Iceland Brief History

Iceland Brief History

The first signs of the history of Iceland can be found in the De mensura orbis terrae, written in 825 by the Irish monk Dicuil, who calls the country Thule and narrates that some Irish priests, thirty years earlier, had stayed on the island. But only after its discovery by the Scandinavians does the island truly enter history. After the Norwegian Naddodh and the Swede Gardhar Svavarson had discovered the region, to which the Norwegian Floki Vilgerdharson gave the name, the first colonization took place: the Norwegian Ingólfr Arnarson, at the head of an expedition, in the year 874, took, for first, possession of southwest Iceland and thus began that great landnám (Icelandic nema land “to take possession of a country”) which lasted about 60 years and is characterized by a continuous current of immigration to the island, which then had a more varied and less harsh aspect than today. Three quarters of the immigrants (landnámsmenn) came from Norway and a quarter, including many Celts, from the British Isles. Emigration from Norway was favored by the political situation under King Harald Haarfagre. Many nobles, not wanting to adapt to the severe government of the king, preferred to emigrate to a region where no limit was opposed to their freedom. In the Landnámabók (see below: literature) this colonization is described in all its phases. I landnámsmenn, about four hundred in number, they divided the land among themselves, they brought their families, numerous slaves and other relatives there. All in all it is estimated that in the year 930 the population of Iceland amounted to about 50,000 individuals. “The organizing capacity of the northern white race has erected here, in the most difficult conditions, its purest and greatest monument” (Arup).

The settlers came on their own ships, bringing their belongings and livestock, and were completely independent of each other. Everyone felt like a little king in his little kingdom and in free relationship with his neighbors. Many of these “captains”, who in their homeland had been godar, that is, pagan priests, built temples (hof) where they themselves directed the divine office. As a rule, neighboring residents, who did not have a temple of their own, participated in this office. In this way the godi becomes the administrator of his own farm and Iceland is divided into a series of gothords, where the most authoritative person even in secular relationships is the godi. In many places they are set up by the godi of the courts in which he assumes the functions of judge. As the country is cultivated, the lack of a common court and common laws is increasingly felt; and therefore the wise statesman Úlfljót went to Norway and elaborated here the first Icelandic laws on the basis of that of the Gulathing. In the year 930, the laws of Úlfljót are accepted in the first Alting (Althingi), the oldest legislative assembly in Europe, in Thingvalla (Thingvellir), a plain in the southwestern part of the island, and the lögsöguman (speaker of law), whose task was precisely to recite, before the Alting, from the lögberg (cliff of laws) all laws of the Icelandic Republic during the three years during which he was in office. Until 1117 there were no written laws. Thus Iceland had its first constitution. The country was divided into districts (fiórdungar) and in 964 the number of godar was fixed at 39, i.e. 9 per district, except for the northern one, which was granted 12. The Alting, as appdlo court (althingisdóm) operated through the four district courts. A fifth court (fimtardóm) was established in 1004, as the supreme court.

As a legislative assembly, the Alting functioned through a committee of 144 members, of which only a third party had the right to vote: these were the 39 godar and nine other members, chosen three for each district by the godars of the South, West and of the East, so that each district had 12 representatives. Each of these 48 members could appoint assessors, who sat next to him, so that he could consult them easily. The whole committee was called Lögrétta (corrector of the law). This state of affairs lasted throughout the republican period (930-1262).

The first century of this period is characterized by the bloody conflicts, narrated by the Saga, between the single lineages of captains. In general, the characteristic of the oldest history of Iceland is precisely this: that it is not the history of a state, but the history of individual lineages. Two exploratory journeys were undertaken in Europe at that time: in 986 Henry the Red discovered Greenland and in the year 1000 his son Leif the Happy discovered Vinland (see america: II, p. 838).

At the same time Christian missionaries were preaching among the population and in the year 1000 Alting allowed the Christian religion to become the religion of the state. It is remarkable that the first bishops were sons of godar; the power of the church is thus strengthened in a short time. Bishop Gissur established two bishoprics in Skálholt and Hólar and introduced “tithing” in Iceland in the year 1096, earlier than in any other northern country. The two bishops joined the Lögretta.

The 11th to 13th centuries were a flowering period for Iceland’s spiritual life. It is the time of the drafting of the Sögur and in which the country undergoes the beneficial influence of Germany, France and England, where the eminent men of Iceland go to study. Instead in the century. XIII, towards the end of the republican period, the shortcomings of the constitution made themselves felt more and more. The court, having dissolved the gothords, meets with the few captains, among whom the fight is rekindled. The lack of a central government was the reason why it was not possible to reconcile the godar among themselves.

The king of Norway Haakon Haakonsøn profited from these struggles and in the year 1241 he had his worst enemy Snorri Sturluson out of the way, so that in the years 1262-64 he was able to be recognized as king of the Icelanders. The “old treaty” (Gamli Sáttmáli) stipulated that the king should establish a Jarl (count, governor) and to exact a small tax, in return for which he undertook to maintain order, to respect Icelandic laws and to send six ships a year from Norway to Iceland. This last ordinance was extraordinarily important and of vital interest, since it was a country with little wood and ships which, in order to survive, needed to regularly import food from surrounding countries. Finally it was agreed that the reciprocal agreement should be null and void in the event that the king had failed to fulfill his commitments.

With this began a period of decline in which the Icelanders had to tolerate various breaches of the agreement, as they needed imports from Norway. From 1271 to 1973, King Magnus Lagaboter introduced a new code adapted to the Norwegian one, Jónsbók, in place of the Grágás (the ancient code of the Republic). The judicial function is divided between two judges (lögmenn) and Alting undergoes a change in its composition as it now consists of members elected by the king (nefndarmenn). Lögretta is entrusted with the judiciary instead of the legislative one. District courts and the fimtardóm are abolished and the country is divided into counties (s ý slur), governed by sý slumenn of direct appointment. At the same time, the clergy from their union with the king draws great power and considerable wealth.

With the union of Denmark to Norway after the death of Haakon VI (1380) and the pact of union of Kalmar (1397) the situation of Iceland worsens even more. The conditions of the “old treaty” are increasingly openly violated. The supply of the country is carried out first by merchants from Bergen, then passes to the English and finally to the Hanseatic cities to become in 1602 a monopoly of some Danish merchants, who, exercising the most exorbitant loan sharking, bleed the population.

The last remnant of national independence disappeared with the Reformation. The execution of the powerful bishop Jón Arason, which took place in 1550, was followed by the confiscation of the bishop’s assets, which were used for the erection of two Protestant schools in Holar and Skálholt. In 1593 a higher court was established with the task of controlling the two lögmenns. A troubled era, this, an era of superstitions, of witches’ burning, of piracy (1627, pirates of Algiers) along the coasts, but an era nonetheless of flower in literature, especially with the Psalms of Hallgrimur Pjeturson. In 1662 the governor (höfudsmadr) Henrik Bjelke gets the Icelanders to take an oath of vassalage to the king of Denmark, where absolutism reigns: and from now on the Danish officials govern the country according to the directives of Copenhagen. In the century XVIII, epidemics between the population and livestock, poor harvests and famines, the volcanic eruptions of 1765 and 1783, cause the population to decrease by a quarter. In 1798 Alting met in Thingvalla for the last time and two years later it was completely abolished and replaced by the “superior court” (Landsyfirréttur) in Reykjavik, which also becomes the seat of the two bishoprics gathered together. Now the country begins to progress. In 1787, the commercial monopoly partially abolished, all Danish subjects were allowed to do business in Iceland; the result is an improvement in prices and in the economic situation in general. During the war between Denmark and England (1807-14) communications were completely cut off, and Iceland, only thanks to the good will of the English, escaped the danger of hunger. Under these circumstances, the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jürgensen managed (1809) to take over the island and keep it power for 8 weeks, until the English made him prisoner. With the Peace of Kiel (1814) Denmark lost Norway, but retained dominion over Iceland. In the’ a subsequent period under the influence of the romantic-democratic currents arises among the Icelandic students who attended the University of Copenhagen and a nationalist movement spreads, which the Danish government tolerates reluctantly. With the introduction of provincial councils in Denmark (1834) Iceland had two elected representatives at the meetings in Roskilde, who were replaced in 1838 by a council of 10 members based in Reykjavik. But in 1843 Christian VIII re-established the Alting with consultative functions, which met in Reykjavik in 1845. Under the leadership of the great statesman Jón Sigurdsson (1811-79) it became the spokesman for the Icelandic people in the struggle for national independence.. In 1854 the commercial monopoly was completely abolished. Denmark, having had a free constitution in 1849, he also desired Iceland’s participation in his political life; but every attempt was successful due to the demands of the Icelanders to govern themselves with no other link with Denmark than personal union. Since all the negotiations were in vain, the king in 1871 promulgated one on his own initiative Rigslov, a law that declared Iceland an inseparable part of the Danish kingdom with its own legislation and its own finances. Denmark allocated 100,000 crowns per year for the administration, a sum which, however, after twenty years, had to be reduced to 60,000 crowns. On the occasion of the festivities (1874) for the millennial of the Landnám, King Christian IX came to visit Iceland, granting a free constitution for business concerning the island in particular: the Alting was divided into two chambers of 12 and 24 respectively. members and had the legislative power; there was a minister for Icelandic affairs (but this was the Danish minister of justice) in Copenhagen and a governor (landshöfdingi “head of the country”) in Reykjavik.

In the following time the country’s industry flourished, banks were erected, a telegraph cable was built with Scotland (1906). In 1903 the minister for Iceland was an Icelandic resident in Reykjavik and in 1904 Hannes Hafstein was appointed to this post. Nonetheless, the Icelanders are not satisfied. In 1907 a Danish-Icelandic commission was appointed, whose proposal for a constitution was rejected by Alting (1906). In 1911 a university had been established.

Various other attempts were unsuccessful, finally in 1918 a mixed commission of Danes and Icelanders drafted an Act of Union which, approved by the parliaments of the two countries, obtained the royal sanction on November 30, 1918. The treaty recognizes the independence of Iceland as a state sovereign, united to Denmark in the person of the king and by the stipulations of the Covenant of Union. Despite having much to suffer from the aftermath of the world war, Iceland has been in constant progress over the past decade. Prime ministers of this period were Jón Magnusson, Jón Thorlaksson and Tryggvi Thorhallsson.

Iceland Brief History