The North Atlantic islands seem to have been of only passing concern to
the centers of power in Europe, so very little historic documentation
exists about their settlement. One early 9th century Latin text describes
North Atlantic islands that may be the Faeroes and perhaps Iceland. Thankfully,
two Icelandic documents detail the early settlement of Iceland. One, the
Book of the Icelanders, was written between A.D. 1122 and 1133 while the
Book of Settlements might have been written in the 12th century, but is
only attested to from the 13th century. In all of these documents, it
is apparent that the Vikings were not alone in their interest in these
islands, and that early settlers came from the British Isles as well,
and some attribute the discovery and settlement of the Faeroes and Iceland
to the Celts.
Around A.D. 825, an Irish monk named Dicuil wrote a book, Liber de Mensura
Orbis Terrae, (Measure/description of the sphere of the earth) in which
he states, " [A] set of small islands, nearly all separated by narrow
stretches of water; in these for nearly a hundred years hermits sailing
from our country, Ireland, have lived. But just as they were always deserted
from the beginning of the world, so now because of the Northman pirates
they are emptied of anchorites, and are filled with countless sheep and
very many diverse kinds of seabirds." The physical description of
these islands fits the Faeroes well, as does the name, which means Sheep
Islands. It seems likely that the Irish had reached the Faeroes first,
and that the Vikings came to these lands after raiding and trading in
the Western Isles, instead of by accident as the sagas suggest.
Dicuil also describes another island, Thule, beyond the Faeroes, where the water is mostly ice-free and the sun barely dips below the horizon around the summer solstice (making it bright enough at midnight that a man can "pick the lice out of his shirt...as in broad daylight.") This description certainly fits Iceland well, and early maps often label Iceland as 'Thule.' If this is a reference to Iceland, how does an Irish monk writing 50 years before the settlement of Iceland by Vikings know so much about it? Dicuil says that priests had been staying on this island during the summer months for 30 years (i.e. around A.D. 795).
Book of the
A well respected priest named Ari the Wise Thorgilsson compiled the Book of
the Icelanders in the early 12th century. In addition to describing the
first settlement, it includes a discussion of the conversion to Christianity,
the development of the Althing, and lists all the lawspeakers until that
time. According to Ari, the creation of the Althing was a novel solution
to the problem of deciding on a system of laws in a newly created country.
Dividing the country into four administrative districts with representatives
chosen from each district created a national legislative body. Yearly
meetings of these representatives at the Althing further refined the laws
of the new Icelandic nation.
Though Ari does not explain the origin of this system, historians researching
other medieval legal codes have found some interesting parallels. The
early legal codes in both the Gulathing district of southwestern Norway
and on the Isle of Man share similarities with the Icelandic system. It
is likely that the laws were modeled on the Norwegian system, while the
Isle of Man provided an organizational template.
Book of Settlements
The Book of Settlements tells that the first to discover Iceland were
Vikings that had been blown off course, and that the name Iceland was
given by a Norwegian Viking named Floki Vigerdason. The first settler,
Ingolfur, was a fervent believer in the Old Norse gods, and was killed
by his Irish slaves, who fled to the Vestmaneyar just off the coast of
Iceland. It then goes on to list the names of all the original settlers,
and the districts in which they settled. While the overall narrative suggests
that this colonization was a Scandinavian venture, about 60 of the 400
names were distinctly Celtic. Both the Book of Icelanders and Book of
Settlements also refer to Irish slaves accompanying the Viking settlers.