Icelandic Sagas Part IIThe History of Iceland, continuedby Stienhar Blooox Hrafnuson (also called Stonehew Ravensson)
To the Icelandic Saga writers of the Middle Ages, the overriding reason most men came to Iceland was to escape the tyranny of the Norwegian King Harald Finehair. These men were opposed to Harald’s attempts to unify all Norway. Harald claimed that the King by his "Right" owned all the lands and waters, and he seized all Odal rights (i.e. rights in land hitherto inalienable from the owner-family to all settled and unsettled land, seas, lakes and rivers. The previous owners saw no reason why they should "hold" their farms for the king, pay taxes on their assets, or swear an oath of allegiance. Those who fought against him, both nobles and yeomen, felt that taking the feudal oath was a diminution of a free man's dignity. They were intensely proud of their cultural heritage, but by opposing Harald, they lost all titles and lands. In Egil's Saga, Snorri Sturluson says that “Harald’s oppressive measures and personal ruthless ness drove men away even before Hafrsfjord (1).”
Even so, it is probable that the sagas may have exaggerated the numbers who left southern Norway and may have dramatized their leaving. Story-tellers of small nations who are striving for independence love to have an unjust tyrant to give their heroes a “noble” motive. The Icelandic saga-men of the 12th and 13th centuries selected Harald Finehair as the preferred villain from amongst a whole list of likely Norwegian candidates. It is probable that a number of Norwegian chieftains did leave because of King Harald’s efforts at centralizing power. The Saga-men probably realized that this theme would be a winner during a period where Norwegian kings were trying to assert their “rights” over Iceland and used it for their purposes. Gwyn Jones states “that their number was exaggerated, and the manner of their going dramatized, is certain.”
The settlers of Iceland traveled there to satisfy their need for land, fame, and wealth. They were part of the great Viking movement outward from their homelands. Their family traditions, social and economic systems, and geographical locations forced them to travel the sea-roads as merchants, settlers, and adventurers. Their desire for wealth from Viking expeditions was exemplified by the successful viking-merchant who brought home a rich cargo of goods to trade with neighbors. Increases in population in Norway, combined with their appetites for the goods to be gained across the seas to the west, sent them in search of other lands. The friends of Harald Finehair, as well as his enemies, traveled to Iceland. It is likely that many went to Iceland for the same reason that Ingold and Hjorlief did—because their deeds have made them unwelcome at home. The settlers came from a number of places. Some came directly from Norway, some from Norway by way fo the Celtic lands, and others directly from the Celtic lands (1).
Iceland’s settlers were heavily influenced by the Celtic lands they visited. Many took wives from Ireland or from the lands of the Picts. Some of Iceland's most famous saga families were descendents of a Norse nobleman and an Irish princess, such as Helgi the Lean, There was no bar to Norse-Irish or Norse-Pictish marriages, or to concubinage, for the Norseman were notoriously addicted to women.
Hormleif, for example, brought Irish slaves to Iceland only to find that these former warriors were rebellious and prone to violence some of these slaves were great persons in their own country, and one of the most famous was a woman—Aud the Deep-minded. The Sagas tell us that she was a devout Christian who gave orders that she be buried in land revealed by the low tide so that she would not lie in the unconsecrated ground of heathen Iceland. The Celtic people also brought their civilization, religion and literature. Their blood vitalized the Norseman's inherent creativity and artistic expression. Iceland imposed limitations on their artistic abilities--there was little wood for carving and the stones were the wrong type for shaping. Yet both cultures had a tradition of spoken stories about their fathers, heroes, and gods. The saga or spoken story became their distinctive form of artistic expression and, as we discussed in Part I, Christianity brought the art of letters to Iceland which allowed these stories to be written down. Once in Iceland, there was enough Celtic blood flowing in Norse veins to distinguish the Icelanders from the other Scandinavian peoples ethnographically. It also contributed to their literary achievements in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The settlers of Iceland had a unique situation. There was no need to subjugate a native population--the land was empty--nor were they in fear of attack from neighboring countries, pirates, or would-be kings. They had the opportunity to create their own unique nation, although they never thought of this as their goal. They were conservative and intensively self-reliant. The early settlers acquired all the land which was habitable. They were content to settle down on their farms, distribute land to newcomers, exact obedience, dispense justice, and defend their own and their followers’ interests in patriarchal aristocratic fashion. From the first, the Icelanders were dedicated to their feuds. True to their traditions, the feuds often developed over the governorship or rights to lands and estates.
One purpose of the sagas was to record who settled what and when, because these men often shared the right to use their vast lands with their followers. Later, after the lands had been settled and then overused, feuds between family branches developed over productive hayfields and bottomlands. The clashes were often bloody because the men were resolute. This forced the settlers to search for a way to avert bloodshed. The solution was to establish a unique form of government along with institutions to mediate conflict.
In the beginning, the large landholders became the powerful chieftains because their land encompassed a local place of worship and they had the riches to provide the sacrificial feasts. Secular power and religious authority were united in the authority of the local godi. Among the early leaders were men of royal descent (both Norse and Celtic), ship captains and leaders of men. They maintained control over their followers by sharing their land. As generations passed, the land was divided into many farms through a patrimonial type of ownership. When the land became further divided, there was little to distinguish landholders from each other or to support claims of authority made by former leading families. Without external threats there was little need to band together for the common defense and so a system of vassalage never developed. Within generations, the leading families found that their claims to regional authority and their control over adjacent landowners meant little in a dispersed rural society of freemen (2).
Within sixty years all usable land was taken and the second and third generations of Islanders realized the need for some form of government. Fortunately, the settlers brought with them their legal customs and traditions. A with other cultural knowledge, the Icelanders began to adapt the best of what they had to meet the needs of a society of free farmers. They focused on the traditional rights of Norse-Germanic freemen and expanded the ancient concept of the local freeman's assembly, the Thing”. To assist in resolving disputes in the absence of kings they developed a body of law and a legal process based upon elected judges and a public law court. This decentralized government was created by about 930 and was continually modified over the next three hundred years to correct its inability to contain the violence and to better regulate the never-ending feuds. Of the original four hundred chief settlers, thirty-six were selected as godar (plural of ‘godi’) to hold legislative and judicial rower over the land and people. These thirty-six godar (later expanded to forty-six) constituted the general assembly of Iceland, or the Althing. The godar controlled the Althing and within their home districts their rule was absolute. Since the godar elected the judges (who really served as the jury for each dispute), going to the law court was a chancy proposition. One's success at court atually depended on the support of tone or more of the godar. Upon reading the sagas you will find that many of the famous lawsuits were a deployment of strength rather than a submittal to justice. The Althing was an assembly of freemen but all the real power rested with the godar. As time passed the power of the godar increased as they received loyalties, land, and other assets as payment for his support in legal disputes (2).
It is important to understand a little about the legal system of Iceland because, any of the sagas recount famous feuds and the legal efforts of the families involved, Gwyn Jones says it best: “The sagas tell of the quarrels, killings, counter-killings, victories, defeats, reconciliations, and general maneuvers of individuals, or families in the state of feud with a neighbor (1).” Keep in mind that the Icelanders created their laws to assist them in providing a means of resolving their feuds and the saga-men used these feuds to provide education and entertainment to their listeners,
I believe that enough of a historical background has been laid. In the net issue I will discuss the different types of saga literature.
Sources used in this section:
1. The Norse Atlantic Saga by Gwyn Jones. Oxford University Press.
2. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power by Jessie D. Byock. University of California Press, 1988