This is Part 22 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.
In houses where an internal wooden frame relieved the relatively weak turf walls of the weight of the heavy sod roof (see Appendix 3), passageways could be cut through the walls, allowing rooms to be added. One room frequently added was a communal latrine. In the older longhouses, such as Grelutótt, the latrine had been built as a separate outhouse, but by the eleventh century the kamarr (chamber), as it is frequently called in the sagas, was often placed indoors.[i] This alteration, which improved living conditions and increased safety in the feuding culture, is corroborated by both archaeology and saga. For example, Eyrbyggja saga (Chapter 26) recounts the following short episode about an unfortunate fellow named Svart, who was sent to the farm of Helgafell to kill the chieftain Snorri goði. The plan was to attack Snorri in the evening when it was assumed that he and his men would head for the latrine:
Svart went over to Helgafell and broke through the roof over the outside door, climbing into the loft. This action took place while Snorri and his men were sitting by the fire. In those days the farms had outside latrines. When Snorri and his men got up from the fire, they prepared to go out to the latrine. Snorri went first and had already gone through the doorway by the time Svart made his thrust. Mar Hallvardsson was just behind Snorri, and Svart struck him with his halberd [a combination of spear and axe]. The thrust landed on Mar’s shoulder, slicing across the arm. It was not a serious wound. Svart scrambled out on to the roof and jumped down from the wall. But the paving stones were slippery and he took a bad fall when he landed. Snorri had his men grab hold of Svart before he could stand up.
This story also hinges on a couple of other features of turf longhouses. The saga author assumes that his audience knows that over the outside doors were gables into which a man could fit; and that paving stones would have been placed in front of the door.
[i] Sigríður Sigurðardóttir 1996-7.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland