A Tale of a Fool? : A Microhistory of an 18th-Century Peasant Woman book cover
1st Edition

A Tale of a Fool?
A Microhistory of an 18th-Century Peasant Woman

ISBN 9781032093338
Published June 30, 2021 by Routledge
194 Pages

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Book Description

A Tale of a Fool? explores the life of Guðrún Ketilsdóttir, a peasant woman born in Iceland around 1759. Guðrún worked as a farmhand for most of her adult life, and when she died she left behind a partial autobiography, which is believed to be the oldest autobiography of an Icelandic peasant woman.

In this autobiography, Guðrún writes openly about her life and provides colourful depictions of the society in which she lived, providing one of the few first-hand accounts that have survived from members of the peasant class at that time. A Tale of a Fool? demonstrates how it is possible to work with this kind of source using the methods of microhistory as a historical tool to study events and individuals of the past. In doing so, it not only provides an illuminating study of the life of a peasant woman in the 18th and 19th centuries but also addresses the question of the methods, priorities and interpretations applied in the collecting, cataloguing and publication of women’s writing.

Analysing the place of the individual in traditional agrarian societies and highlighting the impact that women have had on the cultural and social history of the period, A Tale of a Fool? is ideal for researchers of microhistory and early modern Iceland/Scandinavia.

Table of Contents

Introduction: women in a men’s world; Chapter 1 One woman, one story; Chapter 2 Early years; Chapter 3 In service: clever and well behaved; Chapter 4 Employment on her own terms; Chapter 5 When one door closes, another opens; Chapter 6 Guðrún at her professional peak; Chapter 7 Illugi Jónsson – a wolf in sheep’s clothing?; Chapter 8 Alone again; Chapter 9 We all grow more craven with age; Chapter 10 Auction of Guðrún’s worldly goods; Chapter 11 The bigger picture; Chapter 12 History of the manuscripts

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Guðný Hallgrímsdóttir is an independent scholar at the Reykjavík Academy, Iceland, working on a variety of subjects concerned with women’s manuscripts. She is a former member of the board of the Icelandic Association of Historians and the Icelandic Studies Association.


"It is no exaggeration to say that sources on women’s lives, especially those of peasant women, are very scarce. Through her research, Guðný Hallgrímsdóttir has drawn attention to the fact that sources about women are not only few: they are also catalogued in such a way that they are hard for scholars to find, however motivated they are.

Guðný makes use of all obtainable sources, and her own imagination, to reconstruct the story of Guðrún Ketilsdóttir, thus shedding light on the lot of the Icelandic peasantry in the 18th and 19th centuries – and especially female farm workers.

Guðný‘s book is a most interesting study, and an important contribution to the history of Iceland, not least women‘s history. The author is of the view that conventional research methods have not been sufficient to throw light upon the many paradoxes of daily life in past times. She says that she has blazed a trail for research into the lives of other women who may have stories to tell, that lie forgotten in archives – often due to the imperfections of systems of classification and cataloguing. In this volume a remarkable body of research is presented to a wide readership in a clear and interesting manner." Margrét Eggertsdóttir, Saga

"The author of A Tale of a Fool?gives an account of the views that have prevailed about the manuscript by the housekeeper Gudrún Ketilsdóttir (1759-1842). Screenwriters and history reviewers in Iceland have counted Gudrún's life story as a "speech" by a "stupid" woman. This interpretation of the short manuscript of about only 2000 words, has been so unanimous that the life of Gudrún Ketilsdóttir has been perceived as a peripheral and pathetic life, in other words of little interest and only as tragic and ridiculous - at best appropriate to to arouse pity:

It is both interesting and inspiring to follow Gudný's source and interpretation work in meeting the sources and the context through Gudrún's life phases. For it is the source investigation and context building that stands out as the great value of this microhistory. The starting point is the concise and rather fragmentary autobiography that makes up the manuscript of Gudrún Ketilsdóttir. Through this primary source, the book author expands on the life phases of the historical person and makes us as readers understand that the image that often characterizes lower social groups is governed by characteristics from their last years of life." Nils Olav Østrem, Heimen