Collection Description

Culture Name

Early Icelanders

Culture Description

The designation "Early Icelanders" refers to the inhabitants of Iceland, during the period of time from the first Viking settlements on the island around 870 AD to its incorporation into the Norwegian state in 1262 AD Knowledge of the culture comes from archaeological, historical, and literary sources (particularly the Icelandic Sagas). The early inhabitants spoke Old Norse, but a very distinct language known as "Icelandic" gradually evolved. (Icelandic is in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.) The economy was based on limited agriculture and pastoralism and people lived in dispersed farmsteads on the coastal plains and inland valleys. Formal state institutions were lacking, although there was a general assembly of chieftains that was responsible for the introduction and maintenance of law.


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Europe --Scandinavia



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication and eHRAF document number.

The Early Icelanders collection consists of 23 documents, all in English, covering a time span ranging from the first Norse settlement in Iceland around 874 A.D. to Iceland's incorporation into the kingdom of Norway in approximately 1262 A.D. The major focus of the collection, however, is on the Commonwealth Period from 930 to 1262 A.D. Much of the cultural data gathered for this period comes from the analysis and interpretation of a number of Icelandic sagas written primarily in the thirteenth century, a period of great internal strife in Medieval Iceland. These sagas attempt to interpret what life was like in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but some scholars express concerns as to whether or not the sagas represent factual history or historical myths (see for example Bagge, 1992, no. 12; Durrenberger and Wilcox, 1992, no. 15; and Odner, 1992, no. 16). At any rate the majority of documents appearing in this collection derive their ethnographic information from the analysis and interpretation of the data appearing in the sa gas. Probably the most comprehensive study of the social, economic, and political changes taking place in Medieval Iceland over a four hundred year period is the work by Durrenberger (1992, no. l). This study begins with the first Norse settlement in Iceland around 874 A.D. and ends with the incorporation of Iceland into the kingdom of Norway in 1264 A.D. This period is characterized by the fact that while society was definitely stratified, there was no organization at the state level. This document is further supplemented by the data appearing in Durrenberger, Durrenberger and Eysteinsson, 1988, no. 2, and Durrenberger, 1988, no. 3. The structural analysis of the sagas themselves as an important source of information on the Medieval Iceland period, appears in several of the works in this collection, especially Durrenberger, 1991, no. 6, Gísli Pálsson, 1992, no. 11, and Tulinius, 1992, no. 17. Other ethnographic topics appearing in the various works in this collection are: law and the loss of honor, in Durr enberger, 1992, no. 4; sorcery and witchcraft in Gísli Pálsson, 1991, no. 7; the analysis of the expression of emotion as they reflect specific personalities in Miller, 1192, no. 14; the outlaw in Icelandic society, in Amory, 1992, no. 19; attitudes toward trade and marketing, in Helgi Þorláksson, 1992, no. 22; the cultural conceptions of gender and gender roles, in Linke, 1992, no. 24, and Karras, 1992, no. 25; and the status, wealth, power, and social relationships of Icelandic chieftains, in Samson, 1992, no. 18, and Jón Vidðar Sigurðsson, 1992, no. 20.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

This culture summary was written by Douglas James Bolender in June 2003. The synopsis and indexing notes were prepared by John Beierle in July 2003.

Overview by

John Beierle

ÞINGMENN -- followers of a chieftain -- category 571

Alþing -- the general assembly -- category 646

BOENDUR -- independent farmers (in the class structure) -- category 565

BOUGATAL -- wergild divisions -- categories 628, 681

COTTARS -- dependent farmers (in the class structure) -- category 565

DRENGSKAPUR -- honor -- category 577

general assembly -- category 646

GOÐAR -- chieftains -- categories 634, 554

GOÐORÐ -- territorial units or districts -- category 634

GRÁGÁS -- law books -- category 671

HREPPAR or HREPPUR -- municipalities; economic and political units -- categories 571, 631, 634

LÖGRÉTTA -- the law council -- category 692

lawspeakers -- category 693

LEIGFENDINGAR -- tenants -- category 427

local assemblies -- category 634

RÍKI -- districts with fairly fixed boundaries (small states) -- category 634

sagas -- category 5310

STÓRRÍKI -- large states, composed of two or more RÍKI -- category 634

Indexing Notes by

John Beierle

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