This is Part 45 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.
The immigrant Viking Age community was a cultural mix. It brought a cultural legacy from the complex Scandinavian culture, but at the same time a simple economy was dictated by the ecology and limited resources of Iceland. This unusual combination has caused confusion. Early Icelandic society is occasionally described as primitive, and it did have some features in common with such societies (though “simple” is a far better term than “primitive”). Among these features were the oral stage of the culture in the early centuries; the widespread presence of relatively self-sufficient family-based economic units; the role of feud as a means of settling disputes; and the absence of towns or concentrated communities. Nevertheless, primitive is an unsatisfactory way to describe early Iceland, which was not really a simple community.
The connotations of “primitive” are not easily reconciled with Iceland’s situation as the major northern offshoot of Viking Age Scandinavia, a culture whose technology was sufficiently sophisticated to allow its members routinely to cross the North Atlantic. Scandinavians, including Icelanders, possessed a wide knowledge of the world and of its geography and political systems. Administratively these people were equal to the task of setting up and maintaining major trading towns and powerful small states in various parts of Europe. At about the time of Iceland’s settlement, Norsemen set up trading towns in Ireland and established the Danelaw in northern England, later conquering the whole country. Vikings founded the Norman state within the Frankish empire, rose to prominence in old Russia, and traded with the caliphate of Baghdad and the Byzantine empire.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland