Icelanders - History and Cultural Relations

A number of medieval Icelandic manuscripts have been preserved. They include a compilation of stories collected just within the living memory of some of the earliest settlers about the settlement itself (the "Book of Settlements"); a grammatical treatise; the family sagas, composed during the thirteenth century about events of earlier periods; the Sturlunga sagas about contemporary thirteenth-century events; lawbooks; biographies of churchmen; other religious writings; and compilations of and commentaries on poetry and mythology. This is a unique record of a stratified society without a state, provided by the people of the society themselves. Romanticized nationalistic treatments of this tradition are common and are related to the ideology of the nineteenth-century Icelandic independence movement. This influence remains in some Scandinavian and other treatments of Icelandic culture and history. While scholars continue to debate the reliability of the documents of the Icelandic literary-historic tradition, most agree about the following history. Iceland was settled by people from Norway beginning in the ninth century. Each nonchieftain belonged to the assembly group of a chieftain. The society was stratified, but there was no state system. In A.D. 930 a General Assembly based on the model of Norwegian assemblies was established. One "law speaker" was elected every three years to memorize the customs and laws and recite one-third of them at each annual meeting of the assembly. He had no executive authority, but he could be consulted on points of law. The chieftains in assembly changed laws and heard cases. The assembly was not a parliamentary structure nor in any way did it resemble a democracy. Under pressure from the king of Norway in 1000, Christianity was adopted as the general religion of the island by arbitration at the meeting of the General Assembly. With Christianity came bishops and, in 1096, a tithe law. Early in the twelfth century the laws were written. A period of strife among chieftains resulted in the concentration of power into the hands of a few families in the thirteenth century, and in 1242 the remaining chieftains surrendered to the king of Norway. In 1380 Norway came under Danish rule, bringing Iceland with it. During the Reformation, in 1550, Catholicism was replaced by Lutheranism. From 1602 until 1787 there was a trade monopoly to prevent Icelanders from trading with British, German, and other fishermen and traders. In 1918 home rule was granted. During World War II, the Germans occupied Denmark and the British occupied Iceland. At the invitation of the British and occupied Iceland, the United States established military bases to free the British for other war tasks. Iceland became an independent republic in 1944. The American bases remain as NATO bases. Their presence is hotly debated in Iceland. Some argue they are Iceland's contribution to NATO while others argue they contradict Iceland's independence. Language, geography, and history place Iceland in the sphere of Scandinavian culture.

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