Viking Age Iceland: Studying Iceland

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 2 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

Since Bryce’s day, the study of Iceland has flourished, and numerous writers have explored different facets of the island’s medieval culture. But the essential contradictions that Bryce noted remain unresolved. This book addresses these contradictions by examining the underlying structures and cultural codes that bound the different parts of Icelandic society into a cohesive polity. It is a social-historical study that employs the tools of history and anthropology and takes into consideration the ethnographic, literary and legal attributes of the sagas. It brings together the natural and human forces that shaped the new society, exploring the way Iceland’s Viking Age social order came into being and how it functioned. The answers tell a great deal about society, saga and life in the medieval north.

The Norsemen who first settled Iceland in the late ninth century did not come as part of a planned migration, a political movement, or an organized conquest. Unlike many later European explorers and colonists, Norse explorers and settlers were not acquiring territory for sovereigns or for established religious hierarchies. Viking Age voyages into the far North Atlantic were independent undertakings, part of a 300-year epoch of seaborne expansion that saw Scandinavian peoples settle in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, parts of Scotland and Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Vínland.

 — Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland 

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