During the period 1122–1133, Ari Froði (the Learned) wrote Íslendingabók “the Book about Iceland”. This remarkable piece of scholarly literature was written in Icelandic, or Norse, if you will, although the writer was probably much more fluent in Latin, at least when writing. In those days, Latin was the language of choice for European scholars, of whom there were embarrassingly few, most of them clergymen.
Parenthetically, I should add that in Spain there were lots of scholars at the time, not least Arabs and Jews, and lots of linguists. In the thirteenth century, Spain was even lucky enough to have a king (Alfonso el Sabio 1221–1284 ) who understood the potential of the country’s wealth of learned subjects. Under his reign, tomes and tomes of invaluable scientific literature from all over the world were translated into the vernacular and Latin. Had it not been for this tremendous effort to translate as much as possible of all available knowledge, goodness knows how long Europe would have continued to languish in darkness.
So, during Europe’s Dark Ages, a light shone in the South, in Spain, and in the far North, in Iceland. In the rest of Europe, almost nobody could read or write, and even the Bible was just abra-cadabra for almost everybody.
Ari Froði writes in the “Book about Iceland” that all of the island’s farmsteads date from the first 60 years after the initial settlers arrived in (according to Ari himself) 870. Each and every one of the settlers who reached Iceland’s shores during those first years, is accounted for in another truly iconic historic document, it too in the vernacular, Landnámabók, presumably also written during the first part of the 12th century; author unknown. Of course, the settlers must have had slaves, livestock, wives and children, though there is no mention of livestock, and only occasional mention of wives and children. (An infinitesimal proportion of the settlers were, actually, women!)
Landnámabók sometimes mentions slaves (mostly Irish), either because they were particularly deserving, or because they betrayed their masters, and in some cases, we learn how many slaves a settler brought. Please note that these slaves had been captured or ensnared, as wild animals are captured or ensnared, during their owners’ raids on the British Isles. In other words, the brave and supremely enduring settlers were, in most cases, the same brutes who killed left, right and centre, on their jaunts through Europe.
Yet, having reached Iceland, they almost all demonstrated extraordinary courtesy, asking previously arrived settlers for permission to go ashore. Iceland appears to have been, until about 1262, an anarchist’s wet dream. People (mostly men) occupied large tracts of an otherwise vacant island, respecting the rights of both prior and subsequent arrivals until the island was “fully settled”.
In other words, they were all miraculously governed by a system of common consent which soon evolved into a body of laws recited once a year at Thingvellir. “He who recites the laws” was elected at regular intervals from among the country’s wisest men. There was no army, no police, no king, no president.
What’s more, we must assume that many of them could read; otherwise, why would Ari the Learned have written his book in Icelandic? Not only that: many of them could write! They wrote the most wonderful stories, lots and lots of them, the Sagas.
They had their feuds, true; they sometimes killed a man or two and were driven from the land, as a result, but by and large, they took pride in doing the honourable thing, whatever that was, and were extremely civilised.
WHY? How come bloodthirsty bandits turned a country into a lighthouse on a dark and gloomy continent? I have a theory about that: Of course they had common sense, and common sense told them that unless they were able to cooperate, they wouldn’t survive.
Almost equally important, though, was their concept of honour (sæmd). They knew their actions were being recorded and would go down in history. They assumed that not only their offspring, but whole generations, followed by generation after generation, would know the name not only of every hero but also of every bastard that had ever lived on the island. They behaved well in the hope of immortalising their honour.
Alas, common sense is not our strongest suit. A human being will only be guided by common sense up to a certain point. The same sense of honour that prevented Golden Age Icelanders from misbehaving, would drive them to exterminate one another in a series of skirmishes, including an utterly ludicrous naval battle, during the first half of the 13th century (described in Islendingasaga by Sturla Þórðarson, written early in the 14th century.) Rather than live sensible lives, they died ludicrously honourable deaths.
The chieftain Kolbeinn Tumason allegedly offered up his prayer “Heyr himna smiður” the night before his ludicrously honourable death in 1208. The translation is literal and does not convey the musical beauty of the verse. (Source: Wikipedia as at 4/7/2021)
Hear, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
So I call on thee,
for thou hast created me.
I am thy slave,
thou art my Lord.
In the course of the following three centuries, Iceland would turn into a depressing blot on European maps. For hundreds of years, the godforsaken island would be inhabited by near-starving bedraggled primitives. WHY? How come these eminently civilised farmers in the far north lost everything?
For the same reason that those of us who live in wealthy countries in the twenty second century are soon going to lose everything: Common sense, I repeat, is not our strongest suit.
The nice part of this story is that even after Iceland was virtually wiped off the map, its people’s sagas would live on, translated into many languages. To this day, then, readers all over the world can enjoy compelling tales about how Icelanders dealt with greedy bastards. No doubt, in time to come, future generations will read about our scuffles with the greedy bastards who will have turned our beautiful planet into a wasteland and our young democracies into neo-liberal fiefdoms.