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Professor Mark Weiner on Life in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar

Mark S. Weiner, Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar, spent the fall 2009 semester as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Akureyi in Iceland, where he taught U.S. constitutional law and studied the country’s medieval clans, or kinship groups, and their relation to the growth of modern Icelandic law and society. What he learned about the role of kinship in early Iceland shed light on efforts to develop the rule of law in current clan-based regions of the world, including those that nurture international terrorism. The Fulbright experience, says Weiner, “has fundamentally transformed my thinking about legal history and constitutional law in ways I hope to bring back with me when I return to Rutgers School of Law–Newark.” Weiner, who is working on a new book about the legal and cultural significance of clans, discussed kinship and the law in his February 23 Chancellor’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture.

In the following essay, he discusses his five-month Icelandic experience.

I don’t know whether it was the sulfuric smell of steam shooting up from the desert floor of Smajfall, the sight of two bottlenose whales playing a few hundred feet away in the fjord of Akureyri, the peculiar crunch of black volcanic sand sounding underfoot as we strolled along a windy beach in Heimaey, or the first, delicious taste of the purest water I have ever drunk coming straight from the tap in Reykjavik, but at a certain point, life in Iceland began to feel very distant from the everyday routine we had left behind in New Jersey.

In July 2009, my wife and I packed our bags and traveled to that remote island in the North Atlantic and lived for five months in a small port town 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It was cold; it was challenging; it was exciting; and in every respect it was a remarkable academic experience — one that already has fundamentally transformed my thinking about legal history and constitutional law in ways I hope to bring back with me when I return to Rutgers School of Law–Newark.

We came to Iceland as participants in the Fulbright Program, one of the great institutions of our modern federal government and surely one of the most cost effective. Created by an Act of Congress in wake of World War II, the program provides grants to American and foreign scholars to promote the international exchange of ideas and to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” Call it the ultimate exercise of soft power. The program is funded by an annual appropriation from Congress — the appropriation for FY 2008 was more than $215 million — and by contributions from foreign governments, which recently totaled about $60 million. Of the 7,500 total grants the program awards annually, about 1,000 send individual Americans like me to conduct teaching and research abroad.

 Akureyri and other Iceland photos  
The University of Akureyri in North Iceland. Click here for more photos of Professor Weiner’s semester in Iceland.  
My Fulbright assignment was to spend the fall semester lecturing about American constitutional law to students at the University of Akureyri and to learn about two issues I discussed in my application proposal: the role of kinship groups in early Icelandic law and society (about which, more later) and how modern Icelanders remember their medieval legal past.

Before we left, many people asked quizzically what led me to think it would be a good idea to bring my wife to an island covered largely by tundra and glaciers and with a population of only 320,000, most of whom live in the capital. Why not propose a course of teaching and research in Polynesia? The personal answer is that my wife, let us say, has got game. This is a fact about her one learns to appreciate if you are in the passenger seat of an old Hyundai as she drives it confidently down a pock-marked mountain road blanketed by mist so thick that the only thing you can really see is a red emergency hut and torrents of runoff water streaming over edge of a nearby precipice (thanks, sweets).

The academic answer to the question “Why Iceland?” is that Iceland shares important features of its legal history with England, because medieval Icelanders, a northern Germanic people, and the Anglo-Saxons, a western Germanic people, are part of the same broad social and cultural family. Medieval Icelanders kept outstanding written records, and as students in my course History of the Common Law know, the constitutional history of the country thus provides an especially clear window onto the deepest foundations of our own legal system.

We began our visit with a three-week road trip around the country in the above-referenced Hyundai, which we purchased from an outgoing Fulbrighter and promptly named hundur, the Icelandic word for “dog” (the car seemed to growl as it went, and we learned that it was loyal, too, and never broke down). This was the ultimate road trip for nerds. Each day we visited museums, local historical societies and countless sites important to Icelandic legal history, reading out loud from both medieval tales and modern academic texts as we drove.

Most of the places we visited were quite beautiful but also quite remote, a fact which proved to be extremely fruitful for me intellectually (meditating for three weeks on the relation between legal history and geography formed the basis of an article I’ll shortly publish in the University of Akureyri law journal, “Public Memory and the Rule of Law in an Age of Globalization and the Internet: Lessons from Iceland”).

Visiting such ancient sites also was great fun, not least because Iceland is a nation where the medieval past matters. Below is an image of Thingvellir, site of the ancient national assembly known as the Althing, where the leading chieftains from across the island met each summer to enact laws and adjudicate legal cases (the cliffs at Thingvellir were formed by the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates slowly drifting apart). Next to that image is a picture of the main hallway leading into the Icelandic supreme court.

Thingvellir    Iceland's Supreme Court 
Thingvellir, site of ancient national assembly    Iceland’s Supreme Court 

Let’s just say it’s a great place to be interested in the 10th century.

When we brought our circumnavigation-by-Hyundai to an end in late August, we settled into small-town life in Akureyri, the second-largest town in Iceland, with a small university and a population of about 15,000. We lived in a charming little flat — old wood floors, enormous tub, farmhouse stove, no oven — strategically located within walking distance of what became the key institutions of our life: a cozy coffee shop in the center of town which served hot chocolate topped with a mountain of fresh whipped cream; a Danish bakery with black bread so thick you could use it to construct a house; a restaurant and deli devoted to Icelandic slow food, which made its own cheese and sold lamb, horse, fresh cod and smoked Arctic char; the university, where my office, shared with a psychologist, looked out onto snow-capped peaks that towered above the slate-grey fjord; and the local geothermal hot tubs, where Icelanders go to relax (and where I promptly fainted after one of our early visits, having taken my new-found enthusiasm for water ranging from 100 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit a little too far).

It wasn’t all roses — it was cold; very soon no sane driver without a 4x4 ventured onto the road; and in the dead of winter, when the sky offers nothing but darkness and, at best, a bare twilight, a person feels constantly jet-lagged — but even facing the challenges felt like a fun part of our assignment as cultural and intellectual ambassadors.

The University of Akureyri is small, but it has excellent people in a number of fields. It also hosts a unique program in polar law, which threw an outstanding conference at which I heard a remarkable academic lecture on trans-national governance and global climate change given by the President of Iceland (I also became Facebook friends with a key official of Greenlandic home rule and a Member of Parliament of the Faroe Islands).

Lecturing to students in this small but lively school at this moment in history was a real privilege. Iceland is in the grip of a terrible financial crisis which may finally push it to join the European Union — which, in turn, may provide the occasion to revise its constitution, which is universally acknowledged to be in need of major reform. In thinking about the possibility of constitutional change, Icelanders naturally are curious about the American constitution, which has been so influential across the world. And here there are striking contrasts between the two countries on matters as diverse as religion (Iceland maintains an established church) and the separation of powers (Iceland has none).


In thinking about the possibility of constitutional change, Icelanders naturally are curious about the American constitution, which has been so influential across the world. And here there are striking contrasts between the two countries on matters as diverse as religion (Iceland maintains an established church) and the separation of powers (Iceland has none).

At an even more fundamental level, the Icelandic understanding of the proper role of the state differs from ours as well. For instance, Iceland maintains a national identification system, and citizens and residents use their ID number not only in official documents — Icelandic litigants are referenced in court documents by name and number — but also for consumer activities as small as buying a frying pan or renting a video, information about the purchase then being stored in a national database.

In talking with students, faculty, and members of the public about American law and society, I was able to clear up some substantial misconceptions and also deepen and complicate their view of the United States. I felt very proud of that work. At the same time, I felt grateful to Iceland and its people for enabling me to learn about the feature of its history which I discussed in my Fulbright application, namely the place of kinship in early Icelandic law. My hope was that the history of medieval Iceland would open a window onto the constitutional character of kin-based cultures and help me understand how societies in which kinship serves an especially important legal and political role ultimately transform into modern states. Such kin- or clan-based societies are not merely historical; they exist today in regions of the world such as Afghanistan and Somalia.

I was not disappointed in this aspect of the Fulbright program, either. Iceland taught me a great deal about kinship and law, and I now expect to begin my next book — The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Can Teach Us About Modern Law and Culture — with a discussion of this extraordinary land and its fascinating history. I’ll be discussing that history in a lecture called “Clan, Culture and the Concept of Law” to be held at Rutgers on February 23, and hopefully bringing a bit of Iceland back with me to Newark.