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Viking Age Iceland (Penguin History)


Viking Age Iceland (Penguin History) Cover


Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

The popular image of the Viking Age is of warlords and marauding bands pillaging their way along the shores of Northern Europe. In this fascinating history, Jesse Byock shows that Norse society in Iceland was actually an independent one-almost a republican Free State, without warlords or kings. Combining history with anthropology and archaeology, this remarkable study serves as a valuable companion to the Icelandic sagas, exploring all aspects of Viking Age life: feasting, farming, the power of chieftains and the church, marriage, and the role of women. With masterful interpretations of the blood feuds and the sagas, Byock reveals how the law courts favored compromise over violence, and how the society grappled with proto-democratic tendencies. A work with broad social and historical implications for our modern institutions, Byock's history will alter long-held perceptions of the Viking Age.


This work brings together findings in anthropology and ethnography, interwoven with historical fact and insights into the popular Icelandic sagas, in order to reconstruct the inner workings of unique and intriguing society.


Significantly expanded edition of an original University of California Press title.

About the Author

Jesse Byock is a professor of Icelandic and Old Norse studies at UCLA. He is the translator of The Saga of the Volsungs and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki for Penguin Classics.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

List of Maps



Note on Names, Spelling and Pronunciation


1. An Immigrant Society

Language and the Term 'Viking'


Mord the Fiddle: A Leader and the Law

The Sagas: An Ethnography of Medieval Iceland

2. Resources and Subsistence: Life on a Northern Island

Turf Housing

3. Curdled Milk and Calamities: An Inward-Looking Farming Society

Provisions, Subsistence Strategies, and Population

Bad Year Economics: Difficulties of Life in the North Atlantic

4. A Devolving and Evolving Social Order

Ranking, Hierarchy and Wealth

Complex Culture and Simple Economy

Privatization of Power in the Tenth Century

A Proto-democratic Community?

Icelandic Feud: Conflict Management

5. The Founding of a New Society and the Historical Sources

The Effect of Emigrating from Europe

Land-taking and Establishing Order

Dating the Settlement: Volcanic Ash Layers

Closing the Frontier and Establishing Governing Principles

Written Sources: The Book of Settlements and The Book of the Icelanders

6. Limitations on a Chieftain's Ambitions, and Strategies of Feud and Law: Eyrbyggia saga

Arnkel's Quest for Wealth and Power

Ulfar's Land Shifts to Arnkel

Thorolf's Land Shifts to Snorri Godi

Ulfar Claims Orlyg's Land

Ulfar's Demise

The End of Arnkel's Ambitions

7. Chieftain-Thingmen Relationships and Advocacy

The Nature of the Godord


Arbitration and Legalistic Feuding

The Flexibility of the God-Thingman Relationship

The Social Effects of Concubinage

Distinctions of Rank

Hreppar: Communal Units

The Orkneys: A Comparison


8. The Family and Sturlunga Sagas: Medieval Narratives and Modern Nationalism

The Family Sagas

The Sturlunga Compilation

The Sagas as Sources

Modern Nationalism and the Medieval Sagas


The Locations of the Family Sagas

9. The Legislative and Judicial System

Thing: Assemblies


10. Systems of Power: Advocates, Friendship, and Family Networks


The Role of Kinship

A Balancing Act

Friendship (Vinfengi and Vinatta)

Women and Choices of Violence and Compromise:

Vengeance and Feud: Goading in Laxdaela saga

A Goading Woman from Sturlunga saga

Restraint Within a Major Chieftain's Household in the Sturlung Age

11. Aspects of Blood Feud


Marriage and Confused Loyalties

Some Conclusions

12. Feud and Vendetta in a 'Great Village' Community

The Language of Feud

Norms of Restraint

Bluffing and Violence


13. Friendship, Blood Feud, and Power: The Saga of the People of Weapon's Fjord

Inheriting a Foreigner's Goods

Brodd-Helgi's Revenge Against Thorleif

Struggle to Claim a Dowry

Skirmishes over a Woodland

Seeking a Thingman's Allegiance

Brodd-Helgi Breaks Vinfengi

Geitir Establishes Vinfengi

14. The Obvious Sources of Wealth

Sources of Income Available Only to Chieftains

Early Taxes


Additional Privileged Sources of Wealth

The Sheep Tax

Sources of Income Available to All Freemen


Slavery and the Rental of Land and Livestock

15. Lucrative Sourcees of Wealth for Chieftains

The Acquisition of Property in the Family Sagas

Disputed Property in the East Fjords: The Saga of the People of Weapon's Fjord

Disputed Property in the Salmon River Valley: Laxdaela saga

Inheritance Claims in the Sturlunga Sagas

The Struggle to Inherit Helgastadir: The Saga of Gudmund the Worthy

Inheritance Rights to Heinaberg: The Saga of Hvamm-Sturla

Resurgence of the Dispute over Heinaberg: The Saga of the Icelanders

16. A Peaceful Conversion: The Viking Age Church

Pagan Observance

A Viking Age Conversion

Geography and the Church

Early Bishops, Priests and Nuns

The Beginnings of a Formal Church Structure

<17. Grágás: The 'Grey Goose' Law

Manuscripts and Legal Origins

Women and the Law

Marriage and the Church

18. Bishops and Secular Authority: The Later Church


The Tithe and Church Farmsteads

Bishops and Priests in the Later Free State

The Church's Struggle for Power in the Later Free State



19. Big Chieftains, Big Farmers and their Sagas at the End of the Free State

Big Farmers and the Family Sagas

Advantages Enjoyed by the Stórbaendr

The Saga of the Icelanders in the Sturlunga Compilation

The Stórgodar, Not Quite Rulers

Iceland's Jarl

1262-4: The Covenant with Norway's King and the End of the Free State

Appendix 1: The Law-speakers

Appendix 2: Bishops During the Free State

Appendix 3: Turf Construction

Appendix 4: A Woman Who Travelled from Vinland to Rome




Product Details

Byock, Jesse L.
Penguin Books
Byock, Jesse L.
Europe - Scandinavia
Western Europe
Iceland History To 1262.
World History - Medieval and Renaissance
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Penguin History
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
7.58x5.40x.85 in. .73 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Archaeology » Vikings
History and Social Science » Linguistics » General
History and Social Science » Western Civilization » Medieval
History and Social Science » World History » European History General
History and Social Science » World History » General
History and Social Science » World History » Medieval and Renaissance
History and Social Science » World History » Scandinavia
Reference » Science Reference » General

Viking Age Iceland (Penguin History) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 432 pages Penguin Books - English 9780140291155 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , This work brings together findings in anthropology and ethnography, interwoven with historical fact and insights into the popular Icelandic sagas, in order to reconstruct the inner workings of unique and intriguing society.
"Synopsis" by , Significantly expanded edition of an original University of California Press title.

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