This 56 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.
According to Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth-century Icelandic author of Heimskringla (A History of the Kings of Norway), King Harald levied property taxes on men who had traditionally not paid any land taxes because they owned their lands directly (rather than being granted them by the king), as inalienable family possessions. In imposing the concept that state ownership took precedence over private ownership, King Harald disturbed age-old customs of allodial, or family-based, landholding, called óðal in Old Norse. The character of Harald’s overlordship, especially his policy concerning óðal rights, is one of the issues most disputed by students of Norway in the Middle Ages.[i] Historians today generally believe that Snorri and other saga authors overstated Harald’s tyranny. Nevertheless, it is instructive to consider the financial policies and hierarchical governmental arrangements which thirteenth-century Icelanders believed Harald introduced into the mother country at the time of Iceland’s settlement and the establishment of its Althing system of government:
King Harald claimed possession of all óðal land wherever he gained power and had each farmer, powerful or not, pay him a tax for the land. He appointed a jarl in each province [fylki] who would give judgements at law and collect the fines and the land tax; the jarl would keep a third of the tax for his food and living expenses. Each jarl would have four or more hersar under him, and each of the latter would have a revenue of twenty marks. Each jarl would provide the King’s army with sixty soldiers and each hersir would provide twenty men.[ii]
Harald’s long reign (c. 885-930) roughly coincided with the period of Iceland’s settlement. According to Icelandic narratives, many landowners reluctant to accept Harald’s demands left Norway. Some went to Iceland and some to Norse settlements in the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, England, Scotland, and Ireland. From the Viking Age settlements in the British Isles a few of the displaced Norwegians returned to raid the coast of Norway, a challenge that Harald answered by mounting an expedition (c. 890) against the Shetlands, Orkneys, and Hebrides. This countermove, if it indeed occurred, seems to have stimulated a new wave of emigration from these islands to more distant Iceland. Later medieval Icelandic writers who stress Harald’s greed for power may have exaggerated his influence on the Icelandic landnámsmenn. Yet clearly it was the growth of royal authority in Norway to which Icelandic writers attributed the decisions of many of their forefathers to leave that country. And Harald’s autocratic actions may indeed have impelled some men to seek a fresh start in a newly discovered land.
[i] Andersen 1977: 84-91.
[ii] Íf 26, Ch. 6: 98.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland