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233
ICELAND

would grow in favoured localities, the hay, self-sown, was the only regular crop. In some districts the fisheries and fowling Mode of life. were of importance, but nine-tenths of the population lived by their sheep and cattle. Life on each homestead 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; goði 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 Effects of the Union. 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 (sýslur), administered by sheriffs (sýslumadr) 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 (hreppstjóri) bailiff, a subordinate of the sheriff; and the goðorð, 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 underleased 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 1280, 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 15th 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 old 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 Reformation. 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 devastation in 1579, 1613-1616 and 1627. Nothing points Decadence. 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.[1]

Gradually the ideas which were agitating Europe spread through Scandinavia into Iceland, and its claims were more respectfully listened to. The continental system, Modern times. which, by its leading to the blockade of Denmark, 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.) 

Ancient Literature

Poetry.—Iceland has always borne a high renown for song, but has never produced a poet of the highest order, the qualities which in other lands were most sought for and admired in poetry being in Iceland lavished on the saga, a prose epic, while Icelandic poetry is to be rated very high for the one quality which its authors have ever aimed at—melody of sound. To these generalizations there are few exceptions, though Icelandic literature includes a group of poems which possess qualities of high imagination, deep pathos, fresh love of nature, passionate dramatic power, and noble simplicity of language which Icelandic poetry lacks. The solution is that these poems do not belong to Iceland at all. They are the poetry of the “Western Islands.”

It was among the Scandinavian colonists of the British coasts that in the first generations after the colonization of Iceland

  1. For the periods succeeding the union, Danish state papers and the History of Finn Jonsson are the best authority.