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Response to Review no. 212

It is no doubt common that a scholar begins, at the end of a long book-writing project, to fear that his or her message is not really relevant anymore. One grows so accustomed to one’s own ideas and so convinced of their rightness that it becomes difficult to imagine that anybody could have other views, and a paranoia sets in that the rest of the scholarly community has in fact developed their ideas much further, while one was compiling indices and reading proofs.

These are of course delusions, but it is nevertheless satisfying to get confirmation that there are those who still hold on to the ideas one was trying to challenge. Paul Buckland will not be offended if I suggest that his views are most closely paralleled with those of the likes of Björn Þorsteinsson, the mid-20th century generation of Icelandic historians and philologists who saw the Church as an alien and evil force which disrupted, corrupted and eventually caused the downfall of the sensible, proud (and most importantly) indigenous Icelandic political order, called the Commonwealth or Free State (AD 930-1262). I suspect that Þorsteinsson and his contemporaries saw in the medieval Church an analogy with the British and later American forces who occupied Iceland in 1940 and stayed put even after the end of the World War, with tremendous – and to their mind negative – implications for Icelandic culture and the economic and political structure. While this school of thought has long been displaced in Iceland by the diffusionist view – which sees the medieval Church as a vehicle of positive change and responsible for the infusion of scholarship and ideas which found fertile ground in 12th and 13th century Iceland – the older view still has many adherents among non-Icelandic scholars, like Buckland, who do not necessarily share Þorsteinsson’s political ideas or his emotional involvement with the subject. Their view seems to have developed out of respect for things Icelandic, taking everything they consider good about our society to be indigenous and everything they consider bad to be imported. It follows from this that they often imagine that there was a stage where Icelandic society was pristine, when only indigenous goodness reigned, and that everything negative is the fault of the Catholic church, Norwegian expansionism, Danish colonialism, German trade, British fishing and American imperialism. There is an arrogance implied by this view, as if the Icelanders were somehow too weak or feeble minded to resist foreign influences, too simple and uninformed to initiate change themselves, too peripheral and subdued by the elements to have any control over what happened to them or how their society developed. Now it would be bad taste to suggest that these are Buckland’s views, but they are entirely consonant with his allegory of the Church being an endoparasite in the body of Icelandic medieval society.

It was this and the opposite view – that the Church was a much-needed nourishment for the starving body of medieval Icelandic society – which I was trying to challenge in my book. To my mind discussing medieval Icelandic society and the Church in terms of the dichotomy between good and bad has not proven fruitful and I suggested that it was more reasonable and enlightening to see it as a tool providing the Icelandic political elite with the means to develop statelike structures, rather than an independent agent for good or bad. I have obviously not won Buckland over to my way of thinking, although I am pleased to see that he has taken the opportunity to raise a number of interesting points – most of which I take no issue with.

There are however two small points in Buckland’s review I’d like to react to. Recent investigations at Hofstaðir have made me reconsider my views on pagan ritual, although I still do not think that there was any religious organisation in pre-Christian times. The skulls we have found at Hofstaðir do in themselves not point to rituals or a sacred function of the site – as they were lined up on the outside of the turf walls they may simply attest to a sense of decoration which may be somewhat alien to us. There are however too many unusual aspects to Hofstaðir to consider it as simply an ordinary large farm. The vast size of the hall, the unusual layout of the building complex, the garish decorations and evidence for unusual slaughtering practices, when all put together, suggest that there is something quite unusual about this site. Recent re-examination of the tephra layers, which we base our dating on to a large degree, suggests that Hofstaðir may not be a very early site as previously thought but a late foundation from the second half of the 10th century. If that is the case it is tempting to see it as a reaction to increasing Christian influence; a chieftain creating a religious centre based on a Christian model in order to consolidate his authority and influence. The location of Hofstaðir (which is hardly central to anything, however one turns the map) suggests that this must have been a very minor chieftain, and possibly someone who was making a fresh bid to power in the area. The similarly peripheral location of other Icelandic farms with the place name element “hof” (meaning temple) may indicate that other minor or aspiring chieftains were attempting the same thing all over the country in the last decades of the 10th century.

