Tactics of Evasion

The survival strategies of vagrants and day labourers in eighteenth and nineteenth century rural Iceland





Árni Sveinsson, vagrancy, compulsory service, labour coercion, mobility, social capital, passports, the labouring poor, microhistory, survival strategies


Legal restrictions on vagrancy and day labour in Iceland became increasingly strict in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, culminating with a decree in 1783 which prohibited any form of masterless labour and proscribed compulsory service on a yearly basis for most people over the age of eighteen. Despite strict regulations and the strenuous efforts of various state officials to uproot the problem, vagrancy and day labour remained relatively common and publicly acknowledged throughout the nineteenth century, thus highlighting the contrast between normative prescription (such as law) and everyday life and the ambiguity of power relations in rural Iceland, underscoring their contested nature. This article discusses how vagrants and illegal day labourers in Iceland in the early nineteenth century found ways to evade the authorities and make a living for themselves on the margins of society. It stresses the agency of the working poor and highlights some of the survival strategies employed, including passport fraud, the careful exploitation of cultural notions of hospitality and methods of earning social capital by providing useful services. The article builds on the case of a travelling healer and vagrant named Árni Sveinsson who was found guilty of vagrancy, forgery and quackery in 1821. His trial provides rare insights into the tactics employed by those on the margins of the law to get around undetected.

Author Biography

Vilhelm Vilhelmsson, University of Iceland

Vilhelm Vilhelmsson (b. 1980) PhD, is historian and director of the University of Iceland Centre for Research in Northwest Iceland and editor of the journal SAGA. He has a doctoral degree in history from the University of Iceland. His research focuses on the power relations of everyday life in preindustrial Iceland, on subaltern agency and theories of everyday resistance. His book, Sjálfstætt fólk: Vistarband og íslenskt samfélag á 19. öld [Independent People: Compulsory service and Icelandic society in the 19th century] (Reykjavík, 2017) was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in the non-fiction category.


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