We moderns owe a debt of gratitude to writers like Einar Hafliðason, who compiled both historical and contemporary accounts - with varying degrees of historical accuracy - in written form. His writings helped to illuminate the darkness of the early medieval period. 

A proud Viking past 

The beautiful – and beautifully remote – island nation of Iceland, though small in population, has a monumental history that can be traced back to the era of Vikings. 

Legend (and the Norse sagas) has it that it was settled mostly by exiles and malcontents fleeing Norway after Harald Fairhair unified the petty kingdoms under his rule by 872. 

Aside from establishing a new nation, these early settlers were keen on leaving a historical record of their new beginnings. One of the most important pieces of Icelandic literature (and history) - the Book of Settlements - details the early beginnings of human settlement in Iceland

Throughout the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), Iceland developed a Norse society that was – though remote – an important part of the Viking world. 

The Icelandic Commonwealth, officially known as such, was instrumental in establishing the Althing – an assembly that is directly ancestral to the current Icelandic parliament. The Commonwealth was also fostering a growing economy. 

Serving as an essential economic and cultural link, the Icelandic Commonwealth acted as a significant trading hub. It linked the Viking homeland of Scandinavia with newer settlements to the west, including Greenland and Vinland.

However, by the end of the Viking Age, the medieval kingdom of Norway had set its sights on Iceland. 

Involving itself in local politics and playing elites against each other led to fractures in the unity of Iceland, which eventually saw it become a vassal of the Norwegian crown from the late 13th century. 

Its once glorious past, a distinctive Norse culture with songs and sagas, and responsible for the beginnings of representative democracy in Northern Europe, seemed a distant memory for contemporary Icelanders. 

Their only solace was delving back into the past to calm present troubles. 

The site of Skálholt Cathedral has a rich history dating back to Einar Hafliðason's time, when it hosted a medieval church and was known as one of the two most important episcopal seats in Iceland. Photo: Qaswed / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christianity in Iceland and career advancement 

By 1262, Iceland had not only become a province under the medieval Kingdom of Norway but was also increasingly integrated into the broader Christian landscape of Europe. 

When Einar was born in 1307, Christianity was relatively new in Iceland compared to its presence in other European regions. 

It arrived on the island during the early 11th century as part of the centuries-long process of the Christianization of Northern Europe

Like most Viking societies, once Christianity had won over certain nobility, it was only a matter of time before the religion stuck and became ensconced with those in power. 

Einarr's father, a prominent local elite, had previously served as the priest to Norwegian King Haakon V.

Ensuring that his son followed in his footsteps, he sent young Einarr to a monastery northwest of the island to commence his studies under the tutelage of Bishop Laurentius Kalfsson. 

He later wrote a biography of his mentor, Laurentius saga, which provides one of the most detailed accounts of life in Iceland during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. 

Throughout the medieval period, the Church offered a means of intellectual, economic, and political advancement, along with spiritual salvation. 

Young men from remote areas, such as Iceland, received education in Latin, the Church's lingua franca, and learned literacy skills. 

The Church provided opportunities for accumulating wealth, influence, and power, which were generally unavailable in medieval communities, towns, villages, and cities. 

In 1334, Einarr completed his studies and began his clerical career by donning the liturgical frock. 

After Iceland became a province of Norway, parts of the island fell under the jurisdiction of the bishopric of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim).

Within a decade of joining the church, it seems that Einarr's hard work, good connections, or a combination of both led to him being gifted one of the island's best farms in far northern Iceland. 

More than just a generous gesture, this gift provided Einarr with economic independence, as he could rely on selling the farm's produce. 

With his spiritual and material affairs in order, he was now free to focus on other pursuits. 

A detailed depiction of the distribution of bishoprics in Iceland's northern region in the 12th century. Source: The life of Laurence, Bishop of Hólar in Iceland (Laurentius saga), translated from the Icelandic by Oliver Elton, Rivingtons, 1890 (Public domain)

The North Icelandic Benedictine School 

By the mid-1340s, Einarr had focused much of his attention on writing. 

He was a prominent member of what modern historians have dubbed the "North Icelandic Benedictine School," a literary movement that continued the scholarly traditions of Snorri Sturluson

This highly literate circle of clergy not only wrote histories but also translated many sagas into Latin. 

Their use of florid and evocative language was groundbreaking and helped popularize these histories and sagas to a broader European audience. 

Aside from the biography of his teacher and spiritual mentor, Einarr also wrote one of the most significant historical and legal texts, the Logmannsannal – the Lawman's Annal. 

This invaluable manuscript offers a comprehensive account of Iceland's legal and political history, as well as a chronological record of events spanning from the early days of Iceland's settlement right through to the 14th century. 

He spent the next two decades writing this part historical record, part legal framework, until 1361 when it appears that another (unknown) author took over. 

Modern historians and the legal community of Iceland are indebted to Einarr and his fellow "North Icelandic Benedictine School" members for compiling the social, political, and legal histories that stretch back to the early medieval period and the time of settlements. 

During his remarkable travels, Einarr witnessed the splendor of the Palais des Papes in Avignon, the seat of seven successive Popes, amidst the turbulence of 14th-century Europe. Photo: Jean gadeyne / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Travels afar 

Aside from his literary pursuits, Einarr is unique in that he is one of the few Icelanders confirmed to have traveled widely outside the island during the 14th century. 

In an era where traveling to the next village was seen as a great adventure, Einarr traveled to the papal court in Avignon. 

After Pope Benedict XI's death, King Philip IV of France influenced the election of Clement V, who established his residence in Avignon. For the next six decades, seven successive Popes resided there.

Writing his recollections of his travels to the Papal court, Einarr recorded the long and arduous journey there. 

On his journey, he encountered a ship riddled with bubonic plague, whose crew were dead. This ship was a harbinger of apocalyptic future events for medieval Europe. 

Dodging the plague, Einarr also spent much time in the Kingdom of France and, like all good Francophiles, modern and ancient, appeared to enjoy many nights in Paris. 

Einarr died in 1397 at the ripe old age of 86. Anyone with a glancing interest in Iceland, the Norse sagas, or medieval travel literature owes gratitude to this literary giant. 

Not only did his writings create a fresh style, full of florid and flowery evocations, but they also bequeathed us a greater knowledge of Iceland's political, social, and legal history stretching from its settlement to the 14th century. 

For that alone, he deserves a place in literary heaven. 

For more information on the literary heritage that Einarr bequeathed to Iceland, visit the New York Times here

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