Monday, May 30, 2011

New power elite emerged in medieval Iceland as the island became Norwegian

As Iceland became part of the Norwegian kingship 1262, a new power structure in the shape of an Icelandic aristocracy appointed by the king of Norway was established. This development is discussed in a doctoral thesis in History from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, that sheds light on a period in the Icelandic history that previously has not received its due attention.

'The 14th century has never received a great deal of attention in Icelandic history writing. This is surprising since this period is at least as important as the considerably more frequently discussed so-called Free State period (around 930�/64) when Iceland was autonomous, especially considering the country's state formation process,' says the author of the thesis Sigríður Beck.

Before becoming Norwegian, the country consisted of a number of territories ruled by chiefs who were constantly competing for power. Sigríður Beck has studied how the Icelandic power elite changed as the island became part of Norway and new offices and a new administration were introduced. Beck shows how an aristocracy was established as the king appointed officers who were to ensure that the country was administered according to Norwegian law.

'Prior to the involvement of the Norwegian king, the island was ruled by chiefs and authority was based on individuals and territories, but then the chiefs were replaced with a different type of elite ¬– an aristocracy.

Sigríður Beck's research shows that the aristocracy was made up of two different groups: wealthy farmers who became part of the new service-based aristocracy as a result of their financial strength, and parts of the former elite who managed to transfer to the new elite by adapting to the new situation. Thus, the Icelandic aristocracy comprised a mix of the old and the new.

Iceland's historical development has typically been viewed in a narrow Icelandic perspective. Yet Sigríður Beck concludes that the establishment of an Icelandic aristocracy is essentially identical to what happened in the rest of Europe. However, the Icelandic aristocracy remained a local aristocracy without any significant opportunities or willingness to make ties with its Norwegian counterpart.

Besides the establishment of a new political structure, a new economic structure was introduced as well. The new economic structure was more based on freehold properties and the possibility to lease out land and generate wealth through fishing.

'This development contributed to accelerated differentiation in society – the wealthy became even wealthier at the expense of the rest of the population,' says Beck.

EurekAlert. 2011. "New power elite emerged in medieval Iceland as the island became Norwegian". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online:

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