Round Two

Several years ago, I came across a webbed document that purported to refute my view of the history of saga period Iceland, apparently written by someone (or ones) who knew almost nothing about Icelandic history. The result was an entertaining exchange, in the course of which the document was revised to eliminate the most striking historical (and other) errors, although still without providing any evidence for its central thesis.

The second round started in December 2000. I had noticed several posts which asserted that my views on Iceland were conclusively refuted by scholarly work done since I published--without actually providing any cites to back the assertion. I finally decided to answer one of the posts. The result was an exchange in which the poster demonstrated considerable ignorance of Icelandic history and Norse literature, although he seems to know a good deal about Norwegian history. I decided it would be worth webbing it, so here are the relevant posts:


Original post by Douglas Muir, asserting that no serious historian accepts my view of Icelandic history any more.

My response, pointing out that whether or not my views are true, his claim that nobody takes them seriously any more is contradicted by readily available evidence.

His response, which provides no evidence on the truth of my views, just arguments purporting to show that nobody takes them seriously.

My response to that, partly on whether anyone takes me seriously, partly on the nonexistence of posts he claimed that he had made and I should have seen--which he later conceded were actually emails--but beginning to deal with substantive matters as well, in particular with:

His response to someone else, in which he not only makes a string of false assertions but makes them with great confidence. This is the point at which it begins to become clear to me that he really doesn't know what he is talking about.

His response to my comments on that, in which he concedes that what he claimed was in Egilsaga wasn't and then tries to support his claims about Iceland in the 10th-13th c. with a description of events in Sweden c. 500 (involving a, possibly legendary, King Egil, hence the confusion).

My reply in which I ask for evidence about Iceland to support his assertions about Iceland.

His reply, in which he offers evidence about events that may have occured in Germany some centuries before Iceland was discovered (from Volsungasaga), plus two wildly misinterpreted passages from Njalsaga (but at least it really is about events in Iceland). My favorite bit is his assertion that "these verses tend to be almost alarmingly literal," which is almost the precise opposite of the truth, skaldic poems being built up out of layers of conventional metaphors (kennings). At this point it becomes clear both that he doesn't know much about Norse literature and that he is willing to make up facts when convenient.

My response, in which I point out most of this, along with one or two other things. At this point the argument is mostly over, since it has become clear that he has no support for much of what he has posted and in trying to dig some up is revealing his lack of knowledge of Icelandic history and literature.

His response, conceding most of the argument without actually admitting he was in the wrong.

My response to that.

His post, where he explains that when he responded to someone who posted the URL of my article with statements about "the Friedman view" he wasn't actually talking about my view at all, but about distorted third hand versions of my work that showed up on Usenet (plus lots of other stuff).

My response, pointing out that, while there are doubtless distorted versions of my work showing up in Usenet posts, it is clear from his posts that he was claiming to attack my work (plus lots of other stuff).

[There are more posts in the thread, which you can find by going to the last one above and then using Deja to follow the thread, but I think that at this point the central argument was over. In the sequel, Muir concedes that he has no cites for his claim that archaeological evidence proves Iceland to have been extraordinarily violent, and suggests that I email Jesse Byock, a noted Icelandic scholar, and ask him. I do so, and Byock replies that he knows of no such evidence, but that there is some (unpublished) work suggesting the opposite conclusion. I send Muir a copy of Byock's letter, Muir concedes that his evidence doesn't exist. Muir notices that Byock is apparently a friend of mine and thinks well of my work, but doesn't think to connect that to his original claim that no modern historian takes my views seriously.]

In case there is some problem accessing Google, I have also got the posts webbed here. One advantage of this version is that I have used a different color for what I wrote, which may make it a little easier to follow.

The puzzle for me in this exchange was why Muir was posting to a public forum confident assertions that weren't true. My eventual conclusion was that, at least in most cases, he thought what he was saying probably was true (his central assumption was that anything true of other Scandinavian societies was probably true of Iceland, so he didn't have to actually know things about Iceland in order to assert them). He figured that the people he was arguing with would probably not call him on his claims, and if they did he could either fake it or, in the last resort, find the evidence he claimed to already have.

By the time the argument was over, Muir had conceded that his initial statement about my work was false (although he claimed not to have made it, since "Friedman's view" didn't mean "the view propounded by Friedman in the article whose URL has just been cited"). He had conceded that his archaeological evidence didn't exist. He had either conceded or failed to defend all of his claims about the Icelandic legal system consisting of might makes right. He had made no attempt to defend his assertion about skaldic poetry.

Yet, so far as I could tell, none of his supporters had reached the obvious conclusions about him.

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