A Guide to the Sagas: Icelanders in the Viking Age – The People of the Sagas Skip to content

A Guide to the Sagas: Icelanders in the Viking Age – The People of the Sagas

Icelanders in the Viking Age – The People of the Sagas by William R. Short, an independent scholar from Massachusetts, was released in March. He is also the author of Viking Weapons and Battle Techniques, which was published last year.

Icelanders in the Viking Age is a well-structured, easily understandable and practical historical guide back to the time of the Icelandic settlement and commonwealth and the life of the early Icelanders.

With an obvious passion for the subject, Short digs deep into a wide range of archeological and literary sources available on the time period, combing through the sagas to present readers with a realistic account of life in the saga age.

At first I was afraid that the book would be a glorification of the past based only on the sagas. Fortunately, that did not turn out to be the case.

However, it is clear that the author is deeply interested in the literature from the period and at times relies heavily on it when other sources are lacking.

The Icelandic sagas can prove a difficult read as there is much about the time during which they take place that modern readers don’t know.

What were the houses like? What kind of work was undertaken on the farm? What role did women play in the household? What kind of food did people eat? How was it preserved? What did people wear? Where did they go to the bathroom?

These are all questions readers might ask themselves when reading the sagas but only receive incomplete answers to because the saga authors assumed readers knew all about the everyday life of the saga heroes.

Many aspects of life in the saga age are still unknown but Short does his best to answer all these questions, drawing on many examples from the sagas to satisfy the curiosity of saga readers. It is an excellent handbook in that sense, although perhaps not a particularly exciting read.

Short is thorough and accurate, although there were a few examples regarding the Icelandic language that I think may have been based on a misunderstanding.

For instance, when describing how pregnancy impacted daily life, he mentions a chapter from the sagas where a pregnant woman asked if she could withdraw from work as she was feeling unwell.

I believe the Icelandic word must have been ófrísk, which literally means unwell, but at least in modern Icelandic, it is only used to describe a woman being pregnant.

While the origin of the word probably relates to pregnant women feeling unwell in the sense that they couldn’t go about their work as easily in the later stages of pregnancy, I’m not sure that the character from the saga meant to say that she was unwell, but rather was just stating the obvious, that she was pregnant and that her condition had to be taken into account.

Another example is the word , which in modern Icelandic means both sheep and money. The origin of the word refers to the fact that throughout the centuries, practically all Icelanders were sheep farmers and their wealth was counted in sheep.

Short says that the word  applied to cattle and that milking cows were a farm’s most valuable asset in saga age Iceland.

That might very well be true but I have never heard the word  being used for cattle, although the related word búfénadur can be used to describe livestock in general.

There were a few other things that bothered me, although some of them are a matter of taste, I suppose.

For example, using the short form of spelling from the sagas, such as writing Höskuldr instead of Höskuldur as in modern Icelandic.

I have heard linguistic theories which say that words were pronounced differently in “old Icelandic” and that they were therefore spelled differently in the sagas, but I have also heard that they were simply abbreviated to save space on the precious parchment.

I don’t know whether there is any truth to the latter theory, as language is bound to evolve over time, but Icelandic has changed to such an insignificant extent that I would have preferred modern spelling.

Short also seems a bit confused about when to use the geographical term Scandinavia, as indeed many other people from outside the Nordic countries seem to be as well.

Sometimes he correctly uses it to refer to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but at other times he includes Iceland, which is not a part of Scandinavia. All of these countries, including Finland, Greenland, Aaland and the Faroe Islands are Nordic.

Similarly, the term Viking should be used carefully. It is often used to describe all Nordic people of the saga age, while in fact it only applies to Norse seafarers and warriors.

“Ad fara í víking” is to go on a raid, and although some of the early Icelanders certainly participated in such raids, most of them were farmers. The time of the settlement of Iceland is close to the end of the Viking raid period.

Finally, the cover of the book is not especially appealing and in fact makes it seem less interesting than it actually is. A more elegant design could have added a new dimension to the book.

These items aside, I found Icelanders in the Viking Age an interesting, if not an exciting, read and especially helpful as an extensive glossary to the sagas, which indeed was the author’s main purpose.

Click here to read more about the book and the author and here to buy a copy.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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