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8. Historical Background: Iceland 870–1400

Helgi Þorláksson

Subject Literature » Medieval Literature

Place Northern Europe » Scandinavia

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631235026.2004.00011.x


The settlers of Iceland came from mainland Scandinavia and from the Viking settlements in the British Isles. In seeking to date the settlement (Icelandic landnám ) we can make use of tephras, as they are called; that is, particles of ash, pumice and other matter thrown up by volcanic activity. The tephra-layer that is especially important for excavations of Viking-Age Iceland is known as the landnám tephra. Comparisons of elements in ice-core samples drilled from the Greenland ice pack date the landnám tephra layer to 871 ±2. Some indications of human impact on the soil below the landnám tephra have been found, but they are in all likelihood not much earlier than the tephra layer itself, a fact which chimes well with the famous words of Ari fróði (‘the Knowledgeable’, d. 1148) in his Íslendingabók , to the effect that Iceland was settled around 870. The years 870–930 are known as the Settlement period and the years 930–1262 are called either the Free State period or the Commonwealth period. The expression ‘state’ is hardly appropriate for the Icelandic society of this period, which was a headless, feuding society. ‘Commonwealth’ might seem a more accurate description of this island-wide society, even though the term has been thought to have antiquated, romantic associations. The Commonwealth period ended with the imposition of Norwegian rule in 1262 (see the section on ‘Upheaval’, ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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