Iceland in autumn. Photograph by Ben Allport.
In around 870, Norse sailors made it to the remote volcanic island which they named Iceland for its sprawling glaciers. It is not known for certain if they were the first people to reach the island or not. According to Islendingabok (the Book of Icelanders), there were Irish monks living on the island before the Norse arrived, but that they swiftly left the island to the newcomers, leaving behind their books, bells and crosiers. This story may reflect the truth. It is possible that there was an awareness of the existence of Iceland in medieval Irish literature: in the ninth century, an Irish scholar named Dicuil wrote about several monks who had sailed to the Faroes and to a mysterious island beyond them called ‘Thule’, where they stayed for six months in 795. Many scholars have suggested that ‘Thule’ was, in fact, Iceland.
However, the association between Thule and Iceland was not made before the late eleventh century (by Adam of Bremen), and indeed ‘Thule’ was an ancient literary concept in the Latin texts which referred conceptually to the furthest island from the centre of the world, without any actual landmass being intended. What cause would Ari the Wise, the author of Islendingabok, have to make up this story? Ari was a priest, writing in a land that had been Christian for 130 years at that point, but his ancestors who had made the first journey to Iceland were pagan. By saying that there were Christians already in Iceland when the Norse arrived, it made it clear that there had been Christianity in Iceland right from the start, and that it was destined to become Christian once more. This is very clear in Ari’s narrative, where the conversion to Christianity is a central turning point in the history of Iceland and which he describes in greater detail than anything that had come before.
Why (and by whom) was Iceland settled?
Early Icelandic society
Icelandic society rapidly became stratified due to the way in which the settlements took place. Iceland a limited amount of land that was suitable for cultivation or grazing, and this mostly lay in the lowland areas. The interior was less fertile, particularly as Norse settlers increasingly cleared the land of its native birch trees, resulting in topsoil erosion and desertification which has made the area practically uninhabitable in the present day. When the earliest settlers arrived, they laid claim to large swathes of the fertile coastal lands. As subsequent waves of settlers arrived, they were forced to take smaller and less fertile plots further inland. Eventually, all the land was claimed, and settlers were forced to rent land from more established farmers, becoming their tenants. Thus, a hierarchy was created. The most powerful farmers became the most powerful chieftains in the Iceland system, while the settlers who had arrived later had less status or were even forced to become the chieftains’ dependents. However, Icelandic society remained distinctive for its lack of (and ideological opposition to) the concept of kingship. Although by no means an egalitarian society, power was wielded by a large number of independent chieftains, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a single individual or dynasty.
During the Viking Age, Iceland developed a system of government that seems to have been unique at the time (at least on that scale). Norse settlers brought with them a system of legal assemblies, known as things. At first, it is likely that there was a series of regional assemblies dealing with small-scale disputes in localised pockets of settlement. These regional assemblies developed into the four quarter courts, which served the western, northern, eastern and southern quarters of Iceland. However, these proved inadequate as more settlers arrived and legal issues started to involve people from different regions. By around 930, at which point (Ari claims) Iceland was fully settled, a single assembly was established to deal with the biggest legal disputes, such as those that involved chieftains from different parts of
Iceland. This was called the Althing. Held every year at the dramatic rift valley known as Thingvellir, the Althing was attended by powerful chieftains who held the title of godi. They were accompanied by followers known as Thingmenn. The Althing was also attended by the lawspeaker, whose job it was to recite a third of the laws each year from the law rock (the location of which is now unknown). The position of lawspeaker was prestigious and usually held by particularly powerful chieftains who served for many years in the role. Snorri Sturluson, the composer of Heimskringla and the Prose Edda, was lawspeaker from 1215–1218 and 1222–1232.
Christianity in Iceland
A troubled future...
No system of government is perfect, and in this respect Viking Age Iceland was no different from anywhere else. As power was shared by the chieftains, rather than concentrated in a central body (such as a monarchy), there was a lack of executive power and very limited infrastructure. Without a central authority to police and punish crimes, everything had to be resolved by diplomacy and arbitration. When this failed, things could quickly escalate into feuds. Even when wrongdoing was established in court, in the absence of prisons there was no effective way to deal with offenders. Instead, wrongdoers were outlawed and sent either abroad or into the interior to fend for themselves.
Although the Althing may be one of the oldest parliaments in the world that has continued to exist in some form until the present day, this does not mean that it was in any way democratic, a claim which one often encounters in superficial discussions of the period. The power in society was concentrated in the hands of the chieftains, comprising less than a hundred of Iceland’s several-thousand strong population. Women and the lower classes of Icelandic society were unable to wield any political power.
Finally, the title of godi was not simply inherited; it could also be gifted. Furthermore, one individual or family could hold multiple chieftain titles. Over time, with political marriages and tactical gifts, chieftains could accumulate more and more titles, thus allowing power to be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. By the thirteenth century, all of the power was in the hands of a few key families, who ended up fighting against one another in the Icelandic Civil War. However, although the seeds of its eventual decline may have been present as early as the Viking Age, the system appears, on the whole, to have functioned and thrived until the late twelfth century. Although the Sagas of Icelanders do not depict a harmonious society, by any means, they certainly regarded the first two centuries of Icelandic history as a golden age, particularly in comparison to their own times.