Viking Age Iceland: Resources and Subsistence: Life on a Northern Island

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

This is Part 13 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.

Kjartan often went to the hot springs at Sælingsdal, and it always seemed to happen that Gudrun was also at the baths. Kjartan enjoyed talking with Gudrun, because she was intelligent and spoke so engagingly. It was common talk that Kjartan and Gudrun were the best matched of the young people growing up at that time.

Laxdæla saga, Chapter 39[IS1] 

Thorleif again invited Ketil and his men to stay there, warning them that the weather was not reliable. Ketil insisted that he had to leave, but Thorleif urged him to turn back if the weather began to worsen. Ketil set out, but it was only a short time before the bad weather came, and they had to turn back. They reached Thorleif’s very late and were completely exhausted. Thorleif welcomed them warmly, and they spent two nights weatherbound there. The longer the stay was, the better the hospitality.

The Saga of the People of Weapon’s Fjord (Vápnfirðinga saga), Chapter 5[IS2] 

At the same time that the Viking Age settlers of Iceland were setting up an autonomous land with self-directed political and social systems, they were adapting [IS3] to an unusual combination of environmental conditions. Although Iceland, at 103,000 square kilometres (39,769 square miles), is a fifth larger than Ireland, it cannot support a large population. Most of the interior is uninhabitable because of its distance from the warmth of the surrounding ocean, a northern branch of the Gulf Stream that flows around Iceland’s coast. The glaciers, often at relatively low altitudes, are a reminder of the nearness of the Arctic Circle, which lies a few degrees above the northern tip of the West Fjords. The great Vatna Glacier (Vatna Jökull) in the south-east covers 5,800 square kilometres (2,240 square miles), and at its thickest point this snowcapped mass of ice is approximately 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) deep.

Iceland is situated between two different air masses – the cold, dry polar front and the warm, damp southern front – and between two different oceanic currents, the warm North Atlantic Drift and the East Greenland polar current. Because of this mix, the island’s temperature and weather are frequently unstable. Cold northern winds which, having passed over the polar cap, are clear and dry alternate with moisture-laden maritime winds, which deposit heavy rains and snow. The run-off feeds the numerous rivers and lakes of the glaciated landscape, maintaining the extensive bogs and moorlands that support the island’s abundant bird life.


— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

 [IS1]Added in VAI 2001

 [IS2]Added in VAI 2001

 [IS3]MS had “adapting their lives”

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