Kate Monk's Onomastikon

(Dictionary of Names)

Iceland (Island)

Capital : Reykjavik

Size: 40 000 sq m Popn: 260 000


The Irish monk, Dicuil, wrote that monks had discovered a 'large island in the north Atlantic' but left when it was invaded by heathens. Ari's later history, slendingabÙk, also mentions that Irish priests or monks were living in Iceland before Norse settlement. The Norsemen discovered Iceland around 850 but did not settle there. The first known visitor was the Swede, Garðarr Svavarsson, who was driven off course by a storm. The first attempt at colonization failed due to lack of hay to provide winter feed for the animals upon which it depended. The second, led by IngÙlfr Arnarson, took place around 870 (874 according to some annals). An account written around a century later describes a slave revolt but this was overcome and more settlers came, mostly from Norway. The expansion of the Viking world was probably due to a combination of new technology which produced reliable, sea-going ships, and a rise in population but the settlement of Iceland may have been influenced by refugees from the fighting between rivals for overlordship in Norway.

By the C9th, Norway was becoming a unified kingdom but the Icelanders did not accept the new king, Harald Finehair, and a republic and parliament (Althing) were founded in 930. The population had become stable, perhaps due to a more settled society in Norway, and most of the land was nominally taken so it was necessary to apply to a chieftain for it. A code of law based on a west Norwegian model was established but it was not written down until the C12th. A paid state servant, the lawspeaker, learnt it by heart and taught his successor. The island was divided into quarters with three chieftains who, with the Norse priests (pl. goðar sing. goði) presided over their own local courts. The Althing, which sat for two weeks in the summer, constituted the supreme court. The office of goði became hereditary and through intermarriage, was concentrated in a few families. Although women could not be goðar, they had the same property rights as men and could pass on the right to their sons.

Norway was converted to Christianity by King Olaf Tryggvason in the late C10th and Denmark's king, Harald Bluetooth, 950-85, became Christian although it was not until the reign of Canute in the mid C11th that the country was permanently converted. Missionaries, including thangbrandr and Gizurr, were sent to Iceland around 1000 AD. Gizurr proposed a change of religion at the Althing which caused instant chaos and fighting and came close to causing Iceland to divide into two states on the same land. The Christians asked a farmer, Hallr, to become their lawspeaker but he paid the heathen lawspeaker, thorgeirr, to speak the Christian law too and this helped to keep the state together. By 1055, Christianity had spread and the Icelanders elected their own bishop, sleifr, the son of Gizurr. The church still had no property so could not pay priests, and  sleifr's farm was used as the bishopric which may have influenced the election of his son, Gizurr, as his successor. It became common practice for the chieftain or goði to also be the priest. As they needed to produce heirs to their land, they were allowed to marry. Literacy increased as it was necessary to be educated to become a priest and the literary output for a population of 40 to 50 000 was as large as that of Middle English Literature.

In the early C13th, political marriages had led to the office of bishop being confined to very few families and there was conflict between the common people and the chieftains over the appointment of bishops. torlaug, the first celibate bishop, was canonised in 1200 and P« ll JÙnsson, who succeeded his uncle, #116;orlakr, in 1193, was the last chieftain-bishop. In 1236, the Althing's nominees for two bishoprics were refused consecration by the Archbishop of Nidaros and control of church government passed to Norway. Snorri Sturluson tried to encourage Icelandic independence, reviving old styles of poetry and politics. He accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian king and promised to try to persuade the rest of Iceland to do so but was dissuaded by the republican mood which the island was in. During the Norwegian civil war, he visited the country to try to reconcile the two rivals for the throne, Skuli and H«kon and later declared support for Skuli. He was murdered on the orders of King H« kon in 1241 and no-one else from the south or west of Iceland could stand up to H« kon's client chief of North Iceland, Gisur.

After twenty years of unrest, Gisur persuaded the Icelanders that the only way to achieve peace was to accept the king of Norway as their ruler. Iceland submitted to the crown of Norway in 1262-4. A new, written law, Jarnsiðar, replaced the old law, Gr« g« s ( grey goose) but was in turn replaced in 1280 by JÙ nsbÙ k which abolished the chieftaincies and introduced sú sla or counties under leaders who were appointed by the king and were not always Icelandic. Norway and Iceland came under Danish rule in 1380 but when Norway became independent in 1814, Iceland remained attached to Denmark. It was independent from 1918 but continued to recognise the Danish monarch. It was occupied by British and US forces during WWII and voted for complete independence in the referendum of 1944.

Since independence, Iceland has been governed by coalitions of leading parties, some of which have been left- or right-wing groupings although most have been moderate. The centre and right-of centre parties are the Independents and Social Democrats, the left are the Progressives and the People's Alliance and some new additions are the Social Democratic Alliance and the Women's Alliance. Iceland joined NATO and the Council of Europe in 1949 and the Nordic Council in 1953. Most of its external difficulties have been concerned with the over-fishing of its coastal waters and internally, the government has faced recurring inflation problems. The Althing declared the country a nuclear-free zone in 1985 and defied a world-wide ban to resume its whaling industry in 1992.

In the elections of 1987, the Independence and Progressive parties lost control of the Althing with more influence going to lesser groups. Vigdis FinnbogadÙ ttir was re-elected president in 1988 and SteingrÍ mur Hermannsson became prime minister but was replaced in April 1991 by DavÍ d Oddsson, leader of a new centre-right coalition of the Independence Party and the Social Democratic Party.

This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.

Copies may be made for personal use only.

tekeli.li home|Onomastikon home