Thursday, September 25, 2008

Medieval Iceland by Jesse L. Byock book review

Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power by Jesse L. Byock
Written in a reader-friendly research paper style, this nonfiction book invited me into the few hundred years of the colonization, formation, and decline of Iceland as a free state. Several chapters into the book I realized that this little island’s short-lived government had warranted a mention in my world history textbook in high school. You too may recognize the word Althing, the Icelandic parliament.

By far my favorite part of this book was the way in which the author introduced and incorporated native words (closely related to Old Norse). To my surprise and delight, I found I could recognize many of these words as sharing roots with some strong English words. Take Althing. Thing originally meant gathering, and was heavily employed in Iceland to refer to their deliberative gatherings, that which was discussed at the gatherings, etc. The prefix is exactly what you would expect from the sound of it: All. The Althing was different from a general thing because it was the one gathering annually in which citizens from the entire country gathered to hold high court, to address pressing national issues, and to have a marvelous feast and market.

Second favorite was the references to the sagas, and the summaries/explanations of their plots. Once I picked up a book thicker than the Bible at our local library because it had an interesting title, The Sagas of the Icelanders, and a Viking ship on the front. After reading an enjoyable first half of the book I took it back, just overwhelmed by the amount of literature contained. As Jesse L. Byock took me through the history of Iceland, referencing the sagas, I began to vaguely recollect the stories. I’ve heard that name before. Yes, I remember something like that happening in the sagas. I didn’t know that’s what was going on in that saga!

Finally I was fascinated to get a feel for the culture of early Iceland. Though the author seems to believe that they were a stable, upright society, I beg to differ. Though they balanced their government: freedom and power, friendship and dependency; their legal system was built on feuding, which often included the death of men in the territory of the offensive leader, or family members of a person. False charges could be made and prosecuted, essentially stealing a person’s property just by suing him. If one of the primary feuders was killed in the disagreement, his close kin often took up the feud in his honor, or in vengeance. Sometimes this was the only way to defend their inheritance. The society was certainly a might makes right struggle for limited resources and carefully guarded (and uncentralized) power.

There was also a reference to exposing infants, which is murder of the most helpless. When the country converted to Christianity, one of the compromises which made that a peaceful transfer was that citizens were allowed to continue to eat horse and also to commit infanticide.

I did notice similarities between Iceland’s culture and northern Scotland’s before the 19th century. Though not necessarily bound by blood, or even bound for life and generations as in Scotland, clans had similar responsibilities to and expectations of their chieftains. The Scottish people are famous for their tartan weaves, and woven cloth was actually used as a form of currency in Iceland (a country filled with farmsteads and cottage industry). Perhaps the climate and ancestral/invader influences were the same in Scotland and Iceland.

In Medieval Iceland the scholarly author intends to put forward his theories about the transfer and acquisition of wealth in Iceland. He focuses heavily on politics, a hugely interesting perspective in that field. For example the Icelander’s realized (coming out of a feudal Europe) that if a government/king/chieftain could tax your property, you no longer owned the property. They had a strong libertarian democracy, but with a bend to settle things. The government in Iceland was entirely legislative and judicial, leaving enforcement to the individuals and the strong local governments.

Why did this system of government fail? Why is it not in use today? What can we learn from Iceland for our own situation in America today? Iceland is the first country whose origins were observed in history-writing times. Initially the country offered land free for the taking (sometimes taking was in the sense of theft), and the small population was content to be the rugged pioneers of a relatively hostile land. As the population grew and resources were expended, the competition became more and more fierce. Eventually the Althing voted to quench the trampling aspirations of the developing aristocracy by returning themselves to the jurisdiction of Norway (whose government had at this point several centuries after the initial immigration, mellowed). The world was on the verge of transformation: protestant reformation, the printing press, the democratic revolutions (including the founding of America) would all appear in the next several centuries.

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

åslaug said...

I KNEW I WOULD ENJOY THIS =) and I sure did. I was quite interested (on the border to obsession) with vikings for many years, and I've read quite a lot about them (and then also about Iceland) so this was very interesting. Actually there is a triology written by Vera Henriksen "Sølvhammeren" (the silver hammer), "Jærtegn" ( sort of a token) and "Helgenkongen" (the saint king), I have no idea if they're translated into English, but if they are, you should read them. They're about a viking girl, Sigrid, who from following the old norse gods, is introduced to Christianity, there's also included several big historic happenings, like the battle of Stiklestad and likewise, I even think all the persons in the novels have excisted. It might be a little cruel to convince you to read them just to let you find they're not translated. But if they are you should read them. Scotland and Iceland along with the other islands around, like orkney islands, shetland, faeroy islands and such, were to a certain degree populated by many of the same people, and they spoke the same language/could understand eachother and they also did trade with eachother.
I really enjoyed this =)
It's one of my favourite subjects!

Soli Deo Gloria