Viking Age Iceland: Provisions, Subsistence Strategies and Population

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

This is Part 27 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.

Although descended from Norse peoples with rich seagoing traditions, the Icelanders soon lacked a ready, cost-effective supply of ocean-going ships. This factor restricted their fishing and limited their subsistence strategies. With their herds, they became a largely landlocked livestock farming society in the midst of a fertile ocean which teemed with whales and other sea mammals. Even for a journey down the coast, characters in the sagas most frequently resort to long overland horseback rides. An extensive system of horse paths connected the whole island. These led to almost every part of the country, and formed a highly serviceable communications web. There were, however, no roads for wheeled carts to cross the highlands, and few if any such roads in the valleys.

In the relatively small boats that the Icelanders could build inexpensively from driftwood, their close coastal fishing often yielded large quantities of fish. They wind-dried for the winter, as will shortly be discussed, several types of fish, especially cod. Given the limitations of their boats, the Icelanders, like most other Scandinavians of the period, avoided or were unable to hunt whales on the open sea. It is unlikely that Icelanders routinely herded whales into bays, forcing them aground. Instead they remained on the lookout for dead whales washed ashore.

Inevitably the new society’s development was dictated by competition among succeeding generations for the land’s limited resources, because the population was not nomadic but lived at settled farmsteads, livestock farming required that each farmer have at his disposal sufficiently large expanses of grazing land. During the summer common lands and pastures in the highlands, often called almenning, were used by a region’s farmers for grazing. The majority of lambs and wethers (gelded rams) were driven up to the highest mountain pastures. During the summer ewes and cows were kept in the lower uplands at dairies called sel, many of which were owned by specific farms. There the cows and some of the ewes were milked, and butter and cheeses were produced.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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