This is Part 42 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.
Icelandic society shares many characteristics of “ranked” societies, which often include significant numbers of small-scale farmers who exhibit formalized, if limited, social differences. “Big men” tend to assume leadership roles in ranked societies. Icelandic leaders in many ways resembled such individuals, but again the comparison is not exact. In particular, Icelandic social arrangements provided for more continuity of power than did arrangements usually found in big-man societies. Although the goðar often acted like big men, they can better be described as small-scale Scandinavian chiefs. As in ranked societies, some chieftains and farmers in Iceland were richer or more powerful than others; their dependents included tenant farmers (who worked for their landlord in return for their smallholdings), landless free labourers and slaves. Slavery mostly died out in the eleventh century.
In ranked societies, those in politically superior positions often compete for followers while openly seeking prestige, honour and sometimes wealth. In early Iceland, goðar competed for status and for followers (thingmenn) from among the bœndr. Goðar and other prosperous landowners were often recruited to participate in disputes and feuds among farmers or between other chieftains, and such participation offered wealth. At times advocating the position of others and arbitrating resolutions could be dangerous; the person intervening might even be killed. The goðar, in return for risking their wealth, honour and lives, sought to reap economic profit from owning all or part of a chieftaincy. (The related question of the use of coercive force is discussed later in this book.)
One of the roles of the goðar was to facilitate the redistribution of wealth. Through their participation in the settlement of disputes, chieftains were actively engaged in the transfer of property, including land. Leaders extended hospitality to farmers and to other chieftains and made loans to tenants and farmers in need. Goðar and other prominent farmers also took an active part in a prestige economy based on gift-giving, which served to cement political and kinship alliances. Norwegian merchants came to Iceland, but Icelanders also continued to sail to Norway in their own ships until sometime in the eleventh century. There they sold their native woolen cloth and other goods in exchange for high-status items such as weapons, tapestries, imported clothing, linen and coloured cloth, tools, flour, wax, soap-stone bowls, jewelry, barley and hops for brewing ale, and quality timber.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland