While the rest of Europe was expressing itself
mainly in the medium of poetry1
, focused largely on romantic exploits
of the aristocracy
, the people of early Iceland were trying something different. At the Icelandic Saga Database
you can read of the explots of the late Viking era, in Icelandic or English translation. If you seek a more direct experience, you can view scans
of original collections at Saganet.
Early Iceland was unique in Europe: in contrast to the aristocratic and monarchical governments of Europe, Iceland was a commonwealth
from the 10th century until it was brought under the Norwegian crown in 1262, governed by laws
with a system of courts for resolving disputes. Each year, a national parliament - the AlÞingi - met at Þingvellir,
near Reykjavik. Following the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 AD
, the Icelandic literati began collecting the oral accounts of the pre-Christian era, apparently in an attempt to preserve the historical details of the pre-Christian era. As a result, the sagas are littered with historical markers, including detailed place descriptions and genealogies, and have relatively little supernatural activity, aside from the occasional berserker or shapeshifter. Many of the sagas focus on the uneasy relationship between individuals and society, and protagonists include warriors, poets
, lawyers and even outlaws
Finally, there's a complete English translation
of all of the sagas now available, though it's kinda pricey. (Especially if you buy it from Amazon
.) Penguin's released a lengthy anthology
of selections from this new translation, however, with Njal's saga released in its own volume.
Other major points of interest in medieval Icelandic literature are the Poetic Edda
and the Prose Edda
. The Poetic Edda is a verse account of the Norse mythology. The Prose Edda recounts many points of the Norse mythology, but was apparently intended as a kind of text book on how to write bad-ass Iceandic poetry; it is apparently unique in this dual function. The Prose Edda is also one of the few works of the period whose author is known: Snorri Sturluson is considered the greatest Icelandic poet, but also served as Lawspeaker
for the AlÞing and played a pivotal role in bringing Iceland under Norwegian rule.
Admittedly, I came across all this while doing historical research for an Ars Magica game.