Marginal Lives and Fractured Families: Archives and Rural Farmworkers in Early Modern Iceland -- talk by Douglas Bolender


Thursday, October 20, 2016, 5:00pm to 7:00pm


Plimpton Room, Barker Center 133, 12 Quincy St.

In most accounts, rural life in early modern Iceland was characterized by hardship and uncertainty. The vast majority of farmers were tenants who frequently moved from farm to farm. Many others spent their lives as farm laborers with limited rights. The lines that divided these two classes were thin. People could move back and forth between these categories throughout their lives, with profound implications for their juridical and personal status as citizens, husbands, wives, or parents.

This talk focuses on one such family that emerged in archival research directed toward the analysis of Viking Age settlement patterns: Erlendur Gísli Erlendsson, Sigríður Jónsdóttir and their two children, Lilja Ingibjörg and Gunnar. The family is representative of many who lived at the edge of independent farming, which allowed for marriage and legitimate children, and the status of household laborers that, while it did not require the legal dissolution of the family or marriage, frequently resulted in the fracture of husband and wife, parent and child, and siblings from one another. Census and farm inventory records offer glimpses into the fragile and uncertain lives of this family at the margins of rural society as they moved from farmstead to farmstead, sometimes together and sometimes apart. These shifting social categories of social and labor status had strong implications for their sexuality and gendered identities that take on varying significance as they appear in archives and translate to databases designed for a variety of purposes, including state administration, archaeological analysis, genealogy, and the identification of genetic variations associated with human disease.

Photo of Douglas BolenderDouglas Bolender is a Research Assistant Professor at the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research and the Department of Anthropology at UMass Boston. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Northwestern University in 2006. Before coming to UMass he held post-doctoral positions at SUNY Buffalo and the Field Museum for Natural History. From 2010-2011 he was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College. Bolender’s research interests focus on the Viking Age and medieval North Atlantic, the archaeology of property, environmental archaeology, and geographic information systems and spatial analysis. His scholarly work includes the edited volume, Eventful Archaeologies: Approaches to Structural Change in the Archaeological Record, published by the State University of New York Press in 2010. He has conducted fieldwork in Iceland, Greenland, Denmark, Hungary, and Eastern North America. He is co-director of the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey in Iceland. For his work in the North Atlantic, he has received over $500,000 in research grants, mostly from the National Science Foundation. Bolender supervises geographical information systems in the Digital Archaeology Laboratory at the Fiske Center.

Bodies / Archives / Databases

Our museums and computers store bodies. Some are physical, appearing as material objects or as the “negative space” around them, and others are abstracted.

The 2016-17 Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series interrogates the space between the archive, site of haunted specificity and historical embeddedness, and the database, locus of standardization and generalizable knowledge about human normativity, pathology, and variation.

All events take place from 5-7 pm in the Plimpton Room (Barker Center 133, 12 Quincy St.) and are open to the public.

Sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University and the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.