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Vidal, Teva (2013) Houses and domestic life in the
Viking Age and medieval period: material perspectives
from sagas and archaeology. PhD thesis, University of
Nottingham.
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HOUSES AND DOMESTIC LIFE IN THE VIKING AGE
AND MEDIEVAL PERIOD:
MATERIAL PERSPECTIVES FROM SAGAS
AND ARCHAEOLOGY

Teva Vidal, MA.

Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

DECEMBER 2013

iii
Abstract
This thesis examines the representations of houses as physical structures in the
Íslendingasögur with specific emphasis on the material aspect of housing
culture in the Viking Age and medieval period, as well as the interactions
between material culture and text. The Íslendingasögur were written in Iceland
as of the thirteenth century, but look back onto the Viking Age (c. 800-1100
AD). Comparison with the archaeology of domestic space reveals that the
house in the Íslendingasögur generally corresponds with medieval housing
models, contemporary with the period of saga writing. However, there are also
examples of structures which correspond to the models of the Viking Age.
Descriptions of antiquated buildings are sometimes framed in statements that
make explicit reference to the chronological separation between the Viking
Age and the writer’s present time, suggesting a familiarity with the evolution
of housing culture.
Detailed analysis of buildings in the sagas reveals domestic space in its
context of use, and demonstrates how the physical nature of the house and
farm framed the productive and social activities that went on within. The
materiality of domestic life has particular importance for the dispensing of
hospitality. Demonstrations of domestic space in use also allow for a better
understanding of the relationship between objects and language, and elucidate
some difficulties in translation and academic usage both in archaeology and
literary studies. Material culture can itself influence the processes of
composition in oral/written narratives such as the sagas, by inspiring the
formation of narrative episodes. The built environment can also provide a
contextual framing for narratives, acting as a mnemonic device facilitating the
preservation and transmission of saga narratives.

v
Acknowledgements
This thesis was made possible, first and foremost, thanks to the steadfast
encouragement and loving support of my fiancée, Crystal Sissons. Throughout
this tumultuous adventure we have overcome many challenges and built new
dreams together, and I can only begin to express my gratitude to her. Her sharp
eye and quick editorial pen have also made this a much better piece of work,
and it is an honour and a privilege to dedicate this thesis to her.
Special thanks also go to my supervisors at the University of
Nottingham, Judith Jesch and Christina Lee, for the innumerable opportunities
they provided me, their meticulous guidance and also occasional, strategic
challenges. It is to Judith Jesch that I owe my true introduction to the world of
Old Norse language and literature, as well as the impetus to undertake this
research thanks to the example of her own work.
Help and inspiration have come from many quarters. In particular, I am
grateful to Else Roesdahl for her encouraging support and advice, and I
consider myself privileged to count Dale Kedwards and Sarah Croix as friends,
colleagues and allies. Marjolein Stern and Ruarigh Dale have been steadfast
companions since the start of my doctoral studies at Nottingham.
In the world of Old Norse and Viking studies my thanks also go to
Carolyne Larrington, Lesley Abrams, Heather O’Donoghue, Elizabeth Ashman
Rowe, Chris Callow and Torfi Tulinius. My forays into Viking Age
archaeology were greatly enriched thanks to Karen Milek and the team at
Fornleifastofnun Íslands and the 2011 Vatnsfjörður excavation. Access to
unpublished archaeological studies was of considerable assistance, and I am
grateful to Karen Milek, Sarah Croix, Rebecca Boyd, Lydia Carstens and Julie
Bond for sharing aspects of their unpublished research with me. In the field of
medieval housing culture, I was fortunate to benefit from insights and
suggestions from Kate Giles, Mette Svart-Kristensen and Jill Campbell.
Finally, Patricia Sutherland and Peter Rider both fostered early interests in
Viking Age archaeology and material history, respectively.
Help with translations (always augmented with precious insights) was
offered by Judith Jesch, Dale Kedwards, Bergdís Þrastardóttir, Guðrún Alda
Gísladóttir, Sophie Bønding, Sarah Croix, Marjolein Stern, and Christina Lee.

vi
Much institutional support was provided by the School of English
Studies at Nottingham, and I thank in particular the team of wizards in the
administrative and financial office, Rebecca Peck, Lydia Wallman and TracyAnn Stead. In the first stages of my transition to Nottingham, it was thanks to
the formidable efforts of Martin Brown that every last administrative knot was
untangled, and that I was able to begin my studies with confidence and ease.
The conviviality of everyone at the School of English, the Institute for
Medieval Research and the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age has been a
constant source of support. In particular, the school’s medievalists made me
welcome in their academic family: Paul Cavill, Nicola Royan, John Baker,
Natalie Jones, Joanna Martin, Mike Jones and especially Jayne Carroll, for her
patient and meticulous review of my work in various stages of completion.
Thanks also to Kevin Harvey (for the puns) and to Clare Pickersgill of the
University museum.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my professors at my alma mater, the
University of Ottawa, for fostering my early development as a medievalist.
Kouky J. Fianu and Sylvie Perrier have been, and always remain, formidable
formative forces. Pierre Kunstmann, Paul Birt and Dennis Brearley also
ensured, early on in my studies, that I would never hesitate to travel where my
enthusiasm and curiosity led me.
Friends old and new have left their mark. Antonino La Rocca, Lamma
Zghoul, James Addison and the team at Sherwood Hall have been my daily
allies. Thanks to Yves Gilonne of Lincoln Hall for keeping me sane with
regular infusions of francophonie. To Boris Popov, LeRoy Hill and the crew at
Melton Hall I owe an excellent start to my time in Nottingham. It has been a
privilege to share the company of my fellow denizens of the School of English:
Clare Wright, Elizabeth Adams Holland, Jemima Trent Matthews, Chloe
Harrison, Sam Haddow, Tony Fisher, Daniel Hunt, Ellie Rye, John Quanrud,
Harry Buxton, Elizaveta Matveeva, and Annette Frances Jones. From my
second academic home at Århus: Mathias Nordvig, Sophie Bønding, Sarah
Croix and Bergdís Þrastardóttir. Elijah McStotts, Larisa Roberts and Sally
Evans, archaeology would never have been as fun without you.
From back home in Canada, special thanks go to Leo and Janis Zrudlo
and Tuulikki and Endre Bence-Bruckler, who have been true mentors.

vii
Leo Zrudlo sadly left us before this thesis was completed, as did Richard
Boily, and I raise a glass to them and remember their friendship fondly.
Alexandre Robertson, Daniel Grummisch, Mary Dawood, Lee Blanding and
Andrea Eidinger have given the truest friendship and affection, while Linda
Gagnon-Dean and Thomas Dean have become family to Crystal and myself.
Thank you also to the Sissons clan: Brian, Sandi, and of course Tia, and the
Arden chapter: Darren, Kora, Eva and Ella.
Support from my family stretches back much further than the years of
this thesis. My dear sister Maeva has ever and always lifted my spirits with her
indomitable good humour, and she and her partner Luke Graham have inspired
me with their own demonstrations of what housing culture and domestic life
can represent. And of course, I thank my parents, Antoinette and Jean-Louis
Vidal, for their infinite patience and generosity, their unshakable faith in me,
and for having always encouraged me to cultivate my curiosity and interests to
the furthest degree. And of course, for never failing to hearing me out when I
needed a really good rant! This thesis is, in part, their creation as well.
Financial support was provided by a Doctoral Fellowship from the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Viking
Society for Northern Research provided several bursaries through their
Research Support Fund, as did the University of Nottingham’s School of
English Studies, Institute for Medieval Research, and Centre for the Study of
the Viking Age through the Christine Fell Fund. Participation in the North
Atlantic Biocultural

Organisation’s

Field

School

in

North

Atlantic

Archaeology (2011), with its excavation at Vatnsfjörður, Iceland, was made
possible thanks to the Graduate Travel Prize from the School of Graduate
Studies at the University of Nottingham.

ix
CONTENTS

List of Abbreviations

Introduction

xii

1

Aims of the Thesis

1

Research Context and General Literature Review

3

Interdisciplinary Studies

8

Sample and Methodology

11

Structure

19

A Note on Chronology

22

A Note on Spelling

23

Section 1: The Physical House

27

Chapter 1: The House in the Íslendingasögur

29

1.1 The Farmstead and Its Grounds

30

1.2 Outbuildings

36

1.3 The Farmhouse

41

1.3.1 From the Outside: the Roof, the Door
and the Antechamber

42

1.3.2 The Main Room

48

1.4 Discussion and Overview

60

1.4.1 Grettis saga

60

1.4.2 Gísla saga

65

1.4.3 Eyrbyggja saga

70

Conclusion: The Materiality of Domestic Space

Chapter 2: Comparisons with Archaeology

73

75

2.1 Overview of Housing Culture in Iceland and
Scandinavia from the Viking Age to the
Early Modern Period
2.1.1 The Viking Age

76
76

x
2.1.2 Developments from the Medieval to the Early Modern
Period: Iceland and Greenland

84

2.1.3 Developments from the Medieval to the Early Modern
Period: Norway and the North Atlantic Expansion
2.2 Discussion: Sagas and Archaeology
2.2.1 The Medieval Model
2.2.2 The Viking Age Model
Conclusion

92
97
97
107
117

Chapter 3: The House in Íslendinga saga

121

3.1 The House in Íslendinga saga: Overview

124

3.2 General Characteristics and External Aspect

126

3.3 Rooms and Internal Organisation

133

3.3.1 Skáli and Stofa: The Main Rooms

133

3.3.2 Other Rooms (Lodging, Storage
Hygiene and Maintenance)
3.4 Grounds and Outbuildings

142
148

3.4.1 Agricultural and Ancillary Spaces and Buildings

148

3.4.2 The Church

153

3.4.3 Fortifications

158

Conclusion: Reflections on Sources of Inspiration

163

Section 2: The Living House

169

Chapter 4: Activities in the House and Farm

171

4.1 Households and Property

172

4.2 Agricultural and Productive Activities

176

4.3 Domestic Industry

182

4.4 Other Activities Within the House

184

4.5 Comparison with Archaeology

189

4.6 Comparison with Íslendinga saga

196

Conclusion

202

Chapter 5: The House in Social Space

205

xi
5.1 The Social House in the Íslendingasögur

208

5.1.1 Travel and Geographical Space

208

5.1.2 Hospitality: Protection from the Outside World

209

5.1.3 Hospitality: Practical Responsibilities

215

5.1.4 The House and Legal Matters

218

5.1.5 Outlawry

223

5.2 The Social House in Íslendinga saga

227

5.3 The House and Hospitality in Hávamál

231

5.3.1 Justification for the Use of Hávamál

231

5.3.2 The House and Domestic Space in Hávamál

233

5.4 Comparisons with Archaeology

237

Conclusion

244

Section 3: Transmission

247

Chapter 6: Words and Objects

249

6.1 Elucidations of Function and Form

252

6.1.1 Mutual Clarification

252

6.1.2 Basic Problems in Translation

255

6.2 Function and Form Dissociated

258

6.2.1 Baðstofa, Dyngja and Sunken-Featured
Buildings

258

6.2.2 Misrepresenting Objects and Structures

262

6.2.3 The Use of the Word ‘Hall’

265

Conclusion

Chapter 7: Material Memory

276

279

7.1 ‘Kernels’: Anchors for Composition

280

7.2 Buildings as Mnemonic Devices

282

Conclusion

286

General Conclusion

289

Bibliography

297

xii
List of Abbreviations
See Bibliography for full citations.

C&V

Cleasby and Vigfusson, eds., An IcelandicEnglish Dictionary

F

Fritzner, ed., Ordbog over det gamle norske
sprog

HST

Hólmarsson, Sanders and Tucker, eds. Concise
Icelandic-English Dictionary/Íslenzk-ensk
orðabók

IEO

Sigurðsson, ed. Íslenzk-ensk orðabók

KLNM

Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder

ODEE

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology

OED

The Oxford English Dictionary

ONP

Dictionary of Old Norse Prose

Z

Zoëga, ed. A Concise Dictionary of Old
Icelandic

1
Introduction
Aims of the Thesis
Looking back into the Viking Age (c.800 – c.1100)1 is a task which requires
the input of many types of sources, and many different disciplines of study. It
is a period that is both historical and pre-historical. Accounts from outside
Scandinavia and native material such as runic inscriptions, skaldic and Eddic
poetry, and archaeological remains provide a glimpse into the earlier part of
this period. Scandinavian texts however only make their appearance towards
the end of the Viking Age. Indeed, the great flourishing of Old Norse literary
production in Iceland did not occur until the thirteenth century. Sagas,
especially the Íslendingasögur, are among the most cherished vestiges of the
medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian past. Yet the chronological distance of
several centuries which separates the recording of these medieval narratives
from the Viking Age settings which they depict has made them a contentious
and difficult source to use as witnesses to this period.
The subjective interpretations of the past, especially the nationalromantic ideals of the nineteenth century which promoted the sagas as a
truthful account of the Viking Age, have been rejected by modern scholarship.
As a result, serious doubt has been cast on the historicity of sagas. In recent
years, archaeology, especially in Iceland, has asserted itself as an independent
and more objective medium for accessing the heritage of the Viking Age, no
longer dictated by a romanticised antiquarian reading of the sagas as ‘history’. 2
It would however be a hasty and uncritical position universally to brand saga

1

See the Note on Chronology at the end of this chapter.
For a “manifesto” of this archaeological mission, see Friðriksson 1994. For more on the
debate surrounding the historicity of sagas, see Sørensen 1993.

2

2
literature as ahistorical and without a place in historical research. These great
literary works are still important cultural artefacts of a society which grew out
of the Viking Age and immediately followed it. The sagas provide valuable
insights into a medieval society looking back on its Viking Age antecedents
from a far greater cultural and chronological proximity than is possible to
achieve from a twenty-first century perspective. This gives them the potential
to provide a privileged glimpse into the Viking Age they depict.
Saga literature presents us with a fleshed-out world, fully inhabited, in
which the great (and perhaps ahistorical or pseudo-historical) deeds of their
exceptional protagonists take place against a very realistic background, in real
locations and landscapes that are still, in many cases, recognisable today. The
level of detail and description that the saga writers employed demonstrates
their desire to represent a ‘real’ world, one that would be familiar and
believable to their intended audiences (Sørensen 2003: 265, 267). One element
of setting which benefits from this attention to realistic detail is the depiction
of houses and the material culture of domestic life. In a society that was
mostly rural, the farm, with the house at its centre, constituted the core not
only of everyday domestic life but also of the wider social world.
The objective of this thesis is to contribute to the study of domestic life
in Viking Age and medieval Iceland and Scandinavia by examining the way
that houses are represented in the Íslendingasögur. Houses will be studied
primarily in terms of their physical presence, both as the delimited space
within which domestic life was lived, and as objects with which their
inhabitants interacted. This will illuminate how the houses’ materiality shaped
the activities that went on within them, and affected their importance on a

3
social and ideological level. By examining the descriptions of houses as
structures with close comparison to the archaeology of Viking Age and
medieval housing culture in Iceland and Scandinavia, the accuracy of the saga
descriptions can be measured. This will allow for the ‘historicity’ of the sagas
to be tested, in terms of their reflection of material culture.
In his research on the fourteenth-century farm at Gröf in the 1950s,
archaeologist Gísli Gestsson determined that saga literature (with specific
reference to Grettis saga) had the potential accurately to represent the material
culture of medieval Iceland (Gestsson 1959: 52-53; see also Friðriksson 1994:
190-191). By ensuring a close comparison between the literary material, with
particular attention to language, and the results of archaeological research, this
thesis provides an opportunity to see in which ways these two disciplines, so
often seen as incompatible and at times even antagonistic, can actually interact
positively. It also provides a means of demonstrating how material culture can
itself play a role in the composition of literature and the transmission of
narrative.

Research Context and General Literature Review
While little scholarly attention has been devoted specifically to the topic of
domestic life in Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia, it is a topic which is
beginning to generate more interest among researchers. The study of
settlements has otherwise proven central to the study of the Viking Age, both
in terms of its Scandinavian origins and of the great migrations which
characterise the age. What follows is not an exhaustive examination of studies
on Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian housing culture and settlement, but

4
a select overview of those studies which proved most useful to the
understanding of the subject for the purposes of this thesis.
The study of Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian housing culture
has, understandably, been mostly the purview of archaeology. In the urban
context, the great mercantile centres of Hedeby (Schietzel 1969-2002), Ribe
(Bencard 1981-2004), Birka (Ambrosiani et al. 1992-2003), Kaupang (Skre
2007a), York (Hall 1984; Hall et al. 2004) and Dublin (Smyth 1975-78;
P. Wallace 1992) have received much attention, but without focussing
specifically on houses. Non-urban settlements, mostly in Denmark, have also
been studied, such as the fortified centres at Fyrkat, Trelleborg and Eketorp
(Roesdahl 1987), and the nucleated villages of Vorbasse (Hvass 1980, 1992)
and Lindholm Høje (Ramskou 1953-57).
The archaeology of urban sites is, of course, part of the wider context
of research on Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian housing culture. These
sites were however excluded from the present study to allow for a more
accurate comparison with the rural settlements which dominate the sampled
sagas. There may furthermore be a structural differentiation between rural and
urban houses, with urban houses tending, in many contexts, to be rectangular
but straight-walled and shorter in overall length than rural buildings, with
entrances frequently placed in the gable-ends, and most often placed close
together in small regular plots on planned streets (see Skre 2007b, 2008).
These urban settings, as can be seen in the reconstructed layouts of Dublin
(Figure 0.2), Kaupang (Figure 0.3) and Hedeby (Figure 0.4), contrast with
the general characteristics of rural settlements and houses (Figure 0.1).3

3

These figures are at the end of this introduction, pages 23-24.

5
For the study of rural dwellings, useful general overviews of the
characteristics of housing throughout the Scandinavian world of the Viking
Age are offered by Else Roesdahl and Barbara Scholckmann’s chapter
‘Housing Culture’ in The Archaeology of Medieval Europe (2007), and
especially Helena Hamerow’s compilation Early Medieval Settlements (2002).4
More significant contributions are provided by focussed, regional studies
particularly in Denmark, Norway and Iceland. While Denmark falls outside the
range of direct study for this thesis, due to the saga samples being essentially
limited to Iceland and Norway, some Danish studies are extremely useful for
understanding the characteristics of Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian
buildings. The most important of these are Holger Schmidt’s compilation
Building Customs in Viking Age Denmark (1994), and the volumes edited by
Else Roesdahl, Dagligliv i Danmarks middelalder – en arkæologisk
kulturhistorie (1999) and Bolig og familie i Danmarks middelalder (2003).
In Norway, much work has been done on pre-Viking Age settlements
(BÃ¥rdseth 2009; Johansen 1982; 2003; Myhre 1973; Storli 2000), which may
in some cases contribute to a better understanding of rural sites in the Iron
Age, which precedes the Viking Age in Norwegian historical periodisation
(Fallgren 2008: 67). While there is a relative dearth of extensively-studied
Viking Age house sites in Norway (Johansen 1982: 45-46; Myhre 1998: 11-13,
2000: 35-37), the work of Bjørn Myhre stands out as making the greatest
contribution to our understanding of the evolution of housing culture from the
(pre-Viking) Iron Age until the (post-Viking) medieval period (Myhre 1973,
1982a,b, 1985, 1993, 1998, 2000). The compilations Grindbygde hus i Vest4

On the general development of Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian housing culture, see
also Weinmann 1994: 355-360.

6
Norge (Schjelderup and Storsletten, 1999) and Middelaldergården i Trøndelag
(Skevik 2003) have provided important contributions to the field by presenting
the most comprehensive and concentrated collections of studies on the
evolution of housing culture in Norway.
Holding a privileged position in the archaeology of Viking Age
Norway, the exceptional high-status house at Borg has been the object of
detailed study and dedicated publication, led by Gerd Stamsø Munch (Munch,
Johansen and Larssen 1987; Munch and Johansen 1988; Munch 2007). The
monograph on Borg (Munch, Johansen and Roesdahl 2003), and that on
Kaupang (the first of a series) which followed a few years later (Skre 2007a),
are among a new generation of archaeological publications. These make
widely available the comprehensive archaeological reports and detailed postexcavation analysis of settlement sites within their wider archaeological and
historical contexts. As a result, these publications have vastly improved the
dissemination of archaeological research on the Viking Age.5
Though it was published over thirty years ago, the important
compilation Vestnordisk byggeskikk gjennom to tusen år: Tradisjon og
forandring fra romertid til det 19. århundre (Myhre, Stoklund and Gjærder,
1982) remains unmatched in its exploration of the development of housing
culture in Norway and its North Atlantic descendants. One of its editors and
main contributors, Bjarne Stoklund, has made significant contributions to our
understanding of the evolution and export of Norwegian building customs
throughout the North Atlantic (particularly the Faroe Islands) in the medieval

5

Similar publications have placed Viking Age Scandinavian migration within a wider
settlement pattern in the Northern Isles, particularly Shetland. See the monographs on Papa
Stour edited by Crawford and Smith (1999), and on Old Scatness, edited by Dockrill, Bond,
Turner et al (2010).

7
period (Stoklund 1982a,b, 1993, 1999, 2002, 2003). A similar contribution, in
topic and scope, has been made by Steffen Stummann Hansen (1989, 1990,
2000, 2003, 2003a,b). At the extreme extent of Viking Age settlement in the
North Atlantic, the well-documented temporary settlement at l’Anse-auxMeadows provides the only confirmed Viking site in North America (Ingstad
1970, 1977, 1985; Wallace 2000; 2003a,b). An important review of the
dwellings of the Greenlandic colonies, with implications for the understanding
Scandinavian housing culture in Iceland and throughout the Western expansion
of the Viking diaspora, has also been recently been conducted by Mogens
Skaaning Høegsberg (2009).
A thorough understanding of the housing culture of Viking Age Iceland
was particularly important to this thesis. It is therefore fortunate that Iceland
has a long tradition of interest in the archaeology of Viking Age and medieval
settlements, albeit originally fuelled by the romantic antiquarian mindset so
reviled by current archaeologists (see for example Friðriksson 1994; Lucas
2004). Iceland’s first major concerted series of modern scientific excavations
of Viking Age and medieval farms, Forntida gårdar i Island: Nordiska
arkeologiska undersökningen i Island 1939, edited by Mårten Stenberger, was
published in 1943 and remains an important foundation to modern
archaeological practice. Hörður Águstsson (1978, 1979, 1982a,b), Kristján
Eldjárn (1965) and Gísli Gestsson (1959, 1982) are among the other pioneers
of modern Icelandic archaeology whose work has had a lasting impact.
Since the 1990s, new interest has been generated in the discipline,
building on a retrospective of past work (Vésteinsson 2000, 2004: 74-75, 7981) and focussing on a wide dissemination of archaeological publications.

8
Beginning in 1998, the publication of Archaeologia Islandica by the Icelandic
Institute of Archaeology, Fornleifastofnun Íslands (FSÍ), has contributed
significantly to this mission. The FSÍ also publishes its recent interim
archaeological reports online, through the website of the North Atlantic
Biocultural Organization (NABO).6
In the last decade, several important studies directly relevant to the
study of the Viking Age and medieval house have been produced. Karen
Milek’s doctoral thesis Houses and Households in Early Icelandic Society:
Geoarchaeology and the Interpretation of Social Space (2006) provides an
overview of the state of archaeological research on Viking Age houses. It also
provides a helpful re-evaluation of the dating of all known Viking Age (and
some early-medieval) house sites in Iceland. Two recent monographs follow
the trend set in Norway by the reports on Borg and Kaupang by providing
comprehensive analyses of entire settlement sites: Hofstaðir: Excavations of a
Viking Age Feasting Hall in North-Eastern Iceland edited by Gavin Lucas
(2009) and Reykholt: Archaeological Investigations at a High Status Farm in
Western Iceland, edited by Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir (2012). A similar study
was produced for the site of Quoygrew in Orkney (Barrett 2012).

Interdisciplinary Studies
There has of course been interest in using interdisciplinary approaches to bring
together material culture and text in the study of the Viking Age. 7 Most
germane to this thesis is the study of the interaction between archaeology and

6

http://www.nabohome.org/cgi_bin/fsi_reports.pl [accessed 30/10/2012]
A general plea for the rehabilitation of material culture in text-based studies in the social
sciences (or rather a condemnation of the denigration of material culture in those same
studies), beyond the field of Viking Studies, can be found in Olsen 2003.
7

9
literature. John Hines (2000, 2003) and Helena Victor (2009), for example,
have looked at certain aspects of the archaeological reality behind Old
Norse/Icelandic myth and saga literature. Though focussing on English
literature, Hines’ Voices in the Past: English Literature and Archaeology
(2004) provides an interesting methodological experiment, exploring the scope
of possible interactions between literature and archaeology. Focussing on highstatus buildings, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, in his posthumous chapter
‘The Hall in Norse Literature’ (2003), provides an excellent introduction to the
manifestations of the domestic building as a physical space, as it is represented
both in Old Norse poetry and prose.
This focus on high-status buildings in archaeology and literature is also
the subject of a study currently being undertaken by Lydia Carstens (Pers.
Comm., 2012), revisiting the definition, archaeological form, and function of
the high-status ‘hall’8. Moreover the compilation Beowulf and Lejre edited by
John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn (2007), aims to present an entire spectrum
of interdisciplinary thought on the high-status site at Lejre in Denmark through
the collected studies relating the archaeological, literary, historical and
antiquarian research.
Also aiming at an interdisciplinary study, Frands Herschend (1997,
1998 esp. 12-62, 2000, 2003) has attempted to compare literary material
(mainly poetry) with archaeology and iconography to define the house, or
more specifically the high-status ‘hall’, as an interactive space where certain
social ideas, ideals and attitudes (i.e. Herschend’s ‘idea of the good’) are
perpetuated. Herschend’s approach has merit, and presents an excellent
The use of the word ‘hall’ in relation to Viking Age buildings is discussed further in chapter
6, section 6.2.3.
8

10
hypothesis to study the cognitive shaping of material culture as a cultural
artefact. However, he relies on a subjective interpretation of disparate
archaeological and textual sources which he unconvincingly attempts to
quantify (Herschend 1998: 9-11, 14, 31, 167-179).9 For these reasons, the
results of Herscehend’s work have not proven as convincing as the other
studies on domestic life and housing culture in the Viking Age.
Kirsten Hastrup’s research on Icelandic anthropology is a necessary
landmark for any study of settlements in a more social-historical perspective
(1985, 1990a,b). Inspired by some of Hastrup’s ideas on space (Hastrup 1998:
34-36, 111), Katrina Burge (2009) provides a useful and insightful exploration
of gendered and socially stratified space within the farmstead in saga literature,
as well as the farm’s place in a wider cosmology. Two recent doctoral studies
have also focussed directly on the social implications of house archaeology in
the Viking Age: Rebecca Boyd’s doctoral thesis Viking Houses in Ireland and
Western Britain, AD 850 – 1100: A Social Archaeology of Dwellings,
Households and Cultural Identities (University College Dublin: 2012) and
Sarah Croix’s doctoral thesis Work and Space in Rural Settlements in VikingAge Scandinavia – Gender Perspectives (Århus University: 2012). The
preliminary results of my own research for this thesis have also generated

9

Herschend uses a diverse array of literary sources (including Beowulf) to create a portrait of
aristocratic modes of behaviour, whose moral code is declared to be the model for social
behaviour on a large scale. Artefact deposits within high-status house ruins are also
considered to give an empirical and complete material record of activities within these spaces
(Herschend 1998:32). His view that the moral principles described in literature dictate the form
and function of objects and spaces seals the ‘halls’ he studies into a cognitively predetermined
role (Herschend 1998: 42-43, 167). Thus, by an analogy of form, any main room of a house
could be confined, in function, to the model of aristocratic use of the ‘hall’ as the seat of social
morality and governance. This model of aristocratic behaviour, including the importance of
religious outlook, resembles that which motivates social display in the later medieval context
of the ‘hall’, and makes his argument seem somewhat anachronistic (Herschend 1998:12, see
Chapter 6, section 6.2.3).

11
interest in the field of wider medieval European housing culture in a historical
and cultural perspective (Vidal forthcoming (a)).

Sample and Methodology
The inspiration to study the representation of houses in the Íslendingasögur
stems from the enormous potential they offer to access elements of social
history in medieval Iceland and Scandinavia. Housing culture, and the physical
construction of the house as a space for domestic life, can itself be intimately
linked to cultural identity (Hines 2011: 22-38; Komber 2001: 13-14; Rapoport
1969). The thought that sagas might contain reliable references to medieval,
and even Viking Age, domestic material culture came from a reading of Grettis
saga which, in Chapter 14, gives a detailed description of the form and usage
of the house’s main room prefaced by the words Þat var háttr í þann tíma,
‘That was the custom in that time’ (see the full passage quoted in Chapter 1,
section 1.4.1).10 The close attention which the unknown author/compiler of the
saga paid to the construction of domestic space, as well as the explicit
acknowledgement of a chronological remove with the description given,
inspired further investigation into the potential accuracy of architectural
descriptions in saga literature. The results of this investigation, including a
greater discussion on the importance of this passage, are featured in Section 1
(Chapters 1, 2 and 3).

10

All translations, unless otherwise stated, are mine. Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, ed. by
Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit vol. 7 (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1936), chapter
14. All subsequent references to Grettis saga, or excerpts of Grettis saga in Old Norse will
refer to this edition unless otherwise stated, and will be referred to by chapter in the body of
the text.

12
Few researchers have previously turned their attention to the
representations of houses in saga literature. The first was Valtýr
Guðmundsson, in his doctoral thesis Privatboligen på Island i sagatiden,
published in 1889. Guðmundsson provided a nearly exhaustive overview of the
descriptions of houses in saga literature in an attempt to give a comprehensive
outline of the housing culture of the ‘Saga Age’ (söguöld). His extensive
survey was unsupported by archaeology, which was still in its infancy in
Iceland (as elsewhere in Scandinavia) and not yet aided by a reliable scientific
methodology (Friðriksson 1994: 147). The most significant work to reexamine this topic in the light of a reliable corpus of domestic archaeology in
Iceland was Arnheiður Sigurðardóttir’s master’s thesis, Híbýlahættir á
miðöldum, published in 1966. In this critical and meticulous work,
Sigurðardóttir re-examines some of Guðmundsson’s analyses and conclusions,
and deals with the representation of houses in both the Íslendingasögur and the
samtíðarsögur against an increasing body of archaeological data for both the
Viking Age and medieval period. While Sigurðardóttir’s work is truly
fundamental in this area, it has become somewhat dated.
Fortunately the interpretation of houses in sagas was taken up more
recently in the context of a wider analysis of medieval and pre-medieval
Scandinavian housing culture, by Cornelia Weinmann in her doctoral thesis
Der Hausbau in Skandinavien vom Neolithikum bis zum Mittelalter, published
in 1994. Her overview of the characteristics of houses in sagas is extensive
and comes close to being a comprehensive survey. While it is an excellent
treatment of the topic, it leaves a critical assessment of the interactions

13
between material culture and text somewhat wanting, and adds little to the
detailed analysis and conclusions of Sigurðardóttir’s work.11
These more recent treatments of the topic, as well as the advances in
both archaeology and saga studies since Guðmundsson’s time, have rendered
his study obsolete, except perhaps as a catalogue of references to housing
culture. The fact that even some recent archaeological research on the Viking
Age house appears to consider Guðmundsson’s study as the final word on the
matter, inasmuch as literary studies are concerned (Milek 2006: 88, 234-240;
Milek 2012: 89), indicates that it needs urgently to be revisited, and that a
closer analysis of the relation between material culture and the mechanisms of
literary composition and transmission is required.
For the purposes of this thesis, it was determined that a truly exhaustive
analysis of every representation and description of houses in the
Íslendingasögur (some 40 separate sagas with approximately 50 additional
þættir), while desirable, would have proven unwieldy and beyond the
possibility of the current study. A significantly restricted sample of three sagas
was therefore selected for close analysis. Grettis saga was included because of
the aforementioned passage in chapter 14. This was followed by Gísla saga,12
thanks primarily to its thematic similarities with Grettis saga as an outlaw
saga, and the presence of intriguing architectural features such as underground

I only became aware of Weinmann’s work in the later stages of my thesis, when my primary
analysis of my sources had been completed. Some of the salient examples of house
construction as seen through saga texts which I have collected in this thesis are also contained
in Weinmann’s work; however they are not derived from it. It is in a sense gratifying to see
that independent analysis can come to similar results in different studies, thus lending credence
to the usefulness of saga texts for this kind of comparative study with archaeological material.
12
Gísla saga Súrssonar, in Vestfirðinga sögur, ed. by Björn Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson,
Íslenzk fornrit vol. 6 (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1943). All subsequent references
to Gísla saga, or excerpts of Gísla saga in Old Norse will refer to this edition unless otherwise
stated, and will be referred to by chapter in the body of the text.
11

14
passages (see Chapter 1, section 1.1). Finally, Eyrbyggja saga was selected by
virtue of some additional explicit references to constructions (such as the bathhouse in chapter 28), as well as its narrative and thematic links with Gísla saga
(see also Foote 1963: 128; Ólason 2003: vii-viii, xxiv-xxv).13 This selection
thus provides comparable material in sagas of varying lengths, and from
slightly different periods of composition.14
These three sagas were subjected to a close reading where every
occurrence of a domestic site was recorded and analysed. Particular attention
was given to architectural vocabulary, which revealed general architectural
trends and details of construction. The domestic sites in question usually
consist of a farmstead with its collected buildings, although occasionally
individual structures or ‘alternative’ domestic settings like outlaws’ huts and
caves and booths at þing-sites also occur. In addition, focused attention was
given to the activities that constituted daily life within the domestic sphere,
especially where they elucidated the use of the various spaces, rooms and
physical features of the buildings on the farmstead. Finally, the house and
farmstead were looked at in relation to their position in the wider world, in the
natural and social landscape.
The occurrences of domestic space are not always concentrated in
convenient descriptions. Often, in order to understand the material reality of
domestic structures (their construction and their spatial relationship with other
13

Eyrbyggja saga, ed. by Einar Ó. Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarson, Íslenzk fornrit vol. 4
(Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka Fornritafélag, 1935). All subsequent references to Eyrbyggja saga, or
excerpts of Eyrbyggja saga in Old Norse will refer to this edition unless otherwise stated, and
will be referred to by chapter in the body of the text.
14
Grettis saga is thought to have been composed as late as the early fifteenth century, Gísla
saga in the mid-to late thirteenth century, and Eyrbyggja saga in the mid-thirteenth century.
See Grettir’s Saga trans. Byock 2009: 242-248; The Saga of Grettir the Strong trans. Scudder
1998: 49 and 2005: xxxv-xxxvi; Gisli Sursson’s Saga trans. Regal 1998: 1; The Saga of the
People of Eyri trans. Quinn 1998: 131.

15
structures and objects) as well as their use, a much wider reading had to be
undertaken to situate the spaces within a broader narrative context. As a result,
representations of structures are contained within long quotations showing
scenes of use, which describe the actions of the saga’s protagonists within
these spaces and their interactions with objects (this will be discussed further
in Section 3, Chapters 6 and 7).15 The understanding of spaces, structures and
objects must often be compiled from numerous occurrences, and only a
cumulative approach can supply the necessary details.
The reason why the house was studied within the context of the
farmstead is that the farm constitutes the fundamental unit of social
organisation in Viking Age and medieval Iceland (and much of the
Scandinavian homelands). The house cannot be separated from the context of
the farmstead; while the house may be a building unto itself, it forms, with the
farmstead, a single cultural entity. Thus, the analysis of all the farm’s buildings
and structures, including the house, the agricultural or industrial outbuildings,
and even the farm’s boundary wall delimiting the meadow or ‘homefield’
adjacent to the house, are all relevant to understanding the nature of domestic
life and the use of domestic space in the sagas (Croix 2012: 161; Hreinsson et
al 1997: 399-401).
With a basic understanding of the ways in which domestic space was
manifested in the sagas, a grid was established into which occurrences of
houses and domestic environments were recorded, according to seven
categories of information:

15

An example of particularly poignant description of space, tightly interwoven with narrative
action, is Gísli’s murder of his brother-in-law Þorgrímr in Gísla saga Ch. 16. The full passage
is quoted and discussed in Chapter 1, section 1.4.2.

16
1) Physical Construction, describing the physical characteristics of the
buildings;
2) Inhabitants, describing household and guests in the domestic space;
3) Property and Ownership, describing any details of ownership and of
transactions relating to immovable property;
4) Use and Function, describing the daily productive and leisure
activities that took place within the house and farmstead;
5) Social Uses, describing the social functions accomplished by, and
taking place within, the domestic space;
6) Wider Geography, describing the interaction of the house and
farmstead with their wider geographical context;
7) Subjective Expression, seeking out any sentimental or qualitative
information given by characters in the narrative with regards to
domestic space and buildings.
For the purposes of this study, categories 1, 4 and 5 were the most useful, the
others contributing mostly to a general understanding of the contextual
representations and uses of domestic space in the sagas. House and farm sites
that are simply named and not described, or whose existence can be inferred
through a reference to an inhabitant, were not retained. Using this method, 82
separate sites were recorded in Grettis saga, 18 in Gísla saga, and 30 in
Eyrbyggja saga,16 with most sites occurring several times within the same
saga.
The sites mentioned are primarily located in Iceland, with the second
most frequent occurrences being in Norway. The overwhelming majority of
16

The different numbers of individual sites recorded reflect, to a degree, the different lengths
of the narratives as they are presented in the Íslenzk fornrit editions, with Grettis saga at 93
chapters, Gísla saga at 39 chapters, and Eyrbyggja saga at 65 chapters.

17
domestic occurrences in both locations were rural, and this thesis therefore
focuses mainly on farmsteads. While many of the farms described in the
narratives are high-status, owned by wealthy families, they remained within
the order of functional farmsteads and none could be seen explicitly to equate
with the exceptional aristocratic sites such as Hofstaðir in northern Iceland
(Lucas 2009),17 Lejre in Denmark (Christensen 2007) and Borg in Lofoten,
Norway (Munch, Johansen and Roesdahl 2003). Thus, the sites remained
largely within a comparable context of rural settlement, as single, selfcontained farmsteads.
The intention of this thesis is to subject saga literature to rigorous
source criticism with regards to the representation of material culture in the
field of domestic architecture. The theoretical approach adopted would best be
described as a study in materiality, giving primacy to the physical construction
of the house and buildings on the farmstead and acknowledging the importance
of this physical reality in shaping the lives of the farm’s inhabitants. This
materiality is recognised not only in the archaeological remains of Viking Age
and medieval houses in Iceland and Scandinavia, but also in saga literature.
This thesis asserts that through the medium of text, the physical nature of
housing culture can be read and understood through observations of the
inhabitants’ interactions with their built environment. Reading the evidence of
physical structures is necessarily a process that is informed by a previous
corpus of archaeological research that has permeated the field of Viking
studies (see for example Hreinsson et al. 1997). Similarly, defining the
architectural spaces uncovered by archaeology borrows from the vocabulary
17

The house at Hofstaðir is further discussed in chapter 1, section 1.3.2, and in the conclusion
to chapter 3.

18
and social context provided by Old Norse literature. These processes are, at the
very outset, mutually informative.
From this basis, descriptions of housing culture and of the use of
structures and spaces were read in the sagas, and certain architectural features
were considered to be particularly significant in defining this housing culture
as it is presented in the sampled texts. These were then compared, where
possible, with archaeological analogues, to determine the validity and accuracy
of the descriptions, and also to see which elements could be broadly placed in
time and attributed either to the Viking Age, or later to the evolution of
housing culture in the medieval period.
The study of materiality as a theoretical approach to archaeology has
recently seen a significant rise in interest and dedicated application (see Olsen
2003, DeMarrais, Gosden and Renfrew 2004). Other theoretical and
methodological approaches that might also guide and inform the understanding
of people’s interactions with their built environment notably include
phenomenology (the embodiment of experience through the sensory preception
of the world, see Merleau-Ponty 1945 and trans. by Landes 2012, and Bender,
Hamilton and Tilley 1997, 2007) and space syntax analysis (the understanding
of movement through the delimited spaces of an enclosed building, see Price
1995; Milek 2006: 20-31, 140-146; Boyd 2012: 19-20; 25-27; 157-182). These
theoretical approaches to social archaeology are revisited and further discussed
in chapter 5, section 5.4. However, while acknowledging a materialist
approach to this thesis, no particular pre-existing external methodology was
adopted to inform the research and analysis. It was thought that a firm,
descriptive base anchored in the understanding of the material aspects of

19
housing culture as it is represented in the sagas, with a consideration of
possible correspondence to archaeological vestiges, was needed before further
theoretical and methodological tools could be fruitfully applied. This remains,
therefore, an avenue for expansion in future work.
The physical remains of actual Viking Age and medieval Icelandic and
Scandinavian housing culture, as revealed through archaeological research, are
a logical and indispensible standard against which to evaluate the references
from literary sources. This approach will elucidate how the physical reality of
material culture is translated into literature, a medium perhaps more ephemeral
than the physical vestiges of the past, but no less charged with meaning. In this
way, this thesis will also contribute to understanding the range of interactions
that are possible between the study of material culture and the study of
literature in Viking Studies.

Structure
The thesis is separated into three sections: 1) The Physical House, 2) The
Living House and 3) Transmission. The first section, The Physical House,
deals with the description of houses, and the farmsteads to which they belong,
as physical objects, both in their literary incarnations in the sampled sagas and
in archaeological research. Chapter 1 relates the results of the analysis of house
occurrences in the sampled Íslendingasögur, looking at architectural
vocabulary, construction and details of spatial layout. Chapter 2 offers an
overview of the archaeology of houses in Viking Age and medieval Iceland
and Scandinavia, and subjects the findings from the saga material to a critical
comparison, focussing on the chronology of any correspondences in house

20
construction between the written and archaeological material. As mentioned
previously, since the analysis of housing culture in the sagas focussed on rural
sites, these were also preferred in the survey of archaeological material. While
much research has been done on Viking urban or proto-urban settlements, the
added social, commercial and industrial dynamics of the town provided many
additional factors which differentiate urban housing culture from the rural
models observed in the sagas.18
Since the historicity of the sagas is a question of such weight in the
debates between archaeology and saga scholarship, Chapter 3 gives a similar
analysis of a contemporary saga, Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga.19 As the
longest of the samtíðarsögur (200 chapters) in the compilation Sturlunga saga,
it was chosen to provide an adequate base for comparison with the three
collected Íslendingasögur and yielded 92 occurrences of individual domestic
sites. Since the contemporary sagas are meant to relate events which happened
within living memory of their recording, the analysis of Íslendinga saga should
present results compatible with the housing culture contemporary with its latethirteenth century composition (Thomas 1970: 18-20). These results will be
compared with the analysis of the Íslendingasögur.
The second section, The Living House, looks at the importance of the
house and farmstead as a physical space to the unfolding of daily life within it.
Chapter 4 examines the daily activities and usage of the house and farmstead,
as described in the sampled sagas. Chapter 5 looks at the house within its

18

See Boyd 2012 for a comprehensive analysis of such urban houses in Viking Age Ireland.
Íslendinga saga, in Sturlunga saga, ed. by Jón Jóhannesson, Magnús Finnbogason and
Kristján Eldjárn (Reykjavík: Sturlunguútgáfan, 1946), vol. 1, pp. 229-534. All subsequent
references to Íslendinga saga, or excerpts of Íslendinga saga in Old Norse will refer to this
edition unless otherwise stated, and will be referred to by chapter in the body of the text.

19

21
spatial context, firstly as an isolated entity within the physical landscape, and
the interaction of the physical house with its environment. This leads to a
discussion of the social ramifications of this relation to space, particularly in
relation to hospitality. In this chapter, additional insight into the importance of
the house in concepts of hospitality is sought in an analysis of the Eddic poem
Hávamál,20 with particular emphasis on its relevance to material culture. The
links between Hávamál and saga literature will be explored in greater detail in
Chapter 5 (see also Andersson 1970). In chapters 4 and 5, contributions from
the comparisons with archaeology will also be explored.
The final section, Transmission, looks at the relationship between
language, literature and material culture, and the ways in which the material
culture of the saga world is made intelligible through the studied texts. This
chapter looks at how words are used to represent ‘real’ things. While previous
chapters will necessarily deal with vocabulary in examining the sagas’
representations of domestic space, chapter 6 will discuss several problems in
the usage of language, such as difficulties of interpretation, historical changes
in meaning and the challenges posed by the differences between Old Norse and
present-day Icelandic and English. Chapter 7 explores the role that material
culture may have had in the shaping of narrative, in influencing narrative and
inspiring methods of composition. Acting as both an anchoring point around
which narrative develops and as a medium facilitating the recollection and
transmission of narrative, material culture may indeed be more tightly

20

Hávamál, ed. by David A. H. Evans, Text Series Vol. 7 (London: Viking Society for
Northern Research, 1986). All subsequent references to Hávamál, or excerpts of Hávamál in
Old Norse will refer to this edition unless otherwise stated, and will be referred to by stanza in
the body of the text.

22
interwoven with the processes of textual composition in narratives such as the
íslendingasögur than is commonly thought.

A Note on Chronology
The date range of c.800 to c.1100 AD to represent the Viking Age is a
conventional approximation, used for convenience, though others are certainly
possible. This range is meant to represent the period when ‘Vikings’ –
Scandinavians before widespread Christianisation brought increased contact
and cultural proximity with the rest of medieval Europe – were most active in
their international explorations and settlements (see Jesch 2001: 6). This
diaspora saw the settlement of the North Atlantic, most particularly Iceland, in
the late ninth century. Widespread Christianisation after c.1100 can mark one
end of this range but, as mentioned above, this is also the time when
Scandinavian (primarily Icelandic) literary production truly gains momentum.
This is indeed one of the most remarkable cultural consequences of
Christianisation in the post-Viking world (Perkins 1989: 241, 259 note 5).
While European convention tends to have the medieval period begin
around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, rounded off to c.500
AD, Scandinavian scholarship considers the Viking Age as a distinct period
which precedes the medieval period. The Scandinavian medieval period thus
only begins at the end of the eleventh century (Croix 2012: 13). If by
‘medieval’ one considers a certain cultural homogeneity in Western Europe,
the Scandinavian periodisation is indeed appropriate to reflect Scandinavia’s
increasing cultural proximity to Europe.

23
This periodisation is retained in relation to the study of house
archaeology. Although archaeological developments are certainly discernible
from the Viking Age into the medieval period, boundaries are fluid and
indistinct. Transformation of housing culture is to be seen more as a gradual
evolution, with few rigid chronological benchmarks marking the advent of
architectural innovations and transformations.

A Note on Spelling
Trying to make the spelling of modern Scandinavian languages and Old Norse
conform to English conventions can prove challenging, and several measures
have been taken to accommodate this. With regards to Old Norse, all
quotations have been given in the standardised form found in the editions used.
In the quotations from Íslendinga saga, I have substituted the accepted
hooked-‘o’ ( ) for the ‘ö’ preferred by this edition. All Old Norse words
referred to in the body of the English text will be given in their nominative
singular forms (as they would be in their ‘dictionary’ definitions), or plurals as
the case may be, in standardised spelling.
Scandinavian and Icelandic names in the bibliography include
characters which make alphabetisation difficult, and an order of substitution
has been followed: ‘å’/ ‘Å’ corresponds to ‘aa’; ‘æ’/‘Æ’ corresponds to ‘ae’;
‘ö’/‘Ö’, ‘ø’/‘Ø’ and ‘œ’/‘Œ’ correspond to ‘oe’; ‘ð’/‘Ð’ and ‘þ’/‘Þ’ correspond
to ‘th’. All other diacritics used in Icelandic (á, é, í, ó, ú, ý and their upper-case
equivalents) are considered equivalent to the un-accented letter. Contrary to the
Icelandic practice of listing names by forename, Icelandic names are integrated
alphabetically in the bibliography by their patronyms, equivalent to other

24
languages’ surnames, with all other conventions of alphabetic listing otherwise
respected.

Figure 0.1: Danish examples of the typical Scandinavian
longhouse floor-plan (adapted from Hvass 1993: 189).

25

Figure 0.2: Possible reconstruction of Viking Age Dublin level 8 (from Wallace 1992 part 2, fig. 16)

Figure 0.3: Possible reconstruction of Kaupang in theninth century, by Flemming Bau (from Skre 2007c,
fig. 5)

26

Figure 0.4: Possible reconstruction of Hedeby in theninth-tenth century
(from Elsner 1994 in Schofield and Sauer 2007, box 4.3, fig. 2)

SECTION 1
THE PHYSICAL HOUSE

29
Chapter 1: The House in the Íslendingasögur
Introduction
The objective of this chapter is to reveal the characteristics of the house as it is
represented in the Íslendingasögur, and to explore how domestic space is
understood in the world of these narratives. The first step in understanding this
material is to present a synthesis of the occurrences of the representations of
houses as physical structures in Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Eyrbyggja saga,
and to translate these descriptions into a schema of the saga house. This
chapter is thus descriptive by necessity, but it is essential to understand how
domestic architecture is represented in the sampled sagas before more critical
and comparative analyses can begin.
Domestic life in the rural Icelandic and Norwegian landscape of the
sagas involves not only the main dwelling, but also all the ancillary buildings
and spaces of a functioning farm. The house and farmstead as they are
represented in the Íslendingasögur do not simply exist as an abstract concept
of domestic residence, refuge, shelter, or even a ‘base of operations’ for daily
activities, such as might be associated with the modern English term ‘home’.
While these ideas are indeed present in the conception of the residential
building, the house is represented first and foremost as a tangible physical
object and space with which human beings are in a state of constant
interaction. In short, saga narratives acknowledge the concrete physical reality
of the house.
However, not all houses or domestic buildings are represented equally,
and there is indeed no consistency in how much detail is provided about the
layout or construction of any given site. Buildings are described within the

30
dynamic context of the saga’s narrative, and the sites which are described in
most detail tend to have more significance for the plot. The sagas’ style
eschews description for its own sake: the layout of a farm’s grounds or the
internal construction of a house will not be described unless a segment of the
narrative takes place there and detailed description becomes necessary to
understand the narrative’s progression (see Foote 1963: 105-106). This concept
will be examined in greater detail in Chapter 6.
There are a select few sites in each saga that have a particular
importance to the story and thus gather many descriptive details throughout
their multiple occurrences in the text. This is the case with Grettir’s family
farm at Bjarg and the haunted farms at Þórhallsstaðir and Sandhaugar in
Grettis saga, the farms at Hól and Sæból in Gísla saga, and the farm at Fróðá
in Eyrbyggja saga. What emerges from these collected descriptions is a basic
portrait of the saga house and its immediate surroundings, including the
buildings and grounds of the farmstead. This chapter will examine the features
of the various spaces and structures of the farmstead as they are written into
the narratives, beginning with the general farm grounds, its various
outbuildings, and finally the main dwelling house itself.

1.1 The Farmstead and Its Grounds
The modern English words ‘farm’ and ‘farmstead’ do not refer to any one
specific building, but rather a delimited area of land designated for agricultural
exploitation as well as a collection of buildings built in proximity to one
another. Farm buildings are used both for agricultural work and for the
maintenance and well-being of the inhabitants and workers of the farmstead.

31
These same ideas define the Icelandic and Norwegian farms as they appear in
the Íslendingasögur. At this point it is important to note that farms in Iceland
and in Norway both operate along the same principles and logic of
organisation, and therefore represent the same practical and cultural realities in
both contexts. The generic arrangement of the farm, as well as certain
differences in arrangement and construction between Icelandic and Norwegian
farms, will be described in this chapter.
The main terms used to designate the farmstead as a whole are bú and
the closely related bœr, though the latter is more often used specifically to
designate the farmhouse itself.1 Bú is not used to refer to any specific building,
but is a term more closely related to agricultural activity. For example, the term
gera bú can designate the taking up of farming activity on previously settled
land, in addition to the establishment of a new farmstead: Um várit fekk
Þórhallr sér hjón ok gerði bú á j rðu sinni... (‘In the spring, Þórhallr got
servants for himself, and established a farmstead on his land…’ Grettis saga
Ch. 33). The derivative bústaðr is also used to designate the farmstead as a
whole (for example in Eyrbyggja saga, Ch. 8). Less frequently used is the
word garðr, which in the sagas can also designate urban dwellings, such as at
Tønsberg in Norway and Byzantium in Grettis saga (Chs. 24, 88). Garðr can
also be used to designate a boundary wall or enclosure surrounding the

1

Basic definitions of terms are derived from consultations of various dictionaries, notably the
Arnamagnæan Institute’s Dictionary of Old Norse Prose (henceforth abbreviated ONP),
consulted online at http://www.onp.ku.dk/; Richard Cleasby, Gudbrand Vigfusson and W.A.
Craigie’s An Icelandic-English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1957), abbreviated as C&V; Johan
Fritzner’s Ordbog over det gamle norske sprog (reprint 1972), abbreviated as F; and Geir T.
Zoëga’s A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (reprint 2004), abbreviated as Z. This thesis
itself contributes to informing the usage of vocabulary in context, which in some cases adds
significantly to clarifying the proper usage and nuances of architectural vocabulary. This
informs the analysis of domestic space throughout the thesis.

32
homefield, and thus physically delimiting the boundary between the farm
proper and the outside world, or between one farm’s property and another’s.2
Eyrbyggja saga also provides two conspicuous examples of farms being
surrounded not by these property-dividing barriers, but with high fortifications.
These fortifications, at the farms of Eyri and Þaralátrsfj rðr (Eyrbyggja saga
Chs. 57, 59, 60, 62) will be examined in greater detail, along with other
examples of fortifications, in chapter 3, section 3.4.3 and conlcusion.
The immediate surroundings of the farmstead are seldom described in
great detail, and very little is usually said about the landscape surrounding
places of habitation unless the narrative action taking place there requires it.
One such example is the episode at the farm of Þórhallsstaðir in Grettis saga,
where the ill-humoured and ill-fated shepherd Glámr is killed by a monster
before coming back to haunt the farm himself as a revenant. The search for
Glámr’s corpse, and its subsequent problematic and aborted transportation
towards a church for burial, leads to a description of the valley in which the
farm is situated (Ch. 32). Similarly, at the farm of Hraun in Eyrbyggja saga,
the farmer Styrr gives his berserkir tenants heavy manual labour to improve
access through the barren lava-field surrounding his farm, in an episode
ultimately leading to their treacherous (but convenient) execution and disposal:
“Þú skalt ryðja,” segir Styrr, “g tu yfir hraunit út till Bjarnarhafnar
ok leggja hagagarð yfir hraunit milli landa várra ok gera byrgi hér
fyrir innan hraunit...”...Síðan lét Styrr veita umbúnað líkum þeira; váru
þeir fœrðir út í hraunit ok kastaðir í dal þeim, er þar er í hrauninu.
‘“You shall clear a path,” said Styrr, “over the lava field to Bjarnarh fn
and build a boundary wall on over the lava field between our lands, and
build an enclosure here on the inner part of the lava field…”… Then
Styrr arranged the burial of their corpses. They were carried out into the
lava field and thrown into a valley that was there in the lava field.’
(Eyrbyggja saga Ch. 28)
2

For the general layout of the typical saga farm, see also Hreinsson et al 1997: 399-401.

33

This also illustrates another possible source of information concerning
the farm’s surroundings in the form of descriptive toponyms. The name Hraun
itself refers to the lava-field on which the farm is built, and many other placenames in the sagas might give an indication of some defining geographical
feature of the area of settlement. For example, toponyms containing the
element reykr and derivative forms, designating smoke or steam, are often
named for the steaming pools and hot springs (laugar, pl.) that occur naturally
in the Icelandic landscape. These convenient resources provided attractive
settlement locations. At the farm of Reykir in Grettis saga, a hot spring near
the house is indeed enjoyed by the residents for bathing and relaxation:
Hann gekk til bœjar at Reykjum ok fór í laug, því at honum var kalt
orðit n kkut svá, ok bakaðisk hann lengi í lauginni um nóttina ok fór
síðan í stofu.
‘He went to the farm at Reykir and went into the hot spring, because he
was quite cold, and warmed himself for a long time in the pool at night,
and then went into the main room.’ (Grettis saga, Ch. 75)3
The principal feature in the immediate vicinity of the farmstead’s
collected buildings is the ‘homefield’ (tún, túnv llr or túngarðr), an enclosed
field used either for the growing of hay as animal fodder, or for the grazing of
the animals themselves. Pastureland and hayfields could also be located at
some distance from the farm: Þeir Þórólfr ok Úlfarr áttu engi saman upp á
hálsinn... (‘Þórólfr and Úlfarr jointly owned a meadow up on the hill…’,
Eyrbyggja saga Ch. 30). These fields are not, strictly speaking, part of the
farmstead’s grounds, and might make use of land otherwise considered
unsuitable for human habitation. The significance of these outfield pastures
will be revisited in chapter 4. The tún can also be demarcated with some kind
3

Another hot spring occurs at the farm of Reykjahólar (Grettis saga Ch. 50).

34
of barrier, a wall or a fence, or natural features might also serve to delimit a
farm’s territory, such as the stream (lœkr) that runs between the farms of Hól
and Sæból in Gísla saga (where there is also a property-dividing wall, Chs. 5,
16). The word tún, while used in the sampled sagas to designate the homefield
specifically, can also designate an enclosure, like a fence, probably originally
surrounding the farm grounds (see also David Evans’ commentary to his
edition of Hávamál, 1986, pp. 139-140, and Weinmann 1994: 346). Similarly,
the word garðr can mean both a building and farmstead (see below), or a
fence, wall or other such enclosure.
There are also some structures which, while located on the farm
grounds, can hardly be considered among the ancillary buildings of the farm
complex. Burial mounds are among such structures, and while they are
described as being built on the farm grounds, their spatial relation to the
inhabited buildings is not well described. One possible exception in Gísla saga
is Vésteinn’s mound, built in a sandy area near a mere on the periphery of the
grounds at Sæból:
Gísli býsk nú til at heygja Véstein með allt lið sitt í sandmel þeim, er á
stenzk ok Seftj rn, fyrir neðan Sæból.
‘Gísli and all his men prepared to bury Vésteinn in a mound, in the
sandbank which stood opposite from Seftj rn [‘rush-pond’], down from
Sæból’ (Gísla saga, Ch. 14).
This could indicate that mounds were preferably built on agriculturally nonproductive land. Gísla saga also shows other rather ambiguous constructions
in the form of underground hiding places, called járðhús, meaning literally
‘earth-house’, or fylgsni, from fólginn, the past participle of the verb fela,
which means to hide or conceal. There are at least five examples in three
locations (Ingjaldr’s house, Auðr’s house Chs. 29, 33, and Þorgerðr’s house,

35
Ch. 23); these are sometimes built directly adjacent to or beneath a house (var
þar jarðhús undir niðri, ‘there was an underground chamber down under
there,’ Gísla saga Ch. 29), and sometimes at some distance from the house but
within the farm’s grounds. These distinctive features of Gísla saga’s narrative
are not described in any great detail, and are simply indicated as being dug into
the ground or placed beneath other buildings, without providing details of their
construction.4
Another type of building on farmsteads which finds fairly frequent
mention, and is a marker of cultural change in the Icelandic social landscape, is
the church. These too are mentioned with very little detail, in most cases being
simply indicated as existing on the farm’s grounds (…lét Snorri goði gera
kirkju at Helgafelli, en aðra Styrr, mágr hans, undir Hrauni..., ‘…Snorri goði
had a church built at Helgafell, and Styrr, his kinsman, had another built near
Hraun…’, Eyrbyggja saga Ch. 49). Less frequently, farms are also said to have
a hof, or (pagan) sanctuary, such as at the farms of Helgafell (before the
construction of the church) and Hofstaðir in Eyrbyggja saga (Chs. 4, 15).
Whether this was a dedicated separate building, or integrated into the body of
the main house or of an existing outbuilding, is uncertain (see below).
Other man-made features of farm grounds are described, in the form of
roads and bridges. As mentioned previously, at the farm of Hraun in Eyrbyggja
saga, the ill-fated berserkir were tasked with clearing a road through the lavafield (Ch. 28), and at Geirríðr’s farm at Borgardalr, also in Eyrbyggja saga, the
main dwelling house is built in the path of the main road running through the
grounds, in order to facilitate the dispensation of lavish hospitality to all
4

The nature of the jarðhús will be further discussed in chapter 2, sections 2.2.1 and 2.2.2, and
in chapter 6, section 6.2.1.

36
travellers (Ch. 8). Finally, the bridge built by the farmer Þorsteinn on the farm
of Ljárskogar in Grettis saga is described with a high level of detail:
Hann lét brú gera heiman frá bœnum; hon var g r með hagleik
miklum. En útan í brúnni undir ásunum, þeim er upp heldu brúnni, var
g rt með hringum ok dynbj llur, svá at heyrði yfir til Skafrsstaða, hálfa
viku sjávar, ef gengit var um brúna; svá hristusk hringarnir.
‘He had a bridge built on the farm, away from the house; it was built
with great skill. And on the outside, under the beams which held up the
bridge, were set rings and bells which could be heard at Skafrsstaðir
half a sea-mile away, if someone passed over the bridge; then the rings
would shake.’ (Grettis saga, Ch. 53)

1.2 Outbuildings
Moving in from the peripheral grounds, one comes to the farmstead proper and
its collected buildings. In the centre, the most important building is the main
dwelling house, which will be described in section 1.3. Around it are clustered
a varying number of outbuildings which, together with the house, create the
farm complex. Following the principle of plot-dependent description, not all of
the numerous farms mentioned in the sagas are depicted with outbuildings.
However, their presence is frequent enough that it is safe to declare them
ubiquitous.
Outbuildings are generally flexible spaces that can fulfil any function
of storage or shelter that is required. The frequently-used generic term búr
designates an ancillary building, but does not specify its function. Compounds
frequently provide more information on the possible uses of a búr. The equally
frequent útibúr, for example, helps to confirm the búr’s status as a separate,
secondary building located away (úti, ‘out’, ‘outside’) from the main dwelling.
Function-specific compounds such as fatabúr (‘clothing-búr’, ‘wardrobe’) help


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