This 55 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 sociologist Richard Tomasson argues that Icelandic society shares some of the characteristics of “new societies” formed in later periods by overseas migrations of Europeans. In these offshoot societies, which sociologists call “fragments” of larger and older groupings, the influence of kin and traditional community lessened, and law took precedence over kinship as the source of authority.[i] By detaching itself from a “whole” or parent society, a fragment may lack the stimulus to take part in the developing social issues of the mother culture. European fragment societies experienced internal transformations; philosophical concepts current in the mother country at the time of separation were played out in a manner not possible in the homeland within the confines of the European continuum.[ii] Inward-looking and freed from those confines, the fragment society often developed in a form “unrecognizable in European terms.”[iii]
Iceland in the late ninth century looked especially attractive to Norse colonists, in part because of the growing resistance to Viking expansion in some parts of Europe. In England and Ireland native populations under leaders such as Alfred the Great were counterattacking and defeating the invaders. In Scandinavia, the expansion of royal authority continued throughout the Viking Age. In particular, Norway, the original homeland of most of the Icelandic settlers, was in the late ninth century experiencing major political and social adjustments. The long-standing tradition of local independence was challenged by Harald Fairhair, a petty king from south-eastern Norway who became the first ruler to seek control over the greater part of the country. Allied with the jarls (earls) of Lade (Hlaðar jarlar) from the northern Trondheim region, Harald subjugated regional petty kings, local leaders and free farmers. Although he then claimed to be Norway’s overlord, in actuality he seems to have controlled mainly the south-western coastal region. In other parts of the country his sovereignty appears to have been nominal, with real power being held by jarls, petty kings and local military leaders called hersar (sing. hersir).
[i] Tomasson 1980: 4.
[ii] Hartz 1964: 6.
[iii] Ibid.: 4.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland