This 46 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 knowledge of Scandinavia’s expansive mother culture was embedded in early Iceland’s underlying social codes and values. Culturally, the early Icelanders inherited centuries of northern European social development. As part of this heritage their community started out with, and soon expanded upon, complicated constitutional concepts as well as sophisticated laws of contract, property and tort. They also produced a world-class literature. It is in regard to economics that early Iceland was in many ways simple. On the far margin of the extensive international commerce of Viking Age Scandinavia, Iceland, with its dependence on pastoralism and hunting and gathering, became largely self-sufficient.
When comparing early Iceland with other societies, one might keep in mind additional factors. Unlike early Ireland with its history of chieftains and warlords dating from at least the Bronze Age, medieval Iceland was not a tribal society, and the authority of its leaders did not depend on ownership of or rule over defined territorial units. What, then, was Iceland? Briefly, it was a society whose development was determined by the dynamics of its Scandinavian past and immigrant experiences. Having shed a good part of the military and political structures of Viking Age culture, the settlers and their descendants built a society on a combination of choices rarely, if ever, possible over so long a period of time on the European mainland. Beginning in the tenth century, the Icelanders established a rudimentary state structure that declared to the outside world the island’s independent status. Internally, with most executive institutions in private hands, the country operated with only the bare bones of public institutions of statehood. Internal cohesion was maintained by stressing lateral social arrangements. These were invigorated by the general acceptance of the principle, pleasing to farmers, that government was to be dominated by the requirements of consensus rather than by the authority of overlords.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland