1772, Iceland: making a living


If, when you transported yourself to the Iceland of 1772 with the help of a green bottle’s contents, you had stayed more than a day and a night, you might have discovered quite a bit about how lang lang ammas and avis managed to survive in this inhospitable climate.

You’d have quickly discovered that they survived by fishing and stock raising.
When your avi was fishing on the coast, he’d clean and gut the fish, then give them to your lang amma. The job of the women was to dry the fish. Once dried, the fish can last a long time, can be easily transported on the back of a horse, and provides protein. The drying takes a lot of work for the fish have to be lain out and turned. If rain threatens, lang amma has to take the fish inside inside or pile it up and cover it for if it gets wet, it will be spoiled.

In summer, your lang avi mows the grass, digs turf, collects whatever he can to use as fuel. Men and women go searching for sheep and goats (it is interesting that von Troil mentions goats but it is unlikely that any such goats existed in 1772. They were too destructive of grazing ground. He probably took that information from an earlier publication.) and butcher cattle for the winter.

When your lang amma wasn’t milking goats, sheep and cows, taking care of the animals, raking grass, cooking food, sewing, spinning, gathering eggs and eider down, she worked at weaving wadmal, a coarse cloth that was used locally but also traded to the Danish trading ships.

Von Troil mentions that the Icelanders make use of urine for cleaning the wool. This wasn’t uncommen in other countries. Farms would have containers for people to pee into as the urine was important for the treating of wool.

The men, he says, prepare leather, but gives no description. Later travellers describe the process in some detail. He says that in the tanning process, the Icelanders use meadow sweet.

He does mention that there are a few who work in gold and silver and others have been instructed in mechanics but he makes no mention of what kind of mechanics or to what purpose.

If you had been in the right place at the right time, you might have seen a sledge that a farmer built like a ship with sails. It was big enough to hold four or five people. In the winter, it was used to sail over even country (frozen lake, maybe?). Unfortunately, two of the farmer’s sons took it out and sailing home from church they overturned it and it was broken to pieces. (When my father was a boy, people in Gimli were building ice-boats, that is ships with sails meant to travel over the ice of Lake Winnipeg. I wonder if any of them knew they were following an old example?)

You would find that the amount of work your lang afi and amma did on the farm was laid down by local bylaws. One such bylaw said that “a man is to mow as much hay in one day, as grows on thirty fathoms square of manured soil, or forty fathoms square of land not manured, or he is obliged to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three broad.

“In winter, if the snow drifts reach to the horses bellies, then your afi was to clear snow off an area for a hundred sheep.

In talking to your host and his workers, you’d discover that wages are fixed by law. Your lang afi would tell you that his wages are four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. Your lang amma would tell you that her wages are two dollars and five yards of wadmal. Imagine trying to save enough to put a down payment on a small farm such as Summerhouses. It takes Bjartur, the main character in Independent People, eighteen years to save up enough to make a down payment on a poor piece of land.

In summer your lang amma is to rake together as much hay as three men can mow. She is to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.Those rules are set out in the bylaws of the sysla.

When your lang avi is sent fishing in the winter, that is from 25th of September to May 14, he is allowed six pounds of butter and eighteen pounds of dried fish every week. This is all he gets to eat. No puddings, pies, cakes, roast beef, hot porridge, bacon and eggs. He’ll wash his food down with whey mixed with water. When he goes out fishing, he takes no food with him. This is the North Atlantic, in winter, with howling winds, high seas, bitter cold, in an open boat, rowing. No hot food. No food. Just whey and water to drink.

So there you are, this is what von Troil has observed and heard about the life of your lang, lang, lang, lang, lang, lang afi and amma in 1772, a hundred years before our ancestors started leaving for North America. This is what you’d have heard if you’d slipped away from Islendingadagurinn, vinartera, rulupylsa, good beer, laden tables and spent a day or two with the people you are supposed to be honouring at The Icelandic Celebration.