Animal–Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland: from farm-settlement to sagas

Review by Bernadette McCooey

Animals as animals is the main premise of this work, as all too often animals are reduced to their economic or social significance, both in the literary and archaeological record. Thankfully, this refreshing approach to early medieval Iceland, from the 9th century to about the 13th century, places domestic animals in the multisensory, multispecies communities that made up farm households. This book is not an overview of all animal–human interactions, but a focused study that permits the close examination of animals as living creatures.

The first chapter introduces Evans Tang’s multidisciplinary approach, and provides a good understanding of the interplay of archaeological and literary evidence in the study of the settlement of Iceland. The need for examining animal–human relations is made clear by illustrating how animals were ‘intelligent actors’ in farm households.

The next chapter focuses on two farm sites, Vatnsfjörður and Sveigakot. Evans Tang offers an insightful interpretation of the sites with a keen understanding of animal–human processes, such as movement for milking and feeding, with spatial and visual analysis of the interconnectedness of the sites. The reader is also guided through the sometimes-confusing evidence of Sveigakot and its rapid reorganisation.

The legal compilation known as Grágás (or Grey Goose Laws) is the subject of the following chapter, which emphasises the importance of milk-producing livestock, and argues that those who cared for livestock should be viewed as skilled workers, as opposed to the lowly status assigned to them in the saga material. The laws were there to regulate animal–human relationships, to give protection and demand consequences from those, both animal and human, who transgressed them.

The Íslendingasögur (the Sagas of Icelanders) are the source of the next chapter. The close attention paid to words used in portraying animal– human relationships offers alternative readings of well-known characters: for example, Hrafnkell and his horse Freyfaxi, the dog Sámr, and Grettir’s changing relationship with animals.

The penultimate chapter shows how domestic animals and fodder were the foundation of households in Iceland, and how to injure the animals or land was to attack the viability of the household itself. Danger could also come from within the household, as the animals that sustained the farm could damage it, too. The inclusion of modern animal behavioural knowledge illustrates the logic behind some of the actions of both animals and humans when animals stepped outside their designated spaces.

The concluding chapter makes clear the need for examining animal–human relations. Animals are ‘more than just middens’ in the archaeological record, or passive beings to add detail to or advance the sagas. They were living beings who were active in creating and maintaining – both physically and conceptually – the medieval Icelandic farms that they occupied.

Evans Tang contributes a new perspective on how livestock and humans lived together, which will interest anyone who wishes to know more about animal–human interactions in medieval Iceland and possibly beyond.

Animal–Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland: from farm-settlement to sagas 
Harriet J Evans Tang
Boydell & Brewer, £60
ISBN 978-1843846437