16 May 2011

The early settlement of Iceland

Farmland near Stykkisholmur, July 2007
BBC4 is going through a bit of an Icelandic phase at the moment, broadcasting a clutch of programmes from the sub-Arctic island, presumably in the wake of the unexpected success of another Scandinavian programme, the Danish crime drama The Killing. Last night I caught The Viking Sagas, an excellent documentary on one of Iceland's great literary treasures, the Laxdœla Saga, which tells a sweeping story of several intertwined Icelandic families from the earliest days of Icelandic settlement in the 9th century to the early 11th century. On my 2007 visit to Iceland I learned about another such story, Egil's Saga, in which the roguish Egil travelled throughout the Viking world and generally proved that he was a chap you definitely didn't want to mess with.

Both these sagas are characterised by an intriguing pre-Christian sense of morality, generally avoiding the didactic black-and-white judgements of later Christian-era fiction, in which duty and honour were rewarded and villainy and deceit punished. In the sagas there are few such moral judgements, with characters exhibiting all-too-human traits such as greed, lust, jealousy and dishonesty. And one of the strongest qualities of the sagas is that for the most part they tell the tale of real individuals and events, often exposing both the noble and base sides of individual characters.

The programme's presenter, Oxford art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, put together a well-crafted documentary on the Laxdœla saga, showing its place in contemporary history and fiction, and the lasting legacy it has on Icelandic literature and modern Icelanders. She talked to Icelandic and British academics, but also to Icelandic authors, actors and young people to discover the cultural significance of the saga. The short interview with Icelandic youth also speaks volumes for the importance of the sagas and literature in general for Icelanders; the youths are enthusiastic and eloquent (in well-thought-out English) about their appreciation for the stories. As one British newspaper review has pointed out, try replicating Ramirez's experiment by asking a bunch of British adolescents for their views on Beowulf or Chaucer, and see how far you get.

One of the beauties of studying Icelandic history is that it is one of the few long-established nations that can make the claim to having its complete history recorded for posterity. From its earliest days in the late ninth century AD, Icelanders have been telling and re-telling the stories of the colonisation from mainland Scandinavia, and once these stories were written down and printed in the medieval era, their historical legacy was ensured. We can even identify the early settlers by name:

The first settlers of Iceland were two foster-brothers, Ingolf and Hjorleif. They made a reconnoitre of the East Fjords in the late 860s, and around 870 returned to settle. Hjorleif was killed by his Irish slaves during the first winter, but after three years exploring Ingolf made a permanent settlement at Reykjavik. More settlers soon followed; most were from western Norway, but there were also Danes, Swedes and Scandinavians from the Hebrides. By 930 nearly all the good grazing land had been claimed. Except in the south-west, most of the settlements were close to the coast: the barren mountains and lava plains of the interior were, as they still remain, uninhabited. 

The 12th century Icelandic Landnamabok (The Book of the Settlements) identifies some 430 leaders of the settlement period. Mostly men of aristocratic background, they brought their families, personal retinues and slaves. They took personal possession of the land, farming some themselves and settling their retinues as tenants on the rest of their claim. Early settlements were lawless, and disputes often degenerated into protracted blood-feuds.
- John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, 1996.  

While I thought the documentary was excellent, Dr Ramirez raised two points that I feel could use some clarification. There are not vital to the understanding of the Laxdœla saga, but rather they are issues that would have complicated the story unnecessarily.

First, Ramirez suggests that when the earliest settlers arrived Iceland was as barren as it is today, with its dramatic landscape unclad by trees. This was not the case. The terrain in Iceland provides far from ideal conditions for trees to grow, but the lack of tree cover is man-made rather than natural. According to Wikipedia:

When the island was first settled, it was extensively forested. In the late twelfth-century ÍslendingabókAri the Wise described it as "forested from mountain to sea shore". Permanent human settlement greatly disturbed the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils and limited species diversity. The forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber. Deforestation, climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age and overgrazing by sheep, caused a loss of critical topsoil due to erosion. Today, many farms have been abandoned and three-quarters of Iceland's forty thousand square miles are affected by soil erosion, seven thousand square miles so seriously as to be useless. Only a few small birch stands now exist in isolated reserves. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees, but does not compare to the original forests. Some of the planted forests include new foreign species.

Iceland's forests were too fragile and too heavily exploited by the wood-hungry settlers to survive, and once they vanished, much of the island's topsoil went too. Which helps to explain some of Iceland's more peculiar delicacies, like braised sheep's head and rotten shark - they had to eat anything they could lay their hands on.

The second observation Ramirez made about the settlement of Iceland was that it was empty of previous inhabitants. While it is correct to say there is no archaeological evidence of previous inhabitants, there are still reports that Iceland was inhabited by a few Irish monks when the Norse first arrived. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the early 9th century Irish monk Dicuil made mention of such Celtic travellers: 'Completed in 825, his De mensura orbis terrae (“Concerning the Measurement of the World”) contains the earliest mention of Irish hermits having visited Iceland ([in] 795), where they marvelled at the midnight sun'. A later work, the 12th century Íslendingabók ('Book of the Icelanders') contains the following passage on the first settlement (translated, naturally): 

At that time, Iceland had woods growing between the mountains and the shore. Christians were here then, whom Scandinavians [Norðmenn] call Papar, but then they left, because they did not want to be here alongside heathen people. They left Irish books, bells and croziers, from which one can tell that they were Irishmen.

This is accompanied by the suggestion that several placenames in south-eastern Iceland, Papey and Papos, bear traces of Irish wandering monks.

Admittedly without archaeological evidence of Irish settlement there is no way of knowing if the Scandinavians really were the second people to come across Iceland. Even if Irish monks did make landfall in Iceland as part of their search for solitary penitence at the end of the earth, their numbers would have been very small, and the trace they left would be correspondingly tricky to discover.

Historian Axel Kristinsson thinks, on balance, that the claims of Irish settlers before the Norse came are unlikely:

Archaeological research can never disprove the existence of Papar in Iceland, and it is perfectly conceivable that remains might turn up one days with sufficiently strong Celtic Christian characteristics to prove beyond doubt that Papar once lived there. However, as yet no such remains have been found. Despite this, people have generally not seen any reason to doubt that there were once Papar in Iceland and been happy to trust Ari's testimony in the matter.
Recently, however, in his book Um haf innan (Reykjavík, 1997), Helgi Guðmundsson has put forward the view that Ari's account in Íslendingabók is based on the account of the Papar by the Irish monk Dicuil mentioned above, which Ari interpreted as referring to Iceland, though without any firm evidence for this. If Helgi Guðmundsson is correct, the two accounts by Dicuil and Ari are not independent of each other; Ari's statement would then become worthless, and we would no longer have any sources linking the Papar with Iceland.  
So the conclusion is this: there is no tangible evidence to prove that there were ever Papar in Iceland; indeed, there is good reason to doubt that they were. On the other hand, there is no reason to rule out the possibility either.

Perhaps I'll just stick to my first point about Iceland's forests, then. 
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