From reciprocity to manorialism

Sverrir Jakobsson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


In this study, it is argued that Medieval Icelandic society fitted the ideal model of the peasant mode of production, as defined by Chris Wickham in the book Framing the Early Middle Ages. Until the 12th century, it seems that landed property was relatively evenly distributed amongst farmers in Iceland, at least when compared to the general situation in Europe. Leadership in society was also often based on factors other than wealth, as the local lords were dependent upon support from their followers and had to reciprocate their loyalty. There was competition between farmers over status, and it was important and necessary to stand guard over one's honour. Around the year 1100 there seems to have been a turning point in society. A group of farmers, church owners, formed a union with the Church to levy payments on others and thus create a surplus of wealth, which they could redistribute within society. At the same time slave holding was on the wane and tenancy farming was increasing. The position of the poorest amongst the group of farmers deteriorated, as chieftains began to accumulate farms, although not as yet in large quantities. In the 13th century, the Norwegian king introduced a system of legal ranks, and for a time the group of domestic courtiers played a key role in society, but such divisions seem to have been on the wane by 1320. Accumulation of property by magnates and churches gained momentum, and a manorial system based on tenant labour became the norm within the agricultural system of production. This was not least due to the king's need for reliable collection of taxes and other dues. The Icelandic peasant economy thus developed into a type of manorial society within the span of a few centuries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-295
Number of pages23
JournalScandinavian Journal of History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2013

Other keywords

  • Iceland
  • Landownership
  • Manorialism
  • Peasant mode of production


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