Check out the "Camel pictures":
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The Viking Age
The High Middle Ages
A Dependency of the Danish Crown
Nationality and Modernization
Birth of a State
The Republic of Iceland: The First Half-Century
The Viking Age
Long after man had spread to almost every corner of the globe, Iceland remained out of his reach. Early navigators may have drifted there and even lived to tell the tale; some such memory may lie behind the "Island of Thule" of ancient geographers. The first certain discoverers of Iceland were Irish anchorites who, in the style of St. Brendan, tested their faith by undertaking perilous ocean voyages. Perhaps the conspicuous migrations of Icelandic nesting birds across Ireland suggested to them the existence of land across the ocean. At the beginning of the "Viking Age," ca. AD 800, the Irish knew how to get to Iceland and back and some anchorites from there had spent considerable time in that empty country. There is no evidence of any permanent settlement, however, or family migration from Ireland to Iceland, nor did Irish strains of sheep or other farm animals survive in Iceland. Its settlement was left to the Norse.
During the 9th century Scandinavian seaborne warriors - the Vikings - preyed upon much of Western Europe, especially the British Isles. In places they also settled down as war lords, traders, or simply peasants. Norwegian Vikings extended their activities southwards from earlier settlements in Shetland and Orkney, temporarily controlling parts of Scotland and Ireland. They also ventured further into the ocean and settled the Faroes.
Perhaps the Norwegian seafarers learnt from the Irish about the existence of Iceland. They may also, as later Icelandic tradition maintains, have stumbled upon it while accidentally bypassing the Faroes. Their navigational skills depended on landmarks or such signs as sea birds, whales and high clouds which might indicate the presence of land far beyond the horizon. On the high sea the sun was their compass, its height at noon indicating the latitude. Once lost they had no means of establishing how far west they had gone. Navigation to the Faroes, therefore, was bound to result in the discovery of Iceland, as, in turn, the Icelanders could not help discovering Greenland, and sailing to Greenland naturally involved the discovery of the American mainland. These navigational limitations made it simpler to follow a straight east-west route between Iceland (or Greenland) and Norway than the shorter but more oblique route between Iceland and the British Isles.
Once discovered, a country larger than Ireland or Scotland, rich in fish, seals and birds and with half of its area covered with vegetation, could not remain empty for long. The
archaeological record shows that around 900 Iceland was being rapidly settled. The flora adapted to the sudden impact of man and his grazing animals. Dwellings, graves and artefacts were of Scandinavian or Norwegian types, also known from Norse settlements in the British Isles. Two to four centuries later, Icelandic scholars and saga writers recorded a rich tradition about the settlement of the country. Families were traced to a Scandinavian, mainly Norwegian, origin, and the length of recorded genealogies would in most cases fit a settlement period centred on ca. 900. Often the emigration of a Norwegian ancestor is explained in terms of a conflict with King Harald Finehair, who reportedly subdued all of Norway and established a national dynasty over the heads of a variety of regional petty rulers. The tendency of the historical tradition to exaggerate the wealth, power and high birth of the original settlers would require correspondingly potent reasons for such important people to emigrate, thus making the "royal conflict" a plausible standard explanation. A number of settlers reportedly came from Norse colonies in the British Isles - Ireland, Scotland and the Scottish islands - where the Vikings, significantly, were suffering serious setbacks at the time. These Norsemen would have mixed with the Celtic or Pictish population, taking local wives, hiring local servants, acquiring slaves of local origin. Thus the Celts and Picts presumably made up a significant part of the ancestry of the Icelanders. That element, however, would have been more or less integrated with the Norse before the emigration to Iceland. It has thus left few traces in the archaeological record, nor has it contributed more than a handful of words to the Icelandic language, which was a Scandinavian dialect, more or less identical with the Viking Age Norse spoken in Western Norway, the Faroes, Shetland, Orkney, etc. The massive immigration around 900 was preceded by a phase of discovery and pioneer settlement. Written accounts, composed in the 12th century and later on the basis of oral tradition, describe an accidental discovery of the country, then a few voyages of exploration, and the settlement proper starting with a West Norwegian, Ingólfr Arnarson, sailing to Iceland in 874 and building his farm in Reykjavík - which, by a coincidence more fitting than the saga writers could imagine, was the future capital of Iceland. Neither the date of Ingólfr's arrival nor his primacy as a settler can be much more than guesswork. The archaeological record, with a number of early C-14 datings, would suggest a somewhat earlier beginning.
Iceland - Greenland - Vinland
An early settler would equip a boat or two - simple sailing boats with one square sail - carrying his family and servants, minimal livestock (perhaps only lambs, calves, foals etc.), provisions for a journey that might take several weeks, and everything needed to establish a minisettlement in the isolation of an almost empty country, to be reached by an ocean crossing of which hardly any navigational experience existed. A daunting feat not to be lightly undertaken.
When the settlement had reached a "critical mass," immigration became much easier. Livestock could then be bought in Iceland; experienced navigators could be hired for the journey; or one might even travel as a passenger on a boat serving other demands of the pioneer community, and earn wages as a farmhand before establishing a farm and family of one's own. This later and easier phase of immigration perhaps coincided with the rapid colonization around 900.
The settlement of Iceland may be viewed in the context of the general Viking expansion of the period, plausibly linked to population pressure in Scandinavia and increasing scarcity of farming land, not least in Western Norway. "Going Viking", with the combination of piracy, mercenary services and trading which it entailed, was an occupation for the young and unsettled. For most people, Viking or not, land was the key to a settled family life.
The main attraction of Iceland was its freely available land, suitable for animal husbandry. The early settlers, with the few farm animals they could bring along, would even for a while be reduced to a partly "hunting-gathering" existence, fishing in the rivers, taking seals on the shore, hunting birds, gathering eggs. In fact this exploitation of wild nature would prove a richer and easier source of food than farming as long as the human population was sparse enough in relation to the natural resources; thus it added to the "pull" exerted on potential immigrants.
The same would be even more true of the migration from Iceland to Greenland starting towards the end of the 10th century. The discovery of Greenland was easy enough from nearby Iceland but it would require determined exploration to find those areas on the west coast which could sustain the Icelandic type of farming. There, Icelandic emigrants managed to establish a viable settlement.
With the settlement of Greenland, Viking expansion had, geographically speaking, reached the Western Hemisphere. Soon the American mainland was also discovered by navigators who sailed past Greenland. Subsequently the Greenlanders made some use of the forests of Labrador. They also explored more southerly regions and in the early 11th century attempted the settlement of a place they called "Vinland" (the Land of Vines) - somewhere to the south of their temporary camp which has been excavated on northern Newfoundland.
One of the leaders of the Vinland endeavours was Leifr Eiríksson (Leif Ericson "the Lucky"), son of Eiríkr (Eric) the Red, founding father of the Greenland settlement. Icelanders also participated in the attempted settlement; their descendants (including an important Icelandic family descended from a boy actually born in Vinland) preserved the Vinland stories, which were later recorded by Icelandic saga writers.
Hostile encounters with native Indians aborted the attempt to settle in Vinland. Viking expansion had, from one point of view, overreached itself. The American mainland was too far away from the Scandinavian centres of population to attract large-scale immigration, and the natives were capable of fending off small-scale immigration, while they lacked the concentration of wealth which might become the target of marauding expeditions.
The Greenlanders became a thriving small community (some 300 homes) with Norwegian merchants as their link with the civilized world. They became Christian, had their own bishop and built a stone cathedral, exported walrus ivory, hides and the occasional live polar bear. After a period of decline and isolation the Scandinavian Greenlanders became extinct in the 15th century, victims, it seems, of deteriorating climate and Eskimo expansion and perhaps even of European pirates and slave hunters.
A community takes shape
The economy of Iceland soon assumed a form which would remain much the same for centuries, determined by natural resources and the constraints of culture and technology. The main livelihood was animal husbandry of an extensive nature, wide areas being used for grazing and scattered meadows for haymaking. Hay was the principal crop; yet it had to be supplemented by extensive winter grazing, unpredictable as this was in the Icelandic climate. Food crops were of minor importance, barley being grown as a dietary diversification and for the brewing of beer. Cows and ewes were the most important farm animals since milk, mainly produced during summer and processed as butter, cheese and curds (skyr), was the staple food. Wethers, bullocks, pigs and geese were raised for meat, and fish, dried for storage, became an important dietary item. A surplus of wool was available for export. For centuries homespun woollens were the staple export commodity as well as being a domestic medium of payment and standard of value.
The settlement pattern was single farms, with no real villages. There were 4-5,000 primary farms thinly spread along coasts and valleys, most of them, it would seem, supporting only one or two families, which suggests a population of something like 50,000.
Tenth-century Iceland was, to judge from the archaeological evidence, a simple society with little to show in the way of luxury or wealth. The limited concentration of either wealth or population gave little scope for social stratification - apart from the basic distinction between free and slave. Nevertheless, a pattern of leadership emerged, some farmers acting as leaders of their close kin or immediate neighbours, others functioning as more formal leaders of a larger clientele, and eventually a distinct group of chieftains formed. A chieftain might be descended from an early settler who had claimed extensive land and been able to retain some sort of authority over later settlers in "his" area. Preferably, the chieftain had to be able to trace his ancestry to aristocratic families in Norway or somewhere in the Viking world. On a
more practical level, he would establish links of friendship or family ties with other chieftainly families and he could add to his social stature by successful feuding with worthy opponents.
A basic institution of early Scandinavian, and indeed Germanic, society was the assembly ("thing") of free men which was the proper forum for all sorts of solemn transactions and an articulation of communal identity. In Iceland assemblies developed quite early, and soon the bold step was taken of establishing a general assembly, the Alþingi (Althing) at Þingvellir in the southwest, for the whole country. A single assembly offered an opportunity to establish nationwide legal unity as the different legal traditions of the settlers were coordinated and adapted to conditions in a new country. The Alþingi proved a success; despite the formidable distances to be covered, the entire chieftain class, each with a retinue of client farmers, would regularly assemble for a fortnight around midsummer each year, mainly to attend to legal and judicial matters. While juries handed down verdicts in court cases the chieftains themselves deliberated on the fixation or adaptation of law; they also elected the "Lawspeaker", a president of the assembly responsible for the preservation and clarification of legal tradition. Besides the Alþingi there was a system of regional assemblies, led by the chieftains, and at the lowest level of local authority, the hreppr, all the farmers assembled to conduct the business of the community.
The establishment of the Alþingi (around 930 which is the accepted, if slightly uncertain, date) has been interpreted as the formal origin of an independent state, the Icelandic "Commonwealth" or "republic". The Alþingi may even be defined as a "parliament" of sorts. (Thus the present legislature, first convened in 1845 as a consultative assembly, uses the old name Alþingi, and occasionally 930 is claimed as its founding year, making it, after a fashion, the "oldest of national parliaments".) To the anthropologist Old Iceland would be more cogently defined as a "stateless society", despite its central institutions and legal unity, as there was no public executive power. Neither court verdicts nor legislation nor even the constitutional arrangements had any coercive power behind them, other than the free initiative of individual chieftains with their armed following. ( The law and institutions of the Commonwealth held a somewhat similar sort of authority over the chieftains as international law and the UN do over presentday sovereign states.)
The chieftains enjoyed a collective monopoly of power. They eventually became a closed group, holders of 39 hereditary chieftaincies (goðorð) or parts thereof. Everyone else was required to be an official client of one of them; the democratic element of the system was the right of a farmer to transfer his allegiance to another chieftain. The term for chieftain was goði, derived from goð = (pagan) god. This may indicate their religious function in pre-Christian times as leaders of sacrificial feasts which were the communal expression of pagan religion.
The entry into Christendom
The original population of Iceland contained a Christian element, as the Vikings in the British Isles had been in close contact with the Christian inhabitants. It seems unlikely, however, that any practising Christian community survived until missionary activities started in the late 10th century. Yet it only took a handful of itinerant missionaries, backed up by a Christian king of Norway, to effect the official conversion of Iceland in 1000. ( Accepted date; the earliest written evidence suggests AD 999 but either one is possible. ) The conversion was peacefully decided at the general assembly by the chieftains - the very priesthood of the pagan religion - few of whom presumably had more than a superficial idea of the nature of the new religion. Pressure from Norway, together with a realization of the overall ascendancy of Christianity, seems to have decided the issue. There is surprisingly little evidence of subsequent resistance to the conversion; if the institutionalization of a Roman Catholic Church was neither quick nor easy it can not be blamed on pagan opposition. With the conversion to Christianity Iceland decided to enter the orbit of Western European civilization. Through the church the Icelanders had closer contacts to a wider world than before. The Reform Papacy of the crusading era, 12th century renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic, chivalric feudalism: these were to become formative influences in Medieval Iceland.
Literacy was the key to the new civilization. Viking Age Scandinavians, like the pagan Germanic peoples in general, had enjoyed a degree of literacy as they used the so-called runic alphabets for monumental and magical purposes; yet the transmission of knowledge and literature was, it seems, basically oral. With the Christian Church, written texts gained a new prominence, gradually being used for secular as well as ecclesiastical purposes. A century after the conversion of Iceland, learned men were beginning to use the Latin alphabet for codification of vernacular texts. The breakthrough for vernacular literacy occurred in 1117 when the chieftains resolved that the whole body of traditional law be committed to writing. By now Iceland was firmly a part of the literate civilization of Western Christianity. It had a numerous clergy with at least some Latin education and an educational elite which kept in touch with contemporary scholarship. And its lay culture was permeated by theological, biblical and hagiographic elements.