This is Part 25 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.
Volcanic eruption at Hekla Mountain with great fall of ash and pumice and such large breaks in the earth that cliffs collided in the fires in such a way that it was heard almost throughout the whole land. It was so dark while the ash fall was at its greatest that there was not enough light to read books in those churches that stood closest to the source of the fire. Great hunger. Great death of livestock, both of sheep and of cattle, so that between the Travelling Days [at the end of May] and Peter’s Mass [August 1] alone eighty head of cattle from Skálholt’s possessions died.
On the edge of the habitable world and separated from their homelands by a dangerous ocean, the ninth- and tenth-century immigrants to Iceland established a social order that lacked many characteristics of a state structure and operated without regional or local military arrangements. Even at the height of Viking times, the country was never invaded, nor was it a base for attacks against other lands. Nevertheless, Iceland remained in contact with events in the Viking world, and some individuals went abroad to join Viking or mercenary bands.
Beyond the consensus that it was wise to be on friendly terms with the Norwegian king, Iceland for centuries had no foreign policy and no defensive land or sea force. The kings of Norway, Iceland’s major potential enemy, were for centuries too weak or too absorbed in their own wars and their own domestic problems to play more than a sporadic role in Icelandic affairs. Although many Norwegian kings, including Olaf Tryggvason, St. Olaf, and Harald Hardradi showed interest in Iceland, until Norwegian royal power became formidable in the mid thirteenth century foreign monarchs and churchmen rarely had direct influence on events in Iceland. Politically, the island became an inward-looking country that was in contact with, but was largely independent of, the rest of Europe.
Limited agricultural production, coupled with a lack of organized commercial fisheries, restricted Iceland’s trade with the outside world. This situation, and the self-sufficiency in staple subsistence which it imposed, did not change until the early fourteenth century. In that period, which is well beyond the scope of this book, dried cod or skreið, called stockfish in English, began to be exported and fishing changed from a subsistence to a commercial [IS2] activity.[i] Once started, the trade in stockfish grew rapidly. Foreign ships from Norway, northern Germany and England began coming regularly to Iceland to purchase stockfish, and by the mid fourteenth century stockfish export and the industry that grew up around it became firmly entrenched. The arrival of these new foreigners was a significant change. From the end of the eleventh century, few Icelanders owned ocean-going ships, and trade with the outside world had become dependent on Norwegian merchants and their boats. After the late eleventh century, Norwegian importance increased still further with the growth of merchant towns in Norway. At this time, because of its export value, the production and export of standardized homespun or woollen cloth, called vaðmál, became increasingly important in Iceland[IS3] .[ii] At home and abroad vaðmál was used not only for clothing but also, waterproofed with animal fat, for sailcloth.
[i] Internally the situation was different. By 1250-60 cod fisheries that provided for internal consumption had become widespread, corresponding to increases in population and the expansion of tenant farming at the time (Helgi Thorláksson 1991).
[ii] Jón Haukur Ingimundarson 1995; Helgi Thorláksson 1991.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland