A traditional Icelandic turf-roofed house, with the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupting in the background. This is one of the few surviving intact and authentic turf-roofed houses left in Iceland. More than a century old, it occupies the site of an older farmhouse visited by William Morris and is now the youth hostel at Fljótsdalur on Fljótshlíth. Photo by Jonny Grove, taken in Spring 2010.
Margaret Clunies Ross
(University of Sydney)


Politics and Government, 1348-1418

In 1262-4 Iceland lost its political independence to the Norwegian king, although it remained largely autonomous. During the period 1348-1418 its political status was that of a skattland ‘tax-land’ or tributary to the Norwegian (later Danish) king, with a resident governor and law-man (lögmañr) and a number of local administrators or sheriffs (sÿslumenn). Many of the local officials were Icelanders, while the governors or their bailiffs in the fourteenth century tended to be foreigners. The foreign governors began at this time to reside at and administer the country from the king’s farm Bessastañir, near the trading port of Hafnarfjörñur, a short distance south of present-day Reykjavík. 

The fourteenth century was generally a period of political instability in greater Scandinavia and there were frequent wars between the Scandinavian kingdoms as well as various dynastic marriages intended to bring closure to the wars. As a consequence of the latter, the Kalmar Union, which united Denmark, Norway and Sweden under a single ruler, began in 1397 and ushered in a period of dominance by the Danish Crown that lasted in Iceland until the early twentieth century. The Danish Crown took little interest in its North Atlantic dependencies (Orkney, Shetland, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes) and, from 1380, when Iceland became part of its empire, the island began to suffer neglect and exploitation at the hands of its Danish masters.


Probably the most important economic development in the period 1348-1415 was the beginning of the Icelandic fishing trade. In the early fourteenth century Icelanders began to export stockfish (dried fish, usually cod) to other parts of Europe, normally via the port of Bergen in Norway. Although the fishing trade from Norway was then largely in the hands of the German Hanseatic League, the ships that brought Icelandic fish to Bergen were either Norwegian or (sometimes) Icelandic. The growing European demand for stockfish as Lenten fare was a consequence of the Church’s strengthening of restrictions on Christians eating meat during Lent.

There were a number of downstream consequences of this new economic development: the establishment for the first time of semi-permanent fishing camps at fishing stations along the west coast of Iceland; the growing prosperity of the proprietors of mixed fishing and farming establishments in Western Iceland; there is some evidence that these included several of the monasteries and the two episcopal sees of Skálholt and Hólar (that owned ships). From the beginning of the fifteenth century English ships visited Iceland to fish. Most sailed from ports in East Anglia. English fishermen are first mentioned in Icelandic sources in 1412 (Nÿi annáll) . In 1415 emissaries from the Danish Crown asked the King of England to prohibit English fishermen from sailing to Iceland; this was opposed by the English Parliament on the grounds that the practice was already established (Diplomatarium Islandicum XVI [1952-72], 227-8, no. 80). ‘The English Century’ gave way in the late 1400s to Hanseatic merchants from Hamburg, who came to dominate the Icelandic fishing export trade into the sixteenth century. 


The first plague epidemic came to Iceland on the ship of one Einarr Herjólfsson in 1402. It began at Hvalfjörñur in Western Iceland, probably in mid-August (source Nÿi annáll ‘New Annal’). It abated by Easter 1404, but there was an estimated 50-60% mortality rate, with some desertion of farms. A second plague epidemic took place in 1494-5.

Internal political and social changes

Within Iceland, political power continued to be exercised by members of those families that gained or retained power after the country became a skattland of Norway and by those used as local administrators or sheriffs by the governor representing the Norwegian king. They were joined in the fourteenth century by the nouveau riche entrepreneurs of the fishing industry. The Church and its senior clergy also exercised power in Iceland over the period 1348-1418. The struggle between the Church and secular leaders, many of whose ancestors had built churches and endowed them with property in the German Eigenkirche mode, was partially resolved in 1296-7 by nto Norwegian; other kinds of religious literature; compilations of poetry, most of it religious; and the copying of manuscripts in Icelandic religious houses for export to Norway up to the end of the fourteenth century, when the growing distinctiveness of Icelandic as a language and political and economic changes in Norway made this process unviable (Stefán Karlsson 2000[1979]). In the mid-fourteenth century we find evidence of the first poem composed in the new ríma (plural rímur) verse-form, a mode that remained popular in Iceland up to the end of the nineteenth century. In addition, although the medieval evidence is not available, there are strong indications that ballads made their appearance in Iceland during our period (Vésteinn Ólason 1982).

Kinds of documentary sources include: cartularies of religious houses (máldagar), annals (though most come to an end before 1400; Nÿi annáll extends to 1430); diplomas and other documents; manuscript compilations; vernacular texts of various kinds.

 ‘Indigenous’ riddarasögur (in contrast to those translated from other European languages, like French) are those that do not have non-native sources.