By Jesse L. Byock
Continuity and Change: Political Institutions and Literary Monuments in the Middle Ages, ed. Elisabeth Vestergaard (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986)
Introduction: The thirteenth century occupies a special place in Icelandic history. At mid-century (1262-1264) Iceland lost its independence to Norway, and the Old Icelandic Free State, founded more than three centuries earlier (ca. 930), came to an end. The decades immediately preceding the end of the Free State, especially from the early 1220s to the 1260s, have come to be called the Sturlungaöld, the age of the Sturlungs, a major family of the period. More than any other scholar, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson has shaped our current understanding of this era. In his famous book, The Age of the Sturlungs, Sveinsson depicts a time of radical change in Iceland, a distinct “age” largely detached from earlier centuries.
Although I do not doubt the importance of Sveinsson’s study — in fact I admire it in many ways — I question the wisdom of viewing the Sturlung years as a separate age. As I propose in this article, I believe that Sveinsson’s emphasis on the separateness of these decades skews our perception of the thirteenth century. To look at these years as a distinct age exaggerates the scope of the change that Iceland underwent in the thirteenth century and obscures the fact that continuity rather than discontinuity is the most consistent element in Iceland’s medieval history. Sveinsson in eloquent prose depicts the thirteenth century as a time of national collapse:
In the fourth decade of the thirteenth century events begin to move more swiftly, like a great river encountering a sudden declivity in its course; nothing can any longer hold them back. Quarrels, incursions, manslaughter, battles, burnings. The districts change rulers constantly. One year a chieftain has most of the country in his power, the next he has gone abroad [to Norway] to the royal court, and his greatest enemy is in complete control. The time-honored bonds that link thingman and goði creak under the strain. All the pristine virtues totter. The extravagant ambition of the chieftains overthrows the nation’s independence.
A strong Icelandic nationalist, who lived at the time when modern Iceland was struggling to establish its independence from Denmark, Sveinsson highlights the drama of medieval Iceland’s loss of independence. In the 1930s when The Age of the Sturlungs was written and in 1940 when published, modern Iceland had not yet achieved independence. Focusing on the tragedy of lost nationhood, Sveinsson continues:
The river [metaphorically Iceland in its troubles] rushes down the rapids; its course levels out — but by then the nation has become subject to a foreigner. The quarrels of the chieftains grow quiet — but it is the quiet of death.