Helgi Þorláksson: The Icelandic Commonwealth and contemporary times: The quest for historical analogy and the role of historians
In this paper the author points out the tendency of our times to look for historical parallels in order to throw some light on contemporary events and present debates. Historians do not seem to be numerous among those who engage in such undertakings and the author proposes an explanation of this. He recommends the study of former times on their own premises, in their own right. This means to study contexts and processes of former times, and analyse how these times were different from the present, before attempting any comparison between historical epochs. This goes for political ideas as well as institiutions and the author points out that the comparison of moral issues can be fraught with difficulities. Particular attention is given to correspondences which especially some politicians want to bring out between, on the one hand, the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth in 1262, with the establishment of the so–called Old Covenant (Gamli sáttmáli) and ensuing Norwegian rule, and, on the other hand, the contemporary crisis in Iceland marked by the ongoing debate about the so–called Icesave–contract and Iceland's possible membership of EU. It is argued that the Old Covenant should not be seen as a mistake or blunder; rather it should be approached and explained on the basis of its own times. The traditional perception of Icelandic history, moulded during the fight for independence, seems still to prevail even though it is fraught with misconceptions and wrong assumptions about common political interests in the Commonwealth, about Icelanders as a nation (a seperate political entity) and about the emphasis on political independence.
Keywords: historical comparison, Icelandic Commonwealth, Old Covenant