Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power

Jesse L. Byock

University of California Press 1988
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
The Icelandic Free State, which came into existence following settlement of Iceland in the tenth century and lasted until the mid-thirteenth, was one of the more intriguing political milieu. With no external threats (and no indigenous population to complicate things) Iceland's settlers created a society of scattered farmers with little social hierarchy and no executive government, with order maintained by a complex interaction between feud, law, and personal relationships. This makes medieval Iceland an intriguing political and sociological "experiment" as well as fascinating history — and I found Medieval Iceland an excellent introduction to it.

Byock begins with a brief survey of the historical and legal sources. Turning to the Icelandic sagas, he takes a position in the historiographical debate over their value as sources, arguing for their importance in understanding the economic and social background. He then presents an outline of the history of the Free State, from settlement and the creation of the legal system, through gradual evolution, until Iceland came under the control of the Norwegian crown in 1262-1264. Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000, but it did so through negotiation rather than war or conflict and, with Iceland distant from central Church authority, the new religion was adapted to fit existing structures.

Byock's primary focus is on governance and in particular the relationships between farmers and gothar ("chieftains"). Gothar had few special sources of wealth — some very limited taxes and a chance at price-setting for imports; tithes and trade were open to all farmers. The power of the gothar rested on their status as legal advocates and a gothorth was not a territorial or hereditary chieftaincy but rather "a professional vocation with entrepreneurial overtones". Relationships between gothar and ordinary farmers were flexible, with farmers free to change allegiances and subject to only limited obligations, and the binding forces of society were client-advocate relationships, real and fictive kinship relationships, and formalised ties of reciprocal friendship.

Three chapters present cases from the family and Sturlunga sagas, illustrating how this system of governance actually worked in practice. Conflicts over property and inheritances illustrate relationships between farmers and the way in which gothar could use their status as advocates to obtain concessions. Arnkell's fate in Eyrbyggja saga highlights the limitations on the ambition of gothar and some of the "checks and balances" of the system. And the struggle between Brod-Helgi and Geitir in Vapnfirthinga saga shows how broad networks of support were needed to safely carry out direct action.

June 1999

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%T Medieval Iceland
%S Society, Sagas, and Power
%A Byock, Jesse L.
%I University of California Press
%D 1988
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520069544
%P x,264pp