The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

History: The Dark Ages

The story of the next four hundred years is one of almost unending catastrophe for the Icelanders. The fourteenth century was marked by three eruptions of Hekla (1300, 1341 and 1389) which destroyed farming land and were followed by violent earthquakes. The population was ravaged by recurrent smallpox epidemics, and famine was widespread, brought on by cattle diseases and bad weather.

The one source of external support during this period was trade with Norway, but after the Black Death struck that country in 1349, killing one–third of the population, this trade was drastically reduced and the Icelanders, lacking raw materials for building ships of their own, were left in a desperate position.

The end of the fourteenth century saw Iceland passing under Danish control with the Kalmar "Act of Union" of 1387 marking the formal union of Sweden, Norway and Denmark under the Danish crown. This development did nothing to improve conditions for the Icelanders, however, as the new Danish officials proved no less mercenary and callous than their Norwegian predecessors had been.

The fifteenth century was to prove even more devastating to the population of lceland than the previous hundred years. The Black Death struck the island from 1402–04 killing, by conservative estimates, at least one–third of the population and depopulating whole districts. The economic life of the country came almost to a standstill, only to be revived by the first arrivals of English traders seeking to traffic in dried codfish. They were soon followed by the German merchants of the Hanseatic League and the lively (and occasionally violent) commercial competition that ensued over the next century virtually revolutionised Iceland's economy, bringing about a fundamental change in commerce, with fish rather than homespun cloth becoming the principal export.

The evident profitability of this trade led to a number of largely unsuccessful attempts by the Danes to curb the English and German merchants' activities. The latter had originally enjoyed the support of the Danish Crown in their efforts to build up trade. However they were too successful and became, from a Danish point of view, ominously influential in Iceland; around 1530 German merchants even took an active part in the proceedings of the Althing.

In 1547, the King of Denmark acted to prevent this trade, by leasing Iceland to the City of Copenhagen. This was a significant step towards the full trade monopoly which, when it was eventually put into force in 1602, was to provide 185 years of further economic misery for the Icelandic people.

Church politics played an important part in the history of Iceland in the sixteenth century. The Reformation, which had swept through the rest of Europe, began to affect the lives of the Icelanders. The fervently–Lutheran King of Denmark, Christian III, attempted to establish a Lutheran church in Iceland. When the two Roman Catholic bishops, Ögmundur Pálsson and the legendary Jón Arason, resisted his demands, the king seized his chance to crush the power of the Icelandic Church and to confiscate its enormous wealth for his own use. The eighty–year–old Ögmundur was abducted by the king's representatives and carried back to Denmark where he died. Bishop Arason, however, proved a more formidable adversary and came close to gaining control of the country by force before he was captured and illegally beheaded with two of his sons at Skálholt in 1550.

The Danish Crown now appropriated the Church's vast properties, ultimately gaining control of around one–fifth of the country's landed property. In addition, rigorous steps were taken to suppress Catholic customs, and the severity of the law was increased, with capital punishment introduced for heresy and adultery.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were to prove a period of even greater unrelieved misery for the Icelandic people. Economically, the country was reduced to penury by the Danish trade monopoly. The Danish trade merchants imported putrid food and shoddy goods at exorbitant prices, flouting all regulations, and dictating the terms of trade. In 1662, the King of Denmark declared himself the absolute hereditary monarch of Iceland, and the leading Icelanders were summoned to Bessastaðir (then the home of the Danish Governor–General) and forced to take an oath of allegiance to him under threat of arms.

A series of exceptionally severe winters at the beginning of the seventeenth century decimated the livestock; some 9,000 people starved to death in consequence. The century was to end as it had begun: in 1695 and 1696 the weather was so severe that the sea surrounding the island froze.

The seventeenth century was also characterised by repeated attacks on the country by English and Spanish pirates. ln 1627 the island of Heimaey was overrun, almost unbelievably, by a band of Algerian pirates who carried away some 240 of the ablest–bodied of the inhabitants and slaughtered the rest.

The eighteenth century saw continuing oppression and exploitation on the political and economic fronts. A series of epidemics swept the country, the worst of which, smallpox in 1707–09, killed some 18,000 people (one–third of the population), reducing the population to little more than one–half that recorded in 1100.

Intermittent extremely–destructive volcanic activity during the seventeenth century (ash from an Icelandic eruption in 1625 fell on Bergen in Norway) proved merely a foretaste to that experienced in the eighteenth century which saw a number of major eruptions (Öræfajökull in 1727 and Katla in 1755), culminating in that of Laki in 1783, the poisonous fumes from which killed half the country's cattle and three–quarters of its sheep and horses, virtually obliterating farming activity in much of the island.

But these centuries of almost unbelievable physical hardship, oppression and calamity for the islanders were witness — as if in compensation — to an intellectual flowering and literary renaissance. The Reformation led to the establishment in 1522 of Latin schools at both Skálholt and Hólar, many of whose pupils went abroad to gain further education at foreign universities. At the same time the introduction of the printing press greatly reduced the cost of books and helped widen ownership of them (primarily Bibles and hymn books), contributing greatly to increased education. The advent of the Reformation in IceIand also saw the abandonment of the practice of appointing (often corrupt) foreigners as bishops of the country; subsequently many Icelandic bishops played prominent roles in promulgating the spread of learning, distinguishing themselves as intellectual, as well as religious, leaders.

Although deep in economic misery and shaken by natural catastrophe, Iceland once more gave birth to literary and intellectual achievements that caught the attention of the outside world.

The work of scholars such as Arngrímur Jónsson (1568-1648), Thormóð Torfaeus (1636-1719) and Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) helped stimulate European interest in the history and literature of the Northlands, and through the collection and preservation of old manuscripts helped preserve Icelandic literature from imminent destruction. No less importantly, IceIanders themselves began to take an increased interest and pride in their history and identity. One of the greatest Icelanders of the eighteenth century was Skúli Magnússon (1711-94), a man of energy and perseverance, who succeeded in breaking the power of the Hørdkraemmer Company (the Danish company which exercised the trade monopoly over Iceland). Recognising the need to break the trade monopoly and lay a new basis for Iceland's decrepit economy, he established a number of small manufacturing enterprises with the support of King Frederick V of Denmark who was well disposed towards the islanders. He was fiercely opposed in his plans by the Hørdkraemmer Company, who were fearful of the competition. Skúli brought a legal suit against the company for the wrong it had done to Iceland and, after a lengthy legal battle, the company was dissolved and all trade with Iceland was carried on by the Danish government. In 1763, the monopoly was once more awarded to a private company which continued most of Hørdkraemmer`s bad practices, until in 1774 its charter was dissolved, with the government once more taking over the trading obligations.

It was not until 1787 that commerce with Iceland was opened up to all subjects of the Danish crown, ending 185 years of starvation and misery caused by the iniquitous trade monopoly.

What`s in the website ?


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