This is Part 44 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.
Despite the obvious connection between wealth and power, there is little indication that Iceland’s Viking Age chieftains enjoyed a significant income through either taxes or tributes from the farmers. The labour of slaves, landless workers and tenant farmers, and the rental of property and livestock were significant sources of wealth for all prominent farmers. Many free farmers, like the goðar, were prosperous landowners who were frequently called upon to act as advocates or arbitrators. Over time, however, chieftains proved to be the best qualified people for this public endeavour. They found a significant and, to some degree, a proprietary source of revenue by actively participating in dispute management and conflict settlement.
From the tenth into the twelfth century, social differentiation was relatively fluid, with few rigid class barriers. Aggressive farmers could become chieftains, and the degree of ranking throughout the society was limited by convention, law and economics. The outward trappings of rank in Viking Age Iceland were so few that it is frequently difficult to determine whether a prominent individual was a chieftain or just a farmer. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (that is, after the Viking period) the situation began to change, and a movement toward rigid stratification and incipient statehood can be perceived. The status of controlling church property and the wealth this brought, became increasingly important, and small groups of powerful thirteenth-century chieftains, called in modern studies “big goðar” (stórgoðar) or “big leaders” (stórhöfðingjar), emerged from among the most wealthy and powerful among the chieftain families and clans. Yet even in this late period, stratification in Iceland did not limit access to strategic resources or approach the degree of differential ranking in other more hierarchical Norse societies, where kings, jarls and regional military leaders had assumed the right to wield executive authority much earlier.
That a chieftain might gain widespread territorial control, thus centralizing political and governmental power in a region, was always a threat. This development was avoided, however, until the late twelfth century and, in some regions, the early thirteenth century by a system of checks and balances aimed at limiting the power of individual chieftains. Farmers, as in the example of conflict between the two chieftains Arnkel goði and Snorri goði from Eyrbyggja saga (see Chapter 6), openly granted authority to their goðar, and during much of Iceland’s early history dissatisfied farmers could take authority from one leader and give it to another.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland