The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

History: The Age of the Settlement

These Nordic Iron Age farmers were soon joined by others from Viking settlements in the British Isles and Ireland, who began to establish themselves in the south-west — the major fertile region — of the island, and in the other coastal areas, the interior being uninhabitable. This period which lasted from 874-c.930 is known as the "Age of the Settlement". By 930 nearly all the farming land had been divided up; as it became scarce a rule was made that no man could have more land than he could carry fire round in a day. (For women the rule was different: they could have as much land as a two-year-old heifer could run round in a day.)

The first settlers were of course pagan, and took with them to their new home the tales of the Norse gods and their place in the ancient mystic beliefs. These gods lived in Ásgard, said to be situated far to the east of the river Don in Asia. Chief amongst them was Óðin (god of poetry and magic) who lived in Valholl (Valhalla), the home of all who perished in battle. Perhaps the most popular of the gods was Thór, one of Óðin's sons. He was the god of thunder and protector of the peasants; he also protected the gods from their enemies, especially the giants, with whom they were in frequent conflict. In this he was helped by his magic hammer "Mjöllnir" which was all-powerful and had the ability to always return to Thór's hand after it had been hurled. Its sacredness was so respected by the ancients that the sign of the hammer was often made to warn off evil spirits.

Estimates of the total population of Iceland by 930 range between 20,000 and 45,000. At first, the situation resembled that which had existed in Norway before Harald disrupted the old order; the principal settlers became goðar (chieftain-priests), whose followers paid allegiance to them in return for their protection. The goði (singular) was normally of noble birth, and held both religious and secular authority. Iceland was divided Ioosely into a number of "mini states" which were independent of one another, each under the authority of its goði. This was by no means a feudal system however, for the authority of the chieftain was not clearly defined, and the allegiance of his followers was heavily dependent on the justice and effectiveness of his rule.

Nevertheless there was a need for a system of law common to all the island's inhabitants and c.920 one of the settlers, Úlfjót, chosen for his wisdom and experience, was sent abroad to study the laws of south-western Norway and recommend a code of law for his country.

In 930 his recommendations were put into effect with the founding of the Althing (General Assembly), which marked the beginning of the Icelandic Commonwealth that was to last for the next 330 years. The number of principal goðar was fixed at 36 (later 39), and government of the country was vested entirely with them. The Althing was divided into two distinct bodies, one law-making, the other judicial. Local Things (Assemblies) were held in the spring in each of the Commonwealth's twelve (later thirteen) districts, under the aegis of the Althing. Once a year the Althing itself met, for two weeks in summer, at the site chosen for it at Thingvellir ("Plain of the Assembly"). It was attended by a large part of the population, providing an excuse for a fortnight-long festival and celebration, as well as making laws and settling those disputes left unsettled by the local Things.

Since the code of law was not written down, the elected "Lawspeaker" had to memorise the laws and recite one-third of them at the Althing each year of his three-year period of office.

The Althing has been called the first parliament in history; certainly it was far in advance of other European political institutions in the Middle Ages, and represented a remarkable achievement for so young a nation.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy