This is Part 17 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.
On the local level people harvested natural resources in the most suitable ways, with some specialization and division of labour. Among the regions of the island there was little significant variation in the production of goods or foodstuffs. Single-household farms became the rule, and since no towns or even small villages developed in Viking Age Iceland, the society was completely rural. In all regions of Iceland individual farmsteads were largely self-sufficient economic (though not political) units. Coastal fishing from small boats, manned sometimes by only two men, was practiced widely. The richest catches were taken at the cod-spawning grounds off the south-western and western coasts in late winter and early spring, but abundant fish stocks were available in many places off Iceland’s long coastline. With iron readily available in the form of low-grade bog ore, and with wood for charcoal to create the steady heat necessary to work it increasingly scarce everywhere, no individual or region cornered the market on iron-making.
The settlement of Iceland was financed to a large extent by wealth accumulated through Viking trade and depredations in Europe. The raids, beginning in the late eighth century, brought plunder to Scandinavia, stimulated shipbuilding, and invigorated commerce. These factors made possible the convergence of the wealth, experience and technology necessary to colonize so large and distant a place as Iceland. In the years after the settlement, whatever the initial wealth of the colonists, the descendants of the landnámsmenn saw their imported capital diminish. They found themselves in a remote place with a fragile subarctic ecology. The settlers soon learned that their new land allowed only limited agriculture and produced little on which the outside world placed a premium.
The settlers developed few new technologies to increase the productivity of their coastal and inland valley farmsteads. For archaeology this feature is especially significant, because it connects, in many ways, the far past with the near present. From the tenth to the nineteenth century, there was much continuity in Iceland’s rural life. This continuity, seen more in the material culture and less in social arrangements, was reinforced by the durability of individual settlements. Many early-twentieth-century farm sites were the product of continuous habitation, beginning in the Viking Age and extending over a thousand years.[i] Numerous farms mentioned in the sagas are still occupied today, with many of them retaining their original names.
Similarities, however, can be deceptive. It is dangerous to view the tenth century through the perspective of the well-documented eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is important to remember that the erosion caused by the immigrants’ herds had by the nineteenth century drastically diminished the island’s biomass. This factor, in conjunction with a climate that after the thirteenth century became increasingly colder, meant that by the eighteenth century people lived somewhat differently than in the first centuries following the settlement. Even in the later years of the Free State there were already alterations in subsistence strategies, social arrangements and living conditions.
[i] Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir 1992; Adolf Friðriksson and Orri Vésteinsson 1998.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland