The History of Iceland

Gunnar Karlsson

University of Minnesota Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
"Most general surveys of Icelandic history in English are unfortunately either old and dated or written for tourists in a way that will inevitably seem superficial." So writes Gunnar Karlsson in the brief introduction to his own History of Iceland, which fortunately for us fills the gap admirably. It is a professional work, with references, but it is accessible, never dry or dull, and structured so readers can easily find or skip particular topics.

The History of Iceland is divided chronologically into four parts, within which short chapters focus on different topics. Gunnar neatly mixes political, social, cultural, and economic history, with some glances at historiography. And he drops into the first person occasionally, sometimes in the plural to reflect an Icelandic viewpoint on events, sometimes in the singular for a personal note.

Part I covers medieval Iceland. Gunnar describes the colonization of Iceland, the constitution of the Icelandic Commonwealth, and its attempts to manage honour, revenge and feud through a legal system with no executive — and then the increasing concentration of power and levels of violence, leading to the 1262 treaty by which Iceland was annexed to the kingdom of Norway. Other topics covered include the adoption of Christianity (associated with a specific decision of the Althing or assembly in 1000), the development of a separate Icelandic identity, the settlement of Greenland and voyages to North America, and demographics and resources. And there's room for a brief discussion of poetry and sagas and their use as sources.

Covering more than five hundred years, part II runs down to 1800. Much of it is concerned with foreign affairs: the Norwegian North Atlantic kingdom and the union with a more continentally focused Denmark, the introduction of absolutism, the dominance of British and then German merchants, followed by the restriction of trade to Danish citizens. The Church succeeded in taking control of churches from local landowners in the 13th century, but the 16th century Reformation saw it lose most of its income and its judicial power.

Fishing was economically important, but society was dominated by a landed elite, which also provided the officials; there were however no hard social barriers. The use of Icelandic as a church vernacular was a key factor in preserving the language. There was something of a cultural renaissance towards the end of the period, with broad home-schooling and mass literacy. But urbanisation was very limited: "In the 1801 census the Reykjavik which was about to become the administrative centre of Iceland had 307 inhabitants".

Much of the period seems like a chronicle of disasters. Near the beginning and end of the 15th century, outbreaks of pneumonic plague killed around half the population. The 17th century saw a "Turkish" slave raid and witch-hunts (whose victims were almost all men). And in the 18th century came a smallpox epidemic, then famines in mid-century and again around 1784 following a catastrophic volcanic eruption.

"[I]t is not easy to abandon the idea that Icelandic society degenerated in fairly general terms from the early settlement until the 18th century. There are objective indications that the material standard of living fell considerably."
Evidence for this comes from both demographic analysis and climate statistics.

Part III chronicles Iceland's century-long search for independence. Gunnar uses the brief "rule" of a British adventurer in 1809 to illustrate the lack of any kind of national consciousness: "the Icelanders of the early 19th century offer a good example of a people with a clear ethnic identity but no sense of political nationalism". But new currents brought Romanticism and a national awakening, Jón Sigurðsson was an effective leader, and steady progress followed: the Althing was revived in 1843, Denmark itself became a constitutional monarchy in 1848, and Iceland gained legislative powers in 1874. Debates over the form — and symbols — of Home Rule continued until independence in 1918. There was a steady extension of the franchise through the period, and a women's rights movement from the 1880s, leading to a near-universal franchise in 1911.

There was general economic growth in the first half of the 19th century, but an outbreak of sheep scab and lower temperatures caused a rural crisis around 1859. "[A]pproximately 17,000 Icelanders emigrated to America in the period 1870-1914", perhaps 15% of the population. The rise of the cooperative movement, "together with the growth of the fishing villages in the age of decked vessels, brought the bulk of foreign trade in Iceland into the hands of Icelanders". But standards of living remained low, and domestic servants faced challenges in starting families. Icelanders remained largely reliant on home- and self-education, with state-run schooling a relatively late arrival.

Part IV continues down to the present. The first half of the 20th century saw an industrial revolution in fishing, general modernization, the rise of working-class movements, and the Depression. The Second World War ended the latter, but led to occupation first by Britain and then the United States, with the US base at Keflavik an ongoing issue. And in 1944 Iceland became a republic, severing the last formal ties to the Danish monarchy.

The post-war period saw the development of a welfare state, conflict with Britain over the extension of fishing limits (the Cod Wars), and a struggle to control inflation, which ran at around 35% from 1970 to 1990. Gunnar gives a brief history of party politics during the period, in which he locates Iceland's four main political parties — the People's Alliance, the Progressive Party, the Labour Party, and the Independence Party — on a two-dimensional grid, with an isolation-integration axis as well as a left-right one.

Gunnar concludes with a chapter weighing up the importance of Iceland's literary heritage in shaping its national self-image and political history, touching on Halldór Laxness and Iceland's purist language policy. That is perhaps a topic most likely to interest Icelanders, but there's plenty in Icelandic history even for outsiders with no previous knowledge of the country. Iceland's isolated position on the extreme edge of Europe, for example, makes it an obvious choice for comparative history.

July 2003

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%T The History of Iceland
%A Karlsson, Gunnar
%I University of Minnesota Press
%D 2000
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0816635897
%P xii,418pp