Viking Age Iceland: Íslendingabók

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

This 66 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.

Íslendingabók is an invaluable source. It touches on a wide variety of subjects, albeit on many of them only briefly. Among the ninth- and tenth-century events it records are Iceland’s settlement, the adoption of Iceland’s first oral laws, the founding of the Althing, the subsequent reform of the constitution in the mid-960s, and the adjustment of the calendar. Íslendingabók is also a primary source for information concerning the settlement of Greenland and the discovery of Vínland (in Chapter 6):

The country that is called Greenland was discovered and settled from Iceland. A man called Eirik the Red from Breiðafjord [Broad Fjord] went there from here and claimed the land later called Eiríksfjord. He called the country Greenland, saying men would be encouraged to go there if it had a good name. They found human settlements, fragments of boats, and stone artifacts. From these remains it could be concluded that the same type of people had lived there as had settled in Vínland – the ones whom the Greenlanders called Skrælings. Eirik began the settlement fourteen or fifteen winters before Christianity came here to Iceland, according to what a man, who himself followed Eirik the Red on the voyage, told Thorkel Gellisson in Greenland.

This entry is characteristic of Ari’s work. The statement is based on verified information, which includes dating the Greenland settlement to about 985. Here, as elsewhere, he is careful to tell us his sources. For instance at the beginning of Íslendingabók Ari states that Thorkel Gellisson was his paternal uncle and a man “who remembered far back”, and that another of his sources, Thurid, the daughter of the chieftain Snorri goði, was both very learned and “unlying”, that is, accurate. On the other hand, Ari offers little information about the social, economic or political factors which caused Icelanders to make certain decisions. For instance, some people chose in 985 – only fifty-five years after the establishment of the Althing – to emigrate to Greenland, a place that to people already accustomed to Iceland must have seemed to be close to the very end of the world.

Almost three-quarters of Íslendingabók is devoted to selected events occurring between 996 and 1120. This period included the lifespan of the author and of the older men and women who served as his oral informants. Ari covers Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the presence of foreign missionary bishops, the establishment of Iceland’s two bishoprics, the introduction of the Fifth Court (for appeals), the first tithe law, the census of farmers eligible to pay the thing tax before the introduction of the tithe, and the first writing down of the laws.

There is no doubt that Ari was a careful historian. At times, however, his objectivity and his choice of subject matter were influenced by his interest in strengthening the Church, his predilection for stressing the Norwegian ancestry of the settlers, and his desire to record events of special significance from his local region of Breiðafjord in western Iceland.[i] Most of the people Ari mentions are individuals with whom he has some link of kinship. In genealogies he traces his own ancestry through the kings of Norway and Sweden back to the gods Njord and Frey – a respectable lineage for an Icelander.

[i] Björn Sigfússon 1944.

— 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.