This is Part 31 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 the first years of the settlement, farmers depended heavily on birds, seals, fish and other forms of wild food while they were building up their herds. After the herds reached full size, probably by the mid to late tenth century, livestock farming, including the management of semi-wild horses used for meat, became the major form of subsistence.[i] Animals, however, were valuable and fresh meat was mostly only eaten in the autumn. If we are to judge from later times, little from the slaughtered animals was left unused as households prepared for winter. Sheep heads, rams’ testicles, udders and jelly from the feet were all prepared for storage. Some meats were smoked, but most were boiled and then placed in large wooden vats of sour whey. Called súrr, related to English “sour”, this liquid acted as a preservative, bacterial fermentation turning the milk sugar to lactic acid. Food stored in súrr takes on a sour taste, and in modern times the food was not considered fit to eat until properly sour. As the forests diminished, dried dung became a major fuel for heating, and was the preferred fuel for smoking both meat and fish. Foods conserved in súrr were ready for the table straight from the barrel, and the large percentage of pre-cooked or prepared foods resulted in a considerable saving in winter fuel.
Most early Icelandic farms had little if any salt for preserving, but meat and suet were made into different kinds of sausages and boiled, as were liver and blood-pudding preparations. These and other fatty foods were stuffed into skin bags made from animal stomachs. The butter made at the summer dairies was easily stored in wooden boxes and small barrels and during the winter was an important complement to most foods. Without salt, the stored butter fermented during storage, turning sour. In this state, it would keep for a very long time.
Again from later times, we know that edible lichens such as Iceland moss (fjallagrös) were widely used in place of ground meal. Northern grouse or ptarmigan was an important game bird. Ptarmigan, which have feathered feet and plumage that is brownish in the summer but changes to white in the winter, are found widely in the northern Arctic and subarctic regions. Iceland also offered a wide abundance of water fowl and migratory birds, including many varieties of ducks, geese and swans. There are several fjords along the coast that are named Álptafjord, meaning swans’ fjord, where large numbers of wild swans still congregate today.
[i] The eating of horse meat was forbidden in the early Christian centuries, after the year 1000, and stopped for a time.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland