This is Part 14 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.
Iceland sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and was almost entirely formed by volcanic activity. It remains today one of the most active volcanic regions in the world. The combination of glaciers and volcanic activity affected the early Icelanders in many ways. To a large degree, the valleys were shaped by the effects of glacial and water erosion on brittle volcanic rock. Young by geological standards, Iceland has more than 200 volcanoes, some of whose differing types reach deep into the Earth’s unstable interior. Sheets of basalt, a dark rock of igneous origin, underlie almost all of Iceland’s soil and surface cover. The landscape in parts of the island consists of dried lava flows and disintegrating pumice. Many of these areas are covered by a dense growth of multicoloured mosses and lichens. Volcanic activity under the huge ice mass of the Vatna Glacier has, over the centuries, caused harm to the surrounding population, including the medieval descendants of the landnámsmenn who settled on the coast directly south of the glacier.
Not all the effects of a volcanic environment were negative. The settlers found a landscape with more than 250 sites of natural hot springs, probably more readily accessible hot water than in any comparably sized area in the world. The medieval population never harnessed the hot springs or the volcanic vents for energy, but they did utilize this resource in other ways. These included washing clothes, boiling and steaming foods, attending to personal hygiene and comfort and socializing in the natural hot pools. The quotation from Laxdæla saga at the start of this chapter mentions the baths at Sælingsdal in the Broad Fjord region, where the young Kjartan and Gudrun met. The mention indicates the role of hot springs in the social life of the rural community.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland