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Viking Age Iceland (Penguin History) Paperback – September 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Icelandic Vikings, according to Byock, professor of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian at UCLA, were far more than fur-clad, flea-bitten, mead-swilling raiders, as legend would have them. In this survey of their surprisingly complex society, spanning the three centuries from the island's settlement to 1260 when the king of Norway took control of it, Byock shows the Icelanders as a strong-willed and legally minded people who managed to carve a living as farmers out of an inhospitable environment while creating a remarkably modern free state governed by powerful laws and notions of honor instead of warlords and kings. He introduces readers to the Icelandic economy, social life (especially blood feuds) and home and family life, including a wonderful illustrated appendix on construction using turf. While this book will appeal to some readers of popular social surveys, in particular The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D, by James Reston Jr., Byock's tone is generally academic and so more similar to that of, say, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, by James Davidson. Byock's approach to his material also threatens an academic dust-up. He defies historiographical convention, but not without good and well-stated reason, by mining the Icelandic sagas for historical truths. Some may consider this approach akin to mining Cheever for truths about the lives of 20th-century suburbanites, but he certainly puts those facts he finds to cogent use. Illus.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Byock (old Norse and medieval Scandinavian, UCLA; Medieval Iceland) here attempts to dispel some popular Viking stereotypes. The image of the Viking as a pitiless destroyer of monasteries and a pillager of towns must be amended, he argues, to include the creation of great literature, a republican form of government, and the mechanisms for conflict resolution. Byock presents the evolution of Viking Iceland from its settlement beginnings, to its flowering as a highly developed legislative body, to its dissolution at the hands of the conquering Norwegians, who imposed a monarchical government in the 1260s. Byock uses Icelandic sagas to illustrate Viking efforts toward a type of conflict resolution that would be least injurious to society as a whole. He also points out the roles that women and Christianity played in the evolution of what was, for a time, a progressive society. This work should appeal to both students and general readers with an interest in Viking-age Europe. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. Robert James Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140291156
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140291155
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #227,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jesse Byock is Prof. of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian Studies at the University of California(UCLA) and Prof. at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. He directs the Mosfell Archaeological Project in Iceland.

He is author of: Viking Age Iceland (Penguin); Medieval Iceland (UC Press); and Feud in the Icelandic Saga (UC Press). His translations from Old Norse include The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin), The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse epic of Sigurd (Penguin), The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Penguin), and Grettir´s Saga (Oxford). Download a -FREE ANSWER KEY- to Viking Language 1 learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas at

The Viking Language Series is a new method for learning Old Norse, runes, and Icelandic sagas. It concentrates on the most frequent words in the sagas, and beginners to advanced learn quickly. For two MP3 download audio albums with clear pronunciation of sagas and runes, search on Amazon Jesse Byock under All Departments or MP3 Music: Viking Language 1 Audio Lessons 1-8 (Pronounce Old Norse, Runes and Icelandic Sagas)-- and -- Viking Language 1 Audio Lessons 9-15.

Customer Reviews

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I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in reading about the vikings and the viking age!
pace Group 11
If you think about it, present legal systems are very much designed to shortcut the more direct satisfaction of a killing duel.
Ron Braithwaite
The writing is clear and engaging, and the information presented by Byock is fascinating and seems to be very well researched.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 46 people found the following review helpful By James Paris on February 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
At a recent academic symposium about Viking culture, one member of the audience asked, "Why didn't the Icelanders protect their settlements in Greenland with police or the military?" From his point of view, it was a reasonable question -- except that he had missed the point completely about why Iceland, especially during its golden age from AD 870 through 1260, was a truly unique society.
Professor Byock in his excellent VIKING AGE ICELAND zeroes in on this period and answers the question why this society was like no other. Where mainland European societies were all ruled either by large or petty despots or by the Church, Iceland was governed more or less by the consent of the governed. There was some slavery, and people on the edges of society fared no better (or worse) than anywhere else -- but your average Icelandic freeman and even women had some protection from the rich and powerful.
Until its submission to Norway in 1260, Iceland was a country without an executive, without an army, without a navy. Instead, grievances were addressed by seeking powerful allies whose self-interest in the issue could result in some gain for them. If a neighbor or even a chieftain encroached on your property, you could bribe another chieftain to become involved on your side. You may lose some property, but keep the most part intact for your heirs. (On the continent, your life AND property would both be forfeit.) Chieftains had no clearly defined territory, but only adherents -- and adherents could at any time align with competing chieftains at any time. Any disputes that showed signs of getting out of hand were ultimately resolved at the althing, an annual meeting of the chieftains and their adherents at Thingvellir in the southwest of Iceland.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 500 REVIEWER on July 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent book about the society that produced the great Icelandic Sagas. This is not a narrative history but an effort to describe the essential features of Icelandic life. While the period covered spans centuries, there is strong continuity in Icelandic culture during this time and the basic features of Icelandic culture were largely unchanged from the settling of the island to the establishment of Norweigian royal domination. Written by a leading scholar of Icelandic literature and history, this volume describes the material basis for Icelandic life, provides a good deal of information about the ecologic impact of the settlers, and provides an outline of the major historical events in the period from the settling of Iceland to the beginning of Norweigian lordship. The center of the book, however, is a detailed and lucid discussion of the unique political and legal structure of Iceland. Iceland was settled by Norse fleeing the emerging powers of monarchs in mainland Scandinavia. The near subsistence nature of Iceland's economy required dispersion of people across all the viable portions of the island and the absence of useful cash crops and other sources of exports prevented concentrations of power. Iceland had no central government, no towns, and a legal system based on relative equality. Iceland was not a feudal state, there were no overlords, and even after the conversion to Christianity, the Church had little power. Governence and justice were essentially private matters, worked out by individuals either informally or through a sophisticated legal system that ostensibly was based on equality. The key figures in this system were chiefs who commanded authority by virtue of family and political ties, legal skill, wealth, and charisma.Read more ›
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Scott on October 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
Viking Age Iceland covers much of the same territory as Byock's earlier Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power; however, it also includes some more detailed information about how the sagas reflect the society that created them.
Byock attempts to show how the (mostly) fictional sagas can still be used for historical study. Hidden within the fanciful tales are many details of Icelandic history and culture. Because of this, it is a mistake to dismiss the sagas when researching Icelandic history. That's Byock's premise anyway, and he argues it convincingly with numerous examples from the sagas that illuminate everything from the Iceland's legal system to the food the Icelanders ate to survive the long winters of isolation.
The book was worth its price for the maps of saga locations alone. There were also a number of sections that helped me to understand the social and personal motivations behind feuds and other elements in the sagas that were unclear to me without the better understanding of the way Iceland's society operated that I got from this book.
Whether you want to better understand the sagas or would like to know more about the history and culture of the Viking period, this is a must-read. The writing is clear and engaging, and the information presented by Byock is fascinating and seems to be very well researched.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jill Malter on March 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent book about Viking society in Iceland, and Jesse Byock is a great authority on the topic.

Byock describes an Icelandic society that valued "order more than justice," and we see numerous examples of what he means by this as he examines how Icelanders kept feuds from getting completely out of hand.

Still, the book already is worth getting simply for the explanations of where all the action takes place in the Sagas, complete with useful maps, the descriptions of what Icelandic houses looked like, complete with archaeological house plans, and the depiction of Icleandic society as almost completely rural, with virtually nothing in the way of a town. As well as an important explanation of the Althing and its structure.

Plenty of us read one or more Icelandic sagas. But these sagas were written for people who knew quite well where Iceland was and where the various parts of it were located. They knew what an Icelandic house looked like, and they knew something of the terrain and the weather in the land. They knew how Icelanders obtained food and what resources the country had. And they knew all about the Althing (basically, their parliament). To understand these sagas, we need to know some of this as well. And Byock is wonderful at giving us this very valuable information.

There is a good description of how justice worked in Iceland. Blood vengeance was an option, but not a necessity. Compromise was preferred. Those who got too far out of line, say, with multiple murders, were outlawed. That left enforcement of penalties up to others. The system worked fairly well.

Two things about Icelandic society made the strongest impression on me. First, for many reasons, Icelandic society had enormous respect for truth.
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