This is Part 4 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.
The first settlers were men and women asserting their self-interest. They seized the opportunity to bring their families, their wealth, and their livestock nearly 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) across the North Atlantic in search of land. What they found was a mid-Atlantic island of striking beauty. The landscape varied from fertile inland valleys and richly grassed and forested lowlands to massive glaciers and forbidding volcanic mountain ranges. The higher mountains remained snow-capped throughout the summer. Today, glaciers and lava beds each cover approximately a tenth of the island, and the situation was roughly similar in the settlement period. In the autumn and early winter the far northern sky is often alive with the northern lights.
Most landnámsmenn (a term that includes women) came directly from Scandinavia, especially from Norway. Many also came from Viking encampments and Norse colonies in the Celtic lands. The Norse settlers from Ireland, Scotland, and the Hebrides brought with them Gaelic wives, followers and slaves.[i] A few colonists were part or all Celt. In the sagas we find many Celtic names, such as Njáll and Kormákr (Old Irish were Níall [Neal or Neil] and Cormac).
In the sixty or so years of the landnám (literally the land-taking, c. 870-930) at least ten thousand people, and perhaps as many as twenty thousand, emigrated to Iceland. Initially it was a boom period with free land for the taking. The settlers came in merchant ships (knörr, pl. knerrir) loaded with goods, implements and domestic animals. These sturdy single-masted, square-sailed ships were made to be sailed, but for short distances they could be rowed. They were used throughout the Viking Age, and at the time of the landnám they carried as much as 30 tons of cargo. Later in the twelfth century, when Norwegians used the knörr in the Iceland trade, the cargo capacity increased to about 50 tons. Many of the prominent settlers arrived in their own ships, as noted in the sources. It is also possible, although the later written records say little, that other ships went back and forth across the Atlantic, ferrying for hire land-hungry people out to the island.
[i] Hermann Pálsson 1996; Gísli Sigurðsson 1988.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland