Viking Age Iceland: Grettir’s Saga and farms

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

This is Part 29 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.

With its many entries about food, Grettir’s Saga gives a good idea of how the lowland farms were provisioned. For example, in Chapter 28 the description of a prank played by Grettir the Strong on Audun, a fellow farmer, gives one a feeling for the dimness within the turf houses, and shows how skyr was transported by pack horses rather than carts:

Audun was bringing back dairy products [from his sel] loaded on two horses. One of the horses carried skyr placed in skin bags, which were tied shut at the top and were called skyr bags. Audun unloaded the horse and carried the skyr into the house. As he came inside, he couldn’t see in the dark. Grettir stuck his foot out from the bench so that Audun fell on his face. He landed on top of a skyr bag, forcing the top open. Audun jumped up and asked what idiot was there. Grettir named himself.

Audun said, ‘That was foolishly done. What is it that you want here?’

‘I want to fight you,’ said Grettir.

‘Let me take care of the food first,’ said Audun.

‘As it should be,’ said Grettir, ‘if there’s no one else to do it for you.’

Audun bent down and picked up the skyr bag. He flung it straight into Grettir’s arms, telling him first to deal with what had been given to him. Grettir was covered all over with skyr and was more insulted than if Audun had given him a serious wound.

Common lands were called almenning.[i] Especially along the coast these public lands offered opportunities for enterprising individuals to increase their store of provisions and to find saleable merchandise. Leaving the protection of one’s farmstead and neighbourhood to hunt and gather foodstuffs in often desolate almenning could be dangerous. Competition might be fierce and disputes arose. Seal-hunting was highly important, but bloated whales, which had washed ashore with their huge quantity of meat and blubber, were the real prizes among the driftage. Grettir’s Saga recounts the dangers encountered by Thorgils Maksson, a farmer from Midfjord (Miðfjörðr) in the northern quarter, when he ran afoul of two landless troublemakers, the foster-brothers Thorgeir and Thormod. These famous foster-brothers, who are the lead characters in Fóstbrœðra saga (The Saga of the Foster-Brothers) had acquired a boat and were causing trouble on the Strands, a section of the eastern shoreline of the West Fjords. The story is told because Asmund, the man who leads the prosecution against the foster-brothers, is Grettir’s father. According to the saga, Asmund’s successful handling of the case resulted in a legal precedent advantaging prosecutions against landless individuals who killed men of property on the common lands.

[i] The word almenning also means “the people”.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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