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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 is the seventh entry into the monthly Medieval Book Club, and we are shifting gears for two months and looking at Medieval Iceland. This month we’re immersing ourselves into Viking Age Iceland itself, learning a bit more about it historically. In August we’ll be reading on of the Icelandic Sagas, which should be a great deal of fun. I’ve held a pretty strong interest in this period for a few years now, and I have actually written a few stories that took place in the Viking era. So these two months should be a huge treat for me, at least, and I hope you enjoy joining along with them as well.

Here is the breakdown of chapters:

  • Introduction
  • An Immigrant Society
    • Language and the Term “Viking”
    • Leadership
    • Mord the Fiddle: A Leader and the Law
    • The Sagas: An Ethnography of Medieval Iceland
  • Resources and Subsistence: Life on a Northern Island
    • Turf Housing
  • Curdled Milk and Calamities: An Inward-Looking Farming Society
    • Provisions, Subsistence Strategies, and Population
    • Bad Year Economics: Difficulties of Life in the North Atlantic
  • 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
  • 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
  • Limitations on a Chieftain’s Ambitions, and Strategies of Feud and Law: Eyrbyggja Saga
    • Arnkel’s Quest for Wealth and Power
    • Ulfar’s Land Shifts to Arnkel
    • Thorolf’s Land Shifts to Snorri Gothi
    • Ulfar Claims Orlyg’s Land
    • Ulfar’s Demise
    • The End of Arnkel’s Ambitions
  • Chieftain-Thingmen Relationships and Advocacy
    • The Nature of the Gothorth
    • Advocacy
    • Arbitration and Legalistic Feuding
    • The Flexibility of the Gothi-Thingman Relationship
    • The Social Effects of Concubinage
    • Distinctions of Rank
    • Hreppar: Communal Units
    • The Orkneys: A Comparison
    • Freedmen
  • 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
    • Conclusions
    • The Locations of the Family Sagas
  • The Legislative and Judicial System
    • Thing: Assemblies
    • Options
  • Systems of Power: Advocates, Friendship, and Family Networks
    • Advocacy
    • 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
      • Retraint Within a Major Chieftain’s Household in the Sturlung Age
  • Aspects of Blood Feud
    • Territory
    • Marriage and Confused Loyalties
    • Some Conclusions
  • Feud and Vendetta in a ‘Great Village’ Community
    • The Language of Feud
    • Norms of Restraint
    • Bluffing and Violence
    • Outlawry
  • 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
  • The Obvious Sources of Wealth
    • Sources of Income Available Only to Chieftains
      • Early Taxes
      • Price-Setting
      • Additional Privileged Sources of Wealth
      • The Sheep Tax
    • Sources of Income Available to All Freemen
      • Trade
      • Slavery and the Rental of Land and Livestock
  • Lucrative Sources 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 Helgastathir: 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
  • 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
  • Gragas: The ‘Grey Goose’ Law
    • Manuscripts and Legal Origins
    • Women and the Law
    • Marriage and the Church
  • Bishops and Secular Authority: The Later Church
    • Bishops
    • The Tithe and Church Farmsteads
    • Bishops and Priests in the Later Free State
    • The Church’s Struggle for Power in the Later Free State
    • Priests
    • Monasteries
  • Big Chieftains, Big Farmers and their Sagas at the End of the Free State
    • Big Farmers and the Family Sagas
    • Advantages Enjoyed by the Storbaendr
    • The Saga of the Icelanders in the Sturlunga Compilation
    • The Storgothar, Not Quite Rulers
    • Iceland’s Jarl
    • 1262-4: The Covenant with Norway’s King and the End of the Free State
  • Appendix I: The Law-speakers
  • Appendix 2: Bishops During the Free State
  • Appendix 3: Turf Construction
  • Appendix 4: A Woman Who Travelled from Vinland to Rome

Will you join me in reading this book? You can pick up a copy on Amazon at this link. The post for this book’s reading will be on July 20th, which is the third Thursday of that month.

Which of the chapters and/or subsections interest you the most? There is a lot of ground covered in 373 pages of book here, and I expect I’ll find most of it to be quite fascinating!

Check out the full list of books we’re reading this year for the Medieval Book Club.