This is Part 18 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 variability of the weather and the short, often cool, growing season at Iceland’s northern latitude influenced the way Icelanders farmed and lived. Native vegetation was limited mostly to birch and willow (with some alder and evergreens), shrubs, grasses, mosses, lichens and sedges. The settlers immediately saw that the grasses and shrubs were suitable for the type of cattle and sheep farming that they knew in their homelands. The original birch forests, which stretched in many places from the shoreline to the base of the mountains, did not hinder these herdsmen. The land was easy to clear of the relatively slender trees, and probably, as evidenced by excavations such as those in the Mosfell Valley at the farm of Hrísbrú, the technique for land clearing was to burn the trees and brush.[i] As the ownership of livestock was from the start the measure of status and wealth, the initial ease of adapting the new land to livestock farming fed from the beginning the temptation to overstock.
The native birch offered the landnámsmenn a supply of hardwood suitable for hearths and charcoal-making. The land clearings of the settlers, the ravenous fuel requirements for making iron from bog ore, and the uncontrolled grazing of livestock soon reduced the original forests to relatively small stands of trees. These remaining woodlands frequently appear in the sagas as valuable, contested property. Such a contest is at the core of a dispute in The Saga of the People of Weapon’s Fjord (Vápnfirðinga saga, discussed in Chapter 13)[IS1] . After the first relatively few big trees had been cut down, the birch available was of only limited use in shipbuilding and house construction. From early on good timber had to be imported. This expense raised the cost of maintaining ships, a factor that over time severely limited the Icelanders’ ability to compete with Norwegian merchants.
Lack of wood meant that the transplanted European farmers could not fence in large areas, a factor that limited the amount of land that could be devoted to hay production. Matters were not helped by the nature of Iceland’s brittle volcanic rock, which with its many air bubbles chips easily and is hard to shape. Despite the difficulty of constructing high turf and stone walls, many had to be built to enclose grazing pastures.[ii] Walls were also used to enclose the manured home fields, called tún. These productive hayfields were usually situated in front of the farmsteads, although sometimes, especially in the earliest period, the wall of the tún formed a ring around the farmhouse and the animal sheds. Both the home-field walls and the farm buildings were constructed of turf, the readily available natural material.
[i] The excavation in the tún or home meadow at Hrísbrú in the summer of 1999 was undertaken as part of the Mosfell Valley Project. Trenches showed that resting directly above the landnám tephra layer (volcanic pumice and ash from an eruption in about the year 871) was a widespread thin layer of organic ash, almost certainly the remains of the initial woodland that was cleared by burning.
[ii] Enormous work appears to have been devoted to maintaining them. Grágás 1852b: 91.
[IS1]Added in VAI 2001
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland