When being in thing was the in-thing

Tom Shippey

  • Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock
    Penguin, 448 pp, £9.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 14 029115 6

‘Viking Age Iceland’ makes as much sense as ‘Victorian America’. The Viking Age began, as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was concerned, in 789, when the port-reeve of Dorchester saw three strange ships in Portland harbour and rode down to collect harbour-dues, as he had presumably done many times before. But on this occasion he discovered, fatally for himself, that the rules had been rewritten: raiding had replaced trading. Four years later the famous monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne, exposed and undefended, was destroyed without warning by seaborne raiders, the Pearl Harbor of the Dark Ages. Charlemagne’s English minister Alcuin wrote to the survivors in consternation, to say there had never been such a disaster in Britain before, and that no one would have thought such an attack possible. The Viking victory was longer-lasting than the Japanese one. The Viking Age lasted for more than a quarter of a millennium, ending, again as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was concerned, when Harald harðræði, the giant King of Norway, was killed by his namesake Harold Godwinsson at Stamford Bridge, on 25 September 1066, just 19 days before the Battle of Hastings.

In between Lindisfarne and Stamford Bridge, somewhere round the year 870, Iceland was discovered and settled by Scandinavians – according a later account by the Swede Gardar Svavarsson, who was blown badly off course while trying to sail to the Hebrides. What Gardar found was an island of some forty thousand square miles, completely unpopulated except for a small settlement of Irish monks, who disappeared promptly and without trace. In the following sixty years this bonanza of free land was taken up by settlers, mostly from Norway, as recorded in the Landnámabók, the ‘book of land-takings’. The island has remained settled ever since, its inhabitants – now by some calculations the richest group of people on earth, as well as one of the most genetically distinct – still speaking a language little changed in its written form from Old Norse, and preserving a unique literary heritage of poems and prose works which go back to the Middle Ages, and possibly beyond, into the Viking Age itself.

Nevertheless, though Vikings are good box-office, Icelanders and Vikings are not the same thing. In the ‘sagas of Icelanders’ it is common enough for a young man making his fortune to go away for a few years, in fact to ‘go viking’ (fara í víkingu), as if there were a verb ‘to vike’. The story is usually pretty much the same. The young man goes to Norway, is received with flattering attention by the King, establishes his independence by one daring deed or another, sets up disturbing rumours about his close relations with Norwegian queens or princesses, goes raiding for a bit (vaguely described), and then returns home with the marks of status he has acquired, to show off to the neighbours and resume the real business of life, which is tussling for status in his own highly parochial society. The ‘Viking’ expeditions look very like an Icelandic version of that cultural bravado which is the other half of cultural cringe: one may doubt whether the kings of Norway really took as much notice of Icelandic wanderers as the sagas say they do. Nor are the sagas, for the most part, very concerned about these foreign exploits. The Viking Age had little impact on them.

In the 10th and 11th centuries Icelanders in any case had troubles of their own, which Jesse Byock describes very well. The settlement of Iceland was not the long-drawn-out disaster which the later settlement of Greenland turned into, ending in starvation and cultural extinction, but at times it was a close thing. Most of Iceland is made up of uninhabitable glacier and lava-field. The delicate sub-Arctic ecosystem was badly affected by settlers with European habits. They cut down the woodlands for fuel, only to discover that the trees did not grow back, causing a permanent shortage of timber for houses and ocean-going ships. They found that animals had to be stall-fed over the winter, but when farmers, desperate to give their animals grazing again, let them out as soon as the first grass started to show, the highland grasslands were cropped short just when they were at their most vulnerable. Anxiety about hay is much more prominent and more deeply felt in the sagas than any urge for foreign conquest. As are disputes over the new food sources to which Icelanders increasingly turned: fishing for cod, catching seals on their breeding islands, and (especially liable to turn nasty as large numbers of men appeared with axes and flensing-knives) cutting up beached whales.

Food preservation for the long winters was another major problem, the solutions to which Byock describes vividly. Icelanders had no salt deposits, and not enough fuel or sunlight to boil salt from sea-water, so they dried fish on racks, allowed their butter to go sour, boiled meat and put it in vats of sour whey so that bacterial fermentation could turn the milk sugar to lactic acid and act as a preservative, stowed whale-meat and blubber in ‘whale-pits’ to ferment. ‘In a similar way,’ Byock notes, ‘Icelanders down to modern times preserve and eat rotten shark and skate fermented in their own juices, the process benefiting from the ammonia found in the urine.’ Icelanders also exploited migratory birds, collected edible lichen or ‘Icelandic moss’ and birds’ eggs from the many cliff breeding-grounds; they caught trout, char and walruses (soon hunted to extinction). The economy was viable, but precarious. One rainy summer could be got through, probably quite well, by killing the beasts for whom there would be no hay the following winter and having a more carnivorous diet. Two rainy summers in a row, however, might leave a farmer with no breeding stock at all.

All these concerns were far removed from the national struggles going on further south in Europe, where the kings of England and France were fighting for survival against the likes of Ivar ‘the Boneless’ or Eirik ‘Blood-axe’. Only rarely do the latter come into Icelandic sagas, for instance in the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil, according to the saga composed nearly three centuries after the events, fought at the battle of Brunanburh for King Athelstan against a Celtic-Viking coalition, and (in what is probably another display of cultural bravado) won the battle for him, going on to ransom his own head from Eirik Blood-axe by composing a deeply insincere but technically flawless praise-poem in Eirik’s honour.

This saga is an exception, but in its concern with violence and murder it is typical of the ‘sagas of Icelanders’. In them, feud occupies the same role as love in the classical novel – it is the main theme, explored in endless permutations. Marked more than any other medieval literature by a sense of the ‘meanness of reality’, these multi-generational and community-embracing stories, mostly dating from the 13th century, would seem to preserve in essence the Viking spirit of the 10th and 11th centuries in which they are set.

That any rate has long been the general opinion. The chief aim of Byock’s book is to contradict it. What the sagas really show, he argues, is a deep concern, not with violence, but with the means of limiting it; and they do this in great, careful and ultimately realistic detail. There were, he believes, three social forces in the life of an Icelandic farmer, or bóndi (plural bændr). One was kinship: a man or woman might expect to be supported by his own extended family, siblings, half-siblings, cousins etc. Modern saga translations frequently relegate the long genealogical explanations of the sagas to the footnotes, but this removes vital information. Another was what might be called, not lordship, or even patronage, but association. Every bóndi was required by law to be the ‘thingman’ of a chieftain, or goði (plural goðar). The two sides mutually supported each other, with money, goods, force or legal representation. The third was friendship: anyone, bóndi or goði, could enter into a ‘friendly alliance’ with anyone else, which might support, or might cut across, the lines of the other two social forces.

Reality, however, as revealed in the sagas, was nothing like as simple as that. One might expect to be supported by one’s family, but what with sibling rivalry, disputes over inheritance, family grudges and so on, only a fool would count on it. As for the chieftain/thingman relation, a striking difference between newly settled Iceland and the rest of Europe was the absence of territorial lordship, along with national defence, armies, fleets, taxes, kings and governments. A bóndi did not have to be ‘in thing’ with the nearest goði, and even if he was, he could transfer his allegiance at any time. Goar were at the mercy of their popularity polls – though any individual bóndi, of course, would be well advised not to go annoying the local chieftain, for fear of retaliation or withdrawal of support next time his hay ran out. Finally, vinfengi or ‘friendship’ might often have a cash basis: you could buy yourself an advocate, or ‘friend in court’.

Byock’s book explores these complexities with the care and sensitivity they demand. He takes an essentially anthropological view. Although the sagas are literary documents, and not contemporary with the events they describe, they give a clear, collective and consistent account of social forces which may be taken to have changed little from the settlement to the saga-age itself. What they show above all is the virtue of moderation. Honour in such a society was to be gained not by aggression but by getting a name for ‘containing disruptive behaviour’. What Icelanders were ‘especially good at’, Byock insists, was ‘peacemaking’. Even the major social change of these centuries, the mass conversion to Christianity in the year 1000, could be seen as a classic example of dispute resolution, in which the law-speaker of the Althing, himself a pagan, ruled (with suitable checks and balances) for adherence to Christianity rather than civil war – such a decision was rarely made in the rest of Europe, even between different groups of Christians.

Byock repeatedly makes his point by stating a proposition, about kinship or inheritance or vinfengi, and then illustrating it in the tangled form it takes in one or other of the major sagas. Eyrbyggja saga shows a goði’s support leaking away as his bændr find him insufficiently aggressive in support of their interests – but the goði knows better than them, and allows his enemy to overreach himself so that he can in the end be killed without significant reprisal. Vapnfiringa saga similarly shows how a goði can play a waiting game, so that the attention he pays to vinfengi can outweigh defections by his own thingmen. Several sagas show the vital close attention to rules and probabilities of inheritance. Laxdæla notes the risks inherent in female involvement: in this society it is women, because they are more family-oriented, who often show the most ‘long-term commitment to vengeance-taking’. Their demands have sometimes to be met, or half-met, by sons or husbands.

To back up his explanations Byock very often makes use of maps which show the lines of force, or of power, in their true complexity. In his account of Guðmunds saga he shows the homes of the four main chieftains in Eyjafjord, and the sites of the farms of their thingmen. It can be seen at a glance that Gudmund himself is all but cut off from support by the farms allied to his enemy Onund: he does not control his own valley. As for the struggle over the farm of Hreinaberg in The Saga of Hvamm-Sturla, Byock’s local knowledge tells him that this apparently poor and unimportant farm controls several tiny unmapped skerries where the seals breed, a vital subsidiary resource in a bad year. Another map shows goði Geitir’s tactical skill in moving to Fagradalr: inaccessible by land, the valley is a natural fortress. Such considerations were no doubt immediately clear to saga-writers and audiences, and so they didn’t need to be stated. In a kind of literary archaeology, Byock exhumes the hidden strategies of power.

All this makes for a vital and original reinterpretation both of the sagas and of the society which created them. Byock’s book is an essential guide at once to living conditions and to mentalités. And yet the question of ‘Viking-ness’ remains. In his first re-reading of saga scenes, Byock discusses the dispute over divorce and property between Mord ‘the Fiddle’ and Hrut Herjolfsson, which is settled when Hrut challenges the older and weaker Mord to fight him by hólmganga, equal stakes, winner takes all. The moral of this, Byock says, is once again that you cannot afford to ignore popular opinion. Mord went too far in his claims, and exposed himself to Hrut’s devastating response. Of course, popular opinion could have had no effect once the two men were face to face on the duelling-ground – strength, skill and aggression were going to decide it. Byock suggests that without a sense that people were on the whole behind him, Hrut ‘might otherwise have been too shamed to challenge an older man to single combat’. Yet I don’t see how anyone can know this. Many sagas, indeed most of them, turn on violence in the last resort, and one major quality desirable in a chieftain or a bóndi is to be physically dangerous himself, like Gunnar in Njáls saga, or to have a cohort of dangerous sons, like Skarp-hedin Njalsson and his brothers in the same saga.

Furthermore, the ‘sagas of Icelanders’ and the ‘contemporary sagas’ are not the only ones in the Icelandic corpus. There are also the ‘sagas of past times’, the heroic sagas of the Volsungs or of the ancient Danish or Norwegian kings like Hrolfr Kraki, as well as the skaldic and Eddic poetry which reaches even further back. How much of an effect did they, with their ethic of uncompromising violence and no-surrender gallantry, continue to have on Icelandic thinking? It would be interesting to trace the transformation of mythic or legendary scenes into farmyard situations in well-known sagas such as those of Hrafnkel ‘priest of Frey’, or Gisli Sursson, or Grettir, or less well-known ones such as The Saga of Hord and the Holm-dwellers. They, too, provide an element, if an unwelcome one in modern terms, to the whole saga-mix. What distinguishes Hrafnkel as a chieftain, even in the opinion of his enemies, is his readiness to endure physical and mental torture, while waiting for a chance to kill someone who is not only not involved in his own disputes, but not even aware of them (since he has been abroad the whole time). In doing so he knocks out the keystone of his enemies’ support, and, so to speak, lives happily ever after. This is a form of ‘conflict resolution’ more familiar to the Mafia than to the law-courts, and one which Byock downplays or silences – though he has translated two of the major ‘sagas of past times’, and is surely well aware of the other cases mentioned.

Icelandic independence ended with the defeat of the Sturlung family and their supporters in almost the only proper battle fought on Icelandic soil, with the subsequent killing of Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s most distinguished medieval author, and the takeover of the island by the Norwegian crown. At that point it was returned (for a while) to European normality, including rule by kings and proper ecclesiastical finances. Byock traces the increasing stratification of society which made this possible, and the accompanying codification of Icelandic law in Grágás, the ‘grey-goose’ legal code. The end of the story, for him, is the development of the stockfish trade for Catholic Europe, which brought ‘pockets of prosperity’, along with climatic worsening and loss of land to the Church – this, in turn, increased hardship and perhaps set the conditions for the disastrous plague of 1402. After that the island sank into the poverty and near-oblivion from which it was rescued four centuries later by the unexpected recovery of its literary heritage. ‘By then,’ Byock writes, ‘the Viking Age was long past.’ If indeed, in Iceland, it had ever begun.