To Americans visiting Europe, Iceland recommends itself as a beautiful, friendly, safe tourist destination, whose international airport near Reykjavik is at just the right location to interrupt transatlantic flights for a few days, and whose international airline (Icelandair) is as low-priced as it is reliable. But there is much more to Iceland than meets the eye. Modern Icelanders are the direct descendants of marauding Norwegian settlers (disproportionately men) and their Celtic wives, slaves, and followers. Those origins, long suspected on the basis of historical accounts, were proved within the last year by genetic studies comparing Icelanders’ paternal and maternal genes. Upon their occupation of the previously uninhabited Icelandic landscape, those settlers established a society like none other on Earth. They arrived with an anti-big-government attitude and found that attitude reinforced by necessity born of extreme poverty. For both of those reasons they privatized government beyond Ronald Reagan’s wildest dreams, and thereby collapsed in a civil war that cost them their independence for the next seven hundred years.
For anyone interested in learning more about this strange society, three excellent new books tell the story from entirely different perspectives. Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland recounts medieval Iceland’s history from the first settlement until the loss of independence in 1262. Byock’s perspective is that of an American who, while in law school, found Icelandic sagas more interesting than law books, went to Iceland to work on a remote sheep farm, repaid the farmers’ talent for telling him long stories with his own talent for repairing their broken farm machinery, and ended up becoming fluent in Icelandic, translating Icelandic sagas, and teaching Norse languages and history.
Gunnar Karlsson’s The History of Iceland covers medieval Iceland more briefly than does Byock, in 86 pages, and then devotes its remaining pages to Iceland from 1262 until the present. Karlsson’s perspective is that of a modern native Icelander, as anyone who has visited there will recognize from his name and that of his wife Silja ADalsteinsdóttir. Icelanders’ last names are not family names but patronymics, so that Gunnar is the son of Karl, Silja is the daughter of ADalsteinn, and their children bear last names different from either parent’s (Gunnarsson and Gunnarsdóttir). Finally, The Sagas of Icelanders portray medieval Icelandic society through the eyes of its own members. Though one of medieval Europe’s smallest nations, Iceland produced the first great body of prose in any medieval vernacular European language. Seventeen of those vivid prose epics, including the two Vinland sagas that are our primary source of information about the Vikings’ attempt to colonize North America, are gathered here in translation. *
Lying on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge just south of the Arctic Circle, and formed almost entirely by volcanic action, Iceland has Europe’s largest icecaps and glaciers, plus many active volcanoes and geothermal areas. Those un-Norwegian landscape features were obvious to the first settlers from southwestern Norway, but in other respects Iceland looked familiar to Norwegians. The lowlands were covered by easily cleared birch and willow woods and by lush pasture grasses ideal for raising the traditional Norwegian quintet of livestock: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses. Even the species of wild plants and birds were mostly the same as those occurring in Norway. The lakes, rivers, and surrounding seas teemed with fish and tame ducks and sea birds which had never been hunted, while equally tame seals and walruses lived along the coast. Beginning around AD 871, as described by both Byock and Karlsson, land-hungry immigrants poured in from overpopulated Norway and its colonies in the northern British Isles, settled on the coast, and quickly spread inland. By 930, virtually all usable land in Iceland was occupied, and subsequent immigration was negligible until after World War II.
But Iceland’s apparent similarity to southwestern Norway was deceptive in three crucial respects. First, Iceland’s more northerly location, hundreds of miles north of Bergen, meant a colder climate and a shorter growing season, making agriculture more marginal. The settlers initially tried to grow barley and a few other crops in southern Iceland, but eventually gave up to become solely herders. Second, every ten or twenty years on the average Iceland experiences big volcanic eruptions that not only produce local lava flows but also eject wind-blown ash over wide areas, poisoning fodder for livestock. Repeatedly throughout Iceland’s history, such eruptions have caused animals and people to starve, the worst such disaster being the 1783 Hekla eruption after which about one fifth of the human population starved to death.
The most important difference from Norway was Iceland’s light soils of fine volcanic ash, blown in by the wind and then stabilized by the cover of vegetation that grew up over them rather than by their own consistency, as with the heavy clay soils of Norway. Once that vegetation had been removed as settlers cleared the woods and as sheep grazed the grass, the ash that the winds had blown in was exposed for the winds to blow out again. Because of the cold climate and short growing season, Iceland’s soil and vegetation are sensitive to sheep grazing, and both regenerate only slowly after they have been stripped off. Those rich-looking pastures and soils that delighted the eyes of the settlers did not represent annual interest on the land’s bounty, but instead represented the accumulated ecological capital of the 10,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age. Icelanders were not using their soils sustainably: in effect, they were mining them unsustainably.
Following the arrival of human beings, about 95 percent of Iceland’s original woodlands were destroyed and about half of its original soil was eroded away. Within the first few generations, settlers had to abandon farms in the interior and to retreat toward the coast. Today, Iceland ranks as the worst-eroded country in Europe. Driving through Iceland last summer, I repeatedly saw a distinctive landscape feature of pasture grass yielding abruptly to bare ground lying almost one foot lower, marking the boundary where a small bare patch in the pasture had enabled the wind to lift up the layer of grass and soil and peel it back in a sheet over a large area. When American astronauts preparing in the 1960s for our first moon landing wanted to train in an utterly barren landscape simulating what they would encounter, NASA chose Iceland’s moonscapes, which had been pasture land only 1,100 years earlier.
This unintended ecological damage had several heavy consequences for Icelandic history. First, once most of the woods (including all of the larger trees) had been cleared, no timber remained for ship construction except driftwood. As time went on, the original ships of the settlers could not be replaced by new ships. By AD 1100 Iceland was almost entirely without ocean-going ships of its own and became dependent on a succession of foreigners (in turn Norwegians, English, Germans, and Danes) who controlled and exploited Iceland’s trade for eight hundred years, buying Iceland’s exports cheaply and selling imports to Icelanders at high prices. Not until 1914 did Iceland again possess an ocean-going ship of its own.
Second, even in years of good climate Iceland has difficulty in growing the summer hay essential to feeding livestock throughout the long winter. In cold years the poorer farms culled or lost their livestock in the winter because of insufficient hay; they had to borrow animals from the richer farms in order to rebuild their herds the next year, and were thereby forced to become debtors who were dependent on others for survival. Originally, soon after settlement, Iceland had about 4,500 independent farms, but by the thirteenth century 80 percent of Iceland’s farmland was owned by five families, and all the other formerly independent farmers had become tenants. That situation led to the catastrophe of Iceland’s civil war.
Still a third consequence of Iceland’s environmental history was poverty. Medieval Iceland became Europe’s most backward country, poorer even than Albania. In contrast to the rich burial goods found in Viking graves elsewhere, all of the gold and silver recovered from Viking graves in Iceland could be accommodated within a small bucket. Everyone lived on scattered farms: until the 1700s Iceland didn’t even have any villages, towns, or full-time merchants. It had no roads, carts, or wheeled transport until the late 1800s; at that same recent date most Icelanders still lived in houses built of turf.
The remaining consequence emerging from Byock’s and Karlsson’s accounts is that Iceland was too poor even to afford a government. Having emigrated to Iceland in order to be independent of the growing power of the Norwegian king, Icelanders wanted minimal government anyway, and that attitude let them make a virtue of the necessity imposed by their poverty. Medieval Iceland had no bureaucrats, no taxes, no police, and no army. It lay defenseless against attacks by English, German, and even North African pirates: Karlsson relates how a single raid by four Algerian and Moroccan ships in 1627 managed to enslave or kill nearly 1 percent of Iceland’s population. Of the normal functions of governments elsewhere, some did not exist in Iceland, and others were privatized, including fire-fighting, criminal prosecutions and executions, and care of the poor. Even churches were built and run for profit by local landowners, who kept about half of the church tithes for themselves.
