This 59 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.
Whether or not Erp was a man of such “high birth” we will never know. We do know, however, that many prominent families were descended from the union of his daughter Halldis and Alf of the Dales, and that Vifil, the fourth freed slave given lands by Unn, was the grandfather of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir. This young woman is spoken of in The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and in The Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).[i] Together with her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, Gudrid set out from Greenland to colonize North America shortly after the year 1000. From Gudrid, whose voyaging is discussed in Appendix 4, came a line of important twelfth- and thirteenth-century Icelanders, including several bishops.
Unn’s death occurred around 900 and within a few decades the initial stratification among the immigrants changed. Although Unn’s family, like Skallagrim’s, retained a certain prominence, they were not a dominant elite. The new generations descended from followers of these important first settlers no longer honoured claims of “first” families – if they made such claims – to regional authority. There was no reason to do so. The way land was apportioned in early Iceland established social and economic differentiations, but it did not encourage a system of vassalage or extensive dependence. In the succeeding generations, the original vast land claims throughout the island were divided up into many farms. Some of the larger land claims appear to have been sold off as plots almost in a modern land-development sense.[ii]
[i] Ólafur Halldórsson 1978 discusses the relationship between Eiríks saga rauða and Grœnlendinga saga. He finds both the product of independent oral traditions.
[ii] Orri Vésteinsson 1998: 24.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland