This is Part 37 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 a summer too cold and damp for either harvesting or drying hay, there was not enough fodder to keep many of the livestock alive over the winter. Farmers might initially turn for assistance to the local communal unit called the hreppr (discussed in detail in Chapter 7). Through cooperation among their members, hreppar organized and controlled summer grazing lands, organized communal labour and served to a certain extent as local insurers. Hreppar were risk buffering mechanisms, but their resources diminished rapidly when problems were region-wide. In such instances, farmers, especially those on smaller farms, had little choice but to severely cull their herds. The resulting slaughter translated into meat, sausages and edible suet, all of which put fat on the household inhabitants. People may have eaten better than they would have in a normal winter. A second rainy summer, however, meant disaster. In such circumstances farmers tried to keep alive whatever livestock remained. Problems such as the health of the livestock, lack of good fodder, and a hungry household complicated efforts to keep supplies in reserve.
When facing hunger and starvation, the population had other resources that possibly were not affected by short-term climatic changes. Emergency foods – foods that under normal circumstances were not eaten or only eaten in relatively small quantities, such as edible lichens – came into play. Expanded gathering and exploitation of natural resources included increased fishing (a dangerous start-up enterprise) and seal-hunting, the collection of seaweed (söl) for human consumption and for livestock fodder, and searches for wild foods and driftage in the common lands (almenning). In most instances the population seems to have rebounded quickly. Because enough young childbearing women survived, famines were often followed by high birthrates.
However resilient the general population was, hard times severely affected individuals. The sagas show farmers becoming quarrelsome. Passages such as the following from The Saga of the Sons of Droplaug (Droplaugarsona saga) are frequent: “Later that year it was a very bad season, and many sheep died. Thorgeir, the farmer at Hrafnkelsstead, lost many of his animals.” As Thorgeir was soon to learn, not all of his sheep disappeared because of the weather. Another farmer had them in his pens.[i] So, too, the following passage from The Saga of Hen-Thorir (Hœnsa-Thóris saga) precedes a quarrel over the remaining hay resources: “That summer the grass grew sparsely and was poor. For this reason little grass was dried, and as a result people’s hay stores were very small.” Such stories reflect the reality that in a series of bad years only the wealthiest farmers could count on having sufficient supplies.
[i] This incident and the quarrel that follows are discussed in Byock 1982: 39-46.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland