Viking Age Iceland: Successful Settlements

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

This is Part 15 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.

Almost all successful settlements were near the coast or in a few sheltered inland valley systems. There were no dangerous predatory animals. When the settlers arrived, the arctic fox and the field mouse [IS1] were the only land mammals on the island, although periodically solitary polar bears travelling on ice floes from Greenland arrived in Northern Iceland. By the time the bears reached Iceland they were desperately hungry and, then as now, had to be hunted quickly. The settlers brought dogs, cats, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle and horses with them.[i] They also brought lice, fleas, dung beetles and a variety of other animal parasites. The lack of predators meant that from the start they could let their livestock roam the highlands. At first cattle raising, on the Norwegian model, was the most important activity, but within a century sheep farming became more prominent. Pigs and goats proved especially destructive to the grasslands, and by the year 1000 raising them was to a large extent discontinued.[ii] The other imported animals adjusted well. The Icelanders were fortunate in their horses. The original settlers imported small Scandinavian horses with thick coats. While continental Europeans bred their horses with Arabian stock in the thirteenth century to produce larger animals, the Icelanders continued with their small, tough horses, which over the centuries proved well adapted to North Atlantic conditions and Iceland’s uneven terrain[IS2] .

The first settlers were prepared, and able, to live on often isolated farmsteads, surrounded by the hayfields and meadows necessary to maintain their herds, a settlement pattern that continued into the early twentieth century. They became a pastoral people based on fixed, dispersed farmsteads. Application of the concepts of freemen´s rights turned on the ability of a farmer, called a húsbóndi (master of the house, related to English “husband”), to feed his dependants. Households needed to control sufficient pasturage and hay meadows to provide the fodder necessary to keep a minimum of livestock alive through the winter. From the start, Icelandic society operated with well-developed concepts of private property and law, but, in an unusual combination, it lacked most of the formal institutions of government which normally protect ownership and enforce judicial decisions.

As the country participated only marginally in the active trade of Viking Age Scandinavia, subsistence was dependent on the strategies of settled pastoralism and hunter-gathering. The latter included hunting seals and birds, gathering eggs, fishing, and finding beached whales. Individual sagas tend to have different focuses. Egil’s Saga, for example, reveals much about economic matters and subsistence strategies. It tells how the settler, the landnámsmaðr Skallagrim (Bald Grim), provisioned his main farm at Borg, which lay just above the coastal wetlands in Borgarfjord. The saga description, written several centuries after the land-taking by someone who knew the area and was aware that changes had occurred in the region since the settlement, in Chapter 29 [IS3] assesses Skallagrim’s wealth in terms of natural resources.[iii]

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

[i] Amorosi et al. 1997.

[ii] Iceland’s ecosystem and the effects of the settlement have been the subject of extensive research, including Amorosi et al. 1997; Arnalds 1987; Buckland et al. 1991a and b; Dugmore and Simpson 1999; Sturla Friðriksson 1972; Margrét Hallsdóttir 1987; McGovern 1990; McGovern et al. 1988; Sveinn Runólfsson 1987; Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir 1992; Thórarinn Thórarinsson 1974. See also Jarðvegsrof á Íslandi 1997.

[iii] There is no doubt about the core holdings of Skallagrim’s land-take, but the claims of control over areas far from Borg may be a later exaggeration.

 [IS1]Added in VAI 2001

 [IS2]MS had “Over the centuries these horses with their five gaits proved well adapted to Icelandic conditions, including the uneven and ever-changing terrain.”

 [IS3]Added in VAI 2001

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