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Medieval Icelandic Government

Medieval Icelandic Government

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Early medieval Icelandic government, or Viking Iceland, has been termed an incipient form of democracy or democratic parliamentarism, however, the system was actually nothing like its European counterparts, be they medieval or contemporary. Historiography prefers the term 'free state'. As the name suggests, it refers to a freely organized political entity, with some elements of statehood but not quite a state. On the contrary, colonists in Iceland, the heroes of the saga literature, from many points of view created a stateless society. They had a well-defined judicial system and a council of lawmakers (lögrétta), but no king and no one to put judicial decisions into practice. There were differences between chieftains and commoners, but not as big as in many other places. Chieftains had little executive power, and at least in the 10th and 11th century they were not hierarchically organized. Settlers left Norway and other regions to start fresh and arrange their world as nowhere else in Europe.


The colonists (landnámnsmenn in Old Norse) came with political traditions from the continent, and many of them came from the same social class. Iceland gave up the aristocratic layer of continental Viking society and generally the hierarchy of warlords, earls, freemen, and partial freemen. Iceland came to be a society of landowning farmers who were not that enthusiastic about the elites and their roles. Indeed, it might have been what drove them away in the first place. They sought to avoid concentration of power in certain groups and to each have a share of control over the others. Chieftains (góðar in Old Norse) did benefit from some greater authority, but the role was temporary and not territorial. It depended on how many followers they had, if they offered support in disputes, if they could enforce the law, and if they had enough prestige. While in Scandinavia farmers lost rights to the growing authority of kings and other leaders, Icelanders rejected a centralized state. In the words of Jesse Byock, it represents "an example of a self-limiting pattern of state formation" (Viking Age Iceland, 66), meaning that they did not want to evolve but to come back to simpler forms of coexistence.

Farmers could switch their loyalties from one chieftain to another, concentration of power was avoided, & authority was a pretty loose concept.

Local influential men can be seen as leaders but only small-scale ones. Some chieftains but also farmers (bændr in Old Norse) had more wealth and prestige than others, thus being similar to ranked societies. Chieftains could have slaves, tenants or labourers, however, slavery disappeared in the 11th century. Goðar typically competed not only for riches and status but also for followers (thingmenn in Old Norse), who were very important to assert dominance. They arbitrated in disputes, which was risky business that could get you killed, yet perhaps worth the risk, given the economic benefits. They transferred properties, gave loans to farmers, and increased their prestige by offering gifts, a practice that consolidated alliances. They held carefully planned feasts, especially at harvest time, where they displayed their generosity and importance.

It seems that chieftains acquired much less income than we would expect, due to the relatively simple economy and scarce resources. One main source of wealth, besides renting land or cattle, was intervening and settling a dispute. Technically, farmers could also do this, but chieftains were more qualified because they knew more of the law. Nevertheless, social barriers could be overcome, as farmers could become goðar, and rank depended on law and convention. Farmers could switch their loyalties from one chieftain to another, concentration of power was avoided, and authority was a pretty loose concept. This situation would change in the 13th century, once small groups gained more power, stimulated by the medieval Church among other factors.

Stateless Society

Economy was simple, the main unit was the self-sufficient farm, dependant on grazing, hunting and gathering. There were no towns, and conflicts were sometimes solved by feuding. Were Icelanders incapable of founding a state? More likely they had no interest. Norsemen in the 10th century were quite enterprising; they conquered and settled parts of England and established trade routes all the way to the Byzantine Empire. When settlers arrived in Iceland, we must assume they carried with them an important part of the social code of Scandinavian communities. This can be seen in the sophisticated laws dealing with property and ownership, seeds of discontent and competition heavily exploited in medieval literature, the sagas.

Iceland’s society was, on the other hand, different than the tribal ones with warlords and lands, characterized by power established in a certain area. Icelanders gave up part of the Viking culture, that of military prowess, conquests, and kingship, opting for consensus instead. Farmers agreed upon the fact that no chieftain should ever dominate and become an overlord. Their organization was based on social relationships that replaced statehood. Dreamy as it might sound, it was not devoid of serious downfalls. The intricate social arrangements formed by kinship, alliances or friendships could put limits to conflicts but not avoid violence. Sagas relate cases when feuds escalated to the point of no return and turned out deadly.

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Law & Order

Iceland was a society of immigrant freemen fighting over scarce resources. They emigrated at a time when the rights of common farmers were threatened by kings who sought to expand their power. As such it is understandable that they detached from the parent society and had no interest in building the same system. In the 9th century, the island seemed attractive because in other parts of Europe rulers like Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) in England were leading campaigns against Viking invaders. In Norway, where most settlers came from, king Harald Fairhair (hárfagri, r. c. 872-933) from the southeast sought to control the entire region and, together with the earls of lade from Trondelag in the north, subjugated farmers and local military leaders called hersar.

Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson writes in the 13th century that King Harald’s tyranny drove people away. While Snorri might have exaggerated, it is part of a national myth: the rejection of hierarchical arrangements and settlement of a primitive parliament called the Althing.

King Haraldr claimed possession of all land wherever he gained power and had each farmer, powerful or not, pay him a tax for the land. He appointed a jarl in each fylki [province] who would give judgments at law and collect the fines and the land tax; the jarl would keep a third of the tax for his food and living expenses. Each jarl would have four or more hersar under him, and each of the latter would have a revenue of twenty marks. Each jarl would provide the king's army with sixty soldiers and each hersir would provide twenty men. (Heimskringla ch. 6, tr. Jesse Byock, 54).

When people first arrived in Iceland, they only found some Irish monks who then left. The earliest took large chunks of land, which caused a dispute with later newcomers. The Landnámabok, or Book of Settlements, tells us that King Harald was asked to intervene and he decided that no one should possess a larger area than he could carry fire over in a day. In succeeding generations, lands came to be divided among many small farms, so no one could claim any real authority. Geography did not encourage a vassal system either, so ties of dependence soon disappeared in favour of private ownership. The lack of external threats also discouraged the formation of defensive networks dominated by lords. However, as the population increased, the need for a common law became quite clear.

Assemblies & Courts

The common assembly, the Althing, was founded. According to historian Ari the Learned in Islendigabók, or The Book of Icelanders, a man named Úlfljótr went in the 920s to Norway to adapt the laws of west Norwegians of the Gula assembly to Icelandic requirements, clarify legal matters, and bring back a legal code. Because of the lack of similarity to Grágás, The Law of the Grey Goose used in the 13th century but likely preserving some older laws, Ari’s story is not very convincing. Either way, a gathering was formed and 39 men became góðar, based on their kinship and local prestige. This term could mean chieftain-priest, and since there was no recognized priesthood, they probably performed official sacrifices. Chieftains needed to hold the local things (assemblies), and by the 10th century, there were probably 13 of these.

All chieftains and their thingmen gathered at the summer assembly, the Althing, on the Thingvöllr (plain) in the southwest. It was then the law council (lögrétta in Old Norse) met, to pass or review laws. The court represented Iceland in foreign affairs as well. Everything was public, with people sitting on benches in three circles. After the conversion to Christianity, a small church was built on the site, other than that people lived in tents or turf booths. There were no officials except for the law speaker (lögsögumaðr), on a three-year term. As the name suggests, his main task was to recite a third of the laws by heart, and despite its prestige, the function did not have any real power attached to it. There was one more resounding position, but again with no authority. The supreme chieftain (allherjargoði) was supposed to hallow the Althing and limit the sections of the assembly. This office belonged to the heirs of Thorsteinn, son of Ingólfr Arnarson, Iceland’s first settler.

In the 960s, following a deadly conflict, some reforms were introduced. Cases of manslaughter, which was publicly owned up to and different from murder which a concealed and shameful crime, would be brought to the Althing instead of the local gathering. Quarter courts were held, and the island was also divided into four quarters. The western, southern, eastern quarters had three gatherings led by three chieftains each, but the northern one got an extra one due to its geography. The potential imbalance at the Althing was fixed by adding three more goði from each of the other quarters, bringing the total number of chieftains to 48. The new chieftains though had no right to appoint judges. This brought a more centralized legal system, but at the same time, the country remained quite decentralized, based on the relationship between the chieftain and the farmer.

Another reform was the quarter assembly (fjórðungathing) dealing with the affairs of each quarter, although little is known of it and it might have been overshadowed by the Althing courts. The panel of judges selected by lot had to weigh facts and deliver a verdict. The process had rules of procedure and was open to the public. Anyone had access to the courts, however, being successful depended on how able you were to attract support. Settling a dispute required negotiations between the chiefs. In 1005, a fifth court was added (fimtardómr), for when processes came to a deadlock. The last reform of this system was the addition of the two bishops to the lögrétta.

Single combat was not that frequent & ended up being outlawed in the 11th century.

These courts were not only the expression of the accepted social order but also a proper environment for the chieftains to put forward their ambitions. They met with farmers to settle disputes, to negotiate power, to advocate positions, to gather followers. Such actions were crucial because Iceland had no executive power to put the verdict into practice. The intricate structure of the courts with all the procedures also meant other ways to settle. The parties could come to a compromise, and one party could even offer sjálfdæmi, allowing the other party to set the terms of compromise. Single combat, or hólmgange, was not that frequent and ended up being outlawed in the 11th century. Negotiation was more attractive.

The offended could also choose blood feud, a topic sagas like to explore. Seeking vengeance, however, depended on the support of kinsmen and followers and often turned messy and endless and so the parties had to finally go to court. The less formal option of arbitration involved other, more neutral people. Arbitration allowed everyone to withdraw from dangerous situations and to enjoy an acceptable ruling.

Unlike Iceland, Norway had a system that also took into account the functions and roles of kings, military leaders, or clerics. Icelanders in the 10th century developed the old rights of freemen in the Germanic world without all the layers of Norse society. They extended the old idea of local gatherings of commoners and used them instead of the more centralized and pyramidal kingdoms growing on the continent. This is not to say that early Iceland was not ranked, but Icelandic chiefs had way less authority than their Scandinavian counterparts. Until the dominance of overlords in the 13th century, there was no formal barrier to social mobility. However, a chief needed to prove his abilities to keep thingmen around. Friendship had to be paid for; something not always easy to do given the limited wealth of the island.

Feud in Iceland also had its characteristics. Unlike the continent, it was a public matter here. Icelanders kept some of the military values they brought from the continent; they could pose as fierce warriors, but the battles described in the sagas are small-scale and limited to families. Faced with a more peaceful location and yet harsh nature that needed to be tamed, the settlers soon realized the importance of restraint. Small groups might have been at times motivated to kill some opponents, but feuds never reached the level of large-scale open fighting. In the great village of Iceland, there was a lot of honour and prestige to be gained from acting as a mediator or containing troublesome behaviour.

A Story of Law & Feud

In the Saga of the People of Eyri (Eyrbyggja saga), Arnkel goði decides to take a property he had no right to, upsetting other farmers who ally themselves with an enemy of Arnkel. The story takes place in the small region of Snæfellsnes, in the west of Iceland. Bólstaðr, Arnkel’s farm, is too small to support his ambitions. He has got his eyes set on Kársstaðir, the farm at the innermost point of the fjord, with hay meadows and salmon. The sons of Thorbrand, who live here, sense Arnkel's territorial ambition, which is confirmed when he claims properties in the west and cuts their route to Helgafell, a little to the north where their chieftain Snorri lives and the assembly takes place.

Arnkel’s father Thorolf had been a Viking who acquired a lot of land by duelling. Later he sold some of the lands to Ulfar and Orlyg, two slaves freed by Thorbrand. One day, Ulfar confronts Thorolf about stealing some of his hay, but the old Viking plots to kill him by inciting his slaved to set fire to his house. Scared to death, Ulfar places himself into the protection of Arnkel and transfers his property to him in exchange. Thorbrand’s sons are not so thrilled about this since they consider themselves the owners of his farm. The law was vague here, stating that the former owner could become the heir if the former slave could not manage or had no sons. Ulfar has no children but is doing pretty well.

Thorbrand’s sons are not chieftains and so they have little power against the old Viking. Instead of summoning Arnkel directly to the assembly, the brothers ask for the help of the chieftain they are loyal to, Snorri. Arnkel’s father goes to Snorri too, furious about the death of his slaves who tried to kill Ulfar. He did not get any compensation for them and as an act of revenge against his son, Thorolf is willing to bargain with Arnkel’s opponent. Snorri agrees to favour Thorolf in prosecuting his son after he transfers some property with a valuable forest to him. At the court, Snorri states that Arnkel should have killed the slaves when caught burning Ulfar’s house, not afterwards. After arbitration, Arnkel pays a small sum to Snorri, making Thorolf even angrier as he gave up his land for this. Arnkel is also angry because his father transferred his rightful property illegally.

To assert his control over the forest, one day he kills one of Snorri’s men caught taking wood. In the meantime, he also takes over Orlyg’s property, Ulfar’s brother, this time illegally. He is getting closer to the farm of Kársstaðir. The humiliated sons of Thorbrand do not get Snorri’s help this time either, but he worries when accused of not being able to keep his authority if he just stands still. Ulfar is killed by one of Thorolf’s men, with Arnkel gladly claiming his property. He warns Thorbrand’s sons not to challenge him. Snorri reminds his followers that, in the end, the property lies between their farm and Arnkel’s and will fall to the stronger. Arnkel has become way too strong and ended up controlling almost all the fjord, but Thorbrand’s sons have the support of another chieftain and wait for the perfect moment to strike when Arnkel is only with a few slaves to tend to his hay.

The story shows the dangers a leader faced when letting his ambitions run over the top. Farmers could be cheated, but not ignored. Farmers needed to know how to assert their rights. Both compromise and violence were options, but with the right support and at the right time. Such stories point out the low likelihood of chieftains enjoying too much power for too much time.


The first people to settle in Iceland were probably Irish monks who came in the 8th century. However, in the 9th century, they were driven out by Vikings.

According to tradition the first Viking to discover Iceland was a man named Naddoddur who got lost while on his way to the Faeroe Islands. Following him, a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson circumnavigated Iceland about 860. However, the first Viking attempt to settle was by a Norwegian named Floki Vilgeroarson. He landed in the northwest but a severe winter killed his domestic animals and he sailed back to Norway. However, he gave the land its name. He called it Iceland.

Then from 874 many settlers came to Iceland from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles. A Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson led them. He sailed with his family, slaves, and animals.

When he sighted Iceland Ingolfur dedicated his wooden posts to his gods then threw them overboard. He vowed to settle at the place where the sea washed them up. He then explored Iceland. When the posts were found in the southwest of Iceland Ingolfur and his household settled there. He called the place Reykjavik, meaning Smokey Bay. Many other Vikings followed him to Iceland.

The land in Iceland was free to whoever wanted it. A man could claim as much land as he could light fires around in one day while a woman could claim as much land as she could lead a heifer round in one day.

There were very good fishing grounds around Iceland and the land was well suited to sheep. Many Vikings brought flocks with them and soon sheep became a major Icelandic industry. The population of Iceland soared. By about 930 there were about 60,000 people living in Iceland. n At first the Icelanders were ruled by chiefs called Godar but there were some local assemblies. About 930 the Icelanders created an assembly for the whole island called the Althing.


In the 11th century, the Norwegians were converted to Christianity. The Norwegian kings sent missionaries to Iceland. Some Icelanders accepted the new religion but many were bitterly opposed. Eventually, a man named Thorgeir, who was the law speaker of the Althing, realized there was likely to be a civil war between the two. He may also have feared Norwegian intervention. (The Norwegians were quite prepared to ‘convert’ people to Christianity by force!). He persuaded the people to accept a compromise. Christianity became the ‘official’ religion of Iceland but pagans were allowed to worship their gods in private.

From 1097 people in Iceland had to pay tithes to the church (in other words they had to pay one-tenth of their produce). As a result, the church grew rich and powerful. Paganism was stamped out and monasteries were built. Iceland was given a bishop in 1056. In 1106 another bishopric was created at Holar in the north.

However in 1152 the Icelandic church came under the authority of a Norwegian archbishop. In those days the church was closely allied to the state. When the Icelandic church became subordinate to the Norwegian church it meant the Norwegian king’s influence in Iceland slowly increased.

Meanwhile during the 12th-century conditions in Iceland deteriorated. It may have been partly due to overgrazing. The forests were also cut down and the result was soil erosion. With no wood to build ships, the Icelanders were dependent on Norwegian merchants. At that time wool, animal hides, horses, and falcons were exported from Iceland. Timber, honey, and malt for brewing were imported. Some Icelanders began to look to the king of Norway to protect trade.

The Icelandic Commonwealth was also undermined by feuding between clans. Then in 1218 a man named Snorri Sturlung visited Norway and agreed to support the Norwegian king’s interests in Iceland. He returned home in 1220. Meanwhile, bishops who were born in Norway also supported the Norwegian king’s ambitions to rule Iceland.

However the commonwealth really ended because of the feuding between clans. The Icelanders desperately wanted peace and they eventually realized the only way to obtain it was to submit to the Norwegian king.

Therefore in 1262 an agreement called the Ancient Covenant was accepted by the Althing. The Icelanders agreed to pay a tax of woolen cloth each year. In return, the king promised to uphold law and order in Iceland. He also replaced the Godar with royal officials. In 1280 a new constitution was drawn up. The Althing continued to meet but its decisions had to be ratified by the king. Furthermore, the king appointed a governor and 12 local sheriffs to rule. Meanwhile, slavery slowly died out in Iceland.

The 14th and early 15th centuries troubled years for Iceland. In the early 14th century, the climate grew colder. Then in 1402-03, the Black Death struck Iceland and the population was devastated.

However, prosperity returned in the 15th century. At that time there was a big demand in Europe for Icelandic cod and Iceland grew rich on the fishing industry. Icelanders traded with the English and with the Germans. (At that time there was no single German nation but German ports were joined together in a federation called the Hanseatic League).

Meanwhile, in 1397 Norway was united with Denmark. Afterward, Iceland was ruled by the Danish crown.

During the 16th century Iceland, like the rest of Europe, was rocked by the reformation. Denmark became Protestant in the 1530s and in 1539 the Danish king ordered his men to confiscate the church’s land in Iceland. The bishops of Iceland resisted and in 1541 the Danish king sent an expedition to enforce conformity. Skalholt was given a new bishop but the bishop of Holar, a man named Jon Aranson continued to resist. He was a powerful chieftain as well as a bishop and he had soldiers to fight for him. He also had two sons, by his concubine, who supported him. In 1548 Aranson was declared an outlaw. His soldiers then captured the Protestant bishop of Skalholt. However, in 1550 he was defeated. Aranson and his two sons were executed.

Afterward the people of Iceland gradually accepted Protestantism and in 1584 the Bible was translated into Icelandic.

However during the 17th century the Icelanders suffered hardship. In 1602 the king made all trade with Iceland a monopoly of certain merchants in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Elsinore. In 1619 the monopoly was made a joint-stock company. The monopoly meant the Icelanders were forced to sell goods to the company at low prices and buy supplies from them at high prices. As a result, the Icelandic economy suffered severely.

Furthermore, in 1661, the Danish king made himself an absolute monarch. In 1662 the Icelanders were forced to submit to him. The Althing continued to meet but had no real power. It was reduced to being a court. Worse in 1707-09 Iceland suffered an outbreak of smallpox which killed a large part of the population.

In the mid 18th century a man named Skuli Magnusson was made an official called a fogd. He tried to improve the economy by bringing in farmers from Denmark and Norway. He also introduced better fishing vessels. He also created a woolen industry in Reykjavik with German weavers. Finally, in 1787 the monopoly was ended.

However, in 1783, the fallout from volcanic eruptions caused devastation in Iceland. By 1786 the population of Iceland was only 38,000. Finally, in 1800 the Althing closed. A new law court replaced it. It sat in Reykjavik which at that time was a little community of 300 people.


In the 19th-century ties between Iceland and Denmark weakened. Nationalism was a growing force throughout Europe including Iceland. One sign of this growing nationalism was the writing of the song O Guo vors lands in 1874.

In 1843 the Danish king decided to Christian VIII recall the Althing. It met again in 1845. However, it had little power. Yet nationalist opinion in Iceland continued to grow and in 1874 Christian IX granted a new constitution. However, under it the Althing still had only limited powers. Then in 1904, the post of governor was abolished and Iceland was granted home rule.

Meanwhile, in 1854 remaining restrictions on trade were removed. Trade with Iceland was opened to all nations. Furthermore, Icelandic fishing became much more prosperous in the late 19th century. Until then fishermen usually used rowing boats but by the end of the century, they had switched to much more effective decked sailing ships.


Iceland began to prosper once again. The population rose (despite emigration to Canada) and in 1911 Reykjavik University was founded.

In the 20th-century ties with Denmark were loosened. In 1904 Iceland was granted home rule. The post of governor was abolished. Instead, Iceland gained an Icelandic minister responsible to the Althing. Then in 1918, Iceland was made a sovereign state sharing a monarchy with Denmark.

In 1915 Icelandic women were allowed to vote. The first woman was elected to the Althing in 1922.

Then, in May 1940, Iceland was occupied by British troops. In May 1941 the Americans relieved them. Finally, in 1944, Iceland broke all links with Denmark and the joint monarchy was dissolved. n In 1947 Mount Hekla erupted causing much destruction but Iceland soon recovered and in 1949 Iceland joined NATO.

In the late 20th century Iceland had a series of ‘cod wars’ with Britain. Iceland relied on its fishing industry and grew alarmed that the British were overfishing its waters. The ‘cod wars’ were ‘fought’ in 1959-1961, 1972, and in 1975-1976.

In 1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland. She was the first n woman president in the world.


The people of Iceland benefit from natural hot water, which is used to heat their homes. It is also used to heat greenhouses.

In March 2006 the USA announced it was withdrawing its armed forces from Iceland.

Then in 2008, Iceland suffered an economic crisis when its 3 main banks failed. In 2009 demonstrations led to the fall of the government.

Today Iceland still relies on fishing but there are many sheep, cattle, and Icelandic ponies. Iceland suffered badly in the world financial crisis that began in 2008 and unemployment rose to over 9%. However, Iceland soon recovered and unemployment fell.

Today Iceland is a prosperous country with a high standard of living. In 2020 the population of Iceland was 364,000.


Medieval Icelandic Studies

The Medieval Icelandic Studies programme is designed for international students who hold a bachelor’s degree with a medieval component in at least one of the following areas: literature, history, religion, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, art history or folklore.

Next application deadline: February 1, 2022.

About the Programme

The Medieval Icelandic Studies programme is designed for international students who hold a bachelor’s degree with a medieval component in at least one of the following areas: literature, history, religion, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, art history or folklore.

Main theme

  • Vikings
  • Medieval Iceland
  • Old Norse Myth
  • Religion
  • History
  • Literature
  • Sagas

5. Iceland is home to the world’s oldest parliament.

Iceland’s rich democratic tradition dates back more than a millennium to the institution of a national assembly, the Althingi, to govern the island in 930. For two weeks every summer, chieftains from across Iceland convened in an outdoor assembly on the plains of Thingvellir, a rift valley east of Reykjavik where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. All free and law-abiding citizens could attend as the assembly passed laws and administered justice. The 63-member Althingi now meets in Reykjavik, but ceremonial gatherings, such as the ceremony marking Icelandic independence on June 17, 1944, still occur at Thingvellir.


The prehistory of Greenland is a story of repeated waves of Paleo-Eskimo immigration from the islands north of the North American mainland. (The peoples of those islands are thought to have descended, in turn, from inhabitants of Siberia who migrated into Canada thousands of years ago.) Because of Greenland's remoteness and climate, survival there was difficult. Over the course of centuries, one culture succeeded another as groups died out and were replaced by new immigrants. Archaeology can give only approximate dates for the cultures that flourished before the Norse exploration of Greenland in the 10th century.

The earliest known cultures in Greenland are the Saqqaq culture (2500–800 BC) [2] and the Independence I culture in northern Greenland (2400–1300 BC). The practitioners of these two cultures are thought to have descended from separate groups that came to Greenland from northern Canada. [3] Around 800 BC, the so-called Independence II culture arose in the region where the Independence I culture had previously existed. [4] it was originally thought that Independence II was succeeded by the early Dorset culture (700 BC–AD 1), but some Independence II artifacts date from as recently as the 1st century BC. Recent studies suggest that, in Greenland at least, the Dorset culture may be better understood as a continuation of Independence II culture the two cultures have therefore been designated "Greenlandic Dorset". [5] Artefacts associated with early Dorset culture in Greenland have been found as far north as Inglefield Land on the west coast and the Dove Bugt area on the east coast. [6]

After the Early Dorset culture disappeared by around AD 1, Greenland was apparently uninhabited until Late Dorset people settled on the Greenlandic side of the Nares strait around 700. [5] The late Dorset culture in the north of Greenland lasted until about 1300. [7] Meanwhile, the Norse arrived and settled in the southern part of the island in 980.

Europeans probably became aware of Greenland's existence in the early 10th century, after Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, while sailing from Norway to Iceland, was blown off course by a storm and sighted some islands off Greenland. During the 980s explorers led by Erik the Red set out from Iceland and reached the southwest coast of Greenland. They found the region uninhabited, and subsequently settled there. Erik named the island "Greenland" (Grœnland in Old Norse, Grænland in modern Icelandic, Grønland in modern Danish and Norwegian). Both the Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók, a medieval account of Icelandic history from the 12th century onward) and the Saga of Eric the Red (Eiríks saga rauða, a medieval account of his life and of the Norse settlement of Greenland) state that Erik said that it would encourage people to go there that the land had a good name." [8] [ failed verification – see discussion] [9]

According to the sagas, the Icelanders had exiled Erik the Red for three years for committing murder, [10] c. 982. He sailed to Greenland, where he explored the coastline and claimed certain regions as his own. He then returned to Iceland to persuade people to join him in establishing a settlement on Greenland. The Icelandic sagas say that 25 ships left Iceland with Erik the Red in 985, and that only 14 of them arrived safely in Greenland. [11] Radiocarbon dating of remains at the first settlement at Brattahlid (now Qassiarsuk) have approximately confirmed this timeline, yielding a date of about 1000. According to the sagas, in the year 1000 Erik's son, Leif Eirikson, left the settlement to explore the regions around Vinland, which historians generally assume to have been located in present-day Newfoundland.

The Norse established settlements along Greenland's south-western fjords. It is possible that the bottom lands of the southern fjords at that time were covered by highgrown shrub and surrounded by hills covered with grass and brush (as the Qinngua Valley currently is), but this hasn't been determined yet. [12] If the presumption is true then the Norse probably cleared the landscape by felling trees to use as building material and as fuel, and by allowing their sheep and goats to graze there in both summer and winter. Any resultant soil erosion could have become an important factor in the demise of the colonies, as the land was stripped of its natural cover.

The Norse settled in three separate locations in south-western Greenland: the larger Eastern Settlement, the smaller Western Settlement, and the still smaller Middle Settlement (often considered part of the Eastern one). Estimates put the combined population of the settlements at their height between 2,000 and 10,000, with recent estimates [13] trending toward the lower figure. Archeologists have identified the ruins of approximately 620 farms: 500 in the Eastern Settlement, 95 in the Western Settlement, and 20 in the Middle Settlement.

The economy of the Norse Greenlanders depended on a combination of pastoral farming with hunting and some fishing. Farmers kept cattle, sheep and goats - shipped into the island - for their milk, cheese and butter, while most of the consumed meat came from hunted caribou and seals. Both individual farmers and groups of farmers organised summer trips to the more northerly Disko Bay area, where they hunted walruses, narwhals and polar bears for their skins, hides and ivory. Besides their use in making garments and shoes, these resources also functioned as a form of currency, as well as providing the most important export commodities. [14]

The Greenland settlements carried on a trade with Europe in ivory from walrus tusks, as well as exporting rope, sheep, seals, wool and cattle hides (according to one 13th-century account). [ citation needed ] They depended on Iceland and Norway for iron tools, wood (especially for boat building, although they may also have obtained wood from coastal Labrador - Markland), supplemental foodstuffs, and religious and social contacts. For a time, trade ships from Iceland and Norway traveled to Greenland every year and would sometimes overwinter in Greenland. Beginning in the late-13th century, laws required all ships from Greenland to sail directly to Norway. The climate became increasingly colder in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the period of colder weather known as the Little Ice Age.

In 1126 the Roman Catholic Church founded a diocese at Garðar (now Igaliku). It was subject to the Norwegian archdiocese of Nidaros (now Trondheim) at least five churches in Norse Greenland are known from archeological remains. In 1261 the population accepted the overlordship of the King of Norway, although it continued to have its own law. In 1380 the Norwegian kingdom entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark.

After initially thriving, the Norse settlements in Greenland declined in the 14th century. The Norse abandoned the Western Settlement around 1350. In 1378 there was no longer a bishop at Garðar. In 1379 Inuit attacked the Eastern Settlement, killed 18 men and captured two boys and a woman. [15] In 1402–1404 the Black Death hit Iceland for the first time and killed approximately half the population there - but there is no evidence that it reached Greenland. [16] The last written record of the Norse Greenlanders documents a marriage in 1408 at Hvalsey Church, whose ruins are the best-preserved of the Norse buildings of that period.

After 1408 few written records mention the settlers. Correspondence between the Pope and the Biskop Bertold af Garde dates from the same year. [17] The Danish cartographer Claudius Clavus seems to have visited Greenland in 1420, according to documents written by Nicolas Germanus and Henricus Martellus, who had access to original cartographic notes and a map by Clavus. In the late 20th century the Danish scholars Bjönbo and Petersen found two mathematical manuscripts containing the second chart of the Claudius Clavus map from his journey to Greenland (where he himself mapped the area). [18]

In a letter dated 1448 from Rome, Pope Nicholas V instructed the bishops of Skálholt and Hólar (the two Icelandic episcopal sees) to provide the inhabitants of Greenland with priests and a bishop, the latter of which they had not had in the 30 years since a purported attack by "heathens" who destroyed most of the churches and took the population prisoner. [19] It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the middle of the 15th century, although no exact date has been established. A European ship that landed in the former Eastern Settlement in the 1540s found the corpse of a Norse man there, [20] which may be the last mention of a Norse individual from the settlement. [21]

There are many theories as to why the Norse settlements in Greenland collapsed after surviving for some 450–500 years (985 to 1450–1500). Among the factors that have been suggested as contributing to the demise of the Greenland colony are: [22] [23]

  • Cumulative environmental damage
  • Gradual climate change
  • Conflicts with Inuit peoples
  • Loss of contact and support from Europe
  • Cultural conservatism and failure to adapt to an increasingly harsh natural environment
  • Opening of opportunities elsewhere after plague had left many farmsteads abandoned in Iceland and Norway
  • Declining value of ivory in Europe (due to the influx of ivory from Russian walrus and African elephants), forcing hunters to overkill the walrus populations and endanger their own survival [24]

Numerous studies have tested these hypotheses and some have led to significant discoveries. In The Frozen Echo, Kirsten Seaver contests some of the more generally accepted theories about the demise of the Greenland colony, and asserts that the colony, towards the end, was healthier than Diamond and others have thought. Seaver believes that the Greenlanders cannot have starved to death, but rather may have been wiped out by Inuit or unrecorded European attacks, or they may have abandoned the colony for Iceland or Vinland. However, the physical evidence from archeological studies of the ancient farm sites does not show evidence of attack. [ citation needed ] The paucity of personal belongings at these sites is typical of North Atlantic Norse sites that were abandoned in an orderly fashion, with any useful items being deliberately removed but to others it suggests a gradual but devastating impoverishment. Middens at these sites do show an increasingly impoverished diet for humans and livestock. Else Roesdahl argues that declining ivory prices in Europe due to the influx of Russian and African ivory adversely affected the Norse settlements in Greenland, which depended largely on the export of walrus ivory to Europe. [25]

Greenland was always colder in winter than Iceland and Norway, and its terrain less hospitable to agriculture. Erosion of the soil was a danger from the beginning, one that the Greenland settlements may not have recognized until it was too late. For an extended time, nonetheless, the relatively warm West Greenland current flowing northwards along the southwestern coast of Greenland made it feasible for the Norse to farm much as their relatives did in Iceland or northern Norway. Palynologists' tests on pollen counts and fossilized plants prove that the Greenlanders must have struggled with soil erosion and deforestation. [15] A Norse farm in the Vatnahverfi district, excavated in the 1950s, had been buried in layers of drifting sand up to 10 feet deep. As the unsuitability of the land for agriculture became more and more patent, the Greenlanders resorted first to pastoralism and then to hunting for their food. [15] But they never learned to use the hunting techniques of the Inuit, one being a farming culture, the other living on hunting in more northern areas with pack ice. [15]

To investigate the possibility of climatic cooling, scientists drilled into the Greenland ice cap to obtain core samples, which suggested that the Medieval Warm Period had caused a relatively milder climate in Greenland, lasting from roughly 800 to 1200. However, from 1300 or so the climate began to cool. By 1420, the "Little Ice Age" had reached intense levels in Greenland. [26] Excavations of middens from the Norse farms in both Greenland and Iceland show the shift from the bones of cows and pigs to those of sheep and goats. As the winters lengthened, and the springs and summers shortened, there must have been less and less time for Greenlanders to grow hay. A study of North Atlantic seasonal temperature variability showed a significant decrease in maximum summer temperatures beginning in the late 13th century to early 14th century—as much as 6-8 °C lower than modern summer temperatures. [27] The study also found that the lowest winter temperatures of the last 2,000 years occurred in the late 14th century and early 15th century. By the mid-14th century deposits from a chieftain's farm showed a large number of cattle and caribou remains, whereas, a poorer farm only several kilometers away had no trace of domestic animal remains, only seal. Bone samples from Greenland Norse cemeteries confirm that the typical Greenlander diet had increased by this time from 20% sea animals to 80%. [28]

Although Greenland seems to have been uninhabited at the time of initial Norse settlement, the Thule people migrated south and finally came into contact with the Norse in the 12th century. There are limited sources showing the two cultures interacting however, scholars know that the Norse referred to the Inuit (and Vinland natives) as skræling. The Icelandic Annals are among the few existing sources that confirm contact between the Norse and the Inuit. They report an instance of hostility initiated by the Inuit against the Norse, leaving eighteen Greenlanders dead and two boys carried into slavery. [29] Archaeological evidence seems to show that the Inuit traded with the Norse. On the other hand, the evidence shows many Norse artefacts at Inuit sites throughout Greenland and on the Canadian Arctic islands but very few Inuit artefacts in the Norse settlements. This may indicate either European indifference—an instance of cultural resistance to Inuit crafts among them—or perhaps hostile raiding by the Inuit. It is also quite possible that the Norse were trading for perishable items such as meat and furs and had little interest in other Inuit items, much as later Europeans who traded with Native Americans.

The Norse never learned the Inuit techniques of kayak navigation or ring seal hunting. Archaeological evidence plainly establishes that by 1300 or so the Inuit had successfully expanded their winter settlements as close to the Europeans as the outer fjords of the Western Settlement. By 1350, the Norse had completely deserted their Western Settlement. [30] The Inuit, being a hunting society, may have hunted the Norse livestock, forcing the Norse into conflict or abandonment of their settlements. [ citation needed ]

In mild weather conditions, a ship could make the 900-mile (1400 kilometers) trip from Iceland to Eastern Settlement within a couple of weeks. Greenlanders had to keep in contact with Iceland and Norway in order to trade. Little is known about any distinctive shipbuilding techniques among the Greenlanders. Greenland lacks a supply of lumber, so was completely dependent on Icelandic merchants or, possibly, logging expeditions to the Canadian coast. [ citation needed ]

The sagas mention Icelanders traveling to Greenland to trade. [31] Settlement chieftains and large farm owners controlled this trade. Chieftains would trade with the foreign ships and then disperse the goods by trading with the surrounding farmers. [32] The Greenlanders' main commodity was the walrus tusk, [22] which was used primarily in Europe as a substitute for elephant ivory for art décor, whose trade had been blocked by conflict with the Islamic world. Professor Gudmundsson suggests a very valuable narwhal tusk trade, through a smuggling route between western Iceland and the Orkney islands. [ citation needed ]

It has been argued that the royal Norwegian monopoly on shipping contributed to the end of trade and contact. However, Christianity and European customs continued to hold sway among the Greenlanders for the greater part of the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1921, a Danish historian, Paul Norland, found human remains from the Eastern Settlement in the Herjolfsnes church courtyard. The bodies were dressed in 15th century medieval clothing with no indications of malnutrition or inbreeding. Most had crucifixes around their necks with their arms crossed as in a stance of prayer. Roman papal records report that the Greenlanders were excused from paying their tithes in 1345 because the colony was suffering from poverty. [33] The last reported ship to reach Greenland was a private ship that was "blown off course", reaching Greenland in 1406, and departing in 1410 with the last news of Greenland: the burning at the stake of a condemned male witch, the insanity and death of the woman this witch was accused of attempting to seduce through witchcraft, and the marriage of the ship's captain, Thorsteinn Ólafsson, to another Icelander, Sigríður Björnsdóttir. [34] However, there are some suggestions of much later unreported voyages from Europe to Greenland, possibly as late as the 1480s. [35] In the 1540s, [11] a ship drifted off-course to Greenland and discovered the body of a dead man lying face down who demonstrated cultural traits of both Norse and Inuit. An Icelandic crew member of the ship wrote: "He had a hood on his head, well sewn, and clothes from both homespun and sealskin. At his side lay a carving knife bent and worn down by whetting. This knife they took with them for display." [36]

According to a 2009 study, "there is no evidence for perceptible contact between Iceland and Greenland after the mid fifteenth century. It is clear that neither Danish and Norwegian nor Icelandic public functionaries were aware that the Norse Greenland colony had ceased to exist. Around 1514, the Norwegian archbishop Erik Valkendorf (Danish by birth, and still loyal to Christian II) planned an expedition to Greenland, which he believed to be part of a continuous northern landmass leading to the New World with all its wealth, and which he fully expected still to have a Norse population, whose members could be pressed anew to the bosom of church and crown after an interval of well over a hundred years. Presumably, the archbishop had better archives at his disposal than most people, and yet he had not heard that the Greenlanders were gone." [25]

One intriguing fact is that very few fish remains are found among their middens. This has led to much speculation and argument. Most archaeologists reject any decisive judgment based on this one fact, however, as fish bones decompose more quickly than other remains, and may have been disposed of in a different manner. Isotope analysis of the bones of inhabitants shows that marine food sources supplied more and more of the diet of the Norse Greenlanders, making up between 50% and 80% of their diet by the 14th century. [37]

One Inuit story recorded in the 18th century tells that raiding expeditions by European ships over the course of three years destroyed the settlement, after which many of the Norse sailed away south and the Inuit took in some of the remaining women and children before the final attack. [11]

The Late Dorset culture inhabited Greenland until the early fourteenth century. [38] This culture was primarily located in the northwest of Greenland, far from the Norse who lived around the southern coasts. Archaeological evidence points to this culture predating the Norse or Thule settlements. [39] In the region of this culture, there is archaeological evidence of gathering sites for around four to thirty families, living together for a short time during their movement cycle.

Around AD 1300–1400, the Thule arrived from the west settling in the Northeast areas of Greenland. [40] These people, the ancestors of the modern Greenland Inuit, [39] [41] were flexible and engaged in the hunting of almost all animals on land and in the ocean, including walrus, narwhal, and seal. [42] [43] The Thule adapted well to the environment of Greenland, as archaeological evidence indicates that the Thule were not using all parts of hunting kills, unlike other arctic groups, meaning they were able to waste more resources due to either surplus or well adapted behaviors. [42]

The nature of the contacts between the Dorset and Norse cultures is not clear, but may have included trade elements. The level of contact is currently the subject of widespread debate, possibly including Norse trade with Thule or Dorsets in Canada.

Most of the old Norse records concerning Greenland were removed from Trondheim to Copenhagen in 1664 and subsequently lost, probably in the Copenhagen Fire of 1728. [44] The precise date of rediscovery is uncertain because south-drifting icebergs during the Little Ice Age long made the eastern coast unreachable. This led to general confusion between Baffin Island, Greenland, and Spitsbergen, as seen, for example, in the difficulty locating the Frobisher "Strait", which was not confirmed to be a bay until 1861. Nonetheless, interest in discovering a Northwest Passage to Asia led to repeated expeditions in the area, though none were successful until Roald Amundsen in 1906 and even that success involved his being iced in for two years. Christian I of Denmark purportedly sent an expedition to the region under Pothorst and Pining to Greenland in 1472 or 1473 Henry VII of England sent another under Cabot in 1497 and 1498 Manuel I of Portugal sent a third under Corte-Real in 1500 and 1501. It had certainly been generally charted by the 1502 Cantino map, which includes the southern coastline. [44] The island was "rediscovered" yet again by Martin Frobisher in 1578, prompting King Frederick II of Denmark to outfit a new expedition of his own the next year under the Englishman James Alday this proved a costly failure. [44] The influence of English and Dutch whalers became so pronounced that for a time the western shore of the island itself became known as "Davis Strait" (Dutch: Straat Davis) after John Davis's 1585 and 1586 expeditions, which charted the western coast as far north as Disko Bay. [45]

Meanwhile, following Sweden's exit from the Kalmar Union, the remaining states in the personal union were reorganized into Denmark-Norway in 1536. In protest against foreign involvement in the region, the Greenlandic polar bear was included in the state's coat of arms in the 1660s (it was removed in 1958 but remains part of the royal coat of arms). In the second half of the 17th century Dutch, German, French, Basque, and Dano-Norwegian ships hunted bowhead whales in the pack ice off the east coast of Greenland, regularly coming to shore to trade and replenish drinking water. Foreign trade was later forbidden by Danish monopoly merchants.

From 1711 to 1721, [46] the Norwegian cleric Hans Egede petitioned King Frederick IV of Denmark for funding to travel to Greenland and re-establish contact with the Norse settlers there. Presumably, such settlers would still be Catholic or even pagan and he desired to establish a mission among them to spread the Reformation. [47] Frederick permitted Egede and some Norwegian merchants to establish the Bergen Greenland Company to revive trade with the island but refused to grant them a monopoly over it for fear of antagonizing Dutch whalers in the area. [48] The Royal Mission College assumed authority over the mission and provided the company with a small stipend. Egede found but misidentified the ruins of the Norse colony, went bankrupt amid repeated attacks by the Dutch, and found lasting conversion of the migrant Inuit exceedingly difficult. An attempt to found a royal colony under Major Claus Paarss established the settlement of Godthåb ("Good Hope") in 1728, but became a costly debacle which saw most of the soldiers mutiny [47] and the settlers killed by scurvy. [49] Two child converts sent to Copenhagen for the coronation of Christian VI returned in 1733 with smallpox, devastating the island. The same ship that returned them, however, also brought the first Moravian missionaries, who in time would convert a former angekok (Inuit shaman), experience a revival at their mission of New Herrnhut, and establish a string of mission houses along the southwest coast. Around the same time, the merchant Jacob Severin took over administration of the colony and its trade, and having secured a large royal stipend and full monopoly from the king, successfully repulsed the Dutch in a series of skirmishes in 1738 and 1739. Egede himself quit the colony on the death of his wife, leaving the Lutheran mission to his son Poul. Both of them had studied the Kalaallisut language extensively and published works on it as well, Poul and some of the other clergy sent by the Mission College, such as Otto Fabricius, began wide-ranging study of Greenland's flora, fauna, and meteorology. However, though kale, lettuce, and other herbs were successfully introduced, repeated attempts to cultivate wheat or clover failed throughout Greenland, limiting the ability to raise European livestock. [46]

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was ceded to Sweden at the 1814 Treaty of Kiel. The colonies, including Greenland, remained in Danish possession. The 19th century saw increased interest in the region on the part of polar explorers and scientists like William Scoresby and Greenland-born Knud Rasmussen. At the same time, the colonial elements of the earlier trade-oriented Danish presence in Greenland expanded. In 1861, the first Greenlandic-language journal was founded. Danish law still applied only to the Danish settlers, though. At the turn of the 19th century, the northern part of Greenland was still sparsely populated only scattered hunting inhabitants were found there. [50] During that century, however, Inuit families immigrated from British North America to settle in these areas. The last group from what later became Canada arrived in 1864. During the same time, the northeastern part of the coast became depopulated following the violent 1783 Lakagígar eruption in Iceland.

Democratic elections for the district assemblies of Greenland were held for the first time in 1862–1863, although no assembly for the land as a whole was allowed. In 1888, a party of six led by Fridtjof Nansen accomplished the first land crossing of Greenland. The men took 41 days to make the crossing on skis, at approximately 64°N latitude. [51] In 1911, two Landstings were introduced, one for northern Greenland and one for southern Greenland, not to be finally merged until 1951. All this time, most decisions were made in Copenhagen, where the Greenlanders had no representation. Towards the end of the 19th century, traders criticized the Danish trade monopoly. It was argued that it kept the natives in non-profitable ways of life, holding back the potentially large fishing industry. Many Greenlanders however were satisfied with the status quo, as they felt the monopoly would secure the future of commercial whaling. It probably did not help that the only contact the local population had with the outside world was with Danish settlers. Nonetheless, the Danes gradually moved over their investments to the fishing industry.

By 1911, the population was about 14,000, scattered along the southern shores. They were nearly all Christian, thanks to the missionary efforts of Moravians and especially Hans Egede (1686–1758), a Lutheran missionary called "the Apostle of Greenland." He founded Greenland's capital Godthåb, now known as Nuuk. His grandson Hans Egede Saabye (1746–1817) continued the missionary activities. [52]

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, American explorers, including Robert Peary, explored the northern sections of Greenland, which up to that time had been a mystery and were often shown on maps as extending over the North Pole. Peary discovered that Greenland's northern coast in fact stopped well short of the pole. These discoveries were considered to be the basis of an American territorial claim in the area. But after the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, it agreed to relinquish all claims on Greenland.

After Norway regained full independence in 1905, it argued that Danish claims to Greenland were invalid since the island had been a Norwegian possession prior to 1815. In 1931, Norwegian meteorologist Hallvard Devold occupied uninhabited eastern Greenland, on his own initiative. After the fact, the occupation was supported by the Norwegian government, who claimed the area as Erik the Red's Land. Two years later, the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in favor of Denmark.

World War II Edit

During World War II, when Nazi Germany extended its war operations to Greenland, Henrik Kauffmann, the Danish Minister to the United States — who had already refused to recognize the German occupation of Denmark — signed a treaty with the United States on April 9, 1941, granting permission to establish stations in Greenland. [53] Kauffmann did this without the knowledge of the Danish government, and consequently "the Danish government accused him of high treason, fired him and told him to come home immediately – none of which had any result". [53] Because it was difficult for the Danish government to govern the island during the war, and because of successful exports, especially of cryolite, Greenland came to enjoy a rather independent status. Its supplies were guaranteed by the United States.

One Dane was killed in combat with Germans in Greenland. [53]

Cold War Edit

During the Cold War, Greenland had a strategic importance, controlling parts of the passage between the Soviet Union's Arctic Ocean harbours and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as being a good base for observing any use of intercontinental ballistic missiles, typically planned to pass over the Arctic. In the first proposed United States purchase of Greenland, the country offered to buy it for $100,000,000 but Denmark did not agree to sell. [54] [55] In 1951, the Kauffman treaty was replaced by another one. [ citation needed ] The Thule Air Base in the northwest was made permanent. In 1953, some Inuit families were forced by Denmark to move from their homes to provide space for extension of the base. For this reason, the base has been a source of friction between the Danish government and the Greenlandic people. In the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash of January 21, 1968, four hydrogen bombs contaminated the area with radioactive debris. Although most of the contaminated ice was cleaned up, one of the bombs was not accounted for. A 1995 Danish parliamentary scandal, dubbed Thulegate, highlighted that nuclear weapons were routinely present in Greenland's airspace in the years leading up to the accident, and that Denmark had tacitly given the go-ahead for this activity despite its official nuclear free policy.

The United States upgraded the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System to a phased array radar. [56] Opponents argue that the system presents a threat to the local population, as it would be targeted in the event of nuclear war.

The American presence in Greenland brought Sears catalogs, from which Greenlanders and Danes purchased modern appliances and other products by mail. [57] From 1948 to 1950, the Greenland Commission studied the conditions on the island, seeking to address its isolation, unequal laws, and economic stagnation. In the end, the Royal Greenland Trading Department's monopolies were finally removed. In 1953, Greenland was raised from the status of colony to that of an autonomous province or constituent country of the Danish Realm. Greenland was also assigned its own Danish county. Despite its small population, it was provided nominal representation in the Danish Folketing.

A plantation of exotic arctic trees was created in 1954 near Narsarsuaq. [58]

Denmark also began a number of reforms aimed at urbanizing the Greenlanders, principally to replace their dependence on (then) dwindling seal populations and provide workers for the (then) swelling cod fisheries, but also to provide improved social services such as health care, education, and transportation. These well-meaning reforms have led to a number of problems, particularly modern unemployment and the infamous Blok P housing project. The attempt to introduce European-style urban housing suffered from such inattention to local detail that Inuit could not fit through the doors in their winter clothing and fire escapes were constantly blocked by fishing gear too bulky to fit into the cramped apartments. [59] Television broadcasts began in 1982. The collapse of the cod fisheries and mines in the late 1980s and early 1990s greatly damaged the economy, which now principally depends on Danish aid and cold-water shrimp exports. Large sectors of the economy remain controlled by state-owned corporations, with Air Greenland and the Arctic Umiaq ferry heavily subsidized to provide access to remote settlements. The major airport remains the former US air base at Kangerlussuaq well north of Nuuk, with the capital unable to accept international flights on its own, owing to concerns about expense and noise pollution.

Greenland's minimal representation in the Folketing meant that despite 70.3% of Greenlanders rejecting entry into the European Common Market (EEC), it was pulled in along with Denmark in 1973. Fears that the customs union would allow foreign firms to compete and overfish its waters were quickly realized and the local parties began to push strongly for increased autonomy. The Folketing approved devolution in 1978 and the next year enacted home rule under a local Landsting. On 23 February 1982, a bare majority (53%) of Greenland's population voted to leave the EEC, a process which lasted until 1985. This resulted in The Greenland Treaty of 1985. [60]

Greenland Home Rule has become increasingly Greenlandized, rejecting Danish and avoiding regional dialects to standardize the country under the language and culture of the Kalaallit (West Greenland Inuit). The capital Godthåb was renamed Nuuk in 1979 a local flag was adopted in 1985 the Danish KGH became the locally administered Kalaallit Niuerfiat (now KNI A/S) in 1986. Following a successful referendum on self-government in 2008, the local parliament's powers were expanded and Danish was removed as an official language in 2009.

International relations are now largely, but not entirely, also left to the discretion of the home rule government. As part of the treaty controlling Greenland's exit of the EEC, Greenland was declared a "special case" with access to the EEC market as a constituent country of Denmark, which remains a member. [60] Greenland is also a member of several small organizations [ which? ] along with Iceland, the Faroes, and the Inuit populations of Canada and Russia. [ citation needed ] It was one of the founders of the environmental Arctic Council in 1996. The US military bases on the island remain a major issue, with some politicians pushing for renegotiation of the 1951 US–Denmark treaty by the Home Rule government. The 1999–2003 Commission on Self-Governance even proposed that Greenland should aim at Thule base's removal from American authority and operation under the aegis of the United Nations. [61]

Icelandic women in Politics

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Rob C. Croes. No edits made.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir held the position of President of Iceland for sixteen years, making her the longest serving female president from any country to date. A divorced single mother, her presidency took the world by surprise in the less liberally minded 1980s, with international headlines reading quite simply "WOMAN ELECTED PRESIDENT."

Though she was initially reluctant to run, Vigdis was soon convinced by her fellow countrymen to prove women could successfully run a campaign and win. Despite the fact she achieved only a narrow margin of a victory, her popularity quickly soared, securing her three later re-elections.

Adored by Icelanders the country over, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is to this day very well aware that her victory came off the back of the 1975 Women's Day Off. Throughout her tenure as a President, she vigorously pursued the development of girl's education, coined the expression "never let the woman down" and acted a role model for young Icelandic women.

Outside of the Women's movement, she was a keen spokesperson for environmental issues and was instrumental in setting up the Reykjavik Summit, a crucial meeting held between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s that helped to bring a close to the Cold War.

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Nationaal Archief . No edits made.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has not been the only woman to push the boundaries of leadership in Icelandic politics.

In 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was elected as Iceland&rsquos first female prime minister and, coincidentally, the world&rsquos first openly gay head of state. She was instrumental in leading the charge against sexual violence and rape. Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, a Reykjavik organisation campaigning against sexual violence, said of the prime minister, "Johanna is a great feminist in that she challenges the men in her party and refuses to let them oppress her."

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, a former MP with the Left-Green Movement, pushed to end stripping and lap dancing based on feminist ideals, rather than religious ones. At the time, she firmly told the national press, "It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold."

As of 2010, strip clubs, prostitution and profiting off the nudity of employees have all been made illegal. This new law effectively meant that authorities were able to close in and shut down the major institutions facilitating human trafficking and the sex trade.

Iceland Declares Independence

The Icelandic constitutional referendum was held in 1944 as the closing chapters of the war began to materialise. Given the fact that Denmark was still occupied by Nazi Germany in 1944, many Danes felt it an inappropriate time to hold such an election, though the move was congratulated by King Christian X of Denmark after the Icelandic population voted 98% in favour for independence.

According to stipulations in the 1918 Danish&ndashIcelandic Act of Union, the two countries would maintain strong ties, with Iceland still falling under the territorial dominion of the Danish Monarchy. This subjection to the monarchy was later abolished in the same year, and full autonomy was granted, with Sveinn Björnsson serving as the first President of the Republic of Iceland.

Gaining independence meant that Iceland had to reinvent its position on the world stage as culturally separate from the Danish, as well as their relationship with the rest of mainland Europe.

For example, the Icelandic Flag was ratified by law in 1944 and the inherent values of the Icelandic national psyche&mdashi.e. religious expression, the preservation of their language&mdashwere collectively agreed upon as the founding principles of Iceland as an independent nation.

This was for a number of reasons, least of which being that the Sagas are resoundingly unique in the pantheon of worldwide medieval literature. They are neither myth, nor epic, nor romances or folktales, but stories of vengeance, wealth, power and love.

Jón Sigurðsson ("Jón forseti") bravely led a group of Icelandic intellectuals towards an independence movement, recreating an autonomous Icelandic government. He is credited as the founder of modern-day Iceland and is often referred to as President Jón by Icelanders, even though he was never officially president of Iceland.

Jesse L. Byock

Byock begins with a brief survey of the historical and legal sources. Turning to the Icelandic sagas, he takes a position in the historiographical debate over their value as sources, arguing for their importance in understanding the economic and social background. He then presents an outline of the history of the Free State, from settlement and the creation of the legal system, through gradual evolution, until Iceland came under the control of the Norwegian crown in 1262-1264. Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000, but it did so through negotiation rather than war or conflict and, with Iceland distant from central Church authority, the new religion was adapted to fit existing structures.

Byock's primary focus is on governance and in particular the relationships between farmers and gothar ("chieftains"). Gothar had few special sources of wealth — some very limited taxes and a chance at price-setting for imports tithes and trade were open to all farmers. The power of the gothar rested on their status as legal advocates and a gothorth was not a territorial or hereditary chieftaincy but rather "a professional vocation with entrepreneurial overtones". Relationships between gothar and ordinary farmers were flexible, with farmers free to change allegiances and subject to only limited obligations, and the binding forces of society were client-advocate relationships, real and fictive kinship relationships, and formalised ties of reciprocal friendship.

Three chapters present cases from the family and Sturlunga sagas, illustrating how this system of governance actually worked in practice. Conflicts over property and inheritances illustrate relationships between farmers and the way in which gothar could use their status as advocates to obtain concessions. Arnkell's fate in Eyrbyggja saga highlights the limitations on the ambition of gothar and some of the "checks and balances" of the system. And the struggle between Brod-Helgi and Geitir in Vapnfirthinga saga shows how broad networks of support were needed to safely carry out direct action.

How is Iceland governed?

Iceland is a constitutional republic with a multi-party system. The head of state is the President. Executive power is exercised by the Government. Iceland is arguably the world's oldest parliamentary democracy, with the Parliament, the Althingi, established in 930. Legislative power is vested in both the Parliament and the President. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Every fourth year the electorate chooses, by secret ballot, 63 representatives to sit in Althingi. Anyone who is eligible to vote, with the exception of the President and judges of the Supreme Court, can stand for parliament. Following each election, the President gives a leader of a political party the authority to form a cabinet, usually beginning with the leader of the largest party. If unsuccessful the President will ask another political party leader to form a government.

A cabinet of ministers stays in power until the next general election or a new government is formed. The ministers sit in Althingi, but only those elected have the right to vote in parliament.

The president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of four years, with no term limit.

Judicial power lies with the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and the district courts.

Traditional forest use and forest decline

The birchwoods were important as a source of fuel wood, building material and livestock fodder, but the most important forest product was charcoal, needed to smelt iron and make iron tools. The need for charcoal was finally alleviated in the latter half of the 19th century, when steel tools and farming implements began to be imported. However, wood was used for fuel until as late as the 1940s, both for cooking and heating the new wood frame and concrete houses, which were colder than the sod homes that Icelanders lived in before.

However, the main use of the woodland remnants still found in Iceland in the 19th and 20th centuries was for livestock (mostly sheep) grazing and fodder production. Increased cultivation of hay fields during the mid 20th century led to a reduction in winter browsing of woodlands but summer browsing pressure continue to increase. It wasn't until the late 1970s that overproduction finally led to a quota system for sheep and dairy production and a reduction in sheep numbers.

The extent of Icelandic birchwoods probably reached a post-glacial minimum of less than 1% of total land area around the mid 20th century, perhaps even less than 0.5%. By that time, several woodland remnants had been protected from grazing and birch had started to spread within the enclosures. Afforestation by planting had also started. It is difficult to state exactly when net deforestation changed to net afforestation but it was probably some time between 1950 and 1980.

Today, birchwoods are not economically important as a source of wood or fodder, although over 200 tonnes of fireplace logs are produced annually. Again, after a 70 year hiatus, birch is being used as cooking fuel as well, this time in restaurants for baking pizzas. Some birch forests are popular recreation areas and they are recognised as being important form an ecological perspective as remnants of an ecosystem that once covered much of Iceland. They also act as sources of forest-related plants, animals and fungi to colonise afforestation areas.

Watch the video: Was Viking Age Iceland Libertarian? - How Medieval Iceland Worked (August 2022).