by wjw on June 16, 2019

IMG_3522I should make the point that my Iceland posts aren’t made in any particular order, but dictated by what I feel like writing about and how much time I have available.

So if you’re familiar with Icelandic geography, you may suspect that I’m teleporting randomly about the landscape.  Whereas to those of you who don’t know Iceland, it won’t matter.

What we have here is a turf-roofed house similar to those inhabited by most Icelanders throughout history, a style used well into the 20th century— except the this one is nicer than most, belonging to a family that was well-off.  Most families probably lived in one or two rooms, but this had seven or eight.

Yes, this is a single building, comprised of rooms branching left and right off a single corridor.  Each room is walled with turf laid out in a herringbone pattern, and turf also provides the roof.  The floor is dirt.  There are internal walls and doors made from sawn driftwood.

There is no fireplace or chimney.  Most people would have lived without a kitchen, because apparently these houses burn down very easily.  There was no indoor heat except for that provided by human bodies.

Remember, this is a home for well-off people.

The family would have spent its day outdoors, working.  At the end of the day, they’d gather in a single room and continue to work, making rope or weaving or whatever.  The husband and wife had box beds in a kind of alcove, behind a door for privacy.  Everyone else slept in box beds, usually two or three to a bed in order to keep warm.

They might have had some poor people living with them.  Poor and homeless people were auctioned off every year to wealthier people.  The low bidder won, because the low figure was paid by the county to the bidder for the poor folks’ upkeep.  If there was a kitchen, the poor people would sleep there, and would be the first to burn to death in case of accident. Poor people tended not to live very long.

IMG_3536This is a turf church of a type once common in the countryside.  Many churches were built on private land, not because the owners were particularly pious, but because they could make money.  Church revenues were divided with one-quarter going each to the householder, the priest, the bishop, and (supposedly) the poor.  The householder was also supposed to donate his stipend to the poor, but because he was in it for the money, this rarely happened.

Inside the church, seating was based on a class system.  The householder and his family sat in the choir, nearest the altar.  The poor folk sat farthest away, the men on one side, the women on the other.  Single women of marriageable age sat in the middle, in box pews walled off by screens, so the men wouldn’t spend the service staring at them.  Nevertheless the church became the center of social life, with everyone sitting and chatting after the service.  It was the only time you saw your neighbors.

The iron fence near the door is a grave, a married man who got involved with a lot of the local ladies. When he died his wife buried him, built a fence, locked the fence, and threw away the key.  It’s been locked for all the generations since.  Grudges are long held in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Iceland remained the poorest European country until the Second World War, when they were occupied by the British and then the Americans.  (The US actually occupied Iceland before we were at war with anybody.)  Once Iceland threw off the last of its ties to the King of Denmark, they could start earning money for themselves instead of the crown, and have been doing well ever since, with the occasional setback like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the financial crisis of 2007, which resulted in banks going bankrupt and bankers going to jail, a progressive policy I’d like to recommend elsewhere.

The 2007 crisis may have spelled the end for the Icelandic people, because so many emigrated, mostly to Norway, where enlightened economic policies have made them the most stable economy in the world.  Immigrants now hold key roles in the Icelandic economy, particularly the service economy.  The hotel staff, airport staff, and often restaurant staff are from outside the country, and most don’t speak Icelandic.  When our friend Arni calls a hotel, he asks “May I speak Icelandic?”, and the answer is often no.

Arni has been recommending sagas to me.  I get to tell him I’ve already read them.  It’s one of the few advantages given me by my Minnesota upbringing, where Burnt Njal was available in my junior high school library.  I wonder if it’s still there?

Elene June 19, 2019 at 12:36 am

Amazing. How did people manage without kitchens and fireplaces in that climate, I wonder?

People are obviously pretty bright over there– they knew enough to put those bankers in jail. Much better than what we did here.

wjw June 19, 2019 at 4:15 pm

I’m guessing they must have had fire circles or something outside the home.

I don’t imagine they ate their lamb raw, but what do I know?

Etaoin Shrdlu June 20, 2019 at 11:54 am

The story about the fence seems odd for a number of reasons. First, if the iron fence were really really old, it would have rusted away by now; second, Iceland never seemed to care much about screwing around; third, it seems kinda silly to fence off a grave out of spite.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.