This is Part 33 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.
There is only scant information about the internal trade in dried fish during the earliest centuries of the Free State. We know that stockfish was an important staple food by the twelfth century, especially during the periods of religious fasting. Archaeology helps fill in the gap. Archaeozoology (the study of vertebrate animal remains) from the inland site of Granastaðir, occupied in the mid tenth century, shows that some fish was brought up from the coast and eaten along with livestock, including pigs and horses.[i] Again Grettir’s Saga offers insight into this lost world, when it tells (in Chapter 42) of a trip to purchase provisions undertaken by Grettir’s brother, Atli. In this instance, the specific coastal settlement that Atli rides to with his packhorses may reflect the situation more in the thirteenth century than in the earlier period:
Atli now became a successful farmer, and he had many men. He was a good provider. Toward the end of the summer he travelled out to Snæfellsnes to purchase dried fish. He took with him many packhorses …They rode west through Haukadalsskard, following the route which leads out on to Snæfellsnes. There they bought a lot of dried fish and loaded it on to seven horses. Once they had done this, they set off on the route home.
Seven packhorse loads of cod is a considerable amount of fish. It would have been interesting to know with what Atli is supposed to have paid for this food.
Hay harvesting on lowland meadows was vital in order to feed as many cattle and sheep as possible during the long winter. Farmers kept a few rams for breeding, but wethers were the staple of the sheep herds. These castrated rams grew fat. They produced ample quantities of wool and could stay outside for much of the winter, foraging for themselves. In later times such rams were thought to be especially clever. In severe winter periods they were known to survive by digging themselves into the protection of the insulating snow, leaving only their nostrils above the surface. The ability of animals to graze outside throughout the winter was crucial to subsistence. Ólafur Stephensen, governor of Iceland from 1790 to 1806[IS1] , remarked after one of Iceland’s most severe famines that the grazing of domestic animals in the winter was ‘the main pillar of our farming.’[ii]
[i] Bjarni Einarsson 1994.
[ii] Jón Jóhannesson 1974: 292.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland