This 62 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.
The leading families of the original settlement soon realized that they had a leadership problem on their hands. Although their wealth and perhaps the number of tenants on their lands may have been greater than many of the surrounding free farmers, their claims to authority and regional control had little viability in a dispersed rural society of landholders enjoying the rights of freemen. The situation accelerated the development of a system of political relationships based more on the offering of service obligations than on a flow of payments and goods between thingmenand goðar.[i] Economic hierarchy among the early settlers is hard to quantify but there were large estate owners, from among whose ranks most of the goðar were probably selected, middle-sized significant landowners, and what appears to have been a majority of economically viable householders, some of whom may have been dependent.[ii] Archaeologically there is generally little distinction in artifacts between the different categories of farms, although grave goods from the larger estates tend to be of greater value.
According to The Book of the Icelanders the landnám period ends about the year 930, when all the usable land was taken. With the closing of the frontier at this time, the second- and third-generation Icelanders recognized the need for some form of governmental structure. Turning to the king of Norway to settle disputes was a dubious practice if Iceland was to be independent. Further, the settlers came from various Scandinavian and Norse-Celtic areas, and had brought with them the different legal customs under which they had lived. With the steady increase in population the colonists came into contact with one another more frequently, and the lack of a common law must have created serious problems.
[i] Smith and Parsons 1989: 186.
[ii] Orri Vésteinsson 1998.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland