Historical Background

The Viking Expansion

Viking Ships

The Icelandic Sagas

The Frontier Republic



The viking-age was a period in northern Europe, 793 – 1066 AD. During this period the vikings raided and explored most parts of Europe by way of its oceans and rivers, and with the aid of their advanced navigational skills. They extended their trading routes across vast parts of the continent, but they also engaged in warfare and looted and enslaved numerous christian communities for centuries.




Historical Background


The vikings were essentially from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They eventually made it to Greenland and North America some 500 years before Columbus. It is believed that Denmark was largely settled by germanic people from present day Sweden in the 5th and 6th centuries. By 800 AD a strong central authority appears to have been established in Denmark and the Danes were beginning to look beyond their own territory for land, trade and plunder.


Norway had been settled over many centuries by germanic people from Denmark and Sweden, who had established farming and fishing communities around its coasts and lakes. The mountainous terrain and the fjords formed strong natural boundaries and the communities remained independent of each other, unlike the situation in Denmark which is lowland. By 800 AD around 30 kingdoms existed in Norway.


The sea was the easiest way of communication between the norwegian kingdoms and the outside world. It was in the 8th century that ships of war began to be built and sent on raiding expeditions to initiate the viking-age.


The first viking raid on record:

“AD 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island (Lindisfarne), by rapine and slaughter.” -Anglo Saxon Chronicle.




The Viking Expansion


With the means of travel and desire for goods the Scandinavian traders developed extensive trading partnerships in the territories they explored. Viking raiding expeditions were separate from and coexisted with regular trading expeditions. It has been suggested that the scandinavians suffered from unequal trade practices imposed by christian advocates and that this eventually led to the breakdown in trade relations. British merchants who declared openly that they were christian, and would not trade with heathens and infidels (the norse and muslims), would get preferred status for availability and pricing of goods through a christian network of traders.


Historians also suggest that the scandinavian population was too large for the peninsula, and there were not enough crops to feed everyone. This led to a hunt for more land, particularly in the conquest and settlement period that followed the early raids. The internal strife in Scandinavia resulted in the progressive centralisation of power into fewer hands. This meant that people who wanted not to be oppressed by kings went in search of their own lands.


Viking territories, colonies and voyages



For people living along the coast, it would seem natural to seek new land by the sea. Pure thirst for adventure may also have been a factor. Another reason was that during this period England, Wales and Ireland were divided into many different warring kingdoms in internal disarray and became easy prey. The Franks, however, had well defended coasts and heavily fortified ports and harbours.




Viking Ships


The vikings were equipped with the technologically superior longships. For purposes of conducting trade, another type of ship, the knarr, wider and deeper cargo ships, were customarily used. The vikings were competent sailors, adept in land warfare as well as at sea, and they often struck at accessible and poorly defended targets, usually with near impunity. It is the effectiveness of these tactics that earned them their formidable reputation.


A viking longship



The longships gave the vikings certain tactical advantages in battle. They could perform very efficient hit-and-run attacks, in which they approached quickly and unexpectedly, then left before a counter offensive could be launched. Because of their negligible draught, longships could sail in shallow waters, allowing the vikings to travel far inland along the rivers. Their speed was also superior for the time, estimated at a maximum of 14 knots. The use of the longships ended when technology changed and ships began to be constructed using saws instead of axes. Shipbuilding in the rest of Europe also led to the demise of the longship for military purposes. By the 11th and 12th centuries war ships began to be built with raised platforms fore and aft, from which archers could shoot down into the relatively low longships.


The nautical achievements of the vikings were quite exceptional. For instance, they made distance tables for sea voyages that were so exact they only differ 2-4% from modern satellite measurements, even on long distances such as across the Atlantic Ocean.





The Icelandic Sagas


Filled with heroes and epic battles, they may be the most accessible of all medieval literature and a source of inspiration to classic authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet many people have never heard of the Icelandic Sagas.


The Icelandic Sagas were written in icelandic by unknown authors after the end of the viking-age. They were written in the 13th and early 14th century, but refer to figures who were involved in the original act of settlement, in the 10th century and 11th century. Most famous are the prose family sagas that contain about 40 narratives, describing the life of the vikings before and after the settlement of Iceland. This was the time when they abandoned ancient gods, adopted Christianity and founded Alþingi. Other parts of the Icelandic Sagas deal with ancient myths and poems of the gods, and sagas of legendary kings in Scandinavia. We really would be in the dark about the viking-age without this literature, and we know much more about viking-age Iceland than any other country. The literature that survives outside of Iceland dealing with the viking-age is not nearly of the same size and diversity.


The initial attitude towards the family sagas is that they were accurate narrative chronicles of family events. Then there has been an attitude in more recent years that these are more like historical novels written some time after the event, anywhere from a hundred to two hundred years later. Therefor they can not necessarily be considered authentic historical documents. Some of the sagas, such as Eyrbyggja Saga, also contain many instances of supernatural events.


Archaeology is however proving that a lot of the sagas do have a good basis. The archaeologists could even use the sagas to locate the L’Anse aux Meadows site, a archeological site in Newfoundland believed to have been a viking settlement in the 11th century.


The society in Iceland had a very powerful oral tradition and was very conscious of its descent from the original settlers. The sagas also contain key events in their recent history that every reader knew. The creation of the Alþingi in 930 AD, the discovery of Iceland around 870 AD, the conversion to Christianity in 1.000 AD. The family events in the Icelandic Sagas fit into this framework fairly accurately. Above all they give us remarkable descriptions of daily life, of legal actions, of settlements over blood feud, all of which had to be consistent with existing customs, if the story was to mean anything to the audience. The audience were the direct descendants of the saga characters, as well as still behaving along the same lines a hundred years later.


The cast of characters that populate these ancient texts are as interesting and respectable as any of the ancient and medieval famous literary figures. However, the sagas are relatively plain when compared to both contemporary and later medieval works. The sagas, being more recorded for the sake of posterity than literature, are written in a very matter-of-fact way. What subject any number of romantic authors could spend wordy pages on, an icelandic writer would summarize in a single sentence. This objective narrative approach is a distinctive characteristic of the family sagas. The sagas describe events in great detail, including what was said by those involved, but they do not describe their inner life or thoughts. Instead, the characters of the sagas reveal themselves through their words and actions.


Most of the characters endured the battles and hardships with little regard to their own mortality, usually for the sake of honour, and not without a decidedly dark humour. More generally the sagas arouse heroic interest, from the menacing viking warrior/poet Egill of Egils Saga, the warring and ultimately tragic young foster-brothers Kjartan and Bolli of Laxdæla Saga, to the levelheaded, prophetic lawyer Njáll of Njáls Saga.


Today the Icelandic Sagas are part of the curriculum in primary school in Iceland, and can easily be read by students since the icelandic language has stayed virtually unchanged since the sagas were written down, some 800 years ago.





 The Frontier Republic


The icelandic society that emerged in the 10th and 11th century, while scandinavian in origin, was a distinct, unique society. A society made by unusual conditions, not only of the landscape and the terrain, but also of the people themselves who moved into this new homeland.


 Iceland has been illuminated to us mainly from the remarkable Icelandic Sagas. Archaeology and excavations have also revealed information on diet, on the types of weapons that were used, and other things. For example, there was a minor debate running whether edged weapons were really as sharp as the sagas say. Excavated skeletal remains in the Mosfell Valley area show that at least one person in Iceland in the 11th century had a very sharp axe. A single blow knocked a skull open in half. This new effort to bring the sagas in sync with the archaeological evidence produces exciting results in illuminating Iceland and then the wider viking-age.  The Icelandic Sagas, along with archaeology, can be used as a legitimate source to tell us what viking-age Iceland was all about.


Icelanders moved in mostly from Norway and established independent farmsteads. Usually these were prominent people who built the main farm and usually these settlements were founded as a religious action. We’re told in a number of the sagas that the initial family that settles in an area would throw two pillars over the side of the ship and wait for those pillars to be washed ashore. Wherever they landed, the settlers would set up a farmstead in that vicinity. Given the currents and the flow of these pillars they usually were carried into an ideal location where you could have a sheltered harbor. Those pillars then became the central focus of the main longhouse and were seen as sacred. Farms were constructed from the natural resources available, namely turf, stone, drift-wood and timber. A typical farm complex would have several outhouses and a main longhouse with a communal hall, in which members of the farm lived and slept.


Essentially there were no peasants, but many Icelanders maintained slaves and they had dependents. The size and wealth of these farmers in Iceland was exceptional and probably not the norm in various parts of Scandinavia. They however exploited a landscape that they came to ruin rather quickly. This is because the Icelanders moved in taking all this free land and then started farming and raising cattle, and if you can’t raise cattle you raise sheep. Everyone also had horses and the result was the extension of the pastures. The dwarf trees, largely birch, take decades to grow because of the harsh conditions. They were methodically cut down for building material, for charcoal to forge iron, and for fuel. In the 10th century it becomes clear that timber has to be imported from Norway. The destruction of those forest zones led to deterioration of the highland pastures, which then reduced the grazing. By 1.200 AD there is a serious economic and demographic problem resulting from the destruction of those highland pastures, which are leading to massive erosion. That’s one of the reasons why the icelandic society gets itself into trouble in the 13th century and eventually settles that by putting itself under the crown of Norway.


The society from the start required the cooperation of all members of the family and probably explains to a great deal the social patterns that we see in the sagas. Men were engaged in two major occupation, in stock raising and in some type of hunting or fishing. These were the main way in which food was provided. This took men away from their farmsteads for long periods and as a result the leading lady in the icelandic household really ran the show back home. These women are going to be on their own running the household and managing the children for a good part of the year. The women handled the hiring of people and the initial negotiations for settlements on law disputes. They, as women, do not actually have legal right to make a decision, but they certainly can report everything to the husband. In the sagas most of the powerful leading ladies are also more than willing to give their opinion on what the husband should do. These conditions put enormous stress on women managing the households, leading to the legal position of women that we see in the first set of icelandic laws, the so-called Grey Goose Laws.


Women end up having number of powers, for instance in administering property, and they could actually hold a chieftainship through male relatives, i.e. the power of being a Goði. Women also had powers of divorce. For example in Laxdæla Saga a formidable woman, Guðrún, marries four times. She gets rid of one of her husbands by manufacturing a shirt for him in the form of a woman’s blouse. He puts it on not knowing that he’s been duped and she announces to witnesses that her husband is cross-dressing, immediately declares a divorce and rides off to a relative. This gives some idea of how powerful leading ladies could be. In the Icelandic Sagas they are also often depicted as the leading characters egging on blood feuds. For example, the blood feud in Njáls Saga is between two ladies, Hallgerður and Bergþóra, while their two husbands, who are best friends, are doing everything in their power to get out of the situation. In the sagas there are also many instances when wives counsel caution to their husbands, acting as the voice of reason.


This depiction of women that comes through in the Icelandic Sagas, and is confirmed in the legal rights they have, does reflect a social reality. In households women had a lot of important tasks to do, such as spinning and weaving all the time. The society didn´t have monetized markets. Wealth was usually accounted for in homespun cloth. It was a society without coin money. Silver coins and bullions were used for expensive payments, or cattle, but fundamentally it’s cloth and cloth is manufactured by the women in the household. Cloth is the money of the realm in a sense. Preparation of food was also important. In Iceland you waste nothing. This includes taking all sorts of parts of animals which most people would consider inedible, boiling them down, stuffing them into salt sausages, turning them into some sort of edible food that can be used for that long stretch of winter.


It is because of the success in managing this landscape and exploiting the resources that the population rises and peaks at about 70.000 people in the year 1.000 AD. To give some sense of what that means for Iceland, that is probably about as populous as Iceland got until the end of the 19th century. Major volcano eruptions in the 12th century, deadly impact of the Black Death and a catastrophic volcano eruption in the 18th century kept the numbers down throughout the centuries. Around 1.000 AD, the time of the conversion to Christianity, in many ways represents the pinnacle of the success of the early settlement of Iceland.


The sagas are also filled with references of Icelanders who take passage on ships to Scandinavia, to become poets and saga writers at the royal courts or attach themselves to kings. Some of them went elsewhere as vikings or mercenaries, some even making it all the way to Constantinople. One of the great advantages of King Olaf of Norway is that he had first-rate icelandic poets with him recording his deeds, whereas his rival King Canute didn’t, so King Canute never got the same PR as King Olaf. The Danish author Saxo says on one occasion that the Icelanders turned their situation, on a remote island in the middle of the North Atlantic, into an advantage. They’re great storytellers and because of that they use that ability to gain wealth, fame and reputation by going overseas and serving as poets and saga writers.


The Icelanders therefore were tough skin people who were able to adjust to the harsh landscape and for 250 years to succeed in conditions that would tax almost anyone. The society that comes out of this icelandic landscape is remarkable, and this is where the analogy to the american Wild West is both deceptive and useful. In Iceland there was no national government in any sense, that either could make or enforce laws. Everything is essentially private and laws are enforced by the people themselves. Such an environment provided the writers of the sagas with plenty of material.


The main chieftains were called Goðar. The term “chieftain” is perhaps an unfortunate translation. A Goði was a leading man in a district who by his reputation, his knowledge of the law, his generosity to his family and his neighbors, was recognized as a figure to whom you could go and who would settle disputes, particularly blood feuds. This is still very much a viking society. Men and especially women take offense very easily. When their honour had been insulted it often ended with one member of a family killing a member of another, and then you have these disastrous blood feuds running through the generations. This is often the main theme of an Icelandic Saga. A Goði is someone who is able to resolve these issues, someone who can keep a certain balance in society and whose rulings will be respected. Furthermore the Goði has knowledge of customary law and he attends the quarter þings, i.e. the þings held in your quarter of Iceland. The Goði would also go to the annual national Alþingi on Þingvellir, during the summer solstice.


Alþingi was the court of last resort for bood feuds, property arrangements, trespassing or any kind of civil law suit. The Goðar would amend laws, settle disputes and appoint juries to judge law suits. At this national assembly the Law Speaker was elected for a term of three years. His job was to recite the laws at the Law Rock, a natural amphitheater created by cliff walls. The Law Speaker had to recite one-third of all icelandic laws each year. It was all done by memory until the arrival of writing around 1.000 AD. Only a handful of men served as Law Speakers before the arrival of writing, being re-elected repeatedly for their ability to memorize and recite volumes of material. At the Law Rock was also where law suits were announced and witnesses named. A short way from the Law Rock is the Drowning Pool, a pool of water from Öxará River, where unfaithful women were drowned and their male accomplices had their throats cut.


At Alþingi in the year 1.000 AD the decision was made that Christianity would be the official religion of Iceland, but heathen worship was allowed in private. There was no institution in Iceland to impose the laws anyway. What one did on his farmstead was his own business. If anyone came to check up on religious affiliation or anything else, well, that was trespassing on private property. During much of the 11th century many Icelanders continued to worship the old gods at home, but publicly conformed to Christianity. The transition to Christianity was therefor gradual and in the process the old gods, the old poetry, tales and legends were revered.


The privatized justice system produced a self-regulating society in which you were under constant scrutiny. Honour was important and one of the qualities prized above all others in icelandic society was the ability to maintain honour and yet work out compromises and mediation under the most difficult of circumstances. Analogies have been made to the american Wild West where you had a sort of privatized justice, but in the United States there was always the assumption behind that there was a government, there were taxes and this was just a temporary phase. Eventually more normal legal procedures would come in. In Iceland this type of a society existed through the entire viking-age and remarkably existed to a large degree unchanged after the Icelanders passed under norwegian rule.


The deteriorating ecological conditions starting in the 12th century led to the emergence of some very powerful men in Iceland, who had never existed before. These men could consolidate hereditary power in a way that a traditional Goði could not. These included men such as Snorri Sturluson, the famous author. His family, the Sturlungar, in effect carved out what Icelanders would call a mini kingdom. The period from 1200 – 1262 AD is generally known as The Age of the Sturlungar. By the 1260s there were about five leading families who had become very prominent. There were huge conflicts and a real danger of an all out civil war. Most Icelanders thought this was unacceptable. They had a tradition of regulating blood feuds, a tradition of mediating, a tradition of compromise and in effect they invited the Norwegian King to come in as their overlord and resolve the situation. The Norwegian King understood what was going on and although norwegian royal control was imposed with new codification of laws, the king made sure that most of those laws were customary icelandic laws, so that the traditional rules, the traditional mediation and the traditional society long continued under norwegian rule. Between 1262 and 1264 AD the Icelanders signed the Old Covenant and accepted as their lord the King of Norway.