Sunday, January 31, 2010

Iceland: How Geography Defined a Society

Hello, history fans. Welcome to 2010. I want to first apologize for my lengthy absence. Here is my excuse:

When we last met, I was in the middle of soaking up another 9/11 book. However, David Ray Griffin lost me there for a while. He is much more aggressive and extremely repetitive in Mysterious Collapse, compared to Contradictions. So I got a little bored. Then, after David Orr recommended it, I started listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It was terribly fascinating, but my new job doesn't allow me to listen with my headphones in. So it has been battling Harry Potter as my primary companion when I drive to Indianapolis each week. THEN, my mom gave me Viking Age Iceland for Christmas, which will be the focus of this post. I got really into this book until my cousin gave me a couple Kurt Vonnegut books as a late Christmas gift.

My brain has been such a mess!

But I thought I would stop for a moment and post about what I had read so far in Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland.

This book was recommended to me by Torfi Tulinius, the head of the department of Medieval Studies at the University of Iceland. I have talked quite a bit about the nature of Iceland, but I am going to go into a little bit more detail. I apologize ahead of time if I repeat myself. It's just so exciting!

Iceland was founded mostly by the Norse. At the time of its foundation, mid-tenth century, the only folks who inhabited the island were a few Irish monks, who quickly left when the Norse arrived. The rumor was that there was free land on Iceland. Indeed there was. There wasn't really a mass exodus or a flee from religious tyranny. I think there was some who wanted to escape the political disaster that existed in mainland Scandinavia at the time. Many Jarls and Sea kings controlled different territories. With plenty Viking warriors pledging allegiance to each, it had become a little convoluted. Iceland was a fresh start!

The first settlers were farmers. They took huge slices of land for themselves and later gave pieces to friends or kinsmen who followed over the next few generations. What these early settlers did not realize, however, was just how limited Iceland's resources were. This would come to shape how the people of Iceland would live, not only for the next three hundred years, but in some aspects, for the rest of Iceland's existence.

Located just outside the Arctic Circle, the weather is pretty intense. The summers are short and damp and bad for growing. But that didn't stop the farmers. More and more came to claim the land for growing and for grazing. Forests were sparse to being with in Iceland. What trees there had been were cut down to make room for fields and to use the lumber to build houses. Soon, however, lumber was a scarce commodity, which I will discuss a little bit later.

How, then, did they build their houses strong enough to shield from the arctic winds but without access to wood? They used turf to build their houses. The earliest were one room affairs with a hole in the roof to allow the fire's smoke to escape. Interestingly, because of the lack of lumber on the island, Icelanders really lost touch with the nautical world. They couldn't build ships and they didn't have the the means to repair the ones they had. Iceland eventually let go of what Scandinavia was most known for: mastering the sea.

I have a theory. Because there was no huge driving force that led the farmers to Iceland, it accidentally or by default became the Free State that we see during Medieval times. What I mean is that because people didn't band together to escape life elsewhere or to find a fresh start, Iceland was settled independently by individual farmers and families. Spread across the land (except for the uninhabitable interior), farms were self sufficient. There were no landlords, no state institutions, no meddling warlords.

Eventually what developed was a society of independent farmers on a very unstable piece of land. Each household had to do what it could to survive. Sometimes the growing seasons were too short. Sometimes the winters were too harsh. The land wasn't meant to hold so many people and animals. And because everyone was living on limited resources, there left little time to do much else. No monetary system was developed, no government was designed. Instead, people paid for services with wool from sheep or crops they grew. The people of Iceland eventually became prolific lawyers, yet had no executive branch to enforce it.

Laws were set in place at the Althing, the yearly congregation of local leaders. Gothar, or the chieftains, were respected leaders who helped to resolve conflicts. They would be present at the Althing, the Things, and especially in the judicial courts. In the sagas, there are so many small conflicts about everything. These Gothar help keep the peace by taking a look at the law and helping find a peaceful resolution. Not all stories end happily, but until the 13th century, Iceland was extremely nonviolent, as far as warfare is concerned.

After most of the land was snatched up, the lawyers decided that there should be common land for everyone to use. Conflicts really arose on this collective land. When someone found a beached whale or drift wood on the coast, there were rules about how it was to be distributed. When someone broke these rules, duels and challenges of all sorts would erupt. And of course, the common land became a disaster after too many farmers brought their livestock there to graze.

I really find this egalitarian, proto-democratic culture very interesting. It is sometimes hard to explain this time period in Iceland. I think because it sort of just happened, and there is nothing else really like it. This Free State was existing peacefully while the rest of the Medieval world was being run by kings and knights or being raided by Vikings. Iceland is such an anomaly. Much of the reason, I think, lies in the frail geography of the land. The arctic location, the unstable interior, the limited resources, the isolation from the mainland. Everything about the land created a unique opportunity for a unique culture.

Jesse Byock has made me look at the Sagas in a different light as well. When I first started reading them, I took them in as though I would a Bible story, a long account with a moral lesson to be learned. But Byock looks for cultural clues embedded in the texts. While I was paying close attention to the overall message, he was noticing what kind of clothes they wore, how they fixed their meals, etc. A very anthropological outlook.

My hope is to finish the 9/11 book so that I can finish off those posts. I will continue to update as I read through Viking Age, and hopefully I can get around to talking about the Jared Diamond book. He talks about mega fauna!

Until our next adventure!
-Z. Melton