Social Structures and Identity in Early Iceland
Stephen Pax Leonard
The objective of this article is to determine what and how the social structures of early
Iceland contributed to the identity of the settlers.
By social structures, I mean the
articulation of a ‘set of clearly definable social institutions which were considered to
constitute the basic framework of the society concerned’ (Leach, 1982: 32). The reason
for focusing on social structures is that the Icelanders must have become fully self-
conscious as an Icelandic community through the establishment of these.
Whilst the notion of identity can be understood and discussed at many different
levels, it is social identity (the identity of the settlers as a group) that is of most concern
in this article. Social identity is an individual-based perception of what defines the ‘us’
associated with any internalised group membership. This can be distinguished from the
notion of personal identity which refers to self-knowledge that derives from the
individual’s unique attributes. Personal and group identity should not be considered
completely independent of one another: one’s individual identity can often only be
defined at the level of the group. These identities would have been created most
obviously on the basis of the household/farmstead, but also group identities would have
I define early Iceland as the Settlement Period plus the Commonwealth Period, i.e. from the Settlement in
the ninth century until c. 1264. There is no intention of describing Icelandic social structures here.
Descriptions are available elsewhere, cf. Jón Jóhannesson (1974); Jón Viðar Sigurðsson (1999); Gunnar
Karlsson (2000); Byock (2001).
become established at different levels of the complex social structures that the Icelanders
Emerging Social Structures and Identities
We can begin by reminding ourselves what was unique about the Icelandic social
structures in the early period of the island’s history. Firstly, Iceland was unique in the
sense that certain social structures that were found elsewhere were obviously absent in
Iceland. There was no kingship or any other single leader in Iceland, no courtly culture,
no óðal-system of land-ownership, no trading centres or army and no urban bourgeoisie.
The absence of aristocratic social structures in Iceland is surprising because these social
structures had become established in the other Norse island communities: the Orkney
earldom first controlled Orkney and perhaps Shetland, before turning its ambitions to the
Scottish mainland and the Hebrides.
There was also no executive or collective exercise of power in Iceland, but instead
an innovative system of self-governing farmers or householders that lasted for nearly 400
years. The early Icelanders established complex and sophisticated social structures ab
initio in a relatively short period of time and in the absence of any coercive state
institutions. The founding principle of these social structures was a decentralised
distribution of power and a corresponding emphasis on the integrity of the individual.
The oddity of Iceland’s status as a community which lacked not only a king but
also a centralised state of any sort, registered both abroad and at home. Adam of Bremen
Town-foundation in Northern Europe is related to the existence of social and ecclesiastical
superstructures. These foundations tend to be royal, noble and/or episcopal. When such support is removed,
towns can decline or even vanish. The lack of nobility and townships were therefore two factors that were
inter-linked and both ostensibly absent in Iceland.
The main source for this history is Orkneyinga saga (Íf XXXIV).
wrote in 1080 A.D. that the Icelanders regarded their bishop as king, and accepted his
scriptural pronouncements as law; or (in a scholium) that ‘they have no king, except the
law’ (Apud illos non est rex, nisi tantum lex, Schmeidler, 1917: 273).
The Icelanders did
not just replicate the social model that they knew. Ari in Íslendingabók tells how
Úlfljótr’s law code was based on the Norwegian Gulaþingslög, but was also the first
departure from Norwegian law: en þau váru flest sett at því sem þá váru Golaþingslög
[…] hvar við skyldi auka eða af nema eða annan veg setja ‘they were for the most part
modelled on how the laws of Gulaþing were at the time […] where things should be
added, or removed, or set up differently’ (Íf Ii: 7). Whilst recognising their ancestry, there
appears to be some evidence of a concerted effort by the settlers to create a different
society, or at least establish a legal system and social institutions in a different manner.
It is worth considering why the settlers chose to develop these particular social
structures. The emergence of Icelandic social structures may be attributed to factors such
as new patterns of social liability that may have developed in response to the scattered
population. The scattered population, individualistic land-taking and new principles of
land-transfer led to a dissociation or decoupling of kinship and locality. It is not
suggested that kinship became a less important part of the fabric of Icelandic society, but
it seems that a communal system developed alongside it. This new social liability may
have motivated the creation of hreppar (‘communes’) whose main purpose was to aid the
poor and the needy.
It is unlikely that any change in social liability could be attributed solely to the
introduction of Christianity. The Conversion is conveyed as a peaceable political act, not
This seems to show that the Icelandic system was not only considered ‘different’, but perhaps
incomprehensible to others. See Sigurður Nordal (1942: 132).
The shift in social liability may have contributed to the creation of the búar (‘neighbours’) system too.
as a religious act. It appears above all as an affirmation of the need for nationally agreed
laws: ‘Þat er upphaf laga várra’, sagði hann, ‘at menn skulu allir vera kristnir hér á
landi ok trúa á einn guð…’ ‘This is the foundation of our laws’, he said, ‘that all men in
this land are to be Christian and believe in one God…’ (Íf XII Brennu-Njáls saga: 272).
In the literary sources the change in religion is not represented as a radical change. Ari
tells us for instance that it was permitted to sacrifice to the heathen gods, to expose
newborn babies and to eat horse meat.
In consideration of the fact that Íslendingabók
was approved by the bishops, this information bears witness to a considerable tolerance,
not only in the period after the change in religion, but also in the Icelandic scholarly
environment in Ari’s own time.
As for the individual settlers, by breaking away from society (in Norway, the
British Isles or elsewhere), they showed themselves to be independent. This group of
people became more than just settlers, but progenitors of the Icelandic people. Every
aspect of the landnám was recorded, ensuring that the Settlement became part of the
collective memory of all Icelanders. In the Þórðarbók version of the Landnámabók, the
Icelanders themselves couch their identity in terms of the landnám. It is argued that the
Settlement provides the truth of Icelandic ancestry and a means of proving that Icelanders
are not descended from slaves.
This suggests perhaps a subsequent preoccupation with
identity. It is also clear from Landnámabók that the origins of Icelandicness were tied to
the land, explicit in the title Landnámabók, and that this became an important feature of
the Icelandic identity (Hastrup, 1990: 80).
See Íf Ii (17): the concessions that Ari mentions are usually interpreted as provisional economic measures
(Jón Steffensen, 1966-69: 196-97; Jón Jóhannesson, 1974: 136-37). Sveinbjörn Rafnsson (1979: 167-74)
has attempted, however, to relate them to clauses in medieval penitentials.
See Hermann Pálsson & Edwards (1972: 6): this passage seems to suggest that Iceland’s beginnings were
stimulated by foreign misconceptions. Compare Torfi Tulinius (2000: 258).
The Role of the Law
Alongside their relationship to the land, the identity of the Icelanders was partly based on
these emerging social structures that have been previously mentioned. It is therefore
worthwhile considering how identity and social structures are linked in new societies. It
has been suggested by the sociologist Tomasson (1980: 12-13) that law tends to assume a
central role in new societies, a more prominent role than in the country where the settlers
came from. Tomasson compares seventeenth-century New England to tenth-century
Iceland. Law gained a commanding role in New England, settled by overseas migrants
from the country where the doctrine of fundamental law had been most fully developed.
Tomasson claims that new societies are characterised by the lessened influence of kin,
and that in response law develops over kinship as a source of authority.
It is certainly true that law (and not government) was central to Icelandic society
and that this fact is reflected in the terminology describing legal attachment. It is less
clear that this was due to a change in kinship-ties. One could argue, however, that the
significance of law may have been linked (initially at least) to the issue of landnám: it is
perhaps no coincidence that the first laws were cited in the year 930 A.D. when the land
was declared albyggt (‘fully settled’) and that a legal framework was required to manage
the settlers’ claims and rights to the land: Svá hafa ok spakir menn sagt, at á sex tegum
vetra yrði Ísland albyggt, svá at eigi væri meirr síðan ‘Wise men have also said that
Compare Toynbee (1962: 99-100) where migration resulting in the breakdown of kinship is seen as the
explanation for the early development of an English legal polity. Compare Bryce (1901: 287): ‘In no other
literature is fiction or history, by whichever name we describe the Sagas, so permeated by legal lore’.
Iceland was fully settled in 60 years, so that no further settlement was made after that’ (Íf
Ii Íslendingabók: 9).
There are various reasons for believing that law was fundamental to Icelandic
culture and identity. Looking at the very earliest texts, one is reminded of Ari’s account
of the Conversion with the Christians and the Heathens declaring themselves ‘out of law
with the other’. The Lawspeaker, Þorgeirr, warns that if the Icelanders tear apart the law
they tear apart the peace – law was the unifying factor. It is clear from Ari’s
Íslendingabók that an important feature of self-definition for the early Icelanders was that
they should all have one law and that this Icelandic law was a means of differentiating
themselves from others: hvárir ýr lögum við aðra ‘each side was out of law with the
other’ (Íf Ii: 16); es vér slítum í sundr login, at vér monum slíta ok friðinn ‘if we tear apart
the law, we tear apart the peace’ (Íf Ii: 17); ok sagði, at hónum þótti þá komit hag manna
í ónýtt efni, ef menn skyldi eigi hafa allir lög ein á landi hér ‘and said that he thought
people’s affairs had come to a bad pass, if they were not all to have the same law in the
country’ (Íf Ii: 17). Much later at the end of the Commonwealth Period, the Icelanders
agreed to the Gizurarsáttmáli (the agreement that effected the union between Iceland and
Norway in 1262-64 A.D.) on the basis that they could enjoy peace and Icelandic laws
(íslenzkum lögum ok friði).
It is significant that here at the time of the submission to the
Norwegian Crown, the laws are referred to as íslenzk lög and not vár lög, as had been the
case previously (DI I: 620).
Orri Vésteinsson (2000: 11) takes this to mean that all the land had been ‘claimed’ at this point, but not
necessarily ‘utilised’. This interpretation seems eminently plausible: the ‘utilisation’ of land is likely to
have been a longer process, as he claims.
Compare Sigurður Nordal (1942: 121-22) and Jón Viðar Sigurðsson (1999: 153) for a discussion of this
point. The adjective íslenzk was able to act as an identity marker at this stage.
One of the reasons why the First Grammarian established an Icelandic alphabet
was so that the Icelanders could write and read laws. The First Grammarian lists the
genres of Icelandic letters as laws, genealogies (áttvísi), interpretation of religious texts
and the learned works of Ari: til þess at hægra verði at rita ok lesa sem nv tiðiz ok a
þessv landi, beði lög ok ááttvísi ‘in order that it might be easier, as is now customary in
this country as well, to write and read laws and genealogies’ (Hreinn Benediktsson, 1972:
208). A similar list of written genres of vernacular prose is found in Hungrvaka
(‘Appetizer’). The genres then current are described as laws, sagas and historical lore
(mannfræði): Þat berr ok annat til þessa rits at teygja til þess unga menn at kynnisk várt
mál at ráða, þat er á norrænu er ritat, lög, eða sögur eða mannfræði ‘And secondly, this
writing is intended to allure young men to whom our speech is known to read that which
is written in the Norse: laws, or stories or historical lore’ (Íf XVI Hungrvaka: 3).
It is easy therefore to make the case for law being the basis for social organisation
in Iceland. More specifically, a distinguishing feature in early Iceland was the importance
of being ‘attached to the law’. There was an emphasis on explicit legal identification not
witnessed in other Norse colonies. It became a legal requirement to attach oneself to a
legal household. This attachment implied a special relationship between the householder
and the person to whom he gave lodging. Members of a householder’s immediate family
were automatically attached to his household; others joined it by agreement, as workers
or in other capacities.
A man’s household attachment would determine what his legal
This process of attaching oneself to a household was described using the verbal phrase (at) þiggja grið
(Grágás, Ia: 137, 139, 141). The term grið- is found frequently throughout Grágás since it means both
‘domicile’ or more precisely ‘household’ and ‘truce’; a semantic oddity that is not easily explained.
duties were, where he should be summoned, which assembly group he belonged to
(Grágás Ia: 128-39).
The distinction between those who were attached to the law and those who were
not applied to the whole of society and led to basic social distinctions between
individuals. This is likely to have led to in-group and out-group identities. The most
obvious out-group would have been the thralls because they were not bound by the laws
of the free men. Slaves had to be ‘led into the law’ in a process that is called í lög leiða
(‘manumission’): a phrase that is peculiar to Iceland (Grágás Ia: 192).
Elsewhere, as in
Norway, the manumission process was referred to as either gefa frelsi or gera frelsisöl
sitt: both phrases imply the ‘giving of freedom’ as opposed to the ‘leading into the law’.
In-group/out-group social identities were defined in early Iceland in ‘legal’ terms:
in-groups were people attached to a household and considered lögfastr (‘legally
domiciled’) (Grágás Ia: 153, 154, 162),
and to be living in a lögheimili (‘legal
domicile’) (Grágás Ia: 4, 16, 20, 52, 122, 131, 132). As well as being the lodging of a
priest serving the district, a lögheimili would have referred to a person’s legal residence
that decided various matters of legal importance. A domicile may also have been
described as a heimilisfang and its residents were considered to be heimilisfastr, once
again emphasizing the notion of ‘attachment’ Grágás (Ia: 41, 139). All of these terms
(and others) have a degree of exclusivity in the laws of early Iceland, and are either
absent or do not have the same legal sense elsewhere in the Norse legal corpus. There
§22 of þingskapa-þáttr (Konungsbók) is devoted to the procedures for enquiring about the nature of an
individual’s attachment to an assembly; see also Jón Jóhannesson (1974: 354-57). Birgir T. R. Solvason
(1993: 97-125) notes that in order for anyone to settle in a new community, he was required to provide
Note the parallel with ættleiðing (Jónsbók, 1970: 87); NgL (I: 31).
Compare usage in Jónsbók (1970: 133, 142-44, 154-56, 172, 185).
emerged therefore in early Iceland quickly a sense of what defined the ‘us’, its basis
being the law, and in particular ‘legal attachment’.
Landnám and Kinship
In addition to the emergence of a social identity for early Icelanders, we need to consider
issues of individual identity. As we will see, the absence of certain social structures in
Iceland is likely to have had consequences for individual identities too. The process of
integrating into a new society affects our perception of who we are as individuals as well
It should be clear from the previous discussion that the landnám led to a society
that was different from Norway or the British Isles. The process of the landnám may also
have led to changes in kin-organisation. The reason for this is that the Settlement was
individualistic in nature; the settlers were scattered and brought seldom more of their
kindred than their immediate family (Íf Ii and ii Landnámabók). It is debatable if this
triggered any erosion in kinship solidarity. Phillpotts (1913: 255) considers kindred
solidarity to be a less important social bond in Iceland than in other parts of Scandinavia;
Hastrup (1985: 74) claims that ‘an individualistic view of property (expressed in
individual land-takings) should develop kindreds rather than maintain a principle of
unilineal descent groups geared to common ownership of the means of production’. The
argument is very unclear: kindreds as groups of persons who have a single relative in
common appear to have always existed in both Icelandic and Norwegian societies, and it
is not obvious how their emergence can be linked to land-ownership. Evidence from the
laws (such as ómaga-bálkr), genealogies and the sagas show kinship to be still important
even if grouping patterns were different from before the Settlement.
The settlers’ kinship ties were permanently disrupted, but it is not clear to what
degree the migrants were cut off from their past. There are many reports of Icelanders in
Norway and of Norwegians in Iceland in the sagas.
In Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar for
instance, Egill Skallagrímsson claimed and successfully acquired for his wife her
inheritance in Norway (Íf II Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar: 148-73).
In instances where kinship organisation had been disrupted, there would have
been new ‘localisations’: new communities would have formed in new localities, and
kinship ties would have been established again. Certain saga evidence shows that major
figures such as Auðr in djúpúðga took local social structures (ómagur ‘dependants’ and
vinir ‘friends’) with them when they moved: Með henni kómu út margir göfgir menn…
‘With her came many noblemen…’ (Íf IV Eiríks saga rauða: 196). And this saga
evidence reflects earlier accounts of the Settlement in Landnámabók. There has always
been a high degree of internal geographical and social mobility in Iceland. There was the
temporary mobility of the alþingi. People from all parts of the country, at least from the
upper levels of the social system, got together once a year. This enabled the establishment
of links of vinfengi (‘friendship’), fosterage and also marriage. There was also the Church
as a vehicle of social and physical mobility: the Church included some of the culturally
most influential individuals, even if after the Reformation women were excluded.
Vestergaard (1988: 180) envisages a degeneration of kinship organisation in Iceland with the
disappearance of minimal ætt (three-generational patrilineage). Icelandic kinship was more a matter of
bilateral, genealogical networks of relations centreing on individuals than corporate groups. Compare
Grágás (Ia: 218-27): calculation of genealogical distance for the basis of inheritance – the basis for
See also Grágás (Ib: 195-97): provisions in the law for the rights of Icelanders in Norway.
Kinship and Land-Transfer
In order to speak of social structures and individual identity, we need to discuss kinship
and land-transfer in early Iceland. Before the migration to Iceland, the system of land-
ownership in Norway had been that of óðal land. This was a principle of land tenure
which kept property in the family, as it defined a particular relationship between a kin
group and a piece of land. The óðal system of land-ownership represented the totality of
rights and concepts connected with non-transferable, non-saleable ancestral property. The
term óðal implied not only ‘family estate’, but also ‘patrimony’, ‘birth place’ and
‘fatherland’. óðal was defined legally as an unbroken succession from father to son. It
was the opposite to útjarðir (‘out-lands’) and lausa-fé (‘movables’) which descended to
the daughter (NgL I: 91, 237).
The óðal was inalienable within a family, so that even
when parted with, the possessor still retained a title or convenant (land-brigð, máldagi á
Given that Iceland was terra nova at the time of Settlement, there could be (by
definition) no óðal system of land-ownership as there were no local ancestors. This may
have marked a clear break between Iceland and Norway and meant that the settlers
identified with their land in a different way.
This is because the relationship to a place is
often fundamental in creating an identity. The absence of the óðal system and the
individualistic nature of the landnám process are likely to have led to a relative (not
absolute) dislocation of kinship and locality. Thereafter one has two social systems in
operation: locality and kinship, whereas previously these had been co-terminous.
Vestergaard (1988: 178): the precise definition of óðal varies. According to Frostuþingslög XII (4) (NgL
I: 237), land would be óðal to a man if three patrilineal ancestors had owned it; in Gulaþingslög (266) (NgL
I: 87) the criterion is five generations of individual ownership in a patriline.
óðal was allegedly being appropriated by the new kings of Haraldr inn hárfagri’s dynasty in Norway, at
the time when the settlers were abandoning the concept in Iceland.
The implications of the disappearance of óðal in Iceland have been
misunderstood. Hastrup (1985: 74) notes that ‘the disappearance of common ownership
of land is connected with the emergence of the cognatic kindred’, i.e. a group of persons
who have a single relative in common and for whom descent is through male or female.
To use the term ‘common ownership’ is as tendentious as it is misleadingly anachronistic
and appears to be creating the romantic illusion of a pre-monarchic Marxist idyll: óðal as
understood in medieval Scandinavia was certainly not ‘common land’. As for ‘emergence
of cognatic kindred’, it should be stressed that cognatic kinship had always been
significant to Germanic kinship-structures.
The important point is specifically that the
óðal had to be inherited down the male line, but movable property could always come
into and leave the family by marriage.
Icelandic society does not seem to have substantially altered the balance between
agnatic and cognatic kinship (i.e. the balance between relationship by male link
exclusively and descent through the male or the female): it was just that the concept of
inalienable, agnatically inherited land was abandoned. Any Icelandic estate could be
bought, sold or granted with legal and personal freedom. The óðal system implies
certainly patrilineal inheritance. That is unlikely to have changed: at the time of the
Settlement the kin system appears to have been patrilineal; the implications of the phrase
at leiða í ætt (‘to adopt’) are that one was becoming a member of the paternal ætt
(Jónsbók, 1970: 87). It appears that it was the ability to transfer land that changed, both
within the ætt and beyond it, leading of course to far greater mobility (change of legal
domicile had to take place at legal times of the year, fardagar).
It had always been important who married whom, and all the Germanic peoples employed the practice of
In a country which regarded its own history in terms of land-taking,
change in the way the settlers related to that land must have been significant for an
individual’s identity and may have led to a reconfiguring of identity models.
Early Iceland’s social structures were unique to a degree and were recognised as such at
the time. It would seem that the Icelanders wanted to create a different society. It is
impossible to know precisely what the motivation for this may have been. I would
contend that the uniqueness of the social structures may be intertwined with the landnám
itself. It was the unsettled land that gave the Icelanders the freedom to create their own
society. In establishing social structures, the settlers may have wanted to avoid the
perceived deficiencies of the models they were familiar with. Equally, they may have just
exercised their freedom and chose an arrangement that they considered was most
appropriate for a scattered population. The settlers were clearly not restricted to following
any particular model, but they must have thought within certain parameters. They would
have had some premises and mind-sets: one cannot exclude models altogether; it may be
that they chose to adapt for whatever reason aspects of archaic institutions. The
terminology used for these social structures reflects a changing social and individual
identity in early Iceland. Significantly, it is terminology that applied across the land, and
not just in a specific region. All the Icelanders were united by one law and bound by the
socio-legal terminology referring to the legal institutions and their functions: the social
Meulengracht Sørensen (2000: 16): Landnámabók gave written form to the very act of taking over empty
and nameless territories. Scholars differ as to why it was written. Compare Barði Guðmundsson (1959: 76,
90): constitutional amendments introducing allodial rights; Jón Jóhannesson (1941: 220): pure historical
interest; Sveinbjörn Rafnsson (1974: 142): a source on the rights of the land-owning families in Iceland.
structures put in place reified the sense of a ‘whole’ that the Icelanders had because they
were relevant to the whole land. This can be seen from the process of Quartering. The
term fjórðungr (‘Quarter’) shows inherently that the whole land was divided up, since a
Quarter could only have any meaning with reference to the whole. Thus, the
establishment of Icelandic social structures during the Commonwealth Period both
informs, and is informed by, the collective identity of what we may call the Icelandic
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