Michael Ridpath, the crime novelist, has a deep interest in the history of Iceland. As a change from his usual books, he turned for his newest publication to a combination of his craft and his enthusiasm: a crime writer’s guide to Iceland. He’s given Historia a brief guide to medieval Iceland, the period of sagas and Vikings, which began with its settlement in 874 and lasted as an independent nation for nearly 400 years.
I like to alternate between writing historical thrillers – mostly spy novels in the 1930s – with a crime series set in 21st-century Iceland. Given my historical interest, I find myself trying to cram as much Icelandic history as I can into my modern-day detective novels. Here is a summary of what I have learned, for anyone who fancies knowing what Iceland’s early history is about, but doesn’t fancy a big book on the subject.
Iceland’s landscape is now bereft of trees, but in the ninth century the country was covered with them, and there wasn’t a soul to cut them down.
There are hints that Irish monks may have inhabited Iceland during the early ninth century, and a couple of wayward Viking sailors stumbled across the island while lost, but the first Viking that we know of who sailed there deliberately was a man called Flóki, who took three ravens with him to help him find Iceland. He let them loose. The first two returned to the ship, but the third flew straight off over the horizon. Flóki followed it and made landfall.
At first, Flóki was dismayed by the cold. He climbed to the top of a mountain and looking out at drift ice choking the island’s fjords, so he decided to call the country ‘Iceland’. He returned to Norway disappointed, although one of his mates claimed that in spring butter dripped from every blade of grass. This optimist was henceforth known as ‘Butter’ Thórólfur, in perhaps the first recorded example of Icelandic irony.
The first visitor to Iceland who actually stayed was Ingólfur Arnarson. He set out from Norway in 874, and when he spied the mountains of Iceland, he threw his high seat pillars into the sea, vowing to make his home wherever they fetched up. I’ve never been able to figure out precisely what these ‘high seat pillars’ were: presumably pieces of a disassembled chair. This does, at least, sound authentically Scandinavian.
Although he made landfall right away, at a place coincidentally called Ingólfshöfdi, or Ingólfur’s Cape, it took him many months to find his chair. Eventually, two of his slaves discovered it in a smoky bay on the west coast, the smoke coming from hot springs. So this was where Ingólfur made his home. He decided to call the smoky bay ‘Smoky Bay’ or Reykjavík: the settlers were not very imaginative in their choice of place names.
Norway was becoming crowded, and a lot of people didn’t like their king Harald Fair-Hair (or ‘Fine-Hair’ depending on your view of Viking hairdressing; ‘fine’ as in ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘thin’), so a number sailed off to Iceland in search of free land. They brought their sheep and horses with them, and cut down the trees for firewood.
Since sheep nibble tree saplings, and the soil in Iceland is particularly thin, the trees never managed to re-establish themselves. Forestry wasn’t helped by the tendency of volcanoes to dump molten lava over the landscape at irregular intervals. Now there are so few trees you can go a whole day without seeing one.
The couple of hundred years after Ingólfur’s arrival are known as the Settlement Period. To my mind, the most extraordinary thing about this time was that there was no ruler. No king, no emperor, no prince, not even a prime minister.
This was a relatively warm period of European history, and so it was possible to grow crops and feed livestock successfully. The outer rim of the island was dotted with farms.
Farmers would gather at a local meeting place, known as a thing. Once a year, their leaders, or godar as they were known, would travel to the general assembly, or ‘Althing’, at the dramatic gorge of Thingvellir in the south-west of the country near Reykjavík.
During this time, Iceland was mostly peaceful. There were occasional skirmishes between farmers, but never full-scale battles. However, it would be wrong to characterize the Icelanders as peace-loving farmers: these were Vikings after all.
Some historians can become quite grumpy about the term ‘Vikings’ and the suggestion that they were nothing more than a bunch of bloodthirsty rapists. They see the early Icelanders as traders and artists, not looters and pillagers. Vikings is what Norsemen were called when they went travelling; the sagas are full of eager young men who spend a gap year ‘raiding and trading’ before returning to their farms in Iceland.
These historians also complain that Vikings get a bad rep from the people they were raping and pillaging: monks in Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Sicily, who had an unfair propaganda advantage over their adversaries in that they knew how to write down what happened. Well, those that survived could. Actually, the Norsemen were capable of great art and poetry (true) and liked to cuddle lambs (also true).
As in all good crime stories, forensics settle the dispute, in this case DNA evidence. A recent study of the Icelanders’ genome shows that while 75 per cent of the patrilineal DNA comes from Scandinavia, less than 40 per cent of the matrilineal DNA came from there – 62 per cent came from Ireland and Scotland.
So in the past, the majority of men were Norwegians and the majority of women came from the British Isles. My reading of this is that many of the raiders and traders came home with women from their years abroad. Enslaved women.
The system of government around the Althing lasted until the late 13th century, when there was a series of armed clashes between the godar, ending with an appeal to the King of Norway to take charge in 1264. This he did, which turned out to be not such a good idea.
You may be asking yourself, did Iceland’s history end after 1264? Perhaps the whole country was enveloped in a massive volcanic eruption from which its inhabitants only emerged, blinking, at the beginning of the twenty-first century? To find out, you will have to buy my book Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland. Or you could look it up on Wikipedia, but you know that’s cheating. Don’t you?
The above is a lightly edited extract from my book. I believe in historical debate; it’s just possible that there may be some slight inaccuracies in this summary and the author welcomes correspondence correcting them. However, to avoid time-wasters and dilettantes, such correspondence should be of at least 5,000 words, include at least eight footnotes and be written in Old Norse. Modern Icelandic doesn’t cut it, although Latin might be acceptable as long as it is muscular ‘Ecclesiastical Latin’ and not the namby-pamby classical stuff.
Michael Ridpath is the author of a number of historical thrillers and a crime series set in Iceland.
Medieval Iceland, detail from Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus: Wikimedia
Berserkers’ path in the Berserkjahraun lava field – look, no trees! Photo: Michael Ridpath’s old phone
King Haraldr Hárfagri receives the kingdom of Norway out of his father’s hands, from the 14th-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók, Árni Magnússon Institute: Wikimedia
Thingvellir. Photo: Michael Ridpath’s old phone
Illustration of invading Vikings, The Life and Miracles of St. Edmund, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M736 folio 9v: Wikimedia
Recreated Viking long house at Stöng. Photo: Michael Ridpath’s old phone