How and why is the history of Iceland divided into periods?

Asked By

Gerður Ingvarsdóttir


Time passes constantly, at a constant rate, so far as we know. But in order to be able to discuss a certain point in the progression of time, in the past or future, it must have a name. The simplest way to do this is to attribute numbers to naturally-occurring periods. We count years (one rotation of the earth around the sun) and number them (before and after the birth of Christ, or some other significant point). We also count days, and name and number them within each year. Shorter spans of time are fractions of a day: hours, minutes, seconds. We define longer periods using the decimal system for decades, centuries and thousands of years. In history these natural periods are much used: an event is located in time by a year and date; reference is made to characteristics of the 12th century, or the 1930s.

This natural, numerical division of time, however, is not sufficient in history, because in all human societies certain periods have particular characteristics, which makes it convenient to discuss them as a unit, and call them by a certain name. Such periods do not coincide with the beginning and end of centuries or decades, except occasionally and by chance. We believe, for instance, that the period from the early 10th century (the date usually quoted is AD 930, with some justification) until about 1262-64 was characterised by political power in Iceland being mainly held by goðar (chieftains), with some support from farmers, while there was no head of state, nor any central government as such. Hence this period has been defined in Icelandic history books as þjóðveldisöld or goðaveldisöld, usually called the Old Commonwealth or Freestate in English.

Changes in forms of government are thus the clearest division between historical periods. No overall consensus exists, however, among scholars on the division of Icelandic history into periods. I know of no Icelandic history book which uses only political and administrative change as an indicator for such division. Although the Old Commonwealth is generally regarded as a historical period, it too has been divided into shorter periods, according to the preferences of the writer and the purpose of the book.

For instance, Jón J. Aðils divided Iceland's history into ten periods in his school textbook, Íslandssaga (A History of Iceland) in 1915, though without giving every period a name:
  • Settlement Age c. 870-930
  • Saga Age 930-1030
  • The early Icelandic church 1030-1152
  • Sturlung Age 1152-1262
  • Norwegian royal rule and the rise of the clergy 1262-1400
  • Ecclesiastical power 1400-1550
  • Royal authority 1550-1683
  • Absolutism and monopoly trading 1683-1800
  • Campaign for restoration [of past glories] 1801-1874
  • Progress 1875-1915

In one of the most recent books on the history of Iceland from the settlement to the present day, Iceland's 1100 Years by the present author (2000), the nation's history is divided into four periods:
  • Colonisation and Commonwealth c. 870-1262
  • Under foreign rule 1262 - c. 1800
  • A primitive society builds a state 1809-1918
  • The great 20th-century transformation
Here the division into periods generally reflects changes in form of government, while the last period, which in fact overlaps slightly with the one before, is defined by the start of mechanisation in the fisheries. Thus various different social factors can be used for division into periods, and presumably the author's historical perspective, and his/her views on which events are important in history, determine the factors he/she chooses.

Readers with a knowledge of Icelandic history may like to consider the factors which have determined each of the two authors' division into periods - and decide for themselves whether the choices are good. As Hamlet remarked: There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. No one division of history into periods is correct as such, but some systems may be clearer and more enlightening than others.

Translated by Anna Yates.

Um þessa spurningu


Published 5.3.2005


Answers in English


Gunnar Karlsson (1939-2019). „How and why is the history of Iceland divided into periods?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 5.3.2005. (Skoðað 21.4.2024).


Gunnar Karlsson (1939-2019)prófessor emeritus í sagnfræði við HÍ


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