I agree with Buckland that there are indications for pagan ritual, sacred wells, lakes, groves etc., but I think these indications also suggest that the practices associated with such sites were not a part of a religious organisation. On the contrary they were local and diverse, the pre-Christian religion being primarily a private and a household affair. It is then more or less a moot point to what extent one considers communal gatherings and feasts to have had primarily religious, political or social significance. I have no wish to deny the pre-Christian Icelanders a rich cultural life, complex ideologies, religious fervour or supernatural beliefs. What they did not have was a religious organisation, which could be taken over by the Church – the point in my book being that the introduction of Christianity into Icelandic society was a major innovation in terms of social structure.

On the dating of Stöng – which may sound like a trivial concern to the uninitiated but is as Buckland points out central to our understanding of so much of Iceland’s Viking age and high-medieval chronology – it is Buckland rather than me that falls into a trap. I agree that the dating of the abandonment of the farm based on artefact typology is weak, the objects are too few and too undiagnostic to support such radical revision. That said, an 11th century date for the pottery shard, while not unthinkable, would be a first in Iceland, which was totally aceramic until the 13th century. Buckland sidesteps the principal evidence produced by Vilhjálmsson which is his identification of the 1104 tephra underneath cultural layers at Stöng, suggesting that the site was occupied after the eruption of that date and that at least the small building built on top of the chapel ruin post-dates the deposition of the tephra (Vilhjálmsson 1989, 90-91). Vilhjálmsson’s finding of prehistoric tephras like H3 above the cultural layers also supports the scenario proposed by him that the 1104 tephra was re-deposited due to erosion after the abandonment of the farm, infilling its ruin, long after its initial deposition in 1104. It is of course embarrassing for Vilhjálmsson that support for his hypothesis for a 12-13th century abandonment of Stöng should come from tephrochronolgy – which he had attacked quite viciously as a method before it came convenient for him to use it. This should however not scare the scholarly community away from using his results – which remain undisputed. That said, I grant that a cloud of doubt will hang over Vilhjálmsson’s results until a second opinion on the identification of the tephra layers in Stöng is given, preferably by a tephrochronologist.

Delaying the abandonment of Stöng – and by inference the rest of the settlements in Þjórsárdalur – until the 13th century gives us an opportunity to blame the Church, which I am sure Buckland will applaud. Recent research by myself and others in Þjórsárdalur suggests that its abandonment may have had as much to do with economic and political reasons as environmental ones. The fact is that as late as the 16th century Þjórsárdalur contained the only sizeable woodlands in the county of Árnessýsla. These woodlands were clearly extensive – possibly undermining the environmental catastrophe scenario normally envisaged for this valley – and they were for the greatest part owned by the Bishop of Skálholt. The rest were owned by lesser churches both in Árnessýsla and neighbouring Rangárvallasýsla. It is clear from Árni Magnússon’s land register from the beginning of the 18th century that even at that late date Þjórsárdalur was the principal source for essential charcoal for more than 400 farmsteads in Árnessýsla, all owned by either the local churches or the cathedral in Skálholt. Extensive evidence for the processing of iron from bog ore in the valley also suggests that this charcoal dependent activity may have been in competition with the farmers of Stöng and other households in the valley who used the woodlands for pasture. The stage is therefore set for the hypothesis that the settlements in the valley – no doubt already made vulnerable by erosion caused by volcanic activity and overgrazing – were intentionally laid waste by the landowner, the bishop of Skálholt, in the 13th century in order to preserve the precious woodlands for the use of the much larger group of lowland tenants.

As suggested by Buckland the economic and environmental impact of the political structure emerging in the 12th and 13th centuries – of which the Church was an essential and influential part – is one of the more exciting subjects of medieval Icelandic history and archaeology. It is a field where history and archaeology can fruitfully work together to produce significant results.


Vilhjálmsson, Vilhjálmur Ö. 1989, “Stöng og Þjórsárdalur-bosættelsens ophør” Hikuin 15, 75-102.