food in the arts





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Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol.13r)

Brennu-Njáls saga

icelandic manuscript, about 1350


The Icelandic Family Sagas (Islendingasögur) are a body of some forty or so prose pieces written by anonymous Icelanders from the 12th to the 14th centuries. After decades of neglect, social and cultural historians are now turning to the sagas to pillage them, as their subjects may have pillaged a monastery, for valuable insights into the fabric of a unique medieval community.

The community in question developed following the settlement of Iceland in the later ninth century by aristocratic Norse farmers and their households. The island was uninhabited and during the years of the medieval climatic optimum must have seemed at least as agreeable a home as the lands that they had left behind, especially so as it lacked the centralising tendencies of King Harald Finehair, who found particular pleasure in placing violent restraints on the independent airs of the chieftains of Norway. Or at least this is as the sagas would have it. Certainly, the settlement of Iceland should not be understood in isolation from the Viking movement as a whole, but as such it has its roots as much in the ecological tension of diminishing resources and pressure of population growths as it does in political struggle.

When the Norse first arrived in Iceland they perceived a land of plenty. Egil's Saga records how, on arrival in Iceland, the settler Skallagrim and his companions

went out fishing and seal-hunting, and collecting the eggs of wild fowl, for there was plenty of everything. They also fetched in his driftwood. Whales often got stranded, and you could shoot anything you wanted, for none of the wildlife was used to man and just stood about quietly . . . . Skallagrim also had his men go up the rivers looking for salmon, and settled Odd the Lone-Dweller at the Gljufur River to look after the salmon-fishing . . . . As Skallagrim's livestock grew in number the animals started making for the mountains in the summer. He found a big difference in the livestock, which was much better and fatter when grazing up on the moorland, and above all in the sheep that wintered in the mountain valleys instead of being driven down. As a result, Skallagrim had a farm built near the mountains and ran it as a sheep farm. A man called Gris was in charge of it, and Grisartongue is named after him. So the wealth of Skallagrim rested on a good many foundations. (Egil's Saga (Penguin Classics,) Ch 29

Other sagas also emphasise this sense of a land of plenty found by the first settlers, but it was a situation which regrettably did not last long. As the throng of settlers increased, land became as scarce as it was at home in Norway. Later settlers found they had to be content with smaller portions of less desirable lands, and the following episode from Grettir's Saga is likely to have been typical:

As soon as Eirik knew that Onund had arrived he offered to give him anything he wanted, and added that there was not much land still unclaimed. Onund said he would like first to see what land was available. So they went south across the fjords, and when they reached Ofæra, Eirik said, 'Now you can have a look at it. From here on the land is unclaimed up to Bjorn's settlement.'

A great mountain jutted out on that side of the fjords, white with snow. Onund looked at the mountain and spoke this stanza:

The seafarer must suffer
weather fair and foul.
He wins and then he loses his land and his wealth.
Now I've fled my estates,
my friends, and my family,
but the worst of it is, I've bartered
my grainfields for icy Kaldbak.

Eirik replied. 'Many have lost so much in Norway that they can never be compensated. I think that almost all the land in the main districts has been claimed, so I cannot urge you to leave this place. I will keep my promise that you can have from my land what you need.'

Onund said he would accept that, and then he took possession of the land. (Grettir's Saga, Ch 9}

Like many immigrant societies, the community founded by the settlers was an essentially conservative one. This was true not only of the social and political institutions they established but also of their approaches to the resources provided by their new environment. In many critical respects their approaches to farming and food production remained defiantly unchanged, except where ecological constraints made them impossible. Iceland, like much of Norway, was essentially country for pastoralists. Short growing seasons made the cultivation of grains marginal, though not as much as it would be when the climate deteriorated in the fourteenth century. This meant that the Icelanders had to rely on the importation of flour with which to make sufficient bread. It also meant that the possession of good grazing land was essential and its ownership often violently disputed. The availability of pasture was critical to feed stock in the field and to provide hay reserves to sustain breeding stock through the long winters. Animal products provided the mainstay of the Icelandic diet. An emphasis on dairy cattle and sheep meant that lamb and beef and dairy products such as cheese and whey were relatively plentiful, especially following good seasons. As outlined above, diets were supplemented by wildfowl and marine products. Although fishing did not become the mainstay of the economy for several hundred years after the settlement, the plentiful presence of salmon in the rivers and cod offshore provided welcome variety in the diet, while beached whales were particularly valued.

These circumstances represented a delicate ecological balance. The settlers were able to maintain a reasonable subsistence for the first couple of centuries after the settlement. But hunger was never far away. A regular traffic with Norway and the European North Atlantic was maintained of necessity, while land and resource hungry sailors pushed ever westward beyond Greeenland to North America. As the population grew and the pressure on the productive capacity of the land intensified, so did the tensions between landholders.

In considering the role of feud in medieval Icelandic society, historians have correctly emphasised factors such as the legal codes, kinship structures and codes of honour. But it is clear from saga evidence that battles over scarce resources also played a significant role in both commencing and sustaining feud. Disputes over driftage rights, for example, feature prominently in numerous sagas. Access to driftage, that is matter washed ashore by the sea, was carefully defined in law, eagerly sought, and essential to maintain reasonable living standards. Considerable amounts of driftwood were washed by the Atlantic onto Iceland's shores. This provided a valuable source of building material and fire wood to a land which had been quickly despoiled of its limited native scrublands. Beached whales also provided a coveted resource and would be quickly slaughtered by those living nearby, as illustrated by the depiction in a 14th-century Icelandic manuscript, but in accordance with strictly defined rights. Or at least in theory, because stranded whales were often the subject of fierce disputes.

It happened one summer that Thorgils Maksson found a stranded whale on the common shore, and with the help of his men he started cutting it up at once. When the sworn-brothers heard of this, they went there, and at first they talked with him reasonably enough. Thorgils offered them half of that part of the whale which had not yet been cut up, but they demanded either all the uncut whale, or else that the entire whale - both cut and uncut - should be divided into two equal shares. But Thorgils flatly refused to give up what he had already cut from the whale. Then they started threatening each other, and soon they seized their weapons and fought. Thorgils and Thorgeir fought for a long time without any interference from the others. They were both very resolute and the struggle was long and hard, but in the end Thorgils fell dead. (Grettir's Saga, Ch 25)

Similar incidents are recounted elsewhere in this and other sagas, each leading to continuing bitter disputes. If the fortuitous availability of beached whales was considered a necessary resource worth fighting for, then the constant supply of hay for stockfeed was vital to the health of the pastorally based economy. Hen Thorir's Saga, a thirteenth century saga, seemingly written against the backdrop of an unpopular law permitting farmers in short supply to appropriate hay from those with a surplus, records the progress of a bitter dispute arising from just such a circumstance:

That summer there was a thin, miserable crop of grass, for there was little opportunity to dry it, and men's store of hay was poor indeed. Blund-Ketil went round his tenants in the autumn to tell them that he wanted his hay-rents paid over on all his land. "We have a lot of stock to feed, and precious little hay. Also I want to settle for all my tenants how many beasts are to be slaughtered on each farm this autumn, and then we should get by nicely. (Hen Thorir's Saga, Ch 2)

But Blund-Ketil runs desperately short of supplies and is compelled to seek support from Hen-Thorir, a mean spirited though well provided for neighbour, who refuses to sell, leading Blund-Ketil to purchase his goods forcibly.

Blund-Ketil now checked the fodder for Thorir's livestock, and calculated that even if it was all stall-fed to the time of the Assembly there would still be five stacks over. After that they went back indoors, and Blund-Ketil had this to say: 'I calculate from your store of hay, Thorir, that there will be a good surplus left over even if all your livestock requires indoor-feeding to the time of the Assembly - and that surplus I should like to buy.'

'And what shall I have next winter,' asked Thorir, 'should it turn out like this, or worse?'

'I will make you this offer,' said Blund-Ketil, 'to provide you with the same quantity of hay, and of no worse quality, this coming summer. I will even carry it into your yard for you.'

'But if you have no supply of hay now,' countered Thorir, 'what better off will you be in the summer? However, I realise that there is such a difference in strength between us that you can carry off my hay if you want to'. (Hen Thorir' Saga, Ch 2)

In retaliation Thorir leads an attack on Blund-Ketil and burns him and all his household alive while they sleep. Characteristically, the dispute accumulates and the feuding parties are not reconciled until the death of Hen-Thorir at the hands of Herstein, Blund-Ketil's son. Herstein 'won great honour for this deed of his, and warm commendation, as was only to be expected'.

Similar tensions over the shortage of foodstuffs during famine are reported in Njal's Saga, a thirteenth century source recounting events from the outset of the eleventh century:

This was a time of great famine in Iceland, and all over the country people were going short of hay and food. Gunnar shared out his own stocks with many people, and turned no-one away empty handed while they lasted, until he himself ran short of both hay and food. (Njal's Saga, Ch 47)

Gunnar, like Blund-Ketil, is refused supplies by a malicious neighbour Otkel, returns home empty handed, but is provided supplies by his friend Njal. His wife Hallgerd, however, is incensed by Otkel's refusal, and seeks both provisions and redress by sending a servant to steal cheeses and butter and to burn down Otkel's storehouse. Again the actions result in a series of violent exchanges, and Otkel, and ultimately Gunnar, lose their lives. Such politics of scarcity are a significant link in the feud cycle that have hitherto been overlooked, but as the foregoing indicates, they provided a major impetus to the social disruption that feuds engendered.

Clearly, the regular shortages of vital food resources placed considerable pressures on social relations. This was an ecological context which the Icelanders were barely equipped to survive. By the fourteenth century global climatic forces conspired to send the sustainability of the human ecology of Iceland into a slow decline. The conservative pastoral practices imported from Norway in the tenth and eleventh centuries contributed to social strife and proved untenable in the long term. As mean temperatures fell, the growing season shortened and the production of grain crops and the maintenance of pasture suffered drastically. This necessitated a more wholehearted exploitation of the marine resources of the North Atlantic than had previously been undertaken, and the island's economy evolved a reliance on the offshore cod fisheries which still sustains it today.


Gary Martin - Department of History, University of Adelaide