Medieval Iceland: Sagas, Society and Power

Jesse L. Byock

After the settlement of Iceland in the 10th century, The Icelandic Free State came to exist and it lasted until the mid-13th and became one of the most intriguing political milieu. Without any external threats, (and also no indigenous population to get things complicated) the settlers in Iceland’s created a society filled with  farmers without any executive government and social hierarchy, with law and order being maintained by an interaction between law, feud and personal relationships. This made medieval Iceland to be an intriguing sociological and political “experiment” as well as a fascinating history — and I think Medieval Iceland will make an excellent introduction to it.

Byock started with a very brief survey of the legal and historical sources. Turning his attention to the Icelandic sagas, he took a stand in the historiographical debate of their value as sources, He was arguing for their own importance in comprehending the social and economic background. He also presents a draft filled with the  history of the Free State, from the creation and settlement of the legal system, through an evolution, This was until Iceland became controlled by the Norwegian crowns between 1262-1264. In 1000, Iceland adopted Christianity, However, this was not achieved by conflict or war, rather it was through negotiations and, with Iceland being distant from the central Church authority, their new religious belief was made to fit with the structures that already existed.

Byock’s focus is mainly on governance and most especially the relationship between gothar (” the chieftains”) and the farmers  Gothar had some special sources of wealth — some limited taxes and also a chance at setting prices for imports; trade and tithes were open to all the farmers. The power of gothar is on their status as the legal advocates and also a gothorth is not a hereditary and territorial chieftaincy but rather “it is a professional vocation that’s got to do with entrepreneurial overtones”. The relationship between ordinary farmers and gothar is flexible, because farmers are free to change their allegiance and be subject to only the limited obligations, and the binding forces of the society is client-advocate relationship, fictive and real kinship relationships, and also formalised ties of friendship.

3 chapters present cases from the Sturlunga sagas and the family, illustrating just how this system of governance really worked in practice. Conflicts caused by Sturlunga and property illustrate the relationship between farmers and also the way in which gothar can utilize their status as advocates in other to get concessions. The fate Arnkell’s has towards the Eyrbyggja saga shows the limitations on the ambitions of gothar and a few of the “balances and checks” of the system. And the struggle between Geitir and Brod-Helgi in Vapnfirthinga saga shows just how broad the networks of support was needed in other to safely carry out the direct action.