This is Part 35 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.
When all went well, the country was relatively prosperous in the early centuries, but bad times hit hard. The sagas often speak of these periods, giving a glimpse of the ways in which things might go wrong. With the possibilities for calamity strong, most Icelanders who survived to old age experienced several rough periods. The natural limitations of Iceland’s productivity did much to shape its social development. Indications are that by the late tenth century the population began to strain the natural resources. By the thirteenth century the pressure on resources is clearer, and there were significant increases in tenant farming and the rise of fisheries as an alternative form of subsistence.
The effect of human habitation on the island was rapid. Beginning as early as the tenth century, erosion and overgrazing diminished the productivity of the grasslands, a factor that increased the value of good lowland properties. Iceland is a large island and, in the early years, it is likely that it had a biomass sufficient to feed the herds.[i] Problems stemming from overgrazing were caused less by the lack of grasslands, which were extensive, than by the way they were used. Because animals were often sent to the fragile highlands early in the short summer, the grasslands were grazed just at the time when the grass, which needed time to recover from the winter, was most vulnerable. Because the upland soils were shallow, the effects of early grazing were severe, and in many areas the herds quickly diminished the available grasslands. This upland and then lowland erosion of its grazing lands, coupled with a more or less finite number of lowland hay meadows, meant that Iceland differed from many contemporaneous European lands. In many areas of the Continent the environment was less fragile and large tracts of forest, marshlands capable of being drained and uninhabited wilderness provided the medieval population with room to expand.
[i] My thanks to Ian Simpson for explaining this process to me at a North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) conference in Akureyri in July 1999.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland