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Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power Reprint Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520069541
ISBN-10: 0520069544
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Byock has written an important and authoritative account of how one collectivity of human beings avoided the Hobbesian war of all against all in a society that allowed almost no role for government."--"Contemporary Sociology

From the Inside Flap

"Byock's book is a tour-de-force of historical argument. He brilliantly reconstructs the inner workings of an intriguing society, not elsewhere to be found in the Western world."—David Herlihy, History Book Club
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 276 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Reprint edition (February 7, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520069544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520069541
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,147,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The twilight world of the great Icelandic sagas can be difficult for an outsider to understand. We are so fixated on the values of the Western European mainland that it is easy for us to overlook Iceland's many contributions. The great 13th century sagas like Burnt Njal, Laxdaela, and Egil are high water marks of medieval literature -- far more sophisticated than the Arthurian fantasies circulating in Britain and France at the time.
To read and understand these sagas properly, one requires a key. And this is precisely the value of Byock's work: It places the sagas in a societal context and shows us that -- while Europe was stuck in a feudal rut -- Iceland was a unique republic in which power was distributed among many 30-50 chieftains. If a chieftain failed to be responsive, a landowner could change his allegiance to another, irrespective of his location. Because there were no standing armies in the time of the sagas, it was the responsiveness of the chieftain in assisting with disputes that was the prime determinant of his power, and not brute force.
Byock shows us how the system worked by a series of helpful extended examples taken directly from the sagas. These are by far the best parts of the book. Read this book, and you will see that at the heart of the great sagas are tales of how conflicts were resolved, sometimes over a period of many generations. Although many lives were lost, the fabric of society remained whole and relatively undisturbed because a consensus was finally reached.
I look forward to reading Byock's other Icelandic book on Feud in the Icelandic Saga.
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Format: Paperback
Byock has written a very perceptive analysis of the power structure in Viking and Medieval Iceland. As a historical fiction writer, writing about this time period, this book gave me many insights. Byock uses some well-know and lesser-known saga characters to illustrate the power alliances, which I found fascinating. With no royalty, Iceland deveoped a unique democracy, which Byock explains in much detail. The maps and diagrams are very helpful. While it is an academic read, it is certainly not difficult. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Iceland.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this book, Professor Byock seeks to address a number of previously unsolved problems in Icelandic studies, including the development of the power structure of Iceland and some areas relating to the precise role of the chieftains. He succeeds quite well, and this work is sure to be a classic in the field.

The bulk of the work describes the role of the chieftains relative to the bondir and the landless tenant farmers. He paints a picture which shows how different Iceland was from other Scandinavian nations, and shows how the society evolved with the chieftains functioning largely as power brokers and lawyers.

Of particular interest is the analysis given to a few specific topics, such as the sources of income for the chieftains, and the social structures which provided mechanisms mutually beneficial political relationships.
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Format: Paperback
The great thing about Prof Byock is that he knows so much about the topic of Iceland's history. I personally enjoyed the book, because I am strongly interested in the country's literary and political history. That being said, this wouldn't be a good read for someone who was looking for info about vikings, or anyone who wanted a light read that dealt with Icelandic history in broad terms.
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