This is Part 38 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.
Less frequent than weather calamities, periodic volcanic activity on the geologically new island brought its own problems. From 1500 onwards, Icelandic eruptions are estimated to have accounted for a third of Earth’s total outpouring of lava. Activity from the landnám to 1500 was roughly similar, and the ash layers embedded in the soil of wide regions attest to repeated eruptions from the start of the settlement. Every decade or so saw an outbreak in some part of the island, but in most localities of volcanic activity, one or several generations often passed between outbreaks. This time factor, small by geological standards but large by human ones, made preparations for outbreaks almost useless.
Though no good description of a volcanic outbreak from the earliest period exists, The Annals of the Bishopric of Skálholt give the following report of a major eruption in 1362 in south-eastern Iceland. The outbreak, under the great Vatna Glacier, destroyed a long stretch of settlements on the coast immediately below or south of the glacier and caused death and damage over a wide area, especially in southern Iceland.
Fire came up in three places in the south. It continued from the Travelling Days [in late May] until the autumn with such extraordinary happenings that it destroyed all of Litla District [now Öræfi] and much of Hornafjord and the Lon Region. In that area c. 100 miles [160 kilometres] were laid waste. Along with this, the Knappafell Glacier gave way and flowed down into the sea. Where previously there had been 30 fathoms of deep water, the stone, soil and waste made it into flat sands. Two whole parishes were wiped out, at Hof and at Rauðalæk. The ash settled on the plains up to the middle of a man’s leg, blowing together into large drifts so that the houses could barely be seen. The ash fall was carried north over the land and was so thick that tracks could be seen in it. And this also happened: great heaps of pumice were drifting outside the West Fjords so that ships could scarcely make their way through.
Depending on wind direction, eruptions covered the grass, sometimes at long distances from the point of the outbreak, with grit and ash. These substances were so damaging to teeth and mouths that animals could no longer graze. As in other instances of bad times, the resulting hunger and starvation first affected indigents, tenants, landless workers and the more marginal small landowners.
 Storm 1888.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland