Social classes in Iceland

Embracing our heritage is hard work. It requires effort on our part. Putting on a plastic Viking helmet, drinking an Icelandic beer and gobbling up rullupylsa doesn’t take any effort at all. However, a plastic helmet, an Icelandic beer and eating some rullupylsa isn’t our heritage.
If we are going to understand and honour our ancestors who came to North America, we have to learn what their lives were like. That means giving up nonsensical ideas based on misunderstanding and vain fantasy and replacing it with knowledge.
When I was a kid in Gimli, I was told that in Iceland everyone was equal. No they weren’t. Not even close. Iceland was not a classless society. It was a highly structured society with people slotted into various classes. The classes differentiating among people were carefully defined.
I first came across a detailed list of these classes in Richard Burton’s book, Ultima Thule, published in 1875, right at the beginning of the migration to North America. However, I then read a book I highly recommend, Words In A Wasteland, by Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson, Historian (Ph.D.), from The Center for Microhistorical Research at the Reykjavik Academy. He is the holder of the Dr. Kristján Eldjárn Research Fellowship at The National Museum of Iceland.
The list Dr. Magnusson gave was somewhat different from Richard Burton´s. Not in any substantial way but enough that I wrote to him to ask about the social strata in Iceland at the time that our people were emigrating.
Dr. Magnusson kindly replied. He says that he used the classifications from Dr. Gisli Ágúst Gunnlaugsson. Dr Gunnlaugsson identifies ten different groups in nineteenth-century agricultural society in Iceland.
Here is the list Dr. Magnusson sent:
1) Crown officials (embættismenn) (who were often farmers as well). This group can be further divided into several categories according to education, economic, social, and political status. 
2) Landowning farmers (sjálfseignarbændur) who were not crown officials. This group can also be subdivided according to the value and size of land owned. 
3) Merchants (kaupmenn) and artisans (handverksmenn). This was until the turn of the twentieth century a relatively small group, but grew in size during the last decades of the nineteenth century. 
4) Tenant farmers (leiguliðar). This group can also be divided into two or three categories according to economic means, size of land, live-stock, terms of tenancy etc. 
5 – 6) Sub-tenants (hjáleigumenn) and cottars (búðsetumenn). The position of these differed slightly. Their social and economic position was in most cases weak, but they enjoyed a household situation of their own. 
7 – 8)  Lodgers (húsmenn) and boarders (lausamenn). Although their legal status varied slightly, these groups enjoyed in theory, at least, a household status of their own, although (particularly in farming districts) they often resided within households where they worked. They could freely dispose their labour capabilities, live as day laborers in towns and villages or be seasonal workers in farming districts. 
9)  Servants (vinnuhjú). They did not enjoy a household status of their own and were forced to sign (although probably their contracts were often verbal) a contract with a head of household on an annual basis. 
10) Paupers (þurfamenn). This group lacked several personal, political, and economic rights enjoyed by others. Paupers can be divided into sub-groups according to whether or not they lived (with the help of poor relief) in a household of their own or were cared for in the household of taxpaying farmers.
Other studies have shown that there was little movement between the social classes. Rich farmers didn’t want their daughters marrying some laborer. They wanted them to marry the sons of other rich farmers. And, in spite of fantasies about the independence of Icelandic women in the 19th C., those marriages would have been arranged because there were highly restrictive laws against men marrying unless they had a set amount of wealth (four hundreds). That would be a minimum. They probably needed a lot more than that to have any security for the family that would inevitably come.
Items 1 and 2 on the list is where the wealth and power lay. The farmers with good land and lots of it, with big flocks and herds, with fishing boats, also were the people who were likely to have official positions. They were the people who got to make the law and enforce it. The relationship between the sheriff and Bjorn of Leirur in Paradise Reclaimed isn’t an exception but the rule.
 Iceland was a highly stratified society. Where were your relatives in these rankings? My great great grandfather and great grandfather on my father’s side were listed as laborers. It looks like they were in categories 7-8. I expect that most of the immigrants who identified themselves as farmers on the ship manifests were from categories 5-6 with some from category 4.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, I think it is far more important to know where in this ranking our ancestors fit than whether in 1210, some ancestor was a bishop or a poet. Or anything else, for that matter. 
The bishops and poets weren’t the people who risked everything to come to North America to give their families a better life.
It’s my great great grandparents and great grandparents whose coming to New Iceland gave me the opportunities for the life I’ve lived. I embrace them all.  

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