Creating at the margins: cultural dynamics in early Iceland

  • Richard Gaskins
Keywords: Culture dynamics


The Icelandic þjóðveldi was a society in transition, filled with conflicting tensions and dynamic forces. The civilizational perspective advanced by Jóhann Páll Árnason and others provides a useful approach to understanding Icelandic cultural development over four centuries, including the development of political forms. That approach casts suspicion on static interpretive models, stable norms and ideologies, and fixed legal structures in favor of more dynamic analysis. It also prompts us to use creatively the rich materials contained in saga narratives, written near the end of this period. For it is here, in the self-reflection of a culture, that the fault-lines within ethical forms are revealed, along with the subtle mechanisms of legal and political development. Civilizational analysis overplays its hand by applying standard categories of paganism or sacred kingship to the Icelandic case. Rather the sagas display a more fundamentally secular vision of authority and legitimacy, imbued with a humanism and immanence that marks the cultural temper of the Icelandic þjóðveldi.