Viking Age Iceland: An Inward-looking Farming Society

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

This is Part 26 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.

From the settlement period on, vaðmál was woven on upright warp-weighted looms. Much of this indoors work was done by women. The looms were usually about a metre wide, and this width determined the size of the bolts of cloth. Viking Age Scandinavians had not yet learned to knit and buttons were still an invention many centuries off. Clothes, including gloves, were cut from woollen cloth and sewn together. Sleeves to some garments, as is mentioned in sagas, were fastened by sewing them shut at the wrists. Some Icelanders wore linen undergarments, but these were expensive and often imported.

Both men and women tended to follow the styles of mainland Scandinavia. Men wore a long shirt and dressed in trousers. Wearing coloured clothes beyond the natural brown, black, grey, and white of the sheep signified wealth, and both men and women dressed in their finery for meetings of the Althing. Styles and details of dress changed with time, but Icelandic women during the Viking Age generally wore a long shift, sometimes pleated. This dress was overlaid front and back by a long apron held in place by brooches attached to the front of the dress just below the shoulders. A number of these distinctive brooches have been found in Icelandic excavations and they date their surroundings to the Viking Age.

Icelanders never had a sufficiently large or stable source of silver to replenish the precious metals brought in by the first settlers. Over the years, travelling Icelanders and successful traders brought new supplies of silver to the island, but by the eleventh century the reserve seems to have become sharply depleted. From the earliest period Icelanders substituted commodities for silver, and several mediums of exchange – ranging from silver to livestock, woollen cloth and dairy products – coexisted in medieval Iceland. In particular, homespun replaced silver as a more common unit of exchange. Each grade of vaðmál was equivalent to a weight of silver, though the ratios fluctuated over the years.[1]

Until stockfish became important in the fourteenth century, imported goods not paid for in silver were purchased with bulk wool, homespun, skins and, to a lesser extent, agricultural products, in particular dairy goods. Without a renewable supply of money, Icelanders going abroad took with them woollen cloth or other goods to sell. It was a basic fact that Iceland had only limited supplies of foodstuffs to export. Sulphur and such luxury items as white falcons (mostly later) and walrus ivory were exported. One can only guess at the relative importance of such trade, which probably was small. The written sources suggest that the country had an active cottage industry producing woollen goods and dairy products. These products served as an internal barter currency and were the means by which most debts were settled and landlords received payment.

[1] The principal monetary unit was the law ounce (lögeyrir), which equaled six ells of homespun cloth two ells wide (an Icelandic ell seems to have been a little more than 49 cm or approximately 19.5 in). The ratio of the law ounce to an ounce of silver varied from 8:1 in the eleventh century to 6:1 in the latter half of the thirteenth century, with a ratio of 7.5:1 recorded in the twelfth century. Prices of goods were calculated in standardized ounces (thinglagsaurar), whose values were set at the local springtime assemblies and thus varied from district to district. Usually the standardized ounce was equal to three or four ells of homespun cloth. Livestock was also frequently used as currency. The value of a cow was set at each district assembly, a practice that again made prices variable. Taxes and tithes were paid mostly in vaðmál, butter, cheese, livestock and other farm products, including bulk wool and skins.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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