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Medieval Scandinavia: The Rise and Fall of the Icelandic Commonwealth

By Beñat Elortza Larrea

For the fifth article of the series, Beñat Elortza Larrea describes the settlement of Iceland, the formation of its commonwealth and the eventual incorporation into the Norwegian tributary territories of the Atlantic Ocean.

The history of Iceland during the early and high medieval period is a fascinating one. Initially inhabited by a handful of ascetic Irish monks, its discovery and subsequent settlement by Scandinavian peoples in the late ninth and early tenth centuries would create a lively and unique political community in the edges of Atlantic Europe. Its geographical isolation, however, would not exonerate Iceland from broader ongoing processes in Scandinavia and Europe at large; internal conflict and external pressure would challenge the fragile societal structures of the Icelandic Commonwealth, until the island became a part of the Norwegian skattland, or tributary polities, in the late thirteenth century.

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Scandinavian sailors appear to have discovered Iceland in the 860s. The first two arrivals in the island, led by Naddoðr and Garðar Svavarsson respectively, seem to have been largely accidental, but the third expedition, captained by Flóki Vilgerðarson – known as Hrafna-Flóki – aimed to explore the mysterious island that the other sailors had encountered. Flóki and his crew, however, struggled to survive in the harsh climate, and eventually returned to Norway.

According to the Book of Settlements – Landnámabók –, the first permanent settler of Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, who arrived in the island in the 870s, as he fled the increasingly centralising measures imposed by Harald Fairhair, the Norwegian king. Around 874, he established his farm in the west of Iceland, and named it Reykjavík. While earlier explorers had deemed the island uninhabited, the Book of Settlements and archaeological studies have suggested that Irish monks – known as Papar in Old Norse – might have resided in Iceland at this time, as the unforgiving climate and remoteness must have suited their ascetic ideas. Displeased by the presence of heathens near their monastic communities, however, the Papar seem to have left soon after the Scandinavian settlement.

The following decades were characterised by the arrival of thousands of new settlers – around 10,000 in total – to Iceland. Most of these were wealthy farmers and chieftains, who loaded their movable goods, families and slaves onto their ships and travelled westwards. The main motivation behind this migration is unclear; it is possible that harsher taxation and growing royal control in Norway was the main cause – as later Icelandic chroniclers claimed –, but the availability of fertile new lands, which were particularly scarce in Norway, must have been one of the driving factors too.

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In fact, westwards migration and settlement was not only limited to Iceland, and it also predated Harald Fairhair’s reign, as the Faroe Islands were settled by the Norse around 800 CE. It is also meaningful that it was not only Scandinavians who arrived in Iceland; many of the slaves who were brought to the island, primarily women, were of Celtic origin, and must have been captured during raids in Scotland and Ireland.

The settlement period ended with the establishment of a legal assembly for the entire island, the Alþing, in 930. The formation of the assembly, located at Þingvellir, marked the creation of the Icelandic Commonwealth. The political system of Iceland largely mirrored the magnate and assembly driven decision-making processes prevalent in Scandinavia at the time; the commonwealth was divided into twenty-six chieftaincies, or goðorð, each headed by a goði, who acted as judges and decision-makers in the assembly. Several decades later, around 965, these structures were expanded further. Iceland was divided into four quarters, with twelve chieftaincies each; groups of three chieftains would hold spring assemblies in their districts, where collective decisions were taken, and the Alþing gathered each year too.

The political system of the commonwealth was unique, as the assemblies headed by the chieftains had legislative and judicial functions, but lacked any executive powers to enforce their decisions. The Alþing was headed by 48 chieftains, as well as a Lawspeaker – lǫgsǫgumaðr – who recited the law and interpreted its contents. All landowning men – bœndir, or farmers – had the right to represent themselves in the assemblies, and the obligation to attend them; in addition, every landowner had to be under the patronage of a goði, but adscription to a chieftain was voluntary, and one could freely choose their goði. The chiefdoms themselves, moreover, were not necessarily hereditary, and they could be sold or swapped. As such, family and friendship ties were of crucial importance, as one’s social status and power – not only for the landowners, but also for the goðar themselves – rested largely upon the support they received among the community.

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Many decisions, therefore, had to be adopted collectively, as political power was reliant on popular support and measures were difficult to enforce. Such is the case of the Christianisation of Iceland, which took place in 999-1000 CE. Pressure from Norway – chiefly by Olav Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) – created many supporters for conversion, but powerful chieftains remained opposed to it, and an outbreak of hostilities seemed imminent. Finally, the lǫgsǫgumaðr arbitrated the dispute, and conversion was agreed upon, under certain conditions: the continuation of pagan rituals in private, the continued consumption of horsemeat, and the perseveration of infanticide through exposure to the elements.

The lack of a centralised enforcement of judicial decisions also contributed to feuding as a widespread phenomenon. The decisions reached by the court in serious cases of arson or murder often included outlawry or heavy fines. These punishments, however, had to be enforced by the injured party, who sometimes decided to take justice into their own hands; these instances spurred long and bloody family feuds, and vivid retellings of this feuding has survived in a number of sagas, such as Brennu-Njáls saga or Laxdœla saga. It should also be considered, however, that the sentences passed by the courts were often mild and conciliatory, as the arbitrators or judges of the case could lose the support of those involved if the sentence was regarded as unfair by either side.

As the centuries progressed, however, the power of the Icelandic Commonwealth began to become increasingly concentrated. As there was no fixed number of chiefdoms, it is likely that the amount of goðar rose to around 50 or even 60 in the early eleventh century; by the 1120s, however, only twenty chiefdoms remained, as the most powerful families began controlling larger swathes of land. In addition, following Christianisation, two dioceses were founded – in Hólar and Skálholt –, which were largely dominated by the most powerful kin-groups in the island. Over time, these magnates increased their control over the population, and the Icelandic bishops eventually repealed the special religious dispensations that had been agreed upon conversion.

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By the beginning of the thirteenth century, seven large families dominated all the goðorð in Iceland; these kin-groups further solidified their control over their domains, and the borders of the chieftaincies became stable and well demarcated. Tensions between these aristocrats began to arise, and protracted conflict seemed inevitable. To make things worse, from the 1220s onwards, Norwegian ruler Håkon Håkonsson – r. 1217-1263 – became increasingly interested in Iceland, wishing to incorporate it into his Atlantic domains. As it was difficult for the chieftains to gain the upper hand with only internal support, many prominent Icelandic magnates began a process of rapprochement towards the Norwegian kings. In 1220, Snorri Sturluson, famed for his saga compilations, became a member of Håkon’s royal hirð, a hybrid retinue-household institution.

Snorri returned to Iceland, and began working towards Håkon’s goal: the Icelanders’ voluntary recognition of Norwegian overlordship. Snorri’s successes were nevertheless short-lived, as his progress stopped after securing his election as Lawspeaker in 1222. Several members of his family, wary of Snorri’s progress, travelled to Norway themselves, where they were inducted into the hirð. These members of the Sturlungar – the chieftain family named after Snorri’s father – were much more aggressive, and openly challenged their opponents, most notably the chieftains belonging to the Haukdælir and Ásbirningar. In the summer of 1238, Sturlungar forces were soundly defeated by their opponents in Örlygsstaðir, and several prominent members of the family were killed.

By this stage, it had become evident that military success in Iceland relied largely on Norwegian support and, as such, the majority of Icelandic magnates were now members of Håkon’s hirð, although their success in bringing Iceland under Norwegian control was limited. Eager to please the king, the leader of the Haukdælir, Gizurr Þorvaldsson, murdered the now disgraced Snorri Sturluson in Reykholt in 1241.

Outbreaks of warfare would occur sporadically throughout the 1240s, with the Sturlungar chieftain Þórðr Sighvathsson winning important victories in 1244 and 1246. Þórðr, militarily victorious by 1250, neglected to do Håkon’s bidding, and he would be recalled to Norway, where he would die. The once-powerful Haukdælir chieftain Gizurr Þorvaldsson would be sent in his stead. Although he encountered resistance at first, Gizurr was appointed Jarl of Iceland in 1258, which greatly increased his gravitas; sometime between 1262 and 1264, the Icelanders and Håkon Håkonsson reached an agreement.

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The Old Covenant – also known as Gizurr’s Covenant, Gissurarsáttmáli – would see the dissolution of the Icelandic Commonwealth, as the island became a tributary – skattland – of the Norwegian kingdom.

Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit his page on Academia.edu.

Click here to read more from Beñat’s series on Medieval Scandinavia

Top Image: 16th-century map of Iceland

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