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
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
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
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
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
'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
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.