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ENLIGHTENMENT IDEAS OF
TRANSFORMATION AND PROGRESS
A Comparative Study of the North Atlantic
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, leading officials and natural historians,
including Skúli Magnússon and Niels Horrebow, became interested in techno-
logical and agricultural reform in Iceland. To find the best path for improving
conditions in Iceland, this Enlightenment elite believed that writing complete
and accurate descriptions of nature there was a necessary first step. Through
examining these natural histories and treatises on technological reforms, this arti-
cle argues that this group shared a certain vision of Icelandic nature, and that
they tried to advance this view outside the country, where it conflicted with ideas
about Icelandic nature from previous periods. For example, they stressed that
animals in Iceland were just like those in the rest of the Danish kingdom, and that
the natural phenomena of Iceland were not unique, which was a sharp break
with medieval and Renaissance mythology about Iceland as a land of extreme
and fantastic nature. Instead, these writers believed that nature in Iceland was
not essentially different from that of Norway, the Shetlands, or the Faroes. When
they wrote about how to reform agricultural practices in Iceland, they compared
Iceland with these other regions, and suggested that Iceland could become like
them. The article refers to this practice as the "transformative metaphor," and
analyses this group of natural historians and reformers as a "community of prac-
tice," a term borrowed from the history and sociology of science.