In 1872 when Richard Burton visits Iceland, he says “Their hay was not housed but heaped in stacks two yards square, upon raised mounds, at short distances, and covered with sloping turf to lead the rain into surrounding ditches.”
Did you know that? Did you know that hay was placed on raised mounds, that it was covered in turf to shed water. If your great great grandparents worked on a farm, their tasks would have been to scythe the grass, rake it, stack it, and cover the stacks with turf. They would have worked long, exhausting hours, every day the same. Hay came before everything because there was only one crop in Iceland and it fed the sheep and cows and these cattle fed the people.
“In summer they ate cods’ heads, boiled, like most other food for it had to be cooked in a pot over an open fire. In winter they ate sheep’s heads kept in fermented vinegar of sour milk (Syra), or in the juice of sorrel (Sura) and other plants. The mutton was sold.” Why was the mutton sold? Because they could not afford to keep it for themselves. Everything they needed, horseshoes, nails, iron bars, rye flour, needles, thread, spices, rice, everything except the very few things that could be produced on a farm had to be obtained by trade with the Danish merchants.
In the 1800s in Iceland, “bread was not the staff of life. It was eaten only on high days and holidays, that is at births, marriages, and deaths.” The better off “farmers baked cakes, broad and thin, like sea biscuits, of black rye flour from Copenhagen.”
In 1872 the yearly death rate per thousand in Reykjavik was 59-60 compared to 20 in London. Burton says, “The list of diseases is so extensive that little beyond the names can be mentioned.” There was nothing romantic about living in unheated homes made of turf and lava. The floors were often wet dirt. There was little light. There was no ventilation as the body heat had to be kept inside. Houses were crowded. Communicable diseases spread quickly because of the crowding and because of the kissing that was used in greeting.
There was always a shortage of fuel. Our families burned peat, birch twigs, dried sheep dung, fish bones, brown coal (if there was some in their area) and driftwood. Only the Danish traders or a very well off farmer could afford imported wood. A number of travelers report that there is only one stove in an Icelandic home in the entire country. Stoves only make sense when there is a lot of fuel and it is cheap. If, as I did, you grew up with a wood stove and wood furnace, you’ll remember the cords and cords of wood required to keep the house warm and food cooked.
Our ancestors’ world was one largely without money. As long as the Danish restrictions on trade existed, the traders had no competition either as buyers or sellers. They set both the price they would pay and the price at which they would sell. They also just gave credits against purchases. It was only with the lifting of the trade restrictions and the coming of the English and Scots buyers of horses and sheep that money was injected into the system. The English and Scots paid in silver. If you want to read about an Icelandic agent who worked for the Scots, read Paradise Reclaimed. One of the characters, Bjorn of Leirur, is a buyer of sheep and cows for Scots businessmen.