Byock, Jesse; Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power. University of California Press, Berkley, 1988. ISBN: 0-520-05420-2
This is a truly outstanding book, with only a few minor problems which give the reader pause. Byock handles the sticky question of how to deal with the family sagas well, showing them to be, if not actual recountings of literal fact, to at least contain cultural truths that provide insight into medieval Icelandic society. Each of her chapters is essentially a self-contained paper of about twenty pages in length, referencing the other chapters almost as one would reference a paper. Despite this, there is little sense of discontinuity within the book, and all the chapters adhere to the premise set out in the title.
While this is a wonderful book, it is not without its problems. The first comes in layout decisions, typified by pages 116-117. Here we find a table, in only slightly variant type, which is not clearly separated from the rest of the text; one is forced to search for the end of the previous thought on page 117. It is only a moment's work, but it still breaks the flow of the reading and can break a rhythm of reading.
Secondly, there is Byock's repeated use of Icelandic terms. While she is quite good at defining these terms initially, they will next appear sometimes a hundred pages later, giving some difficulty to remembering what they mean. This book would have been much more accessible if it had contained a glossary of Icelandic terms at the end, something that could have easily fit on the few empty pages of the last gather.
Despite those minor problems, however, the book shines. Her first three chapters lay out her purpose and sources. Of special note is her coverage, on page 38, of the use of family sagas as sources. While the Sturlung sagas are contemporary, if biased, accounts, there is a lapse of about two to three hundred years between the events and the recording of the family sagas. This has lead many people to dismiss them as sources; indeed, Byock begins the book with a quote from 1956 of Jon Johannesson (a well-known Icelandic scholar) where he says of the family sagas "I just didn't know what to do with them." Byock, with an additional thirty years of research, does know what to do with them. Throughout the rest of the book, she uses them capably as a source of evidence for the importance of various social and legal structures, such as advocacy and political friendships.
Chapters four through seven deal with the internal structures of Icelandic society; first, its evolution from isolated farmsteads into a nation-state, then examining the various things that made that state work. Her most important point throughout this section is the role of compromise in Icelandic politics; even the conversion itself is an example of compromise within the Icelandic system, where other cultures would (and did) have armed conflict. Her fifth chapter covers quite well the sources of wealth that allowed the unpaid chieftains to maintain their (often expensive) power bases with only minimal taxation; in other words, why would anyone want to be a chieftain in a society where all were theoretically equal? Her sixth chapter points out the practical inequalities that existed between chieftain and freeman, and the importance of finding an able and legally astute advocate.
With her seventh chapter, Byock delves into the unique artifact that was the Icelandic church. Contrary to continental churches, Iceland was often independent of its Archbishop (who resided, at various points, in Hamburg, then Denmark, and finally Norway) and, to an extent Rome. The Icelandic church was quite beholden to the secular authorities, and its clergy seldom followed the rules of celibacy or church hierarchy, with priests openly defying their bishops even in cases of interdiction. Despite the conversion, Iceland's clergy maintained much of their pagan elements in terms of their politics.
Chapters eight through ten provide a sort of capstone to Byock's arguments. She provides numerous specific examples from the family and Sturlung Sagas (the Vapnfirthinga and Eyrbyggja sagas especially) of how the rules of advocacy, vinfengi (political friendships) and the chieftain-freeman relationships worked. These arguments strengthen and clarify her points immensely, and while they necessitate her retelling parts of several sagas, Byock does so very well, providing only the necessary details and leaving the pleasure of reading those sagas to her reader.
Lastly, Byock's final chapter is a two-page conclusion. Page 221 provides a simple summary of the book in its first sentence, saying "The family and Sturlunga sagas are a rich source of information on the wealth and power in medieval Iceland." The previous two-hundred and twenty pages have gone into showing that to be the case. Her conclusion is essentially the brief form of her arguments, lacking the supporting evidence that she lays out in previous chapters, but still containing the essence of her arguments.
I highly recommend this book to those that wish an overview of Icelandic society. Though over ten years old, it well-captures the state of research on medieval Iceland, especially with regards to its politics and power structures, and can serve as a guide to reading the sagas for these same things. It is somewhat less complete as a social history, but it does provide a basic overview and, combined with another source (such as Jochens' Women in Old Norse Society) one finds as close to a complete picture of Icelandic society as we are able to reach today.