Profile in Brief Ice in his veins

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Blood feuds, revenge, retribution, the law of "an eye for an eye" -- topics that could be ripped from today's news headlines.

But these ideas date back centuries to ancient Iceland.

There's nothing dull or dry for law students in Professor William I. Miller's classes. Beats the heck out of procedure, legal briefs, and depositions.

Miller, the Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, has done extensive research on saga Iceland, providing materials for his blood feuds class and his 1990 book, "Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland."

This ancient culture had no central government, no law enforcement infrastructure, and no arms control.

"Yet a complex system of law developed, regulating everything from fence building, driftage rights, to cross-dressing, composing love poems, and of course killing, and the right -- and even duty -- to take revenge," he says.

Miller, a member of the U-M Law School faculty since 1984, teaches the First-Year Required in Property, an upper level course called "Bloodfeuds," and various seminars on themes as diverse as courage, faking, humiliation, or whatever he happens to be writing a book about at the time.

He has been a visiting professor at Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Bergen, the University of Tel Aviv, and Harvard, and in 2008 was the Carnegie Centenary Trust Professor at the University of St. Andrews.

"Teaching has highs and lows, but mostly highs," he says. "The highs are mostly when you get to learn from the students, who if you are lucky will sometimes be a step ahead of you and bringing a fresh set of brains uncorrupted by years of routine to the topics."

As for what he enjoys about teaching at the U-M, he replies, "My superb colleagues and the smart students."

Miller also writes about emotions, mostly unpleasant ones involving self-assessment, vices and virtues, as evidenced in his books: "The Mystery of Courage" (2000), "The Anatomy of Disgust" (1997) - named the best book of 1997 in anthropology/sociology by the Association of American Publishers - "Humiliation" (1993); and "Faking It" (2003), "which deals with anxieties of role, identity, and posturings of authenticity, the phoniness of the really real, of being true to yourself whatever that means," he says.

In his 2006 book, "Eye for an Eye," Miller presents a historical and philosophical study of revenge, and includes a discussion defending retributive justice the law of the talion.

"Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business," published in 2008, is an extended treatment of a 13th century Icelandic saga about a resourceful man who spends all he has for a polar bear in Greenland and travels to Denmark to give it to the king.

Miller's latest book, "Losing It," will appear this fall at Yale University Press.

"It's about watching your own mind lose its edge, brain rot, and when you see it or do not see it in the eyes of others that it is time to be turned out to the pasture," he says. "It looks at the miseries of aging, discusses complaining, how you grew ever more dissociated from how you appear to others and the out of date image you maintain of yourself.

"I still have too much of the blood of an historian to not draw many of my better examples from old texts: the Bible, the sagas, old chronicles. The book has an implicit polemic against the imbecility of the 'upbeat oldster, positive thinking crowd,' the cult of positivity, which depends, it seems, on having less of a brain to see the world truly and see it cold."

Miller, who says the grim reality of the job market in history drew him to a law career, earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin and Ph.D. in English and J.D. from Yale.

His interest in ancient Iceland was purely an accident.

"A classmate in grad school says you ought to read this if you think Beowulf is so great, and he handed me an English translation of 'Njal's Saga.' I went back to my hovel and started reading, and it was like Paul getting knocked off his horse. It is up there with the greatest things ever written," he says.

Last March, Miller made presentations to the Department of Medieval History, University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and presented "Fleecing Suitors in Saga Iceland" at Aarhus University in Denmark. In 2009 he presented "The Politics of Courage," at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, and "Fasting Against the Deity, Humiliating the Torah," at a Conference on Human Dignity and Shame Punishment in Jewish Law, Harvard Law School.

He visited Scotland late last year to teach and do research.

"The University of St. Andrews has perhaps the best collection of medievalists at any one place in the world, and for three weeks every year I give a couple of talks there and soak up the superior knowledge of their faculty," he says.

When he's not immersed in law or Icelandic legend, Miller - a native of Green Bay - is an avid Packers fan: "I live and die by their successes and failures," he says.

"And I'm a biker of sorts; motorcycles come with the territory of where I grew up, even though the weather made it only unpainful to ride them about five months of the year. I'm 65 and the 1800cc Hog I have now will surely spare me from having to face a phantom death panel."

Published: Wed, Jan 19, 2011


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