This is Part 32 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.
Diet in early Iceland often depended on location. For people on farms along the coast, fresh fish, seals, seabird eggs and seabirds themselves, such as puffins, were important foods. Place names, such as Rosmhvalanes (Walrus’ Headland), and a few bones found at excavations indicate that in the earliest years there were walruses (rosmhvalar). These were soon hunted to extinction for their meat, fat and ivory. In the inland valleys and even on farms not especially far from the coast, people probably ate relatively little fresh fish from the sea, but seal products and fresh eggs were transported inland. There are many seals around the coast of Iceland. In cold winters, seals ride the ice flows from the north, arriving off the Icelandic coast. Seal blubber became an especially important product. Along with fat from other sea mammals, it was used for frying foods and eaten in the place of butter. Seal fat was also used to grease leather clothes, making them water repellent. Iceland lacked pine forests for tar to caulk ships, but for small boats seal blubber was a successful substitute. Boats were caulked by placing strips of homespun wool or vaðmál between the planks and then coating them with hot seal oil. The Saga of Eirik the Red reports that when treated with “seal tar” (seltjara) boats resisted wood-boring sea worms.
Seal and shark oil were considered the best fuel for indoor oil lamps. Such lamps were simple affairs, fashioned by chipping out the centre of a stone to form a crude bowl. Wicks were woven from a grass called fífa (cotton grass), which grows wild in swampy ground. In late summer, the flowering portion becomes cotton-like and has often reminded people of a woman’s long white-blonde hair. The burning wick extended out over the lip of the bowl and oil that dripped from the wick was caught beneath in a second, larger stone bowl. When the lower bowl filled, the unused oil was poured back into the lamp.
Trout and char, a species related to trout, are abundant throughout Iceland. These fish were a year-round resource for many farms, especially because during the winter they can be fished with nets through the ice. Sea trout and brown trout often grow very large. In modern times, brown trout weighing over 14.5 kg (32 lb) have been caught. Like salmon, which was an important food for many farms, trout can be smoked.[i] Stockfish, that is wind-dried cod or skreið, also reached the inland valleys. The cod, which is rich in oils necessary for preservation, was dried on outdoor racks. The fish was split open and hung on a length of wood called a stokkr, hence the name stockfish. Needing no salt, the process required little investment and fishermen could do it themselves. Iceland and northern Norway around the Lofoten Islands are among the few regions in the world where cod, despite its oil content, can be successfully wind-dried. The crucial factor is the cold, dry polar winds. These alternate with the relatively mild northern maritime climate, with temperatures moving above and below freezing. These dry, cold winds are not routinely found further south in Norway, for example.
[i] Bio-archaeological analysis of kitchen middens will add more data in the coming years. The North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) has been especially active in this area.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland