Thursday, 16 December 2021

Wealth & Power in Medieval Iceland

Early medieval Iceland, the Viking colony, was a democratic and egalitarian society, but the scarcity of resources and the rough environment created competition, where local chieftains resorted to different tactics to acquire wealth and money, from using their advantage as men of the law and representatives of the people to the often complex social relationships they had with their followers.

Economic Challenges

To understand the economic challenges, we need to keep in mind that the short growing season in the north especially, was variable and mostly meant moss and lichens. Birch, Iceland's only tree, suffered from the changing temperatures and then the settlers' woodcutting. The settlers were probably pleased initially since the land was easy to clear for farming, but very soon the island started showing its boundaries. Overgrazing caused erosion, the cooling of the climate affected productivity, no new farming technologies were developed. In the south, it was possible to grow small crops of cereals, but the farmer (bændr) usually turned to sheep and cattle. Hay was vital, thus fertile meadows as well, turning land into the most desired commodity and the source of many disputes in the sagas.

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