Friday, September 6, 2013

The Book of Settlements

Welcome back, History Fans!

You must be shaking your heads, with your arms crossed and your feet stamping. Okay, so my commitment to post more didn't quite hold up! SO SUE ME, YA MORONS!

Anyway, I have a pretty good excuse. I was making a cool record, then I got to go overseas to Sicily! As soon as I got back, I turned my attention to a five-week tour with the band. And even though I was reading (William Faulkner, Robert Jordan), I still slacked on my history studies. I even had a cool plan to post all these awesome photos from my time in Sicily. Lots of History in Sicily! But the camera on my phone is rather dismal. Plus, most of my pictures were of the pizzas I ate.

In other History Books news, I was accepted to the University of Nottingham into their Viking and Anglo-Saxon masters program. Huzzah! Those Brits won't know what hit them when ol' Melton shows up!
I am also applying to the University of Iceland to their Norse and Vikings program. Either way, I will be spending a lot of money for a really useless degree. Huzzah again!

And that's a nice segment to today's post: Iceland. I know, you're probably sick of hearing about it. I've kicked the dead horse enough times that I've got its guts permanently embedded on my sneakers. But I keep learning more and more. And more questions arise with every new bit of information.

In my quest to learn more about the Vikings, I decided to begin with some primary sources. My favorite of which, was Adam of Bremen's History of the Arch-bishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Adam was a great writer, if not a little too eager. His facts had to be double checked. But he was passionate about his work. Since then I have dabbled in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (boring!), Saxo Grammaticus' History of the Danes (LOOOOONG), and The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastic History of the English People (Bede's cool, but this book kinda predates the Vikings). So I finally opened my copy of The Book of Settlements, which is basically an account of the colonizing and settlement of Iceland.

At first glance the book looks pretty dull. It's like a biblical list of genealogy but with way cooler names. But hidden in these lists are excellent glimpses into the lives of Icelanders. Almost absentmindedly, the authors skip over a story that to the public at hand was well known, but to us is a total mystery. But therein lies a terrific bit of information.

A really great example is the story of Thorarin, who gets into an argument and kills some dudes. He is judged by a 12 man jury of his peers, but is left off by a technicality. The priests and lawmakers aren't satisfied and follow him and catch him in violence again. After that, he is banished to outlawry and either has to make a living in the desolate interior of Iceland or take off to find another place to live.

It's important to note that while some Icelanders were Vikings, Vikings in general were not Icelanders. Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, started migrating to Iceland to escape Harold Fine-Hair, who was using some barbaric tactics to unite Norway under one king and to convert them all to the Christian cause. These guys were mostly farmers. And, even though they eventually bent to Christianity, it was not a bloody affair. And even though there were outlaws, disputes, murders and raids, Iceland was not really a Viking target, nor was it run by jarls or kings looking to get rich quick.

And here's the big question that's been bothering me: Why did it take until the 13th century for Iceland to be conquered. You're looking at nearly 300 years between the story of Ingolf tossing his pillars out of his boat to see where in Iceland he should settle, and the when Norway finally claimed the island for its own. I'm certainly glad it was left to its own powers. That's what made it fascinating! But why? Was it because Norway was not unified and had to take care of its own problems before it started pulling in other territories? Surely many kings had a chance to steal Iceland, a small and relatively poor country with absolutely NO defenses. Or, could it be because Iceland really had no value? How long did it take for the farmers and sheep herders to ruin the soil? Did the Danes and the Norse sail over and say, you know, this really wouldn't be worth the time and effort.

But it DID become a commodity. A center of learning and culture! The most boring type of importance! Sure, they've got no money, land, natural resources, good looking girls, or fighting men, but they've got books!

Consider this: You can feel the sludgy and forced Christian admonitions from Saxo and Adam of Bremen. Even Snorri Sturluson to some extent has to acknowledge the one true God in his writings about the old ones. But The Book of Settlements has no such glaring footnotes. There are some great stories about certain Christians to whom wild and perhaps miraculous circumstances seem to follow, but there is also great coverage of the heathen followers. And not in spiteful he-shoulda-known-better kind of way. The authors mention Thorkel Moon (awesome name) who was one of the wealthiest and noblest heathens to ever have lived. He was a good man who helped others and just happened to have different gods. There is also mentioned "the godless:" a family who kept no gods but trusted in their own strength. In this case, their river ran dry, but once again no reprimands or explanations aside are given. The Icelandic writers had such a reverence and interest in their heritage that it overshadows the writers' convictions at the time. It's quite a beautiful thing.

I'm about 1/3 of the way through The Book of Settlements, and it's getting me all riled up and ready to dive back into some Jesse Byock books!

Until next time, whenever that will be!

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