Signs of Power. Manorial Demesnes in Medieval Iceland
Árni Daníel Júlíusson (Reykjavík Academy, Reykjavík, Iceland)
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia: 6 (2010) 1-29
Manors and manorial demesnes are a familiar part of the medieval world of Europe, outside of the nort. Very little focus has been on manorial demesnes in Iceland, whihc has an abundance of sources on manors and demesnes. These sources have mostly been overlooked, but this article reveals some of the rich history of Icelandic medieval manorial demesnes, shedding new light on the Nordic medieval world. Manorial demesnes in Iceland existed from as early as the sources go, the eleventh century, and probably earlier. They were the centre of chieftain and clerical power, large and populous farms with large production.
An important aspect of medieval Icelandic social organization, namely the manor, has been neglected in previous research, and very little research has been undertaken comparing Icelandic manorial organization with other regions. This article focuses on one aspect of manorial organization, namely the manorial demesne or central farm of the manor. This paper first outlines some of the characteristics of medieval Icelandic manorial demesnes and then makes a brief comparison between late medieval Icelandic manorial demesnes and some of their counterparts in Scandinavia, primarily in Sweden. A review of the scholarship on manors in medieval Iceland is followed by discussions of primary evidence on topics such as demesne agriculture and the workforce on the demesne in order to show how extensive it was in medieval Iceland. This evidence is compared with Scandinavian evidence and followed by a discussion and conclusions. The principle conclusion is that manors existed in Iceland from at least the twelfth century and very probably earlier. Manorial demesnes in Iceland were as large as some demesnes in Scandinavia, notwithstanding that no grain was produced on the Icelandic farms. The main occupation was the production of milk, meat, and wool, as elsewhere in the Icelandic agricultural system.