This is Part 5 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 land which Icelandic immigrants took was uncultivated and, except for a few Irish monks, uninhabited. These monks, who had arrived earlier in their native curachs (boats constructed of hides sewn together and stretched over a wooden frame), had come seeking solitude. They were called papar (sing. papi) by the later Icelanders.[i] They left of their own accord or were driven out by the new settlers. Although it cannot be verified, it is possible that their presence is witnessed in a number of place names such as the island of Papey off Iceland’s south-eastern coast.
The task facing Icelandic immigrants was to prosper on an empty island with a limited habitable area. In the process they established a society with a rich blend of attributes. Beginning in the tenth century with the close (c. 930) of the landnám, they established a general assembly, the Althing, and Iceland functioned as a single island-wide community. In many ways, Iceland was a decentralized, stratified society, operating with a mixture of pre-state features and state institutions. This combination gave rise to the sagas, one of the world’s great literatures. With its laws, sagas, archaeology and medieval historical writings about the settlement, early Iceland is an ideal laboratory for exploring the forces that cause and prevent social stratification. The settlement took place in a pristine ecosystem, and the landnám was one of the last colonizations of a large uninhabited land.
[i] Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders)1968: Ch. 1.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland