Viking Age Iceland: A Devolving and Evolving Social Order

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 39 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.

Further general processes were “Devolutions,” movement back toward rank and egalitarian societies and a cyclical process of movement around these structures, failing to reach permanent stratification and state structures. In fact, human beings devoted a considerable part of their cultural and organizational capacities to ensure that further evolution did notoccur.

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power

Many “autonomous” chieftains and tribes may simply be devolved societies temporarily cut off from the larger system of which they had historically been a part.

Timothy Earle, Chiefdoms: Power, Economy and Ideology

Defining early Iceland is no easy task. Historians tend to describe the island as either a free state or a commonwealth, two general and useful terms. Anthropological concepts, which have not been widely applied in Icelandic studies, help to sharpen the definition by characterizing the similarities and differences between early Iceland and recognized types of societies.[i] From the start, however, it should be recognized that this Viking Age immigrant group does not easily fall into any of the standard categorizations of evolutionary development. For this reason, I employ throughout the book the suitably loose term “Free State,” while often looking at the Icelandic experience with an anthropological eye.

The term “Free State” has much to recommend it. Fristat is the word currently used to describe early Iceland in modern Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. (Icelanders use the term Thjóðveldi, meaning “Republic.” In English, “free state” means an independent, loosely organized polity, often at a pre-state level but already containing elements and the knowledge of statehood. This depiction fits Iceland well, and is more accurate than the old romantic notion of a commonwealth. In a straightforward manner “Free State” reflects the reality that medieval Iceland was independent and that the Icelanders were conscious of belonging to a single, island-wide polity.

[i] Although their limitations are obvious, typologies, when used in a careful way, remain useful for comparative purposes, especially in the instance of Iceland, a hybrid, immigrant society that does not fall into any standard category.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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