Iceland’s 1100 Years

History of a Marginal Society

July 2020 9781849049115 432pp


Iceland’s 1100 Years recounts the history of a society on the margin of Europe as well as on the margin of reaching the size and wealth of a proper state. Iceland is unique among the European societies in being founded as late as the Viking Age, and in surviving for centuries without any central power after Christianity had introduced the art of writing. This was the age of the Sagas, which are not only literature but also a rare treasury of sources about a stateless society.

In sharp contrast to the prosperous society portrayed by the Sagas, early modern Iceland appears to have been extremely poor and miserable. It is challenging to question whether the deterioration was due to foreign rule, to a colder climate, or to an unfortunate internal power structure.

Or was the Golden Age perhaps the invention of 19th-century nationalists? Iceland adopted nationalism quickly and thoroughly. In the mid-nineteenth century about 60,000 inhabitants, mostly poor peasants, set out to gain independence from Denmark, which was finally achieved in 1944 with the foundation of a republic. In recent decades Iceland has caught up economically with its closest neighbours. This has come about mainly through the mechanisation of fishing, which gave rise to a second battle for sovereignty, this time over the country’s fishing grounds.


‘For the first time in many years, a history of Iceland has appeared in English which really does its multifaceted subject justice. Beginning with colonisation around the year 870, it concludes with the year 2000, having taken the reader through Iceland’s period of foreign domination, by the Norwegians, then the English and finally the Danes, who ruled the country until 1944. Politics, religion, economics and technological innovation are covered in detail, while the role of women and literature, ancient and modern, including, of course, the sagas, are also discussed.’ – Neil Kent, Times Literary Supplement

‘This is a truly important book and there is nothing like it available. … I was enthralled reading this … It will fill the needs of all types of readers interested in Iceland, Scandinavia, and Northern Europe. It will … become the major work.’ – Jesse Byock, Professor of Icelandic Studies, University of California


Gunnar Karlsson is Professor of History at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik. His work has covered a wide variety of subjects, from the medieval plague to relativism in history, and he is the author of a number of textbooks in Icelandic on the country's history.

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