This 67 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.
Landnámabók is much larger than Íslendingabók, the extant versions filling several hundred pages in a modern printed volume. It was an important and popular book in the medieval period and several different versions are extant. Landnámabók was written as a record of the settlement and a genealogy of the Icelanders. Through a welter of predominantly terse entries, it accounts for approximately 400 of the most prominent landnámsmenn. Sometimes it tells where these colonists came from and who their forefathers were in Scandinavia. We learn where the landnámsmenn settled and some details about their land claims. At times the kinship lines of landnámsmenn are traced through succeeding generations of Icelanders.
The first Landnámabók, now lost, was written in the early decades of the twelfth century. Ari the Learned may have been one of the authors, or at least he may have had a hand in the work. The major extant versions of Landnámabók – Sturlubók, Hauksbók and Melabók (the last a fragment of only two vellum leaves) – date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.[i] These mention 1,500 farm and place names as well as more than 3,500 people. The material, arranged geographically, gives a seemingly complete picture of the whole country.
[i] For the textual history of Landnámabók see Jakob Benediktsson’s introduction to Landnámabók 1968; Jón Jóhannesson 1941; Sveinbjörn Rafnsson 1974: 13-67.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland