The Process of State-Formation in Medieval Iceland
Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies: 40:2 (Autumn 2009), 151-70.
In this article the process of Iceland becoming a part of the kingdom in Norway is analyzed in view of internal factors which lead to the consolidation of power and the creation of territorial states in the early thirteenth century. The church brought to Iceland a new agenda through its campaign for peace and social stability, but an unintentional consequence of the separation of secular and ecclesiastical power was that some families and regional networks became stronger at the expense of others. A new elite sought ter- ritorial power but the new system was inherently unstable as the preeminent chieftains each sought to be- come sole ruler of the country. The nature of warfare changed, with the introduction of pitched battles and the constant harassing of farmers on a regional basis. As a result, the rule of a monarch began to seem the only guarantee for peace and stability.
From the time of its colonization around 870 until 1262–1264, Iceland and the Ice- landers were among the anomalies of world history, a land and a people without any ruler, government or executive. This state of affairs is commonly depicted as having lasted until Iceland became a part of Norway, and is often referred to as the period of the republic or commonwealth. Over those centuries Iceland was a free state sur- rounded by monarchies, a fact that has been seen as of some significance for European history. During this period, too, a great deal of literature was produced in an Icelandic society probably “unique in existing without any central power for centuries after Christianity had brought to the country the art of writing on parchment in the Latin alphabet.” These literary works are thus of inestimable value for the history of government in Europe, as they provide a comparative view of state-formation in Europe by offering insights into the functioning of a pre-state society.