This 70 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.
All the events take place in one small region of Snæfellsnes, shifting between Álptafjord, which cuts into the northern shore of the peninsula, and Helgafell, the farmstead on Thórsnes where Snorri goði lives. Álptafjord (Swans’ Fjord) is named for the large number of swans that to this day congregate there. Helgafell means holy mountain: the god [IS1] Thor was thought to reside there. The legal case arising from Thorolf’s actions is settled at the local Thórsnes Thing. The action is limited to disputes that embroil the two chieftains and the owners of four farms that lie near Bólstaðr, Arnkel’s farm at the inland end of the fjord. The main characters are known from Landnámabók, where the events are sketchily outlined (S86, H74).
In 1931 the archaeologist Matthías Thórðarson conducted an excavation at Arnkel’s farm.[i] Because Bólstaðr had so little surrounding land, it had previously been doubted that a chieftain of Arnkel’s stature would have lived there. At Bólstaðr, the excavation uncovered the remains of a small habitation that had been replaced in the early period of the Free State by a much larger and better equipped house, well worthy of a chieftain. As the water of the fjord has claimed much of the farmstead land, all that remains is an outline of stones marking the house. The farms of the two freedmen in the saga, Ulfar and Orlyg, are still marked by distinct square patches of green grass where their manured and enclosed homefields once lay in front of or surrounding the farmsteads.
[i] Matthías Thórðarson 1932.
[IS1]MS had “and was named because” instead.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland