12) During the nineteenth century the population grew steadily, putting pressure on the peasant community and re-suiting in a shortage of available land. Nonetheless, access to land remained an absolute necessity in forming a family and household. Consequently, the age of marriage was unusually high in Iceland in the nineteenth century; toward the end of the century the mean age at marriage for grooms was 30.8 years, and 28.2 years for brides. The population pressure was also intensified by the successful application of social legislation limiting both migration and the construction of towns and villages. Therefore landless individuals were for most of the nineteenth century locked into peasant society, and those who did not have access to land by law had to sign up for service in the household of another. The service class was extremely large in Iceland at that time: around thirty-five to forty percent of the population over the age of fifteen in the latter part of the nineteenth century. For a large portion of the population, service had become a permanent position in the society instead of a temporary stage in preparation for parenthood and adulthood, as was the case in most European societies.(13)

Finally, the family was the fundamental unit of the peasant society. The master of the household had almost total power over family life. He was the face of the home toward the outside world and legally the only one who could participate in public affairs. The farmer's wife shared in practice many of her husband's responsibilities, but exclusively those which had to do with domestic affairs. Children were raised by their parents until the age of thirteen, but more often to the age of fifteen or sixteen. At an early age they started to take an active part in the production process as a part of their education. Moving away from their parents and entering service, however, did not change their legal and moral status as children.(14) Between the age of fifteen and thirty most had very limited rights and had to follow the rules set by the master of the household. Servants could however move from one household to another after their one year contract expired.

Foster children were another important part of the Icelandic household. There were essentially two types of foster children: "actual foster children" and "private paupers". The first group shared the same status within the household as the children of the head of the household. They were relatives taken into the home, either permanently or temporarily, in a situation of crisis for their birth parents. Private paupers lived in a totally different world, coming from broken homes without relatives, they were often auctioned off to anyone who was willing to take them. Though the number of these children varied greatly from one time to another, they could often represent a significant portion of the total number of children in each parish. The harsh reality was that these children were on their own in the society.(15)

Indeed the social situation and the number of these children convey much of the dynamic of the Icelandic peasant society in the nineteenth century. People who had just started their career were the most fertile and tended to have a lot of children. They often started on a small farm and hoped eventually to move up the social ladder. But their world was extremely fragile. Death of livestock or a bad harvest could totally ruin their future, often resulting in family dissolution. In such cases these families received little sympathy from the local government. The Icelandic historian Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson explains why: "By splitting up families, the local authorities achieved several objectives: the reproduction function of the poverty-stricken family was cut short, a farm was made vacant for another family, support (and care) was provided for those members of the family who were not fit to work, and the working capacities of those members who were partially able to do so were utilized."(16)

The last group which was often part of the Icelandic household was the third generation. Grandparents usually took part in all regular household activities. They, for example, often had much more to do with children than their parents did. This completes the nineteenth-century stage on which we will see how individual contemporary participants met the challenge of surviving the everyday life experience.

Children in the Icelandic Perspective

In his book Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Aries argued that the distinction between childhood and adolescence was first made in the eighteenth century, that in fact the concept of childhood did not exist until then. He concluded that previously the relationship between parents and children reflected a total indifference of the former toward the latter.(17) Needless to say this theory has been widely disputed by historians since Aries first published his book in 1960.(18) The tendency has been to focus on the rough distinction which Aries made between childhood and adulthood and the contention that parents did, in fact, show their children considerable affection throughout human history.(19) It will be argued here that Aries was often correct in concluding that parents neglected their children, when we take the children's point of view rather than the claims of adults. However, in the Icelandic case, that neglect was essentially determined by the work process and a lack of available time to spend with children. For the more important challenge is to go beyond the Aries' analysis and reveal how and why children survived this experience.

In fact, what has been largely left out from scholarly debates is an attempt to reveal the subtleties which childhood itself brought about in the life of each individual on his or her road to adulthood. This is worth stressing because it is crucial to attempt to break up the period from birth to adulthood into smaller pieces and identify the character of each time span, gaining the opportunity to analyze the changes which each individual went through in his or her upbringing. This effort challenges the assumption that children were merely passive participants in the course of their own lives, as one might think when too much emphasis is put on the role of institutional structures. Rather, children themselves both reacted to and actively affected the reality which faced them on a day to day basis in a constructive way. Exploring this will open up for us a more complete understanding of how children came into being as individuals. In other words, it is important not to assume that childhood is one unified period in children's lives; rather it is a complex sequence of transitions.(20) An understanding of this complex mechanism of growing up will give us insight into people's motives and behavior as adults.

The emphasis in this study will be on two life stages (though the case could be made for three). The first life stage was infancy, which spanned the years from birth to roughly the age of five to seven.(21) The second came with the first work assignment, spanning from the end of infancy to the age of fourteen. This second life stage (childhood) was in turn divided into two parts, one covering ages five or seven to approximately ten, the other dealing with ages ten to fourteen. The two parts expressed certain changes which took place in most children's lives around the age often but which were not dramatic enough to constitute a major transition in their life.

The third life stage was adulthood which formally started around the age of fourteen. While this stage is not dealt with in this article we do pay specific attention not only to the transformation which took place when children were assigned their first work task but also to the shift when they were confirmed at fourteen. Individuals have the tendency to disclose their emotions, values and beliefs when they go through transitions, giving us an opportunity to analyze what the two major transitions of peasant childhood actually meant.(22) To limit the scope of the study we will focus on work, death and education. Arguably, these three subjects substantially absorbed people's lives in Icelandic nineteenth-century society.


This period in children's lives was extremely important for their future development and outlook on life. They developed from being infants solely preoccupied with basic mechanisms such as breathing, eating and sleeping, to individuals who were able to understand what roles they were to imitate and gradually execute under the guidance of the older children or grown ups who surrounded their lives.

In this section the focus is almost exclusively on one part of children's experience, one which arguably had a major impact on their future development: the experience of death.(23) The intention is to examine how death affected children and what their reactions were to the death of close family members or people in their immediate environment. This illustrates how death shaped the experience children carried with them when they started to participate in society in their next life stage.

It is safe to assert that instability was the norm in Icelandic nineteenth-century society. Extremely high infant mortality, along with a population unusually susceptible to diseases and epidemics, and high accident rates from dangers inherent in the environment and the omnipresent peril which comes with fishing the North Atlantic, all created conditions in which there was constant exposure to death. A case in point is the narrative of Indridhi Einarsson (b. 1851). He was one of fifteen siblings. Six of them survived into adulthood, though one of them subsequently died at sea. Diphtheria had claimed the rest of the children and placed its mark on the whole family. "There was a time during my childhood when I was certain that the diphtheria would kill me before the age of 14."(24) This reality, described in great detail in the book written by Indridhi Einarsson, was far from being the exception. Rather it was something which everyone had to expect.(25)

Another autobiographer, Gudhrun Gudhmundsdottir (b.1860), described the effect her brother's death had on the life of her family. She was one of ten siblings, five of whom died during early youth. Her narrative begins when her eight-year-old brother died suddenly in his bed. She was at the time taking care of her infant sister in the living room in their small farmhouse. After realizing what had happened she collapsed totally:

I raced around the floor holding the baby and crying. I harped on the same sentence again and again: 'I want to die too. I want to die too.'

'Maybe you will,' answered my mother. That was all she said to comfort me. Next my father was fetched and Bergur, my little brother, was put into an appropriate position. I did not see my parents cry and I did not cry for long.

Thereafter, my parents went to work in the vegetable garden and I was left with the baby and the corpse. It did not bother me. It was just like I had not fully realized what had happened, and I felt that Bergur was just asleep in his bed. But that evening when he was carried out of the living room, it bothered me to know about him alone in the storehouse.(26)

The same year just before Christmas they lost another six year old child to diphtheria:

This was a great loss and Christmas was dull without candles, games, or entertainments. I never heard anyone mention this tragedy except once when the farmer Kjartan at Brattagerdhi came to my father for some carpentry work.

He said to my father: 'Well, you were lucky. Your burden was eased.' My father replied: 'Did you count yourself lucky when your children died?' 'I have buried nine of them along with my wife and I haven't shed a single tear yet.'(27)

This story gives us an extraordinary view into the world of parents and children in nineteenth-century Iceland. There are indeed a number of interesting angles to be explored in this account: First of all, the reaction of Gudhrun, the story teller: the shock of witnessing the death of her first brother and then how quickly she recovered from the whole ordeal. Then the somewhat balanced description of the death of the second brother. It is as though she had learned a lesson: to face reality with a certain distance, calm and modesty.

Second, we should consider the reaction of the mother. Her failure to display any grief is noteworthy in itself, but in addition she tells Gudhrun to quiet herself, making no attempt to give her comfort. And soon thereafter she departs, leaving Gudhrun alone with the baby and the body. It is obvious that these were people who did not have very high expectations for the growth and progression of their children, nor did they have the disposition to grieve over loss. After all, the garden needed tending. The parents had known the risk from an early age, and throughout their lives they had witnessed the death of children, family, friends and foes. This was something which did not come as a surprise to either of the parents, and harsh reality had taught them long ago that life had to go on. It is difficult to say how typical the mother's reaction was, simply because the account of this incident is unusually open. Some other people's recollections of similar events reflect stronger grief on the part of the parents after having lost some member of their family.(28) Conversely, many autobiographers only mention dramatic events like a death of a father or a sister in a context suggesting that it really did not have a huge impact on the family or disturb the family life.(29)

The model which emerges from the sources is one where parents are concerned and even care for children's well-being, but also one in which their efforts and attention was severely constrained by the burdens of everyday affairs. The battle in parents' lives was between uncontrollable grief and the realization that they could lose everything if they did not continue to work as before. Children who witnessed this dilemma saw their parents' reaction as a paradox. But, whether parents showed strong emotions of grief or essential indifference, the outcome remained the same: children felt largely excluded from the process because the attention they received in their own lives was minimal. It is important to realize that, even in the best of times, parents could not provide much nurturing to their children during their first years simply because their work did not afford them the time to pay attention to their upbringing. Work was priority number one.

Jon Thorbergsson (b. 1882) expressed the impact which the death of his brother had on him and his family, illustrating clearly the points made above. His brother was the oldest of four and died when he was nine years old. "He got sick in the evening and suffocated in my father's arms the next evening. It is still so drastically clear in my mind how my parents' grief was deep, as it was with all of us, when this happened. . . . On the next farm four children died from the same disease."(30) Jon points out that the grief lasted for a long time and was later rekindled when his mother died a few years later. Jon's brother Jonas - an autobiographer as well - also addressed the enormous grief which he and his brothers went through when their mother was dying. Their whole existence, Jonas reports, totally collapsed at the funeral.(31) "Our sorrow had been silent from our mother's death up to this moment. Now the grief took over. We held each other's hands shaking and gave this enormous cry, which is like the end of all, where the fear of a child's desperation alone leads."(32) Here, as in the cases mentioned before, children witnessed the grief of their parents and experienced the torture which followed, but still they were left to their own devices to bridge the gap in their consciousness between the mystery of life and death.

Children's constant exposure to death, watching important people in their lives die in front of their eyes, and the lack of emotional support, left them with the impression that they ultimately could not count on anyone in their closest environment. Malfridhur Einarsdottir (b. 1899) expressed her sense of helplessness in a bitingly cold description of her surroundings. She lost her mother at birth along with her twin brother, and her first memory was connected to the death of a small child. "How is it that I was not dead a long time ago? From boredom and fear, if not something else."(33) Even those who got some emotional support very soon understood that they would have to count on themselves. This might not be a conscious realization, but rather an underlying message which was felt and expressed all around them. They sensed all the pitfalls and uncertainties which people had to live with and overcome on a day to day basis, and the fear of losing their relatives ultimately shaped their world view. Sigurdhur Jon Gudhmundsson (b. 1895) expressed this feeling in his autobiography after his mother had died in their home after giving a birth to his baby sister. "Everything was done to comfort me but unsuccessfully. I was introverted, reserved and carried my grief in silence.'(34)

Tryggvi Palsson (b. 1869) lost both parents very young, and discussed in his autobiography how he always felt that he was somehow less worthy than the rest of his kin who were considered of almost noble origin. "Even though I lived with my relatives I often felt very lonely and that I was missing both shelter and protection. I was an eleven year old boy who did not have either a father or mother. Therefore I soon became - as a child and a youngster - unusually sensitive, dreaming and weak in many ways. I could not bear reproofs and was often full of fear and apprehension. This character of mine made me soon very depressed and rather introverted. And normal children's laugher and child play I never really experienced. My life in my childhood was therefore marked with indifferent loneliness."(35) In other words: life experiences could be so traumatic that many children had difficulty adjusting and often remained disaffected.

It needs to be emphasized that there are no visible differences between the genders in their exposure to emotional support given by either parent. Since there were basically no distinctions in the tasks which boys and girls at this life stage had to execute, they received similar treatment from their parents.

Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel prize winner, started one of his novels by having the main character point out that" . . . a wise man has said that next to losing their mother, few things are as healthy for young children as losing their father."(36) Here Halldor Laxness strikes a sensitive nerve in the Icelandic psyche, his sarcasm illustrating the extremes which many children had to face at a very young age. In these circumstances, it is safe to argue that the foundation was laid within children for a character of either strong independence in attitude and behavior, or total disaffection and insecurity toward their futures. We will see that this exposure to dramatic episodes relating to death could be vital preparation for the transition ahead in their lives (ie. the first work assignment) where they were often compelled to rely upon their own initiative and courage in confronting difficult tasks. In other instances, children never fully recovered from the experiences encountered in this first life stage, and as a consequence had a very hard time surviving the challenges ahead.

The First Transition: Work

The experience from the first formative years in children's lives was further reinforced when they began to take on work around the age of five to seven. That was largely due to the fact that children of that age were customarily assigned tasks which they had to execute alone, often far away from their home and adults. Their work participation was based on the seasons, and from spring to winter they were often responsible for the livestock.(37) Shepherding was something which most children experienced, a job which required a great deal of responsibility and determination, and which was almost always carried out independently.

The motivation behind children's work participation was both economic and pedagogical. Poverty was the norm in Icelandic rural society and children's work could be crucial for the family economy. In addition, the general culture praised industriousness and sedulousness, and children's work implemented and imprinted these central values. In fact, there were no other means to reach out to children than through work, simply because life was centered around it. Because of the nature of work, however, parents could not constantly supervise their children at this age. For that reason parents viewed obedience and discipline as of the utmost importance.

"Older people in those days", wrote Elias Halldorsson (b. 1877), "did not realize the potential children had. They wanted children to be calm and inactive. But when they started working, the tone changed. They did not realize that activities and temperament are the first sign that the children are potentially useful and industrious human beings."(38) In other words: at any point where children could not be used for work they were not to give the grown ups - who were working - any difficulty. Adults had to focus all their efforts on work and therefore had little latitude in their dealing with children. But as soon as children could be utilized for work they were expected to channel their energy into their job.

Because of the level of responsibility that came with the tasks assigned to children, parents needed to send a strong message that delinquency would not be tolerated. For example, failing to bring home the whole flock would bring a stiff reprimand. Sigurdhur Jonsson (b. 1863) discussed his experience: "Soon they started to put me to work. When I was nine years old I had to round up the sheep which were milked every day but they were very difficult to deal with. They usually wandered well into the interior. . . . In these areas I had many tears. When a sheep was missing, I was always sent out again to search, often into the night. Sometimes the search was unsuccessful and I could not find the sheep and it had totally vanished. My father, who was very insensitive, once sent me to search out in the dark and thick fog, while the others went to sleep. I started to walk and cried, and threw myself down a short distance from the farm."(39) Sigurdhur was found by a servant who was sent by his mother, and was brought back. In many cases the land surrounding the farm was very harsh and covered with lava or steep hills, making the job of shepherding very demanding. In those cases the shepherd had to remain alert constantly if he or she was not to lose sheep.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century Icelandic peasant society was thought to be disintegrating due to the constant population pressure and increasing migrations to towns and villages. The contemporary literature insisted that these changes were caused by lack of discipline in the homes, and urged parents to take severe steps to meet this development. As one would expect, many autobiographers specifically mention that they were subjected to severe discipline when it came to work. Steingrimur Steinthorsson (b. 1893), who went on to become the prime minister of Iceland, describes his father as a poor farmer who would nearly work himself to death in his enthusiasm for work. "He was rather strict with me and my brothers when we were growing up. We were almost afraid of him and to some extent we were glad and relieved when he was away from the home. But he took good care that we had both food and clothes."(40)

Usually the relationship between parents and children ran very much on along these lines, characterized by respect for the authority of the parents and great expectations about children's work contribution. The fact that the children often worked on their own created more intensity in implementing these values.

Hannes Palsson (b. 1898) - like many children in a land with few fences - was assigned the task of guarding the field from grazing livestock while the rest of the household slept. Once, because of hard work and lack of rest, he lost his concentration and fell asleep. He felt that he had disgraced himself. "This task was of course for me at that young age totally exhausting, but one that was without hesitation put on the shoulders of children in rural areas in those days."(41) Valdimar Eyland (b. 1901) is another example of an autobiographer who as a child had a very hard time enduring the difficulties which confronted him growing up on his family's farm. His father was quite strict, and endless work did not give Valdimar much reason for optimism about his life. "Those who knew me realized early on that my mind did not focus on farming, even though I attended my work as a youngster, driven by the fear of the slave and sometimes by conscientiousness."(42)

The discipline which was imposed on children through their work assignments could have a major impact on their well-being, in both the short and long term. The dilemma which children sensed between fear and loyalty forced them to grow up fast. Petur Sigfusson (b. 1890) explains how this worked in his autobiography. "My first night when I was supposed to protect the fields is still stuck in my mind, and will be for the rest of my life. This night I fought my first war, so to speak, a horrible war. It still hits my heart in a similar way as at the time, when I remember the great struggle between the fear, the worries for being awake the whole night, and the love of my father and the will of following his wishes and orders. I cried and wept. . . . With this victory over myself, I apparently started a new life which meant becoming a man, and that start was not so bad."(43)

For most children, the experiences they encountered with their first work assignment could be quite unsettling. Lacking much in the way of sympathy or comfort from adults, they usually had to bear these expectations in silence - often forcing them further into solitude. And what made things all the worse was the fact that there was no way out; they had to face their work no matter what.(44) It is argued here that this insistence on children's active work participation across class lines further reinforced the perception already acquired from their experiences in their first life stage, that it was up to them to cope with the conditions around them. Their parents were still, to a large extent, absent from their daily lives. Additionally, at this point in their lives children were often trained by the older siblings they were replacing. Their emotional support was often neglected, or at the very least remained meager. When this was coupled with great work demands and a learned sense of discipline, children's everyday experience could become a heavy burden on their shoulders.

As if work and isolation were not enough to make children crack emotionally, certain elements in Icelandic culture could potentially heap more mental anguish upon children. Here we are speaking of popular beliefs which were very much a part of Icelanders' world view in the nineteenth century. Stories about elves, trolls and other supernatural beings were told during the long winter evenings. These folktales had very strong roots in the literary tradition and also - in an odd sort of way - in religious practice. By putting this environment in perspective and matching it up against individual life experience we come across an interesting picture.

For example, when we look at the tasks given to children, it is no small wonder that many of them failed to handle them adequately. If the child had swallowed an unhealthy dose of stories about trolls and other supernatural beings, coupled with a general lack of emotional support, the effect, given the isolation of their working environment, could be devastating. And there was no avoiding such stories. People all around children believed or discussed at length the folktales, and all worked in the very same rural Icelandic environment where these stories took place. Sometimes rocks, hills, and mountains were named after elves or trolls, while still other spots were considered sacred and off limits for anyone to tamper with.(45) Such experience further alienated children from society.


One might wonder how children could function under the pressures sketched above. In their search for relief from daily pressures, moral authority and guidance, Icelandic children turned to education. Education provided an opportunity to distance oneself from the everyday toil of work life. Furthermore, children found comfort in and identified with themes from the literature, an integral part of the nineteenth-century Icelandic educational process. This empathy with the world of literature developed because of the unique structure of Icelandic production and work methods. In other words, in Iceland the interaction between work and education was crucial for children's overall growth and maturation.(46)

The key to education was the wintereve gathering, a tradition which provided a framework for both wool production and education. While the wool production took place, children learned to read and write. The educational process itself was a sort of entertainment for the adults, for as soon as children learned the alphabet they were assigned to read aloud to the remainder of the family as they worked. During the wintereve sessions the entire household gathered, usually in the only living room of the farmhouse, and listened to the telling of stories, fairy tales, and folk sagas. Included in this entertainment was also a popular practice of reciting poetry and reading aloud the Icelandic and the Scandinavian sagas. In between readings, children were expected to work on the wool. This environment of the wintereve gatherings provided a perfect forum for the society to promote education and for children to gain exposure to a literature which offered an escape from the drudgery of everyday life.

Both the Icelandic sagas and poetry were in many cases read and recited throughout the day during the long winter months. What is astonishing about the accounts from the autobiographies is the love of poetry that shines through in almost all of them. Examined from the viewpoint of a child growing up in rural Iceland during the nineteenth century, it can be argued that this love for the written word was no coincidence, even though one might expect to find the opposite in a peasant society. Given the lack of emotional support children experienced at an early age and the confusing signals children received when they saw the world tremble under their feet on a regular basis, it is not surprising that they turned to the literary world for what might be called moral authority. This outlet provided an escape from the harsh reality of daily life and allowed children to drift into an imaginary world. Children knew this world intimately and connected with it because it was rooted in their culture and their society. The ideals traditionally espoused in this literature - tales of the glory of the Saga age or stories of brave people who stood up against foreign dominations - served a as moral authority for children.

In this context, moral authority involved standards which one could look up to and by which one could structure one's life. Icelandic literature filled a void in the experience of children and appropriated roles where the society in general, and the church and their parents in particular, had failed. The message given to children was to walk toward their destiny with calm and dignity, and at any cost actively to engage the challenges sent to thwart them. Sigurdhur Nordal, an Oxford University professor of Scandinavian literature, summarized the kind of message the sagas left with readers: "True, the authors of the sagas of Icelanders are not much interested in politics as such: they focus on the individual, not on society or the state. Above all, they wish to praise and preserve the ancient vision of manhood, ideals of liberty, courage, pride and honor."(47) These fundamental characteristics of the Icelandic sagas guided children as they encountered their parents' expectations.

Hannes J. Magnusson (b. 1899) explained the poignancy of this literature as follows: "It was just as if we were taken to another level, away from daily hardship, and prevented from intellectual death. It is no misfortune to be poor, to have to fight for your life and work hard, but it is a misfortune to let that poverty and that hardship kill every dream of yours, every thought which takes you away from everyday life."(48) Hannes confirms that Icelandic children utilized wintereve readings as a strategy for survival.(49) This literature and the social setting in which it was carried out was in fact the best chance for children to get closer to parents and adults through their mutual interest in the subject. The Icelandic saga was in this sense a bridge between the world of children and that of adults. It is for this reason that Icelandic peasant society was almost totally literate in the nineteenth century, in spite of the absence of any significant educational infrastructure.

Changes After Age Ten

The autobiographies make it clear that at around the age of ten, certain changes of attitude took place toward both work and education. The shift was a subtle one, and thus not clear-cut enough for us to note a major demarcation line in the life of the individual. At this age children were prepared for life and work in more focused ways than before, by participating in much more substantial tasks. And, most importantly, they now operated m closer contact with adults (parents) than they were accustomed to. This was an extremely important step for children and their mental well-being. Children during this stage entered into the world of the adults. In the discussion which follows, we will discover how some children managed to cope successfully with the expectations laid on their shoulders while still others barely succeeded in surviving.

Let us first look more closely at children's changing attitudes around the age of ten. As has already been established, it was practically impossible for children by this age not to have first-hand knowledge of work. Not only did the work vary with the seasons, but margin for error was slim. Bad weather, disease of the livestock, bad luck, or a death in the family could threaten the survival of everyone in the family. As the children approached the age of ten, these facts became more apparent to them and they became sensitive to the reality that work was the foundation for the well-being of the family. Most of children during this life stage became totally integrated into the work process, and internalized the adult work ethic. "I felt that my father was quite strict," Larus Bjornsson (b. 1885) argued in his autobiography, "but it was apparently his opinion that it was best for us to realize instantly that life was not play."(50)

These sentiments which Larus Bjornsson expressed were certainly characteristic of most children. The reason for this greater work participation followed simply from their growing physical strength. Closer physical proximity to adults was a very welcome change for children who were, as we have argued earlier, starving for emotional attention. To be able to work side by side with adults filled a vacuum in their lives which literary fantasy had to some extent occupied.

Work and the children's own industriousness, as well as that of their closest relatives, gave them a sense of security. Children realized that hard work was more likely to be rewarded and to provide for their material comfort. Also, hard work was considered part of the natural order of the universe, as natural as the seasons. Kristinn Gudhlaugsson (b. 1868) explains this view in his autobiography: "Since I got older I have often been surprised how much work my parents managed to accomplish. But they never looked at work as a misfortune or a last resort in a sad struggle for existence, but rather as a natural necessity and a means for developing both body and soul. With work people competed to reach certain goals, and it gave a good sense of victory when the mission had been accomplished and daily difficulties had been overcome."(51)

The whole concept of industriousness was put on a pedestal; tales would be told of hard-working people in the community and of their feats. Valdimar J. Eyland (b. 1901) recalls such stories from his childhood: "When I was growing up, I heard a lot talked about my ancestors in Vidhidal and their diligence and hard work, but they were all brawny which did not go unnoticed by others. But none of them got rich, and all of them were taken to their graves with the same fortune as they had when they were born."(52) As Valdimar notes, in the eyes of Icelanders, the result of the hard work was not as important as the effort itself.

In many of the autobiographies the authors evaluate what kind of workers their parents were and whether they could be considered diligent.(53) This is, for example, apparent from the descriptions of how their parents approached their work, when they woke up in the morning and when they called it a day. Jonas Stefansson (b. 1879) reports: "My father was not slack about his work. He woke up 5 am and worked to late in the evening."(54) Autobiographers also frequently mention whether the parents enlarged the farmable land, went fishing in questionable weather, how they related to the servants and how well they managed the workers. With such lasting impressions made by the work ethic of those around them, it is no great stretch to surmise from these descriptions that the children benefited not only physically from the work of their parents, but also psychologically.

Further, the fact that they themselves were now working along side those same grown ups who were working hard, gave children for the first time a strong sense of belonging and security. Naturally, this equivalence - in work assignments at least, if not in work capacity - would be extremely important psychologically for children. And, after the substantial emotional isolation experienced from birth to the age of ten, children entering this stage hungered for exactly this kind of bonding.

Even though the new levels of work could be totally overwhelming, as we will see a little later in this section, the experience was generally both positive and welcomed. Indeed, the autobiographers often considered the crushing workload an important step in their development, simply because surviving it meant that they had a good chance to succeed the years ahead. The work was in this sense a mirror of their own existence, allowing them for the first time to fully situate themselves in the home and in their general surroundings. They became a part of a unit from which they had been excluded previously. By being part of this group, they also now had a foundation from which to evaluate their own abilities and those of everyone else.

The sum of all these factors was a willingness to take on the world at any cost. In truth they did not know anything else. The legacy of the Icelandic sagas, which had guided them before, made older children willing and eager to shoulder the responsibilities which came with heavy labor. Sigurdhur Jonsson (b. 1863), the son of fairly affluent parents who farmed in the northern part of the country, expresses precisely this sentiment:

I have many memories from my youth in Sydhstu-Mork, some sweet but others bitter. My father's work demand was great and the discipline was more than appropriate with us the children, and it was so much that we lost all our autonomy. Our determination could not stand up against his will. We had to face a lot of injustice without having the strength to defend ourselves. This incomparably strict upbringing was good for me. I knew, and learned for that reason how I should deal with my own children, when the time came when I had them.(55)

To illustrate the changes in the world view around age ten we can take the interesting example found in the autobiographies of the two brothers we met in an earlier section, Jon and Jonas Thorbergsson. Jon, who was the elder and published his autobiography first, described his father as a talented worker, but a man not interested in farming. In his mind he simply did not have the necessary determination to be a successful farmer. Jonas, on the other hand, saw special reason to dwell on this point in his autobiography, and responded to his brother's argument. He maintained that his father was indeed a good farmer, but that unfortunate conditions forced him out of that profession. As it happens, their mother died when Jonas was eight and Jon nearly eleven. Soon after their mother's death the home was broken up. Their father became a hired hand and both brothers did not have much contact with him after that.

The difference in their estimation of their father is probably due to the fact that they endured the separation during different ages. Jon was at the age when children had already started to participate in work with adults, and to evaluate themselves and their surroundings through work. For that reason Jon experienced his father at work and assessed him through his willingness to work. The fact that his father did not attempt to continue running the farm was for him a sign of a lack-luster farmer. Jonas, on the other hand, experienced the whole situation more on an emotional level, because of his youth, and was unable to understand it in any different way. The fact that his mother died, a woman who was the center of their lives, was in Jonas's mind sufficient reason for his father's resignation. For Jon that event had nothing to do with whether his father was a good farmer or not.(56)

When many autobiographers described a strong participation in the work process, they used the same passage to praise the experience. Hallgrimur Jonsson (b. 1902) talked specifically about his opinion on children attending sheep:

I have often listened to people who have felt pity for the shepherds and some actually have argued that it was not appropriate to expect children to do this job. But I am certain that a lot of boys developed enormously during their shepherd years, exactly because this task came with great responsibility and increased both strength and courage. In addition, moderated solitude is maturing and many grown ups have testified to that in their later years and remembered the shepherd years with gratitude and as a good school.(57)

Needless to say, Hallgrimur was a son of very poor parents and was expected to work from a quite early age. Like many other autobiographers, Hallgrimur felt good about his achievements simply because he survived them. He evaluated his self-worth through his work participation, as both children and adults frequently did. The paradox between strictness and freedom was part of the overall experience of a lot of children in nineteenth-century Icelandic society; a paradox which was comprised in their own perception of life.(58)

But the physical strain was not the only burden which children had to shoulder when they took on more demanding jobs. An example of this for many children was leaving their own homes to work in other households, sent away by their families while still quite young to reduce by one the number of mouths to feed and backs to clothe. Or, in other instances, a child's work participation could not be utilized at home for any of a number of reasons: sometimes older children could handle the necessary work load; in other cases the farms were so small that only a few people were needed to fully accomplish the work. Again, naturally enough, we find this occurring more frequently when a family was poor or had a lot of children. Finally, we find occasions where there was simply no choice but to divide the family throughout the community because of the death of one of the parents.

The ease with which children could be separated from their parents is borne out by our autobiographers, many of whom experienced one or another of the scenarios mentioned above. Kristjan Sigurdhsson (b. 1883), one of seven children born to poor parents, explained his parents' predicament as follows: "Poor parents who fought for their existence did not get any pity, even though they had to give their children away as soon as they could be used for running errands or as shepherds. The same held true if they were offered to be fostered. But none could predict how the children would be handled. And none wondered about the parents' sense of loss."(59)

The challenge facing children as they left home for another household was enhanced by the fact that - in part due to the rhetoric of the society - masters felt no hesitation in working servants assiduously. Hafsteinn Sigurbjarnarson (b. 1895), having lost his father at an early age, consequently followed his mother as a servant from farm to farm. Often he was lent elsewhere as a hired hand for short or long periods of time. At the age of nine he started at a new farm and had this to say about his first day there: "This day was like a mirror of the future. Endless work and no rest."(60) Later in his autobiography, Hafsteinn gives the reader a window into the world he encountered there:

Immediately after I had taken out the cows in the morning, a task was waiting for me, and then one after another the whole day. Mealtime was one hour and the people who worked outside used part of it to take a nap. I was always ordered to do something during the mealtime and it was made sure that I always had one task after another until people went to sleep at night. Arni was very work-demanding. Gudhrun was even more demanding and certainly the most economical human being which I have met in my days.(61)

Needless to say these arrangements often had a devastating effect upon children sent away from their homes. Turning again to Jonas Thorbergsson, we find the younger brother recalling for his readers the feelings he experienced when his home was dissolved after the death of his mother: "That morning I met for the first time face to face with my own solitude. My mother was dead, my grandmother gone, my father and my brothers gone. I was left alone. . . . That is how it happened, that our childhood home completely collapsed, and everyone who was still alive was on the road."(62) The main point here is that a significant number of these children suffered enormously after they left their own households, and found they had only themselves to rely upon when they received little sympathy from the people for which they worked. They along with their parents were viewed by Icelandic society as a burden to the community, and the best thing which could be done for them was to put them to work and work them hard. After all, the accepted reasoning went, poor people who could not provide for themselves were poor because of idleness and lust.

Given work demands and frequent separations, any form of adolescence was absent. Age-specific juvenility, exemption from work participation, and extended school attendance simply did not exist in nineteenth-century Icelandic rural society.(63) In short, during this life stage we witness an increasing incorporation of adult standards into the lives of children.

But there was another reversal in children's lives during this life stage of which we must take note. As children were increasingly introduced to adults' standards, religious education kept them apart from the household, making them a separate unit still. Education during this life stage often put additional pressure on their existence, and continued to do so until the confirmation, which served as the magic demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. The confirmation was of great psychological importance partly because it symbolically recognized what their work participation had proved for some years: that the child had become an adult.

The pressure involved in the confirmation started to build steadily from the age of approximately ten until the day of the ceremony itself, at the age of fourteen. At that point, children were supposed to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic. In addition, they were expected to learn Luther's Minor Catechism, which was rooted in the eighteenth-century ideology of piety. That ideology stated that it was necessary for parents to reinforce good morals and refinement and fight unchristian thoughts and behavior in their everyday life. The pastor had a supervisory role, the parents and guardians carried the educational role, and children were not accepted into the secular nor the spiritual society without acquiring this education. Children knew that they would be quizzed by the local pastor once or twice a year, until finally they would be questioned in front of the whole parish - relatives and neighbors alike. In most cases this pressure from the society and the home was enough to motivate children to prepare for the confirmation. The challenge facing children at this point in their lives was to balance expectations toward work and education and, indeed, this balance was often upset. Work often overshadowed learning to the point of stifling it altogether. In such cases the local pastor could step in, sometimes at the eleventh hour, and expel the individual from the confirmation. This had a devastating effect for that person, and he or she instantly became an outcast in the society. Even in more normal circumstances the confirmation process added to the tensions of the final phase of childhood.(64)

The Confirmation - Adulthood

Whatever feelings an individual person had for the confirmation, whether social or religious, it is undeniable that immense changes in the lives of nineteenth-century children followed this ceremony. It was a transformation which provoked strong reactions, as is often illustrated in the autobiographies. Even though the preparation before the confirmation had consisted of learning about Christianity, most autobiographers related these changes to their new position in society. Prospects for further education were slim, and confirmed children knew that work was always going to play the central role in their lives. In other words, after the confirmation adult life with all its seriousness began: "In those days there was an unspoken agreement that children became adults on the evening of their confirmation. After that day they could be burdened with any task whatsoever."(65)

In many cases this was welcomed as an exciting opportunity to try new and unknown things. Gunnar Olafsson (b. 1864) discussed what the confirmation meant for him in his autobiography, Memoirs: "In addition boys could expect right after the confirmation to get an opportunity to go to a fishing station and explore unknown territories. There they could expect, like the vikings in the Icelandic sagas, to get an opportunity to try out their strength. There it was better to fall to superior forces with dignity than to run away with shame or lose one's courage."(66) In other cases, however, the realization that one was just about to take on a new role in the society could be quite overwhelming. Tryggvi Jonsson (b. 1869) received little education before the confirmation but nonetheless took the event itself very seriously:

Finally this great day came. The preparation had taken some time and many serious admonitions. I felt that this was a very serious and important ceremony. Before the sermon the pastor talked with us privately and gave us much good advice. He stressed the great responsibilities of life which we were just about to shoulder, and the pledge which we would give both God and society. I felt that I understood how important this was for me, and was overcome with fear and anxiety. I did not manage fully to control my feelings and started to cry.(67)

For many youngsters this was an overnight change. Some faced having to support themselves as servants or laborers immediately after the confirmation. These were mainly children who were orphans or came from poor families. For those who remained under the care of their parents and did not have to support themselves afterward, the impact of the ceremony was more psychological in nature. The fact that they received more respect from society and had to bear heavier responsibilities made the confirmation a watershed event for them, but the change was more gradual, taking two to three years.

The case can be made that the nature of the confirmation - and indeed the whole ritual of the confirmation - indicated to all concerned parties that the period of the child belonging to the parents was over. Now they belonged to a larger community and had responsibilities to the society of which they had officially become members. Many autobiographers describe the transformations in attitude brought on by the confirmation. Often the atmosphere was electrified. Gunnar Benediktsson (b. 1892) talks about the stir the confirmation caused in his mind:

My conscious being transformed at this moment. I was no longer a child. I had reached manhood, with the right to self-rule and I became responsible for myself and my actions. This change took place right after the confirmation. . . . The next day I was still consumed by the desire to mature and to tackle life and by the feeling that i would mature rapidly. I was alone shoveling cow-dung in the farmhouse, which was at the eastern-most part of the farm. I do not remember why I was working alone on this task, but I remember well that I was happy being alone at that moment. I suspect that my father was not at home and that I had noticed that here was a task that needed to be taken care of, and I took care of it. I took the cow-dung in clumps as big as I could and shoveled them as far as I could. With each shovel I made an attempt at a new record. . . . To this very day I remember the joy that came over me when I experienced this oneness with the job, how I struggled with it and how I evaluated my own abilities to do a proper job of it. It was as if I was reborn into a new world during the spring days anno domini 1907.(68)

Sveinn Vikingur (b.1896) also describes the strong emotions that were associated with this event. He had dreamt for many years of becoming a grown up. And having achieved that status he found that there were indeed changes, even though his daily life had altered remarkably little:

My external situation and position at home had not changed much. I did the same tasks as before. The spring morning was as beautiful as before, and the mountain range as wide and blue as before. But, still every thing had changed and was somehow different. . . . Some incredible and incomprehensible change had taken place. And the change had taken place in myself. I was situated in some open space, where I had lost the whole world, without realizing how that had come to pass. And, what was even more peculiar, without exactly regretting what I had lost . . .

The paradise of my childhood was lost forever. I saw there was no way back and in a way I accepted that fact. On the other hand the world opening up before me was unknown and strange. I did not find myself in it, did not feel I belonged in it and I did not know how to handle it. I was uncertain, hesitant and shy before this new world."(69)

These quotations and many others like them, demonstrate that even young people who continued to work with their families felt real psychological changes, in spite of the fact that their external situation remained the same. They realized that they were standing at a frontier and that the future was theirs. They recognized that one had to walk toward the challenges of that future with the same calm and dignity employed when dealing with emotional and physical pressures in earlier life stages.


In this article we have examined how children dealt with reality in one nineteenth-century peasant society. It is important to register that ours was a glimpse into Icelandic society as seen from the recollections of individuals, exploring the difficulties they faced on a day to day basis. It has been argued here that in spite of great obstacles on their road to adulthood, these children showed remarkable capabilities in overcoming harsh reality and carving their own niche in the society at large.

Education played a central role in children's lives during their first fifteen years, from providing some imaginative release from a demanding world, to becoming a major burden when they were forced to prepare for the confirmation. But the role of education cannot be understood except in connection with the children's participation in the work process. At first, work was seen as a burden which had to be carried out in isolation from the rest of the society. After the age of ten, work became a lifeline between children and adults, with whom they were now connected emotionally for the first time. Children at this point found consolation in work, instead of education as before, utilizing it to evaluate themselves and those in their surroundings. Becoming active co-participants in the work process with adults gave children both a feeling of importance and a sense of belonging to society.

The final step was then the rite of passage - the confirmation - which was the magical entry into the world of adulthood, a world of which children had often had a bitter taste. At that moment, the dilemma between work and education was solved with the acknowledgment that they had in fact increasingly functioned as adults in many respects for some years. The absence of adolescence in nineteenth-century Icelandic peasant society was simply a fact of life.

This was essentially the case with all children, regardless of their social situation. However, those children who had been separated from their parents for one or another reason had a particularly hard time coping with reality. They not only had to face great work demands but also hard reactions from the spiritual and worldly authorities. That reality was fully grasped on the day of the confirmation, when they officially had reached adulthood. Perhaps the most interesting result to come from children's endurance of this parade of trials accompanying each subsequent life stage is that it in fact created two distinct personality types in nineteenth-century Icelandic society. One type of person was the individual willing and able to take on the world at any cost, strongly driven by his or her independence and determination. The other personality type had a much harder time surviving in the reality of a world always harsh, and often deadly cruel. These were the individuals who broke under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - the same crushing challenges their more successful counterparts both endured and, later, drew strength from.

These two different personalities were often formed at an early age and were usually determined by a loss of a family member and other kinds of adversity. These events could be so traumatic in children's lives that they simply had a very hard time recovering from the experience. Valdimar J. Eydal (b. 1901) fought an uphill battle form a young age and a series of events shaped his emotional outlook. His mother died when he was five, leaving him with a sense of emptiness. Soon thereafter he lost the livestock he personally owned to accident and family monetary need; this was followed closely by the deaths of some friends. "All this misfortune made me early on unsociable and bitter. Why dream when all the dreams happened to be illusions? Why work around the clock and still never manage to be able to provide for oneself, and never own anything, and what the little people own is then finally taken from them?"(70)

While such experiences could affect different children in different ways, often they made the child more susceptible to the environment at large. Petur Johannsson (b. 1864), who was an orphan for most of his childhood, expressed this phenomenon quite openly. Though people were generally good to him, the atmosphere at the time insisted upon discipline and severity and he had to shoulder a major workload. But, as Petur writes, "There was another type of spirit of the times, which then and for quite some while longer continued to dominate, which had a major influence on my lack of willpower. That was the strange monster and ghost stories, which everyone was telling to make children and young people afraid. I clearly remember that this type of story had a paralyzing effect on me. I became afraid of the dark, which caused vacillating. These effects continued to bother me well into my adulthood."(71) The significance of such terror for an individual's daily life should not be dismissed lightly, and Petur's description of being paralyzed by fear is neither exaggeration nor an unusual account. Such emotional trauma could throw children off the developmental track and have longlasting negative effects even after the fears subsided.

At the other end of the spectrum were individuals who went through rough times, building upon their experiences and thereby succeeding in adulthood. Many autobiographers looked back on their lives and felt good about their triumphs, and expressed how eager they had been at the time to take on the world. For obvious reasons it is almost impossible to uncover what determined which of these two paths children were to travel. The variables which could affect the development of their characters are so numerous that even brothers and sisters in the same family with similar experiences could turn out quite differently. The example of the brothers Jon and Jonas Thorbergsson illustrates this point clearly. Jon turned out to be a person who yearned for life and was willing to take it on at any cost. Jonas on the other hand argued in his autobiography that the sequence of events in his life actually stunted his normal physical growth, leaving him unusually small and weak. Additionally, it took him decades to come in terms with his life and mature mentally. Though the causes are obscure for the dichotomy found in the end results of child development, it is crucial to acknowledge that these two personality types were an important dynamic in nineteenth-century Icelandic peasant society.

Historians of premodern childhood have been in some senses unduly preoccupied with the formulations of Philippe Aries; the revisionist process of rescuing premodern parents from accusations of heedlessness has neglected some vital nuances in childhood's history. This article, focused admittedly on a single case where the peasant environment was quite harsh, in one sense reconfirms some of Aries' claims about the bleakness of premodern childhood. More important, however, is the dual result which the distinctive peasant context for childhood could yield, depending both on the precise setting and on the available human clay. Premodern childhood in Iceland was severe, but it generated two major personalities for adulthood, a point which neither Aries nor his detractors has fully appreciated.

This two-tiered social/personality structure had implications that spanned the society, in fact forming the foundation for the class structure in nineteenth-century Iceland. On one hand, the experience of growing up under these conditions created a group of people who were expected to one day graduate to the position of independent farmer and become productive members of the society. On the other hand, we find it often created fodder for a future underclass, a caste that had little or no hope of becoming independent farmers. These individuals were nonetheless vitally important to the society, for their ranks formed a permanent corps of cheap labour.

This is especially intriguing in light of similar recent findings in other peasant societies. Palle Ove Christiansen argued in his article "Culture and Contrasts in a Northern European Village" that two different lifestyles co-existed in an eighteenth-century Danish village community.(72) According to Christiansen, the traditional division between classes in peasant society does not capture the dynamics within each group in a particular social setting. He makes a sharp distinction between a "fatalistic" lifestyle and a "striving" lifestyle. The former group very much lived for the moment, while the latter was driven by their goal-oriented efforts to explore every possibility in life. Christiansen argues that though these two outlooks were radically different, at the same time the division kept the community together and each lifestyle was essential to the other. He also suggests that there was some continuity in lifestyle from one generation to another, but he fails to specifically identify the root cause for the division.

The foundation for this two-tiered division in Iceland was laid out, as we have argued in this article, in children's early years by their strict and demanding upbringing. The society understood that a child would either make it or break. Whatever the outcome, he or she would become a valuable addition to the society.

Institute of History 101 Reykjavik Iceland


I would like to thank Peter N. Stearns and John Modell for their many constructive criticisms and support during the course of my research. I would also like to thank Jeffrey Thomas for his suggestions and editorial assistance, as well as John B. Thomas and Andrew Barnes.

1. N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes, eds., Growing up in America: Children in Historical Perspective (Urbana, 1985), pp. xx-xxii.

2. Numerous works could be cited as testimony of this process. See for example two excellent studies: Colin Heywood, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France: Work, Health, and Education Among the "Classes Populaires" (Cambridge, 1988); Robert J. Wegs, Growing up Working Class: Continuity and Change Among Viennese Youth, 1890-1938 (University Park, 1989). For a comprehensive overview of the field of children's history, see: Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, eds., Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide (New York, 1991).

3. Vivian C. Fox and Martin H. Quitt, "Uniformities and Variations in the English and American Family Cycle: Then and Now," in Vivian C. Fox and Martin H. Quitt, eds., Loving, Parenting and Dying: The Family Cycle in England and America, Past and Present (New York, 1980), p. 42.

4. Constance B. Schulz, "Children and Childhood in the Eighteenth Century," in Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, eds., American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook (Westport, Conn., 1985), p. 73. Nearly every review article in Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective calls for more and fuller attention to the children's point of view. Those who discuss this part of the history of childhood confirm that little or nothing has been done to address the topic. See for example Patricia T. Rooke and Rudy Schnell, "Canada," pp. 189-190; Mary McDougall Gordon, "Australia and New Zealand," pp. 100-101; Mary Gibson, "Italy," pp. 361-379.

5. See for example David Nasaw, Children of the City: At Work and at Play (New York, 1985). See also Nupur Chaudhuri, "England," in Children In Historical and Comparative Perspective, pp. 249-250. Just recently there was a collection of essays published dealing specifically with children's own motivations and behavior: Eliott West and Paula Petrik, eds., Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950 (Lawrence, 1992). See the review by John Modell in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences.

6. A good example of an imaginative use of sources in the history of childhood can be found in an article written by Mary Jo Maynes on the connection between childhood and family strategy, mortality changes, education and the relationship between parents and children in nineteenth-century France and Germany. See Mary Jo Maynes, "The Contours of Childhood: Demography, Strategy, and Mythology of Childhood in French and German Lower-Class Autobiographies," in John R. Gillis, Louis A. Tilly, and David Levine, eds., The European Experience of Declining Fertility, 1850-1970: The Quiet Revolution (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 101-124. See an excellent study by Harvey J. Graff, Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America (Cambridge, MA, 1995).

7. There are of course exceptions, as in the study of the British working class and the American slaves, where autobiographies have been used to shed light on specific topics related to the members of these groups. See for example John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York, 1972); John Burnett, ed., Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Penguin Books, 1984). See also Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (Cambridge, 1983). In a recent issue of the journal Continuity and Change devoted to the history of childhood, Brigitte H. E. Niestroj wrote an excellent article on childhood studies in Germany with a section on the use of autobiographies. See Brigitte H. E. Niestroj, "Some Recent German Literature on Socialization and Childhood in Past Times," Continuity and Change 4 (1989): 351-354.

8. There is no question that the level of literacy differed from country to country and between regions in Western societies. But by and large the peasantry had a very low level of literacy, if any, well into the nineteenth century and, in some areas, well into the twentieth century. See for example Francois Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Reading and Writing: Literacy in France from Calvin to Jules Ferry (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 149-196; Colin Heywood, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France, pp. 68-71, 85-89; Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Bloomington, 1987), pp. 260-372; Pamela Horn, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside (Dublin, 1976), pp. 38-59.

9. For discussions on the autobiography as a source - and, in particular, the characteristic of the Icelandic autobiography - see an unpublished doctoral dissertation written by the author of this article: "The Continuity of Everyday Life. Popular Culture in Iceland 1850-1940," Ph.D. dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1993, pp. 16-38.

10. See Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children. See also two studies by Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (New York, 1986); Growing up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York, 1993).

11. For detailed discussion, see Sigurdhur Gylfi Magnusson, "The Continuity of Everyday Life," pp. 45-89.

12. See for further discussions Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household in Iceland: Studies in the Relationship between Demographic and Socio-Economic Development, Social Legislation and Family and Household Structures (Uppsala, 1988), p. 32; Bjorn Larusson, The Old Icelandic Land Registers (Lund, 1967), pp. 71-82.

13. See excellent discussions in Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household, pp. 35-36. See also Gudhmundur Jonsson, Vinnuhju a 19. old (Reykjavik, 1981), p. 12.

14. This relationship between masters and servants was a byproduct of the Lutheran Reformation, during which the centralized authority was strengthened. One of the main ingredients in the new order was the increasing power that the master of the household acquired. In the eighteenth century this order was further strengthened with the rise of the piety movement. See an excellent study on the importance of the disciplinary code of 1746 and under what circumstances it was created: Loftur Guttormsson, Bernska, ungdomur og uppeldi a einveldisold. Tilraun til felagslegrar og lydhfraedhilegrar greiningar (Reykjavik, 1983), pp. 57-67.

15. See an interesting article about foster children in Iceland: Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson, "'Everyone's Been Good To Me, Especially the Dogs': Foster-Children and Young Paupers in Nineteenth-Century Southern Iceland," Journal of Social History 27 (1993); 341-358. See also Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson, Omagar og utangardhsfolk. Fataekramal Reykjavikur 1786-1907 (Reykjavik, 1982), pp. 178ff.

16. Gisli Agust Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household, p. 95.

17. Phillipe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans. Robert Baldick (New York, 1962), pp. 25-30.

18. See for example Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children, pp. 262-271.

19. See for example a review article by David Nicholas, "Childhood in Medieval Europe," in Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective, pp. 31-52.

20. It is important to stress that a number of scholars have very carefully dealt with the many dimensions of childhood as a separate category. Colin Heywood in his book, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France, makes an attempt to divide childhood into different stages. The problem with his approach is that the life stages are rather loosely constructed so the reader does not get a strong feeling for the importance of each of them for children's development. Nonetheless Heywood gives us some sense of what it meant to be a child in nineteenth-century France. In other cases, this lack of sensitivity towards the complexity of children's world robs us of the opportunity to establish what their experience in each life stage gave children for their further growth. It is argued here that the debate about when childhood ends and adolescence starts has somewhat dominated the discussions about children and their relationship with their parents. This focus is most likely dictated by the available sources which direct scholars to deal with questions more related to the parents' point of view than the children's. See for example the overview which Nupur Chaudhuri gives of the literature related to England. Nupur Chaudhuri, "England," pp. 241-243.

21. Most scholars considered infancy to end around the age of five to seven in the modern period because the ". . . universal dress-like frock of infancy was replaced by sex-differentiated apparel." See Constance B. Schulz, "Children and Childhood," p. 70. In this article work is instead used as a barometer for the transition from infancy and childhood. In Iceland during the period in question, the overwhelming majority of children started to work between the ages of five and seven.

22. The use of life-course analysis in this study is different from the synchronic cross-sectional quantitative approach in the sense that the biographical perspective gives us an opportunity to take an individual step by step through his or her transitions. We in fact get the opportunity to investigate the effect of individual pressure for change in connection with his or her relations with social process and social change. For further discussions see Sigurdhur Gylfi Magnusson, "The Continuity of Everyday Life," pp. 4-9. Also John Modell, Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in United States, 1920-1975 (California, 1989), p. 25.

23. Again, little attention has been paid to what effect high mortality rates, accidents, and diseases had on children themselves. Constance B. Schulz had the following to say about this issue in a review essay she wrote: "Surprisingly little study has been conducted on the effect of this tragic element of eighteenth-century childhood on the children themselves." The author continues by noting that the religious references about death are highly visible in the sources, ". . . but the interpretive energy of most recent historians has been directed more fully at the fears and mourning of their parents than at a comprehensive analysis of the way the children themselves perceived death and accepted the suffering of disease. See Constance B. Schulz, Children and Childhood," p. 69.

24. Indridhi Einarsson, Sedh og lifadh. Enduminningar (Reykjavik, 1936), p. 37. It should be noted that Icelandic names still follow an ancient tradition of deriving surnames from the father's first name: For example, Leifur Eiriksson was named Leifur but he was Eiriksson (a son of Eirikur). In other words: Eiriksson is not his real name but rather a patronymic. We will adhere to this practice in this article when we refer to Icelanders (Leifur points out . . . etc.). See Why Always-Son and -Dottir? Icelandic Names and the Icelandic Alphabet (Reykjavik, 1993).

25. See for example Daniel Danielsson, I afongum. Endurminningar ritadhar af Daniel Danielssyni fyrrum ljosmyndara (Reykjavik, 1937), pp. 3-4; Fridhrik Gudhmundsson, Endurminningar I, second edition (Reykjavik, 1972), pp. 246-249.

26. Gudhrun Gudhmundsdottir, Minningar ur Hornafirdhi (Reykjavik, 1975), pp. 51-52.

27. Ibid., p. 53.

28. See for example the description which Bodhvar Magnusson gives of his father's grief over the death of his son. "My father was never going to be able to tear himself from the corpse and that was a little too much for me . . ." See Bodhvar Magnusson, Undir tindum. AEvisoguthaettir og sagnir (Akureyri, 1952), pp. 152-153. At this moment in his father's grief, Bodhvar promised his father that he would make an attempt to make up the loss of his brother. His father held him to his word.

29. See for example Fridhgeir H. Berg, Adh heiman og heim. Endurminningar Vestur-Islendings (Reykjavik, 1968), p. 46. Agust Josefsson, Minningar og svipmyndir ur Reykjavik (Reykjavik, 1959). Gunnar Thorbergsson Oddsson, AEfisaga Gunnars Thorbergssonar Oddssonar. Tekin saman af honum sjalfum (Winnipeg, 1930), p. 5.

30. Jon H. Thorbergsson, AEvidagar (Akureyri, 1964), p. 14.

31. Jonas Thorbergsson, Bref til sonar mins. Horft um oxl. AEviminningar I (Hafnafjordhur, 1966), pp. 28-33.

32. Ibid., p. 33.

33. Malfridhur Einarsdottir, Samanstadhur i tilverunni (Reykjavik, 1977), p. 46.

34. Sigurdhur Jon Gudhmundsson, Til sjos og lands. Minningar fra lidhnum arum (Reykjavik, 1978), p. 15. When he saw his mother's coffin in the grave he totally lost control of himself and nothing seemed to be able to comfort him. When he finally stopped crying he became introverted again and withdrew into himself. "I had aged many years, and did not speak, just as though I was mute. My sister Susanna cried a lot, but she only had to look into my face to stop crying. When she saw that I did not cry she then did not want to cry either. In this sense we were indirectly a comfort to each other,. . . ." p. 16.

35. Tryggvi Jonsson, Arblik og aftanskin. Nokkrir aevithaettir (Akureyri, 1946), p. 20. See also Snorri Sigfusson, Ferdhin fra Brekku. Minningar I (Reykjavik, 1968), pp. 51-52.

36. Halldor Laxness, Brekkukotsannal (Reykjavik, 1957), p. 7. Halldor is known for his extreme realism, often with bitterly sarcastic overtones.

37. This was what most children experienced in rural Western societies in the nineteenth century. The age at which they started working varied slightly, as did the intensity of their work participation. See for example Horn, Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside, pp. 77-89; Heywood, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France, pp. 49-56.

38. Elias Halldorsson, Heidhinginn. Minningar og skuggsja (Reykjavik, 1956), p. 11.

39. Sigurdhur Jonsson, Minningar Sigurdhar fra Sydhstu-Mork (Isafjordhur, 1950), p. 28.

40. Steingrimur Steinthorsson, Steingrimur Steinthorsson forsaetisradhherra: Sjalfsaevisaga I (Reykjavik, 1979), p. 12.

41. Andres Kristjansson, Vopnaskipti og vinakynni. AEvifrasogn Hannesar Palssonar fra Undirfelli (Reykjavik, 1979), p. 29.

42. Valdimar J. Eyland, Ur Vidhidal til Vesturheims: minningar dr. Valdimars J. Eylands prests i Vesturheimi, skradh af honum sjalfum (Reykjavik, 1981), p. 41.

43. Petur Sigfusson, Enginn raedhur sinum naeturstadh. Endurminningar (Akureyri, 1962), pp. 41-42.

44. Fridhrik Bjarnason (b. 1880) explains his early work experience when he was sent away from his mother (his father had died two years earlier) to a farm in another commune. "Nine years old I went for the first time, fetched the horses, gathered the sheep and watched them. I was bored attending the sheep and cried often when I was alone. But then I wiped away my tears when I came home and became happy again and pretended that nothing sad had happened." See Fridhrik Bjarnason, Minningar (Akranes, 1957), p. 10. Magnus Bl. Jonsson (b. 1861) expressed similar feelings when he was to attend the sheep at the age of seven. He cried a lot but his mother tried to encourage him to take on the job. "And eventually I became braver, but often very tired. Magnus Bl. Jonsson, Endurminningar I (Reykjavik, 1980), p. 53.

45. See Asmundur Helgason, A sjo og landi. Endurminningar (Reykjavik, 1949), p. 15; Gudhmundur J. Einarsson, Kalt er vidh korbak, p. 41; Bjorn Johannsson, Fra Valdastodhum til Veturhusa. Brot ur endurminningum (Reykjavik, 1964). For a full discussion about this part of Icelandic culture, see Sigurdhur Gylfi Magnusson, "The Continuity of Everyday Life," pp. 139-145.

46. Because of limited space we cannot go into any detail about how the state and the church promoted education, but it is argued here that the interaction between work and education was the true reason that Icelandic nineteenth-century peasant society enjoyed universal literacy. This was somewhat unusual in comparison with other Western societies, especially given the fact that an educational infrastructure hardly existed in Iceland. It is clear, as was mentioned before, that literacy differed greatly between countries and regions within each country in Western societies. See footnote number eight.

47. Sigurdhur Nordal, "Literary Heritage," in Johannes Nordal and Valdimar Kristinsson, eds., Iceland 1986 (Reykjavik, 1987), p. 73. Upon examination, it is clearly evident from the sagas how ". . . the heroic attitude and the unemotional self-control they fostered, fully realized in the style and approach to their subject of the best saga writers . . .", had major impact on the children and adults exposed to this literature.

48. Hannes J. Magnusson, Hetjur hversdagslifsins, Nokkrar Thjodhlifsmyndir fra upphafi 20. aldarinnar (Akureyri, 1953), p. 237. It is very easy to see how children were drawn to this literature, both because of the message it carried and also simply because the sagas were exciting and situated in the Icelandic landscape - socially as well as geographically. The same could be said about the Scandinavian saga which was written by Icelanders in the Middle Ages and had some of the same characteristics as the Icelandic sagas. See Sigurdhur Nordal, "Literary Heritage," p. 73-75.

49. Saemundur Duason mentioned that, though he did not necessarily believe every episode in the Sagas, they still took him by storm: "It is very possible that all this reading and poetry might have had some influences on my personality and attitude to the present times. . . . At least many things which I read were a living reality for me. There were no shortages of opinions from the adults to make judgments about these literary heros. A lot of heroism took there place and a lot of different noble-mindedness was there performed." See Saemundur Duason, Einu sinni var (Akureyri, 1966), p. 69.

50. Larus Bjornsson, Larus i Grimstungu: aeviminningar Larusar Bjornssonar bonda i Grimstungu i Vatnsdal (Akureyri, 1981), pp. 19-20.

51. Kristinn Gudhlaugsson, Bernskuminningar Kristins a Nupi (Reykjavik, 1960), p. 65.

52. Valdimar J. Eyland, Ur Vidhidal til Vesturheims, pp. 11-12. Many of the autobiographers speak repeatedly with great respect for people who were hard-working. See for example Agust Gudhmundsson, Thaettir af Sudhurnesjum. Endurminningar (Akureyri, 1942), pp. 53ff.

53. Jon Gisli Hognason (b. 1908) mentioned that work was everything to his parents: "All work was approached with great intensity and practical sense. My father was enthusiastic and tireless and made great demands to others about their work contribution, and everyone was included." Jon Gisl Hognason, Vinir i varpa. AEskudagar (Akureyri, 1980), p. 233.

54. Jonas Stefansson, Fra Kota til Kanada. Eyfirskur Vestur-Islendingur segir fra (Akureyri, 1957), p. 25. Bodhvar Magnusson (b. 1877) had a similar story to tell in his autobiography: "My father was a great worker, whatever he did, he led his workers and worked with them in whatever had to be done, the year round." Bodhvar Magnusson, Undir tindum, p. 117. Later on Bodhvar adds: "It was in fact rather interesting how well the masters of the house managed to get everyone to work with enthusiasm and never gave people a break from their work. People were raised up with this and were surprisingly satisfied with it." p. 121.

55. Sigurdhur Jonsson, Minningar Sigurdhar fra Sydhstu-Mork, p. 37.

56. Jonas Thorbergsson (b. 1885), Bref til sonar mins. pp. 33-35; Jon Thorbergsson (b. 1882), AEvidagar, p. 10.

57. Hallgrimur Jonsson, Saga stridhs og starfa: aeviminningar Hallgrims Jonssonar fra Dynjanda (Akureyri, 1983), p. 19.

58. This is a phenomenon which is recognized in many other peasant societies. See for example Brigitte H. E. Niestroj, "Some recent German literature," p. 53.

59. Kristjan Sigurdhsson, thegar vedhur slotar (Akureyri, 1954), p. 16. Kristjan later reports that most of his brothers and sisters left home around the age of ten, and recalls his own experience when he was sent away: "And now it was the last opportunity to turn around hoping to see my mother, and she was still standing on Snosinni. I was twelve years old and the fifth child which she had to send away from home toward the unknown." p.35.

60. Hafsteinn Sigurbjarnarson, AEvisaga Hafsteins Sigurbjarnarsonar Reykholti i Hofdhakaupstadh. Skradh af honum sjalfum (Reykjavik, 1974), p. 55.

61. Ibid., p. 57.

62. Jonas Thorbergsson, Bref til sonar mins, p. 35. Jonas' older brother Jon describes even more graphically these dramatic events: "I was forced to move to people unrelated to us. I was hired for food and shelter at the farm Glaumbaejarsel. . . . I think it was the 15th of May 1893 when with great tears in my eyes I said goodby to my grandmother, my father and my brothers and took off toward my new home with my clothes under my arm. My uncle Halfdan undertook the difficult task to take me to my new home and say goodby, the last of my relatives. Later he said that he had never in his life had a more difficult task on his hands than to have to tear himself away form me. That was how wretched I was at this moment, and he himself thought the world of me." Jon H. Thorbergsson, AEvidagar, p. 25.

63. See the following studies for discussions on the characteristics and the emergence of adolescence: John R. Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-Present (New York, 1974); Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York, 1977).

64. For further discussion, see Sigurdhur Gylfi Magnusson, "The Continuity of Everyday Life," pp. 198-213.

65. Gudhmundur Matthiasson, "Godhur thykir medh skyrhakarl medh vidheigandi vaetu," in Bergsvein Skulason, Gamlir grannar - Vidhtol og minningar (Hafnafjordhur, 1976), p. 44.

66. Gunnar Olafsson, Endurminningar (Reykjavik, 1948), p. 296.

67. Tryggvi Jonsson, Arblik og aftanskin. Nokkrir aevithaettir (Akureyri, 1946), p. 27.

68. Gunnar Benediktsson, Stikladh a storu. Fra bernsku til braudhleysis (Reykjavik, 1976), pp. 13-14.

69. Sveinn Vikingur, Myndir daganna. Bernskuarin I (Akureyri, 1965), pp. 187-188.

70. Valdimar J. Eyland, Ur Vidhidal til Vesturheims, p. 15.

71. Petur Johannsson, AEvisoguthaettir Peturs Johannssonar, ritadhar af honum sjalfum (Seydhisfjordhur, 1930), pp. 13-14.

72. Palle Ove Christiansen, Culture and Contrasts in a Northern European Village: Lifestyles among Manorial Peasants in 18th-Century Denmark," Journal of Social History 29 (1995): 275-94.
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Author:Magnusson, Sigurour Gylfi
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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