This is Part 34 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.
The consistent central importance of livestock farming and landownership indicates the continuity that characterized the experience of Icelanders from the tenth to the mid thirteenth century. Throughout these centuries, land sufficiently productive to satisfy the type of agriculture practiced was scarce. Iceland’s northern location meant that it had short, cool and often damp summers, which made the growing of cereal crops unpredictable. Grain and flour became mostly imported luxury items, even though some farmers, especially in the south, cultivated cereal crops such as barley on a small scale. With the vast interior of the country uninhabitable because of the severity of the long winters, the population remained concentrated along the coast and in a few sheltered inland areas. In these areas population pressure increased and claims to ownership of valuable land became a primary source of contention, not least because such property produced the food resources on which the population depended.
All population estimates for Free State Iceland (c. 930-1264) are guesses, even though some remarkable data are available. According to the early-twelfth-century Icelandic historian Ari the Learned (inn fróði), writing in his Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók), Iceland’s second bishop, Gizur Isleifsson, carried out a census at the end of the eleventh century. At this period at the close of the Viking Age, Bishop Gizur determined that there were thirty-eight ‘hundred’ farmers liable to the thing tax, that is, heads of households who possessed enough property to enjoy all rights in courts and at assemblies. The term “hundred” probably stood for 120, as was customary (the medieval “long hundred” was based on the number twelve), so the number of self-sufficient farmers at this time was approximately 4,560.
So large a number of property-owning free farmers is an indication of the social levelling that had transpired in Iceland in the centuries following the settlement. The figure also suggests the political importance of the landowning farmer class, individuals who, from all accounts, looked after their own rights and interests. Most estimates of the total population in the early Free State are based on Ari’s information about Gizur’s census. Reckoning an average of ten to twenty people on a householder’s lands – figures that included tenant farmers – gives a rough estimate of somewhere between 45,000 and 90,000 people, but the larger figure seems high. In the late seventeenth century, when the size of the population was better known, there were approximately 55,000 people in Iceland.[i] The population during the early Free State period, when the land was more fertile and the grasslands were less eroded, was probably somewhat larger. Hence an estimate of 60,000 to 70,000.
[i] Helgi Skúli Kjartansson 1975.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland