It's clear that Jesse Byock has a deep affinity for Iceland – its people, culture, and, of course, its breathtakingly gorgeous natural environment. 

In Viking Age Iceland, he recounts his early experiences as a young man, journeying to the northern fjords of Iceland to spend time herding sheep, an adventure that felt like being on the very edge of the world. 

This area of Iceland has changed very little since the early medieval period when it was settled by people from Viking societies. 

It was this formative experience – the rugged but beautiful wilderness coupled with the warmth of the locals – that made Byock fall in love with the land. 

Since then, Byock has forged a career regaling the world with the history of medieval Iceland, from its initial settlement in the late 9th century to its eventual absorption into the Kingdom of Norway during the 12th century. 

Following his sheepherding days, Byock forged a career in academia that has seen him recognized as one of the most revered historians of medieval Scandinavia. 

This brilliance was evident in an early work, Feud in the Icelandic Saga, where he first scratched the surface of the complex society that medieval Icelanders had established (check out our review here).

This intellectual "scratching" has produced the wonderful Viking Age Iceland, a comprehensive analysis of early medieval Iceland, an era where people from Viking societies settled and built a brave new world on a rocky outcrop cast adrift in the wild North Atlantic Ocean. 

The settlement of Iceland can be traced back to the political upheavals in Norway, notably the reign of King Harald Fairhair, whose actions propelled many Norsemen to explore new horizons. Photo: 1tomm / Shutterstock

Society, sagas, and a sheep tax? 

Before we delve into how a society that seemed so peaceful could produce the sagas, Byock takes the reader on a root and stem-analysis of the society itself.

From its origins as an immigrant society – foreshadowing later European settlements in the early modern period – to the establishment of the Althing (the cultural ancestor of the contemporary Icelandic parliament), Byock skillfully unravels the challenges faced by early settlers in Viking Age Iceland.

He delves into their relationship with the environment and how this contributed to a distinct Icelandic identity, exploring everything from the country's topography to societal dynamics. 

This is also done with constant references back to the sagas, showing how fact and fiction can, in the right hands, work side by side for both education and entertainment. 

Speaking of sagas, much of the book addresses a compelling question: how could a seemingly peaceful society produce such violent stories, myths, and legends?

This society, known as the Icelandic Free State (c. 930 – 1262), had no standing army, no invasions, no foreign wars, or greedy nobles. Yet, it was the birthplace of narratives filled with such violence and death.

The answer, for Byock, lies in their indigenous development from an oral-based culture. 

These stories were "linked by the logic of dispute, the pulls of obligation, and the brokering of aid," whilst the bloody violence inherent in them was just a literary mirror to the broader society and how medieval Icelanders' "disputes were started and resolved" during this period. 

A vivid picture of medieval Iceland emerges from Byock's use of historical aspects in the sagas and the societal impact these had. 

As to be expected from Byock, this vivid picture is enhanced by the combination of archeological findings and historical records. 

A brief section is also devoted to the impact that these sagas, along with the medieval society they represented, had on shaping later Icelandic nationalism. 

From the Gray Goose Laws to Snorri Sturluson, from a "sheep tax" to what volcanic ash layers can tell us about environmental and economic degradation, Byock has written a comprehensive yet nuanced view of life in medieval Iceland. 

It is as thrilling to read as any of the famous sagas produced in medieval Iceland, which, for Byock, would be viewed as high praise indeed. 

Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock is available for purchase on Amazon here

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