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Medieval Iceland was unique amongst Western Europe, with no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants and few battles. It should have been a utopia yet its literature is dominated by brutality and killing. The reasons for this, argues Jesse Byock, lie in the underlying structures and cultural codes of the islands' social order. 'Viking Age Iceland' Medieval Iceland was unique amongst Western Europe, with no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants and few battles. It should have been a utopia yet its literature is dominated by brutality and killing. The reasons for this, argues Jesse Byock, lie in the underlying structures and cultural codes of the islands' social order. 'Viking Age Iceland' is an engaging, multi-disciplinary work bringing together findings in anthropology and ethnography interwoven with historical fact and masterful insights into the popular Icelandic sagas, this is a brilliant reconstruction of the inner workings of a unique and intriguing society.


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Medieval Iceland was unique amongst Western Europe, with no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants and few battles. It should have been a utopia yet its literature is dominated by brutality and killing. The reasons for this, argues Jesse Byock, lie in the underlying structures and cultural codes of the islands' social order. 'Viking Age Iceland' Medieval Iceland was unique amongst Western Europe, with no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants and few battles. It should have been a utopia yet its literature is dominated by brutality and killing. The reasons for this, argues Jesse Byock, lie in the underlying structures and cultural codes of the islands' social order. 'Viking Age Iceland' is an engaging, multi-disciplinary work bringing together findings in anthropology and ethnography interwoven with historical fact and masterful insights into the popular Icelandic sagas, this is a brilliant reconstruction of the inner workings of a unique and intriguing society.

30 review for Viking Age Iceland

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bryn Hammond

    I liked this one as a study of the society. The way society operated. It even has chapter names like 'The Sagas: An Ethnography of Medieval Iceland'. She conveys how they knew they had a chance to build a bit differently from back home in Norway, in 'The Founding of a New Society'; 'The Effect of Emigrating from Europe'. A lot were disgusted with events in Norway, when they sailed off. I came away with a healthy respect for their institutions, too. I also remember the study of feud in this book, I liked this one as a study of the society. The way society operated. It even has chapter names like 'The Sagas: An Ethnography of Medieval Iceland'. She conveys how they knew they had a chance to build a bit differently from back home in Norway, in 'The Founding of a New Society'; 'The Effect of Emigrating from Europe'. A lot were disgusted with events in Norway, when they sailed off. I came away with a healthy respect for their institutions, too. I also remember the study of feud in this book, how feud functioned, its place in the justice system: that was a strong point. The whole is very much grounded in actual cases, whether from the sagas or archaeology or both, seen in detail. The case study approach that tells you so much.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nicki Markus

    Viking Age Iceland was an interesting read. I enjoyed the way Byock used a variety of sources, from the sagas to archaeological evidence, to paint a picture of life in Viking-age Iceland. It was a unique approach that mostly worked very well. The only downside was that certain sections felt a little dry, and given that, I think this is a book that will only appeal to those with an existing, deep interest in the topic. General readers may not find it as enjoyable. But if you are a fan of the saga Viking Age Iceland was an interesting read. I enjoyed the way Byock used a variety of sources, from the sagas to archaeological evidence, to paint a picture of life in Viking-age Iceland. It was a unique approach that mostly worked very well. The only downside was that certain sections felt a little dry, and given that, I think this is a book that will only appeal to those with an existing, deep interest in the topic. General readers may not find it as enjoyable. But if you are a fan of the sagas or are interested in medieval Iceland, this would be a worthwhile text to pick up.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bibliowulf

    Jesse Byock combines environmental science, anthropology, and archaeology to view the Icelandic family sagas through the lens of human adaptation and environmental change in the region. Sagas thus become accounts of the daily reality of survival within these conditions, and seen from this perspective, the events depicted in the sagas are indeed not infrequently driven by struggles for scarce resources. It is worthwhile, however, to mention at this point what the author emphasized several times h Jesse Byock combines environmental science, anthropology, and archaeology to view the Icelandic family sagas through the lens of human adaptation and environmental change in the region. Sagas thus become accounts of the daily reality of survival within these conditions, and seen from this perspective, the events depicted in the sagas are indeed not infrequently driven by struggles for scarce resources. It is worthwhile, however, to mention at this point what the author emphasized several times himself in his talks and seminars - namely, that the purpose of this methodology is not an attempt to "prove that the sagas are true" in all their plot details (they certainly have literary value of their own), but rather to emphasize that the sagas are not devoid of sociological information. As such, they prove to be valuable research tools in the study of structure and dynamics of early Icelandic society. Medieval Icelanders had a need of such stories to circulate about themselves, their past, and their legal structure. What could be done in an escalating conflict with one's neighbor who is better connected or has more sons, for instance? The absence of a specialized policing force in medieval Iceland placed the responsibility of action upon the individual. Saga narratives regularly make these subjects the center of their focus, informing the audience what could be done in various situations and what actions their protagonists undertook when faced with the same dilemmas and choices; which approaches were successful and led to increased renown, and which approaches brought failure and ridicule; what worked and what did not. Such constant emphasis on reality-based scenarios, often dictated by competition for scarce resources (whether they be material, such as forest land; legal, such as support at a þing; or more personal, such as prestige), demonstrates that the saga audience was interested in hearing this material and that it was still relevant to them in their own times. The sociological information in the sagas, coupled with the wide range of variability in which this information is presented, allows them thus to be approached as ethnographic accounts, giving a comprehensive portrayal of a unique medieval society. The interdisciplinary approach to the sagas taken in this book remains as refreshing today as when it was printed nearly fifteen years ago.

  4. 5 out of 5

    John Carter McKnight

    Readable and fun. While breaking from traditional scholarly methods and interpretations, Byock still comes across as a bit old-school. He misses one major point: in several chapters on wealth, he completely overlooks the anti-trade values (not at all uncommon in subsistence-farming societies with strong honor codes) that made wealth acquisition problematic. Miller's _Bloodtaking and Oathmaking_ covers much the same ground, including specific incidents drawn from the sagas: while less of a casual Readable and fun. While breaking from traditional scholarly methods and interpretations, Byock still comes across as a bit old-school. He misses one major point: in several chapters on wealth, he completely overlooks the anti-trade values (not at all uncommon in subsistence-farming societies with strong honor codes) that made wealth acquisition problematic. Miller's _Bloodtaking and Oathmaking_ covers much the same ground, including specific incidents drawn from the sagas: while less of a casual read, Miller is more insightful, and more contemporary in his methods, freed from the pull of traditional scholarship Byock apparently still felt.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    Good introduction to the history and culture of the Icelandic Free state. Another reviewer praised it with the phrase "Freedom is possible." I had the opposite impression, for all the law and social structure which we have long been lead to believe was enlightened for its time, actual justice required having a goði to back you up. It reminded me of the tendency of those who can afford expensive attorneys getting better outcomes in the modern justice system. Plus ça change.....

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tomás Engle

    Thoroughly enjoyed this book, especially as a philosophical anarchist since Byock ends up detailing the rise and fall of one of the world's most enduring (couple hundred year-run a'int bad) anarchist societies. Highly recommend reading if you're of that philosophical bent, interested in medieval history, the vikings or even just Scandinavia as Byock goes into the characteristics that made Iceland unique from Norway then and now. Can't wait to read the full sagas in their glory now!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Excellent companion to the Icelandic Sagas, with great maps.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bob Newman

    No King but Only Law This book is either more or less than it seems. The back cover promises a lot, but the book delivers something rather different. If you are a scholar of early Iceland, this will be a top, must-read book. If, like me, you are just generally interested in history, it may prove too detailed. With VIKING AGE ICELAND, you get a very well-researched, extremely well-developed study of law and government in the "free state" period of Icelandic history, that is, from earliest settleme No King but Only Law This book is either more or less than it seems. The back cover promises a lot, but the book delivers something rather different. If you are a scholar of early Iceland, this will be a top, must-read book. If, like me, you are just generally interested in history, it may prove too detailed. With VIKING AGE ICELAND, you get a very well-researched, extremely well-developed study of law and government in the "free state" period of Icelandic history, that is, from earliest settlement in the last quarter of the 9th century to the 13th century. Between ten and twenty thousand people arrived on the big, but often-barren island in the first sixty years, occupying all the usable land. Within the first century, they had caused so much environmental damage that all the forest was lost and half of the grassland. They established a stratified, but decentralized society with a parliament of sorts that met each year....the Althing. As no towns or villages ever grew up, Iceland operated as a single, island-wide village. "Early Iceland was an ideal laboratory for exploring the forces that cause and prevent social stratification." (p.11) But how can we study such a society, given that archaeology has yielded only scant remains, and is unlikely to reveal many details of how social stratification actually occurs ? Byock turns to the sagas, the ancient Icelandic epics, which, it turns out, have not often been used for anthropological purposes. He skillfully mines these for examples to show how individuals used both violence and negotiation to solve disagreements and build alliances for their own profit. The larger part of the book focusses on such topics---law, feuds, negotiation and arbitration, and the ways in which big men became bigger. It is full of fascinating examples from many different sagas, and contains some great maps. (I loved the maps !) Thus, if you are interested in `legal studies' or the anthropology of law, you have definitely come to the right place. This is a 5 star book for you; I can't think why you wouldn't get hold of this book immediately. However, if you wanted a general history of Iceland in those Viking times, this book is less than it seems. Though economics plays some role in the discussion, and there is a large section on the conversion to Christianity, these are seen in the light of how previous patterns of government/law influenced economic and religious life or were influenced by them. For example, Iceland's peaceful conversion is often labelled `amazing', but given the society Byock depicts---one devoted to compromise and arbitration---such an explosive issue as change of religion could be solved with little violence (p.301). The legal system operated without an executive authority. Order was maintained mainly by negotiation and compromise, often through the arbitration of `big chieftains'. Prosecution and carrying out of penalties was a private matter. Iceland differed from both Europe at the time, and later, from early America. Therefore, to understand medieval Iceland and the sagas, Byock argues (p.308), you must have some familiarity with its law. The sagas and laws together illustrate the way Icelanders thought their society worked. This may be fascinating stuff for you. I found it interesting enough, but I felt that I had bought a book that offered something other than what I expected.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Cameron DeHart

    Dense history textbook on Viking Age Iceland (duh). The Free State period of Icelandic history before the covenant with Norway is fascinating, from a "state development" perspective. The society was legalistic and based on feuds, that were not necessarily lining up along kinship lines, and were adjudicated by chieftains who "owned" a finite number of titles. The title wasn't strictly tied to jurisdiction, and the chieftains would "advocate" for different parties at the annual Althing (kinda like Dense history textbook on Viking Age Iceland (duh). The Free State period of Icelandic history before the covenant with Norway is fascinating, from a "state development" perspective. The society was legalistic and based on feuds, that were not necessarily lining up along kinship lines, and were adjudicated by chieftains who "owned" a finite number of titles. The title wasn't strictly tied to jurisdiction, and the chieftains would "advocate" for different parties at the annual Althing (kinda like a legislative court). The chieftain-advocates would argue in the Althing and local things to settle feuds. There was no military or executive power (police, king, governor), so the whole system relied upon settling feuds rather than dictating and enforcing strict policies from on high. Violence was entirely privatized. The Church of Iceland never developed much power and was kept out of lay society, in part due to their poor land holdings. All the valuable land had been distributed by the time Christianity arrived, and the original Icelanders were fiercely protective of their property, such that most of the land given to the Church was formally retained by private citizens. I wrote a paper about Iceland's unemployment benefits system, which is unique among the Nordic countries for being not-super generous. I found that most Icelanders exercise their "exit" option by moving to England or Scandinavia during weak economies, and many men of working age are happy to attend university (generously subsidized) or work in fishing-adjacent industries. The biggest factor, however, was their flexible exchange rate which they played with whenever the economy slipped. Unemployment rarely went above 3%, and with the absence of any sizeably socialist or communist parties in Iceland in the 19th and 20th centuries, there wasn't an impetus to expand to welfare systems like there was with the Red-Green parties in Scandinavia. I'm super intererested to learn more about the period in between my two encounters with Iceland, the Viking Age and rise of modern statehood in the 20th century. This book stops at the convenant with Norway, but I'd like to learn more about the effects of empire-building and what conditions led Icelanders to embrace nationalism and push for autonomy in 1918 and independence by 1944.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Ricker

    This was a fascinating look at the political and sociological environment of Viking Age Iceland, the Free State. The time period is examined partly through the lens of the sagas and partly from other sources, all of which show meticulous research. The intricacies of law can be a little dry (okay, they're definitely a little dry if you aren't as madly obsessed with everything Icelandic at the moment), but even to the less obsessed, the depiction of Iceland's unique structure is fascinating. Its h This was a fascinating look at the political and sociological environment of Viking Age Iceland, the Free State. The time period is examined partly through the lens of the sagas and partly from other sources, all of which show meticulous research. The intricacies of law can be a little dry (okay, they're definitely a little dry if you aren't as madly obsessed with everything Icelandic at the moment), but even to the less obsessed, the depiction of Iceland's unique structure is fascinating. Its history is unlike that of any other country I know of. "Among them [the Icelanders] there is no king, but only law."

  11. 5 out of 5

    Emily Van Coolput

    An interesting book, but at times I had the feeling of reading the same information over and over again and some chapters (particularly the ones devoted to the various roles of the Godi) could probably have been merged with minimal loss of information. Other topics were touched upon so superficially it left me a bit frustrated, but it's entirely possible there's not an awful lot more information available in the first place. Nevertheless, I picked this up shortly after a holiday in Iceland and i An interesting book, but at times I had the feeling of reading the same information over and over again and some chapters (particularly the ones devoted to the various roles of the Godi) could probably have been merged with minimal loss of information. Other topics were touched upon so superficially it left me a bit frustrated, but it's entirely possible there's not an awful lot more information available in the first place. Nevertheless, I picked this up shortly after a holiday in Iceland and it proved an enlightening read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Book

    If you're looking for stories about Vikings, this isn't it. This is a mostly academic look at the settling of Iceland during the Viking Age. I read it for research purposes and I found it quite useful.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Janice Sheufelt

    Fascinating history, especially on how the immigrant settlers “experienced a de-evolutionary change”, and the establishment of a new society and culture. Only 3 stars due to excessive minutiae on some topics. Excellent incorporation of the sagas.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Incredibly useful and informative book about Iceland in the Viking period

  15. 4 out of 5

    Danien

    The author explores the settlement of Iceland by Vikings through to the end of the Free States period in the early 14th century when it came under Norwegian rule. He presents a different perspective of the unique Icelandic Viking culture by combining historical fact with information extracted from the sagas. He describes how the largely agricultural population formed complex social and legal systems, based on advocates, and a political system without executive heads of state. The text is intersper The author explores the settlement of Iceland by Vikings through to the end of the Free States period in the early 14th century when it came under Norwegian rule. He presents a different perspective of the unique Icelandic Viking culture by combining historical fact with information extracted from the sagas. He describes how the largely agricultural population formed complex social and legal systems, based on advocates, and a political system without executive heads of state. The text is interspersed with story bits from various sagas to illustrate these structures and general life on the harsh island but can be a little dry at times. A good read overall that presents a more complete picture of what most people consider a violent culture.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jacob

    This is an excellently organized, coherently written overview and analysis of life in the free republic of Iceland. Jesse Byock is a lead scholar of Scandinavian history at UCLA and writes with great authority and detail on the subject. Although much of the material of this book appeared in an earlier work of his (Medieval Iceland, University of California Press) he has added new conjectures and explanations to provide a fuller description of life on the island. While at times a bit dull (mostly This is an excellently organized, coherently written overview and analysis of life in the free republic of Iceland. Jesse Byock is a lead scholar of Scandinavian history at UCLA and writes with great authority and detail on the subject. Although much of the material of this book appeared in an earlier work of his (Medieval Iceland, University of California Press) he has added new conjectures and explanations to provide a fuller description of life on the island. While at times a bit dull (mostly because I'd read the Medieval Iceland, rendering parts of Viking Age Iceland redundant), this is a must-have for anyone interested in Vikings, Iceland, and the Sagas.

  17. 4 out of 5

    John

    This is a comprehensive academic work about about the settlement of Iceland through its eventual domination by Norwegians, a period of about 400 years. I read it as background for an upcoming trip to Iceland and it provides much more than almost anyone needs to know. Iceland was in this era unique in its settlement, social organization, lack of executive authority, legal development and cultural environment. It's place on the edge of Europe and the harsh environment provided a combination of fac This is a comprehensive academic work about about the settlement of Iceland through its eventual domination by Norwegians, a period of about 400 years. I read it as background for an upcoming trip to Iceland and it provides much more than almost anyone needs to know. Iceland was in this era unique in its settlement, social organization, lack of executive authority, legal development and cultural environment. It's place on the edge of Europe and the harsh environment provided a combination of factors that make it sui generis in cultural development. It seemed a bit repetitive but was enjoyable.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mike Harmon

    Interesting overview of Iceland society from the Viking settlement to Norwegian Rule in the 14th Century. I'm using it as background reading for the Sagas. The Viking Age in Iceland was like the Springer show with violence; quite amusing. A culture where fueding is almost customary and both violence and compromise are legally acceptable options. The issue isn't who is right, but which choice will prevail. The political posturing and negotiations behind managing ones way through a Viking Age fued Interesting overview of Iceland society from the Viking settlement to Norwegian Rule in the 14th Century. I'm using it as background reading for the Sagas. The Viking Age in Iceland was like the Springer show with violence; quite amusing. A culture where fueding is almost customary and both violence and compromise are legally acceptable options. The issue isn't who is right, but which choice will prevail. The political posturing and negotiations behind managing ones way through a Viking Age fued make for interesting and entertaining reading.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ken Davidian

    This was an academic work covering Icelandic history between the settlement (~920) until the end of the Free State era (1260ish?). It was probably a lot deeper and more limited than I needed for my trip to Iceland, but having said that, it was an easy and very interesting read. If I had the time, I'd read the second volume, covering the Medieval Iceland era too. I'm looking forward to seeing the Althing and hopefully the Gragas and other legal codices that comprised the body of Icelandic law dur This was an academic work covering Icelandic history between the settlement (~920) until the end of the Free State era (1260ish?). It was probably a lot deeper and more limited than I needed for my trip to Iceland, but having said that, it was an easy and very interesting read. If I had the time, I'd read the second volume, covering the Medieval Iceland era too. I'm looking forward to seeing the Althing and hopefully the Gragas and other legal codices that comprised the body of Icelandic law during this early part of their history... very interesting material!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Iñaki Tofiño

    Taking the sagas as his literary map, Byock embarks the reader on a journey through the settlement years and the times of the Icelandic Free State. Its is extremely interesting to see how a new society develops and creates its own set of rules relying on rules and compromise instead of going for uncontrolled violence. In many senses it helps to understand contemporary Iceland.

  21. 5 out of 5

    John W.

    Focuses on the period from the tenth to the middle of the thirteenth century in Iceland. The first seven chapters provide a background as to what Iceland was like before the first settlers and their impact on the environment and the society they developed. However, I was to tempted to continue beyond page 142.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Angi M

    This is a great book. Full of good historical information and tie-ins w/ the sagas as well as explanations of what some of the terms & sayings & customs in the sagas are all about, where they come from, etc. The best book I've found so far on medieval Iceland. This is a great book. Full of good historical information and tie-ins w/ the sagas as well as explanations of what some of the terms & sayings & customs in the sagas are all about, where they come from, etc. The best book I've found so far on medieval Iceland.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Abi

    Takes a literary, saga-based approach to the history of Viking Age Iceland. The focus is on society and culture rather than any sort of narrative, and it's really great as an aid in understanding the sagas.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Errol Orhan

    As could be expected, Byock focuses very heavily on feuding and its ramifications. The parts dealing with archaeology are interesting but seem to support the parts that focus on feuding and internal conflicts. Interesting stuff if you're interested in a history of domestic Icelandic life.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Scott Miller

    Covers much of the same ground as Byock's book 'Medieval Iceland,' but in greater detail.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Roslyn

    Fascinating! Freedom is possible!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Fred Rose

    Despite their reputation as fierce marauders, the Vikings were pretty civilized in their political and social structure. The book could have used some of the Viking spirit in its writing.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Schanze

    WOW but Iceland is confusing. Still this book was a pretty good overview and did its best to explain pretty complicated concepts.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lynda

    This was much better and more entertaining than I expected. I'm not usually a history or non fiction reader (other than pattern books), so I was surprised when I read the whole thing in a weekend.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Itsbecka

    This is one of the best overviews of the Vikings in Iceland.

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