In the patriotic mystique of modern Iceland, the government of medieval Iceland is depicted as a glorious democracy termed the Commonwealth or Free State, and that time is considered Iceland’s Golden Age. To a non-Icelander like myself, it seems a Golden Age only by comparison with the worse that was to follow. The Commonwealth “government” consisted of a democratic assembly called the Althing, which met once a year and to which “everyone” came—meaning those few adult males (less than 10 percent of the population) who owned their own farms. There was no executive branch to carry out the Althing’s decisions. Iceland’s settlers brought over from Norway a social system based on chiefs, but Norwegian chiefs could accumulate wealth and luxuries by trade, raiding, and productive agriculture. Without ships, Iceland chiefs could not trade or raid overseas. Without grain agriculture, they could not accumulate grain surpluses to store in silos and distribute to followers. The sole agricultural surpluses produced in Iceland were butter, cheese, and yogurt-like skyr, but without roads or carts those were essentially impossible for an aspiring chief to transport.
As a result, Iceland’s chiefs ended up with a weird territorial system that was a recipe for chaos. Everywhere else in the world that I know of, competing chiefs ruled over mutually exclusive territories, within which everyone else had to be that chief’s fol-lower. In Iceland, chiefs found it harder to exercise control. Freedmen other than chiefs could choose their chief and switch alliances, regardless of which chief happened to reside nearby. A chief’s farm became surrounded by a mosaic of smaller farms, some of them occupied by his own followers, others by other chiefs’ followers. The resulting feuds fill The Sagas of Icelanders. As Byock explained to an interviewer, “Sheep farmers have a lot of time on their hands, so they tell each other stories.” Those stories inspired Byock to become a student of Icelandic literature rather than of law. Stories told by other Icelandic sheep farmers a thousand years ago became the great sagas of medieval Iceland, while stories of Greek sheep farmers 2,200 years ago became the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In the 1200s, by which time most freedmen had become tenants of the few leading families, those families fought more intensively among themselves in a virtual civil war. By 1260, Icelanders had to admit that their system of government did not work, and that they could not agree to or afford to govern themselves. Incredibly, the descendants of those settlers who had fled Norway to escape the growing power of Norway’s king now invited Norway’s king to govern them. They reasoned that a distant king was less of a danger to them than were their own nearby chiefs. The King of Norway took over Iceland without any military conquest. I cannot think of another historical case of an independent country that became so desperate that it turned itself over to another country.
Subsequently, after Byock’s account concludes but as Karlsson’s continues, the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark merged, and Norway and Iceland both ended up under the absolutist rule of the King of Denmark, who ran the Icelandic trade as a monopoly to enrich a few Danish merchants at the expense of Icelandic farmers. Not until 1944 did Iceland claim political independence from Denmark, and not until 1976 could it assert economic control over its richest resource, the fish in its territorial waters. As recently as 1958, half of all the fish caught off Iceland were caught by foreign ships, mainly English and Germans.
With the twentieth-century development of industrial-scale fishing, and with at last its own ships again, Iceland has become modestly prosperous. Formerly a country of scattered farms, Iceland now has towns and cities, including a capital, Reykjavik, in which nearly half of the total population of roughly 270,000 Icelanders live. Since World War II there has been a new bout of farm abandonment, as roads and motor vehicles have permitted Icelanders in the interior to convert their farms to summer houses or just to desert them, and to move to towns for access to jobs and global culture.
But Iceland’s government today is very concerned about Iceland’s historical curses of soil erosion and sheep overgrazing, which played such a large part in their country’s long impoverishment. An entire government department is charged with attempting to retain soil, regrow the woodlands, revegetate the moonscape interior, and regulate sheep stocking rates. Elsewhere in the world, whenever my archaeologist friends try to persuade a government to support archaeology by arguing that the past may yield valuable lessons for the present, they face a hard sell. They have no such problem in Iceland, where the past portrayed in the medieval sagas and reconstructed by Byock and by Karlsson is so stark and omnipresent. Many archaeological studies of medieval Icelandic settlements and erosion patterns are now underway. When one of my archaeologist friends approached the Icelandic government and began to deliver the usual lengthy justification required in other countries, the government’s response was: “Yes, of course we realize that understanding medieval soil erosion will help us understand our present problems. We already know that, you don’t have to spend time convincing us. Here is the money, go do it.”
For another discussion of the Sagas, see Brad Leithauser, "Golden Notebooks," The New York Review, December 20, 2001, pp. 32–37. The longest and most popular and most powerful of the family sagas, Njal's Saga, has now been published separately in a translation by Robert Cook (Penguin, 2001).↩