Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V14, Page 233 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
STQRLA Second era of phonetic change. Renaissance. Recovery of Iceland. Table of Icelandic Literature and History. I. The Commonwealth. ¢00 years. Settlement by colonists from western Isles and Norway. Constitution worked out—Events of earlier sagas take place. Christianity comes in—Events of later sagas take place. Peace—Ecclesiastical organization. First civil wars—1208-22—Rise of Sturlungs. Second civil wars, 1z26-58—Fall of Great Houses. Change of law, 1271—Submission to Norwegian kings. II. Medievalism. z,5o years. Collecting and editing—Foreign romances. Foreign influence through Norway. Annalists—Copyists—New,Medieval poetry begins. Great eruptions, 1362 and 1389—Epidemics—Danish rule, 1380. Death of old traditions, &c. Epidemics—Norse trade—Close of intercourse with Norway. Only Medieval poetry flourishes. Isolation from Continent—English trade. III. Reformation—Absolute Rule—Decay. Soo years. ODD—Printing—Third era of phonetic change. Religious struggle—New organization—Hanse trade. First antiquarians. Danish monopoly—Pirates' ravages. HALLcRO&—Paper copies taken. Jost VIDALIN—Arni Magnusson—MSS. taken abroad. Eggert Olafsson. Finn Jonsson—Icelandic scholars abroad. Rationalistic movement—European influences first felt. Smallpox kills one-third population, 1707. Great famine, Io,000 die, 1759—Sheep plague, 1762—Eruption, 1765. Great eruption, 1783. Beginnings of recovery—Travellers make known island to Europe —Free constitution in Denmark, 1848. IV. Modern Iceland. Modern thought and learning—Icelandic scholars abroad. Increasing wealth and population—Free trade, 1854—Jon Sigurdsson and home rule struggle. Home rule granted. m u u da Christians), Helgi Biolan, Biorn the Eastern, Helgi the ,Lean, Ketil the Foolish, &c., who settled the best land in the island (west, north-west and north), and founded families who long swayed its destinies. There also came from the Western Islands :a fellowship of vikings seeking a free home in the north. They had colonized the west in the viking times; they had " fought at Hafursfirth," helping their stay-at-home kinsmen against the centralization of the great head-king, who, when he had crushed opposition in Norway, followed up his victory by compelling them to flee or bow to his rule. Such were Ingimund the Old, Geirmund Hellskin, Thord Beardie (who had wed St Edmund's granddaughter,) Audun Shackle, Bryniulf the Old, Uni, to whom Harold promised the earldom of the new land if he could make the settlers acknowledge him as king (a hopeless project), and others by whom the north-west, north and east were almost completely " claimed." (3) In 900-930 a few more incomers direct from Norway completed the settlement of the south, north-east and south-east. Among them were Earl Hrollaug (half-brother of Hrolf Ganger and of the first earl of Orkney), Hialti, Hrafnkell Frey's priest, and the sons of Asbiorn. Fully three-quarters of the land was settled from the west, and among these immigrants there was no small proportion of Irish blood. In 'too there were 4500 franklins, i.e. about 50,000 souls. The unit of Icelandic politics was the homestead with its franklin-owner (buendi), its primal organization the hundred-moot (thing), its tie the go6or5(godar) or chieftainship. The chief who had led a band of kinsmen and depend-ants to the new land, taken a " claim " there, and parcelled it out among them, naturally became their leader, presiding as priest at the temple feasts and sacrifices of heathen times, acting as speaker of their moot, and as their representative towards the neighbouring chiefs. He was not a feudal, lord nor a local sheriff, for any franklin could change his gol5ori5 when he would, and the rights of "judgment by peers" were in full use; moreover, the office could be bequeathed, sold, divided or pledged by the possessor; still the go6i had considerable power as long as the commonwealth lasted. Disputes between neighbouring chiefs and their clients, and uncertainty as to the law, brought about the Constitution of Ulfliot (c. 930), which appointed a central moot for the whole island, the Althing, and a speaker to speak a single " law " (principally that followed by the Gula-moot in Norway); the Reforms of Thord Gellir (964), settling a fixed number of moots and chieftaincies, dividing the island into four quarters (thus characterized by Ari: north, thickest settled, most famous; east, first completely settled; south, best land and greatest chiefs; west, remarkable for noble families), to each of which a head-court, the " quarter-court," was assigned; and the Innovations of Skapti (ascribed in the saga to Nial) the Law- Speaker (d. 1030), who set up a " fifth court " as the ultimate tribunal in criminal matters, and strengthened the community against the chiefs. But here constitutional growth ceased: the law-making body made few and unimportant modifications of custom; the courts were too weak for the chiefs who misused and defied them; the speaker's power was not sufficiently sup-ported; even the ecclesiastical innovations, while they secured peace for a time, provoked in the end the struggles which put an end to the commonwealth. Christianity was introduced c. I000 from Norway. Tithes were established in Iog6, and an ecclesiastical code made c. 1125. The first disputes about the jurisdiction of the clergy were moved by Gudmund in the 13th century, bringing on a civil war, while the questions of patronage and rights over glebe and mortmainland occupied Bishop Arni and his adversaries fifty years afterwards, when the land was under Norwegian viceroys and Norwegian law. For the civil wars broke down the great houses who had monopolized the chieftaincies; and after violent struggles (in which the Sturlungs of the first generation perished at Orlygstad, 1238, and Reykiaholt, 1241, while of the second generation Thord Kakali was called away by the king in 1250, and Thorgils Skardi slain in 1258) the submission of the island to Norway quarter after quarter took place in 1262-1264, under Gizur's auspices, and the old Common Law was replaced by the New Norse Code " Ironside " in 1271. The political life and law of the old days is abundantly illustrated in the sagas (especially Eyrbyggia, Hensa-Thori, Reykdwla, Hrafnkell and Niala), the two collections of law-scrolls (Codex Regius, c. 1235, and Stadarhol's Book, c. 1271), the Libellus, the Liberfragments, and the Landnamabok of Ari, and the Diplomatarium. K. Maurer has made the subject his own in his Beitrage, Island, Grdgds, &c. The medieval Icelandic church had two bishoprics, Skalholt (S., W. and E.) Io56, and Holar (N.) IIo6, and about 175 parishes (two-thirds of which belonged to the southern bishopric). They belonged to the metropolitan see of Bremen, then to Lund, lastly to Nidaros, 1237. There were several religious foundations: Thingore (founded 1133), Thwera (1155), Hitardale (c. 1166), Kirkby Nunnery (1184), Stad Nunnery (1296) and Saurby (c. 1200) were Benedictine, while Ver (1168), Flatey after Holyfell (1172), Videy (1226), Madderfield Priory (1296) and Skrid Priory (14th century) were Augustinian. The bishops, elected by the people at the Althing till 1237, enjoyed considerable power; two, Thorlak of Skalholt and John of Holar, were publicly voted saints at the Althing, and one, Gudmund, received the title of " Good " by decree of the bishop and chapter. Full details as to ecclesiastical history will be found in the Biskupasogur (edited by Dr. Vigfusson). Iceland was not agricultural but pastoral, depending upon flocks and herds for subsistence, for, though rye and other grain Organization. would grow in favoured localities, the hay, self-sown, was the only regular crop. In some districts the fisheries and fowling were of importance, but nine-tenths.of the population Mede of lived by their sheep and cattle. Life on each home- stead was regularly portioned out: out door occupations—fishing, shepherding, fowling, and the hay-making . and fuel-gathering—occupying the summer; while indoor business—weaving, tool-making, &c.—filled up the long winter. The year was broken by the spring feasts and moots, the great Althing meeting at midsummer, the marriage and arval gatherings after the summer, and the long yule feasts at midwinter. There were but two degrees of men, free and unfree, though only the franklins had any political power; and, from the nature of the life, social intercourse was unrestrained and unfettered; go& and thrall lived the same lives, ate the same food, spoke the same tongue, and differed little in clothing or habits. The thrall had a house of his own and was rather villein or serf than slave, having rights and a legal price by law. During the heathen days many great chiefs passed part of their lives in Norway at the king's court, but after the establishment of Christianity in Iceland they kept more at home, visiting the continent, however, for purposes of state, suits with clergy, &c. Trade was from the first almost entirely in foreign (Norse) hands. The introduction of a church system brought little change. The great families put their members into orders, and so continued to enjoy the profits of the land which they had given to the church; the priests married and otherwise behaved like the franklins around them in everyday matters, farming, trading, going to law like laymen. Life in the commonwealth was turbulent and anarchic, but free and varied; it produced men of mark, and fostered bravery, adventure and progress. But on the union with Norway all this ceased, and there was left but a low dead level of poor peasant proprietors careless of all save how to live by as little labour as possible, and pay as few taxes as they could to their foreign rulers. The island received a foreign governor (Earl, Hirdstjori or Stiptamtsmadr as he was successively called), and was parcelled out into counties (syslur), administered by sheriffs (syslumadr) appointed by the king. A royal court took the place of the Althing courts; the local business of the local things was carried out by the (hreppstjori) bailiff, a subordinate of the sheriff; and the gottor6, things, quarter-courts, trial by jury, &c., were swept away by these innovations. The power of the crown was increased by the confiscation of the great Sturlung estates, which were under-leased to farmers, while the early falling off of the Norse trade threatened to deprive the island of the means of existence; for the great epidemics and eruptions of the 14th century had gravely attacked its pastoral wealth and ruined much of its pasture and fishery. The union of the Three Crowns transferred the practical rule of Iceland to Denmark in r z8o, and the old Treaty of Union, by which the island had reserved its essential rights, was disregarded by the absolute Danish monarchs; but, though new taxation was imposed, it was rather their careless neglect than their too active interference that damaged Iceland's interests. But for an English trade, which sprang up out of the half-smuggling, half-buccaneering enterprise of the Bristol merchants, the island would have fared badly, for during the whole of the t 5th century their trade with England, exporting sulphur, eiderdown (of which the English taught them the value), wool, and salt stock-fish, and importing as before wood, iron, honey, wine, grain and flax goods, was their only link with the outer world. This period of Iceland's existence is eventless: she had got peace but with few of its blessings; all spirit seemed to have died with the commonwealth; even shepherding and such agriculture as there had been sank to a lower stage; wagons, ploughs and carts went out of use and knowledge; architecture in timber became a lost art, and the fine carved and painted halls of the heathen days were replaced by turf-walled barns half sunk in the earth; the large decked luggers of the nld days gave way to small undecked fishing-boats. The Reformation in Iceland wakened men's minds, but it left their circumstances little changed. Though the fires of martyrdom were never lighted in Iceland, the story of the easily accepted Reformation is not altogether The formsti ation. a pleasant one. When it was accomplished, the little knot of able men who came to the front did much in preserving the records of the past, while Odd and Hallgrim exhibit the noblest impulses of their time. While there was this revolution in religion a social and political revolution never came to Iceland. The Hanse trade replaced the English for the worse; and the Danish monopoly which succeeded it when the Danish kings began to act again with vigour was still less profitable. The glebes and hospital lands were a fresh power in the hands of the crown, and the subservient Lutheran clergy became the most powerful class in the island, while the system of under-leasing at rackrent and short lease with unsecured tenant right extended over at least a quarter of the better land. A new plague, that of the English, Gascon and Algerine pirates, marked the close of the 16th century and opening of the 17th, causing widespread panic and some devasta- Decad= tion in 1579, 1613-1616 and 1627. Nothing points ence. more to the helplessness of the natives' condition than their powerlessness against these foes. But the 18th century is the most gloomy in Iceland's annals. Smallpox, famine, sheep disease, and the eruptions of 1765 and 1783 follow each other in terrible succession. Against such visitations, which reduced the population by about a fourth, little could be done. The few literary men, whose work was done and whose books were published abroad, were only concerned with the past, and Jon Vidalin is the one man of mark, beside Eggert Olafsson, who worked and wrote for his own generation). Gradually the ideas which were agitating Europe spread through Scandinavia into Iceland, and its claims were more respectfully listened to. The continental system, which, by its leading to' the blockade of Denmark Modern > >' g , times. threatened to starve Iceland,was neutralized by special action of the British government. Trade and fishery grew a little brisker, and at length the turn came. The rationalistic movement, headed by Magnus Stephenson, a patriotic, narrow-minded lawyer, did little good as far as church reform went, but was accompanied by a more successful effort to educate the people. A Useful Knowledge Society was formed and did some honest work. Newspapers and periodicals were published, and the very stir which the ecclesiastical disputes encouraged did good. When free trade came, and when the free constitution of Denmark had produced its legitimate effects, the endeavours of a few patriots such as Jon Sigurdsson were able to push on the next generation a step further. Questions of a modern political complexion arose; the cattle export controversy and the great home rule struggle began. After thirty years' agitation home rule was conceded in 1874 (see above, Government). (F. Y. P.)
End of Article: STQRLA

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.