Viking Age Iceland: Arnkel’s Quest for Wealth and Power

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

This 71 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.

Besides knowing that Álptafjord is very small, a local audience would have been aware of several other basic facts. First, as the eastern side of the fjord is too steep to provide good farmland, no habitations of consequence were located there. Second, because Bólstaðr, Arnkel’s farm, was too small to support the needs of so ambitious a chieftain, one would expect him to be land-hungry. Third, Kársstaðir, at the innermost point of the fjord, was the real prize. Its broad, low-lying hay meadows were the most extensive in the area, and through the middle of the farm ran one of the best salmon and trout rivers in the region. The surrounding mountains, by keeping out the harshest winter winds and in the summer retaining the heat from the sun, contributed to the productivity of Kársstaðir’s rich grasslands. As testimony to its inherent value, Kársstaðir is the only farm in Álptafjord which is still inhabited today.[1]

Arnkel’s Quest for Wealth and Power

The danger inherent in Arnkel’s territorial ambitions is sensed by the sons of Thorbrand, who live at Kársstaðir in the inner fjord. With impassable mountains at their backs, these farmers need a safe route to Helgafell, where their chieftain Snorri goði lives, as well as free access to the Thórsnes Thing. As the story progresses, their adversary Arnkel is claiming the properties on the western side and at the mouth of the fjord, thus cutting off their lifeline. Arnkel is also interfering with their expected inheritance of some of these properties.

The sons of Thorbrand are determined to retain their freedom of movement, property rights and local status. Their frustrations illustrate the limitations of Iceland’s system of consensual order. Thorolf, Arnkel goði’s father, had been a Viking in his youth before emigrating to Iceland, and this experience seems to have added to his unjust and overbearing nature (mjök ójafnaðarfullr). Arriving in Iceland late in the settlement period, he used his warrior training to acquire a sizeable piece of land by challenging an elderly landnámsmaðr to a duel and killing him. Wounded in the duel, Thorolf became known as Lamefoot. Later he sold part of his land to Ulfar and to Ulfar’s brother Orlyg, two slaves freed by Thorbrand of Kársstaðir.

Ulfar the Freedman (leysingi) has prospered on his farm, called Úlfarsfell, and Thorolf, who lives at Hvammr, resents the freedman’s skill at farming and weather forecasting. Now an old man himself, Thorolf is increasingly difficult to deal with, and he wants to hurt Ulfar. On the ridge that separates the farms, the two men jointly own a mountain meadow. One summer day Thorolf goes with a few slaves and gathers in all the hay, even though part of it clearly belongs to Ulfar. The latter, who is younger than Thorolf, confronts the old man in the act of stealing the hay, but Thorolf refuses to listen to reason. Rather than come to blows, Ulfar chooses to take the matter to his neighbour and goði, Arnkel, son of Thorolf. (Thorolf has no share in Arnkel’s chieftaincy.)

Though reluctant to take part in the dispute, Arnkel does ask his father to pay Ulfar for the hay, but Thorolf refuses. His refusal strains the relationship between father and son and puts Arnkel in a difficult position. When his friend and follower Ulfar chides him for not acting more decisively on his behalf, Arnkel himself pays Ulfar for the hay and seeks reimbursement by slaughtering some of his father’s oxen. Thorolf, who does not approve of Arnkel’s solution, swears that he will make Ulfar pay for the loss of his livestock.[i]

[1] My thanks to Gísli Gíslason, the bóndi at Kársstaðir, for discussing with me the relative merits of the lands and streams in Álptafjord.

[i] The narrative progression in Chapters 30-31 of Eyrbyggja saga is discussed in Byock 1982: 152-4; see also Miller 1984.

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.

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