Iceland was the last European country to be settled between 870 and 930 AD, with the majority of settlers being of Norse origin, though many women were of Celtic origin. During this time, Norway was being unified into a single kingdom under Harald the Fairhair, and many of the first settlers were Norwegian Magnates who had fled the king’s rule.
In 930, the Icelanders established the Althing, which served as their parliament. Meetings were held every summer at Thingvellir, and 36 chieftains (later 39) attended. These chieftains could require every ninth self-supporting farmer to attend sessions with them, and the Althing had legislative and judicial powers, but there was no executive power such as king, military, or police. The parliamentary sessions were also social occasions that included games and entertainment, which attracted many other men and women.
The Lawspeaker, elected for a three-year term, presided over the parliamentary sessions and had the duty of memorizing and reciting the laws before they were written down. The chieftains sat in the Logretta (Law Council), with each accompanied by two advisers. Spring assemblies were held in the regions, and three chieftains attended each assembly, primarily for judicial purposes. Chieftains nominated farmers to judge cases arising within their districts.
The period from 930 to 1262 is known as the Old Commonwealth. Vikings continued their westward progress beyond Iceland and observed another land farther west. In the late 10th century, Erik the Red established a permanent settlement in Greenland, and his son, Leif Eriksson, later discovered America.
The first settlers were pagans who believed in Norse Gods, such as Odin, Thor, Freyr, Frigg, and Freyja. Christian missionaries arrived in Iceland in the late 10th century, and Christianity gained ground soon after. At the parliamentary session in 1000, the situation became critical when two equally large factions, heathen and Christian, could not agree on common jurisdiction. The general assembly eventually solved this crisis by agreeing that everyone should take the Christian religion, a remarkable solution as most conquered peoples were forced to adopt Christianity by victorious kings.
In the 13th century, several powerful families fought for control of Iceland, pushing the country to the brink of a civil war. To preserve peace, it was decided to give up Iceland’s independence to the King of Norway in 1262. Iceland remained part of the Norwegian Kingdom until Denmark took power in Norway in the 16th century. Iceland remained part of the Danish Kingdom until 1944, when the Icelandic Democratic Republic was established.
The history of the Icelanders is marked by a harsh climate and rough nature, including volcanic eruptions and arctic winters that periodically wiped-out livestock and part of the population. Geographical isolation helped Iceland preserve its language and created the basis for national identity and unique classical literature, such as the Icelandic Sagas. More information about Icelandic culture can be found under the “Culture” heading.