Viking Age Iceland: Íslendingabók vs. Landnámabók

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

This 68 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.

Although Íslendingabók and Landnámabók report specific information, the entries are often so concise that they merely hint at a picture of the functioning society. For example, the following passage from Landnámabók (S86, H74) names major characters but leaves us in the dark as to the nature of what appears to have been, in the late tenth century, a serious dispute in a small fjord in western Iceland called Álptafjord (Swans’ Fjord):

Thorolf Lamefoot was the father of Arnkel goði and of Geirrid who married Thorolf from Mávahlíð. The sons of Thorbrand from Álptafjörðr were named Thorleif kimbi, Thorodd, Snorri, Thorfinn, Illugi and Thormod. They quarreled with Arnkel over the inheritance of their freedmen and they, together with Snorri goði, killed him at Örlygsstaðir.

This passage encapsulates a feud narrated in Eyrbyggja saga, which is discussed in Chapter 6.

The reliability of many entries, particularly in Landnámabók, is questionable.[1] The thirteenth- and fourteenth-century editors of the Sturlubók and Hauksbók versions extensively altered the older texts. For example, there is little doubt that Sturla Thordarson, the thirteenth-century editor[IS1]  of the Sturlubók (S) version of The Book of Settlements, was familiar with, and drew on, several family sagas in expanding his edition. Not only did these medieval historians use the family sagas to augment or to replace what appeared in earlier, now lost, versions of Landnámabók, but at times genealogies are traced to what seems to be the editors’ own families.

In summary it can be said that the Icelanders’ earliest historical sources show a distinct interest in the founding of their society. This interest sparked the inquiries of people such as Ari the Learned, writing 250 years after the settlement. From its foundation, this farming society with its cultural focus on law and its strong leaning toward consensual decision-making faced the threat that the rights of farmers would be diminished if the power of the chieftains grew too large. In the next chapter we turn to an example of how social codes and political mechanisms worked to prevent this transfer of power.

[1] The reliability of Landnámabók and Íslendingabók has been questioned by numerous scholars. Olsen 1966 argues that much information concerning pagan practices and sanctuaries in Landnámabók is of late origin, probably culled from the sagas. Other aspects of the story of Iceland’s settlement and state-building given in these books have been questioned by Líndal 1969: 5-26; and Sørensen 1974: 20-40. Bekker-Nielsen 1965: 35-41 emphasizes, perhaps too strongly, the continental influences on those twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources about Iceland’s earlier periods. Sveinbjörn Rafnsson 1974 has reconsidered the purpose of Landnámabók. He argues that the information was altered to support twelfth- and thirteenth-century claims to landownership. For a discussion of Sveinbjörn Rafnsson’s views see Jakob Benediktsson 1974b: 207-15. See also Jakob Benediktsson’s introductions to Íslendingabók 1968 and Landnámabók 1968, and Jakob Benediktsson 1969: 275-92.

 [IS1]MS had ‘author’

— 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.