This 60 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.
To whom were lands sold? Mostly to newcomers and freed slaves. The productivity of the type of labour available to landowners probably influenced both the freeing of slaves and the rapid settlement of the country. Beyond a minimum number of free labourers and slaves necessary to work a farmstead, neither the additional hay harvested nor the wild provisions gathered seem to have offset the extra food necessary to feed these dependants throughout the whole year.[i] Landowners faced the reality that adding more slaves or long-term labourers did not increase their farmstead’s productivity. At the same time, holding excess land could be dangerous, since excess property had to be defended against encroachment. In this situation, slaves were often more burden than use, and the slave population was controlled by exposing infants and by grants of freedom. Later labourers and freed slaves became tenant farmers. In the earliest period, however, when land was plentiful, the sources are filled with references to freedmen becoming landowners, a factor which hastened the full colonization.
As part of the levelling process, land became, through a patrimonial type of ownership, the possession of the family that held it. As the tenth century evolved a pattern emerged: the ties of interdependence that had formed when the first settlers transferred parcels of property to latecomers and freedmen weakened. The rights of thingmen to choose their own political ties took precedence. In the absence of an external military threat, farmers were unwilling to take orders from would-be local warlords. The goðar had to cast about for other ways to institutionalize their power.
[i] Durrenberger 1991: 15; Gelsinger 1981.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland