Sagas and Societies – Section 2: History of Mentality and Cultural Contact (2002)
Why did the Icelanders write so much more than almost everybody else in the Middle Ages? This is an old problem that has still not been solved to everyone’s satisfaction. The present author has put forward an idea about what may have lain behind the phenomenon, and the purpose of the current paper is to test how this theory works for a specific district in Iceland and the sagas that originated there. The district in question is Borgarfjörður, the location of the „Sagas and Societies“ conference.
First a few general words about the theory. A survey of family sagas presumably written before 1262, when the Commonwealth was abolished as Iceland became a part of the Norwegian kingdom, shows that they were distributed very unevenly throughout the country, and there is a remarkable correlation between saga-writing and new or weak political units.2 As far as we know, the old established principalities produced no family sagas. This requires further explanation.
The constitution of the Icelandic Commonwealth was very unusual. There was no central authority or executive power. Households belonged to one of 39 goðorð or chieftaincies (although their original number may have been higher). These were not territorial units as one might assume, but sorts of alliances based on personal bonds between the heads of households and the goði or chieftain, the local leader. Consequently, members of several different chieftaincies were often intermingled with each other. Furthermore, householders had the legal right to change alliances, and it follows that the chieftaincies were constantly in a state of flux. By the middle of the 12th century this system of chieftaincies had been replaced, in some areas, by the so-called ríki, here translated as principalities. These were territorial units where the chieftain had been replaced by a prince (höfðingi) who wielded much stronger authority than his predecessor, the principality constituting something like a medieval petty-state. Until about 1200 there were only four principalities, and the rest of the country was still divided between chieftaincies.