This is Part 43 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 leaders regularly held feasts. In displays of luxury consumption, they exhibited their foreign items and offered their guests feast goods, including the imported ingredients for making ale. Such feastings, including wedding and funeral banquets, were often carefully planned to take place in times of plenty, especially the autumn, so as not to overly reduce a household’s wealth. Laxdæla saga gives a sense of the planning and the honour involved in conspicuous feasting, when describing (in Chapter 7) the intended arrangements made by the great matriarch and landnámsmaðr Unn the Deep Minded for the marriage of Olaf Feilan, her favourite grandson:
Unn held him [Olaf Feilan] in higher regard than all other men, and made it known publicly that Olaf was to inherit everything at Hvammr after her death.
Now Unn was growing weary with old age. She summoned Olaf Feilan and said to him, “I have been thinking, kinsman, that you ought to establish yourself and take a wife.”
Olaf agreed readily, and said he would rely on her guidance.
“I have had it in mind,” said Unn, “that your wedding feast should be held towards the end of this summer, for that is the best time for getting all the necessary provisions; I am sure that our friends will be coming in large numbers, because I intend this feast to be the last one I shall hold.”
“That is a generous offer,” said Olaf. “But I shall marry only a woman who will deprive you of neither wealth nor authority.”
That autumn Olaf Feilan married Alfdis, and the wedding feast was held at Hvammr. Unn went to great expense over it, for she invited many eminent people far and wide from other districts.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland