Viking Age Iceland: The Levelling Process

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

This 58 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.

Both Laxdæla saga and Landnámabók, with their intense interest in the genealogies of people and land, give an idea, even if fictionally presented, of the levelling process that occurred in Icelandic society in the first formative generations. Unn the Deep-Minded, also called Aud, was well known among the landnámsmenn. She was the daughter of a powerful Norwegian military leader and was married to a Viking king said to have been slain in Ireland. When, as the leader of her family she reached Iceland, like Skallagrim whose land-take was discussed in Chapter 2, she claimed for herself a huge and valuable area. Her claim was in the Broad Fjord region in western Iceland, and to maintain control over her followers, who included freed slaves, she shared her land with them.

Laxdæla saga offers insight into the cultural mentality of the later Icelanders by letting us view how thirteenth-century Icelanders understood the tenth-century processes of manumission and social levelling. That important Icelandic families were originally descended from slaves is addressed by showing freedmen as being worthy individuals, even nobles in their original lands. According to Laxdæla saga (Chapter 6), Unn, after bequeathing lands to her family and loyal freemen, said to her men:

‘There is no shortage now of the means with which to repay you for your service and goodwill. As you all know, I have given freedom to the man called Erp, the son of Earl Meldun; it has never been my wish that a man of such high birth should be called a slave.’

Thereupon she granted him Saudafellslands, between Tungu River and Mid River. Erp’s children were Orm, Asgeir, Gunnbjorn and Halldis, who was the wife of Alf of the Dales.

To Sokkolf she granted Sokkolfsdale, and he lived there till old age.

Another of her freed slaves was called Hundi, a Scotsman by birth; to him she gave Hundadale.

The fourth of her slaves was called Vifil; and to him she granted Vifilsdale.

— 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.

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