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Viking Age Iceland Paperback – September 1, 2001
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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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This book covers a wide range of topics, from the effects of human settlement on Iceland ecologically to the legal mechanisms that allowed blood feuds to play a stabilizing role on society. Along the way, he covers questions of how Icelandic society was stratified, the role of the chieftains/godhar, and the economics of the island. In an appendix he discusses the construction of turf buildings.
In terms of questions of the uses of the Sagas as sources for history, Byock discusses the problems of doing so and the changing debate among historians, covering a large number of viewpoints here. This section in particular is very helpful for those who may be trying to make up their minds as to whether the family sagas can be useful in the study of history.
The book is very detailed in what it covers and provides a compelling picture of early Iceland. Highly recommended.
Nevertheless there was was a society and that society was highly litigious--an alternative to lethal 'solutions'. This was also necessary because Scandinavians of the time were inclined to violence at the drop of a hat. Rules to direct these aggressive impulses into survivable channels were simply mandatory. It was also necessary because available land filled up quickly so there came to be an eternal jocking for land and postion in limited territories.
Although legalistic to a fault, Icelandic law had little--and much--in common with present law. Might pretty much made Right and there was a continual scamble for allies--interested allies, to be certain--to 'back' your position at the local Thing or Althing. You won if you could back your opponent and his supporters down, although this sometimes involved bloodshed and killing. Still, this 'decision' didn't always stick. If you reckoned that you had more to gain by a killing than peaceful acquiesence...well...you killed and hoped you judged the consequences properly. If not, you stood to be 'Outlawed' which meant ANYONE could kill you on sight. Police and military weren't necessary. Most individuals were evidently happy to participate in a free kill.
Although not included in this book, there is an instructive tale in one of the Vinland Sagas--Sagas primarily about Icelanders. Our Scandinavians are sailing down the coast or a river in North America and chance on some 'skraelings' sleeping under an overturned canoe supported by timbers. Our Europeans quietly land on the bank and kill the native-americans because they were obviously 'Outlaws' A free kill. A kill to be taken advantage of.
As rough as Icelandic Law was by our standards, it worked. If you think about it, present legal systems are very much designed to shortcut the more direct satisfaction of a killing duel. Amazingly, when religious push-came-to-shove in 1000 A.D.--and despite the fact that most Icelanders were Pagan--they abided by a decision that ALL would convert to Christianity, in the interest of order. To be certain, many people must have 'converted' entirely tongue-in-cheek but they converted nonetheless and Iceland became a more-or-less Christian nation. I say 'more-or-less' because Pagan prists became Catholic Priests and our primary knowledge of ancient Scandinavian religion was written down--quite proudly--by Icelandic Catholic priests about 200 years following this mass conversion.
I also enjoyed discussions about the legal status of women and children. They were IMMUNE from killing violence and protected from family violence. Although women couldn't personally prosecute legal cases [probably to protect them], their status was similar to their fathers, brothers and husbands. There was something like sexual equality which was not unlike that followed over much of the northern world, although obviously not in the rest of the world. Our present laws fixing female equality must therefore derive from northern law and tradition.
Of course, this book will not explain Iceland's rise to financial success and despair in the early 21st century, but that is a tale for another time.
(review by Kendall Giles)
Most recent customer reviews
A somewhat difficult to read book , but crammed with information!