03.01.27, Vesteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland

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John Hines

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.027


Vesteinsson, Orri. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 318. ISBN: 0-198-20799-9.

Reviewed by:
John Hines
Cardiff University

This is a most important book, with much to offer to a diverse academic readership. The early history of Iceland has, for practical reasons, largely been the domain of Old Norse literary scholars for many generations, and that constituency should welcome both the radically new insights into such historiographical texts that Orri offers and the enhanced scope for interpreting them afforded by a critical historical perspective in tandem with an informed archaeological one. For medieval historians, meanwhile, Orri's study re-examines from an especially illuminating angle fundamental processes in the establishment of the church within a Christianized society such as the institution of tithes and the definition of parishes. For the archaeologist, his powerful advocacy of a high degree of environmental and material determinism in that process in the case of Iceland is bold and thought-provoking.

The range of the study is from the virtually prehistoric Viking Period, through the rich literary "saga age" of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to the surer, if much less colourful, historical ground of the fourteenth century. Its principal topic is the interlinked development of the church and society in this period. While the title suggests a primary focus on religious history, the possible secularity of the whole process in Iceland is the book's dominant thesis. This is apparently reflected in the otherwise slightly surprising choice of the term "Christianization" in the title, implying something more of an imposition on the population and territory concerned, rather than the usual conversion, which might be held to imply a deeper ideological and confessional transformation.

Nonetheless, Orri argues that Christian or ecclesiastical institutions were externally imposed upon Iceland only in a superficial way. This is but one of a variety of points on which he takes issue with a relatively idealistic and naïve view of the evolution of medieval Icelandic culture promoted initially by the twelfth-century historian Ari Þorgilsson and subsequently by the classic Icelandic saga-writers themselves. This view sees Iceland as converted as a matter of pragmatic and rational political decision taken at the national assembly, the Alßing, in the year 999 or 1000. The decision did not represent a consensus of opinion, but thus could all the better embody the value of a balanced view prevailing in the face of potentially disastrous social division and strife. Supporting the view that the adoption/introduction of Christianity was immediate and successful, furnished burial practices that are somewhat contentiously labelled "pagan" but which undoubtedly were disapproved of by the church disappear totally from Iceland at precisely this time. According to the traditional view, the eleventh century was then a period of undramatic but steady consolidation of a Christian order of things, culminating in the successful introduction of a tithe system by Bishop Gizurr êsleifsson of Skálholt, the southern see, in 1097 -- supposedly the earliest nationwide tithe system in the Scandinavian world.

Orri explores and suggests a thoroughly pragmatic explanation of the evolution of the tithe system, which, he argues, making thorough reference to the relevant historical and pseudo-historical sources, was established in a far slower and more gradual manner than the conventional view holds. Essentially he proposes that the form of the tithe system, and the fact of its acceptance (such as that was), were based in social relations within Iceland that in turn were governed directly by the varying topography and relevant settlement patterns in different parts of the island, not least the contrasts in terms of the number of direct neighbours farms would have in plain and fjord contexts respectively. He makes the case that the early missionary priests, of the eleventh century, must have relied upon the hospitality and support of the most powerful chieftains in Icelandic society to have been able to operate. The introduction of tithes reinforced the privileged economic position of that social elite -- where it existed and took advantage of this new opportunity appropriately -- while for those who had to pay, who were already in a dependent and client relationship, it provided access to the services of the church on a regular and contractual basis. Orri justifiably places particular stress on the way in which the tithe system regularized poor relief: not for altruistic reasons, of course, but as a practical measure to limit the risk of destitution undermining the social base in a land where subsistence was a precarious matter.

The development of such a system, Orri cogently argues, varied from region to region. The southern quarter of Iceland, with the most open, plain-like areas of settlement, developed the deepest social hierarchy. In the twelfth century here the bishops of Skálholt were, correspondingly, the protegés of the chieftainly elite while in the northern diocese, based on the see of Hólar, the episcopacy remained directly in such aristocratic hands. There is evidence for a particular shortage of priests in the mid-twelfth century that can be interpreted as a transitional phase created by an explicable loss of interest on the part of the powerful families in occupying the position and role of priest themselves. In consequence the church increasingly became a route to success and social influence for able men of otherwise indifferent family background.

By around 1200 the organization of pastoral provision in Iceland appears, then, to have consisted primarily of ßingprestar -- district priests -- who could be based at a particular chieftainly household or in some cases grouped in small collegiate communities at specific central places linked to such households known as "stadir". The settlement pattern contained a large number of small farmstead or local chapel buildings that such priests would visit for necessary services. The priesthood had now created for itself and occupied -- although it did not monopolise: consider Snorri Sturluson! -- a clerical niche in Icelandic society and its culture. Controversially, Orri further argues that the parish system in Iceland was not fully developed until the late thirteenth century. This organizational culmination coincided with the introduction of clerical celibacy as a rule that, as Orri points out, can be understood not as a simple moral matter promoting purity and abstinence but again as a socially pragmatic move to render a connexion between priestly families and heritable land a legal impossibility.

It is inevitably difficult, in a summary review like this, to do justice to a complex and tightly argued historical model such as is offered in this book. Yet a précis of this kind seems particularly appropriate here, as it may be suggested that the range and substance of the contents of the study largely recommend themselves to the varied readership this book deserves. To say that is not in any way to divert critical attention from the quality of analysis and argument to be found here. Orri remains consistently very close to his sources, and equally consistently justifies his propositions by sharp and detailed discussion of the evidence those sources provide.

It is interesting, nonetheless, to observe that the rejection of the romantic, nationalist view of a politically mature late Viking-period and subsequent medieval Iceland is done only to introduce a strikingly different version of nativism. The biggest questions for further debate in light of this outstanding doctoral dissertation are those of its implications in relation to Viking-period religion and society in Iceland, and to the idea of there having been an external model or norm for church organization. Before reading Orri's book, one would have reasonably have assumed that these were crucial governing and constraining factors in the history of the early church in Icelandic society. Orri effectively -- and explicitly -- attributes minimal importance to either in his model of what was happening. In doing so, he conclusively demonstrates how shallowly rooted are assumptions conventionally made about the character and weight of these elements. But that is not, of course, quite the same thing as proving the contrary and showing that they did not have the influence that they might have had. On the positive side, however, he does provide a thoroughly coherent and compelling argument in favour of his alternative, far more materially deterministic model. This should now form the basis of vigorous debate, and further productive research, over a broad spectrum of scholarly disciplines. For that, the book is to be welcomed with great enthusiasm and applause, and eagerly recommended to potential readers.

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John Hines

Cardiff University