Viking Age Iceland: Land-taking and Establishing Order

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This 57 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.

When first discovered in the mid ninth century, Iceland was attractive to land-hungry people accustomed to the rugged North Atlantic climate. There had been no prior exploitation of resources and, in the beginning, valuable land was free for the taking. The fjords and coastal waters teemed with the food resources of the North Atlantic seaboard, and in the early period the island was fertile. After a few generations of rapid deforestation and extensive livestock farming, the productivity of the land began to decline.[i] On the European continent grazing often created permanent grasslands, but in Iceland it was mostly devastating to the environment[IS1] .[ii]

The earliest landnámsmenn, often shipowners who arrived as the heads of families with dependants and slaves, took huge portions of land, sometimes even entire fjords; Helgi the Lean, for example, claimed all of Eyjafjord in the north. Within a few years, however, disputes arose between the initial settlers and those who arrived a little later, including settlers who may have purchased transport on others’ ships. According to the Hauksbók version of Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), the latecomers accused the early arrivals of taking too much land and asked King Harald to mediate. Whether or not the King did intervene is not known for certain, but Landnámabók reports that an agreement was reached: “King Harald Fairhair got them to agree that no man should take possession of an area larger than he and his crew could carry fire over in a single day. They should make a fire while the sun was in the east. Then they should make other smoky fires so that one fire could be seen from the next, but those made when the sun was in the east would have to burn until nightfall. Then they should walk until the sun was in the west and make other fires there” (H294).[1] The procedure was different for women wishing to claim land. A woman could take as much land as she could walk around from dawn to sunset on a spring day, while leading a two-year-old well-fed heifer (H276). This could be a considerable parcel of land, although smaller than what could be claimed by a man.

[1] The letters “H” (Hauksbók) and “S”(Sturlubók) refer to different manuscripts of Landnámabók. These manuscripts are discussed later in this chapter.

[i] Margrét Hallsdóttir 1987; Sturla Friðriksson 1972; Dugmore and Simpson 1999.

[ii] Gerrard 1991; Maizels and Caseldine 1991.

 [IS1]MS had ‘Icelandic environment’, which is repetitive.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.