Book Review: Harriet J. Evans Tang, Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland

Harriet J. Evans Tang, Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland. From Farm-Settlement to Sagas (Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 2022), 244 pp, 11 figures, 1 map. ISBN 978 1 84384 643 7. Series: Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages, vol. 7.

The monograph contributes to the growing body of literature inspired by the “animal turn” in medieval studies, looking at Iceland, the area that hitherto has been the subject of little research into medieval animals. By concentrating on domestic animals, the author opens a broad field of enquiry, which is, however, entirely justified by the nature of the material: first of all, Iceland, as the author points out at the outset, was home to very few animal species prior to its settlement. It was the bringing of animals as co-settlers that marked the beginning of the human-animal relationship in this new land. Second, in archaeological context, it is often difficult to identify exactly which domestic animals were housed in shelters, unless there are animal remains present or zooarchaeological and chemical investigations have taken place – something that is not universally the case even nowadays, and which certainly was not the case in earlier excavations. Moreover, several animal species may be housed in a single enclosure or shelter. As an example, it is possible to have horses, sheep and goats sharing the same field and shelter, while another solution would be to keep sheep and cattle in the same area. Likewise, domestic geese could have been housed next to smaller quadrupeds (for instance, goats). Thus, the decision to provide a holistic view of domestic animal and their co-existence with humans is justified, even if at times it could lead to generalizing about the species that might have had very different statuses in relations to humans. This way, the author notes that in legal sources horses seem to occupy a category of their own, as they are the only animals mentioned in the section on betrothals (p. 110), but fails to follow this further in discussing the different behaviours expected of the horse Freyfaxi, the dog Sámr, and the bull in the Íslendigasögur.

The book is divided into five chapters, with an introduction and conclusion as separate chapters. The introduction outlines the rationale for the monograph, its methodology and sources. The first chapter introduces the textual accounts that describe the settlement of Iceland, the Íslendigasögur, referring to particular stories that mention animals, their acts of defiance against humans, their agency in working with or counter to humans needs, etc. It draws a lively picture of the early relationship between the animal and human co-settlers. The only drawback of this chapter is that it assumes a certain degree of familiarity with Icelandic sagas from the reader, occasionally referring to episodes that have not been summarized at this point in the book.

The second chapter discussed the archaeology of animal structures in early Iceland, focusing on two excavated sites, Vatnsfjördur and Sveigakot. In comparing the sites, the author notes the different prominence that architecture gives to domestic animals, as the animal structure at Sveigakot was the biggest and most prominent building in the complex. This may reflect differences in the importance of animals on the two sites, with Vatnsfjördur being closer to the sea, so that occupations related to the sea would have been as prominent as those related to managing and using domestic animals. It is unfortunately unclear which animals occupied which spaces at these sites, though the author makes some suggestions about the possible location of pig enclosures.

The third chapter is dedicated to early Icelandic laws, the Grágás, and provisions about animals found therein. The law codes were written down in the thirteenth century, whereas they would have been used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, so a certain amount of doubt is due whether these laws are exact reflection of the animal-human relationship at the time. The author argues that “These laws offer a narrative of daily life in an agro-pastoral Christian society and enable the visualization of the relations between people and things, structures, and animals within this daily practice” (p. 106). It can be contested that any legislation outline an ideal situation rather than a real one, as the author justly explains in the same chapter: the very existence of a law means that there is an issue or a potential issue that has to be addressed through legislation. Moreover, the fact that these laws were recorded at least a century after they were introduced and practiced indicates that the Grágás as they survive present an ideal society of the past. Just as the sagas, they present a picture of the past as it should have been rather than as it were.

The fourth chapter returns to the saga material, using examples from the Íslendigasögur to analyze the nature of the relations between certain animals and humans. The examples show how animals could become part of one’s family, as is the case of Freyfaxi, a horse that is presented as “close-kin” (p. 150) to Hrafnkell in Hrafnkell’s saga. Another instance is provided by the relationship between Sámr the dog and Gunnarr in Njálls saga. It is remarkable that many of the animals discussed in this chapter are horses, confirming the impression noted in relation to legal texts that horses indeed benefitted from a special bond with humans. Remarkably, these horses can be both male and female, stallions and geldings, whereas sources from western Europe emphasize the male entire horses, with geldings and mares being almost invisible in fiction literature.

The fifth chapter concentrates on the negative side of the animal and human co-existence, discussing the negative and damaging activities of animals through the examples of sagas and laws.  The delinquents could be cattle – unsurprisingly, as animals with horns are inherently dangerous. Another species that tends be viewed as devious is the pig, and this matches evidence from elsewhere in Europe, where free-roaming pigs could present a problem: in France, pigs could even be subject to legal trial for attacking humans! This is likely to have been true of Iceland too, as the laws regulate instances of pigs eating human and equine flesh and of attacking humans and equids, which would render the meat of the delinquents inedible – at least for a time.

The conclusion summarizes the main arguments of the book and proposes further directions of studies. Usefully, it outlines the issue of always or nearly always dealing with animals who are not “real,” as Freyfaxi is an imagined animal with supernatural powers, but whose story would be recognizable for an Icelandic audience as reminiscent of the ways in which real horses may behave. Going beyond the medieval period, the conclusion proposes a “zoocentric” lens for future research into the history of Icelandic and other cultures of the past.

The book includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources and an index of terms, which makes finding information about particular domestic animals, references to sagas, etc. easier.

Animal-Human Relationships is a truly multidisciplinary study, successfully combining the methods of archaeology, literature analysis and legal history. The drawback of this approach is that the sections on literary and legal material tend to stand somewhat apart from those on archaeology, being distinct both in the style of writing (the archaeological discussion is more technical, dominated by tables and line drawings) and in the discussion of the material. Also, in a volume on animals, one would have expected more visuals to back up the author’s argument and to illustrate the reality of animal and human interactions, such as illustrations from medieval manuscripts, artefacts depicting animals or that were related to animals, photographs of the shelters and enclosures discussed, etc. The only visual materials are a very useful map given in the introduction and a series of line drawings demonstrating the outlines and positioning of animal-related structures on the sites under analysis. Otherwise, the only illustration showing an animal and human interaction is on the cover of the book, a drawing in the lower margin of a medieval manuscript showing a man bowing to his horse.

Although the book is interdisciplinary, it focusses firmly on the area of Iceland, with the few references to other geographic areas being confined to the Scandinavian countries and areas dominated by the Vikings. By treating Iceland in isolation from the rest of the medieval world, the study gains in coherence and focus, but loses in vision, as many tendencies observed by the author in Iceland have parallels in other medieval countries. The reference to Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters in the conclusion tends to stand apart, as do the few references to medieval bestiaries, which are discussed out of context. It would be interesting to know if knowledge from the bestiaries would have been available in some way, either as oral or written tradition, to the Icelanders. Moreover, bestiaries are not the only texts that could offer parallels with the treatment of animals in Icelandic material. The provisions on animals in Icelandic law codes have many parallels with the Welsh laws, where animals are also considered as legal agents. Indeed, the Hebrew law as recorded in the Old Testament, which would have been known to the Christian scribes of the Icelandic law codes, presupposes legal responsibility for certain animals, so that respective provisions in the Icelandic Grágás are unsurprising.

Overall, this is an innovative study shedding light on the interactions between humans and animals in an area less familiar to medievalist, Iceland. The author uses references to modern agricultural literature to back up statements on domestic animal behaviour, e.g., aggression in bulls, the distressed horses biting at their own backs, etc. This realism shows that the representation of domestic animals in Icelandic sagas is firmly grounded in observation, making sagas and legal texts invaluable sources for the study of animal and human relations in Iceland, in conjunction with archaeological reports from excavated sites. It is to be hoped that the author will continue the work to look at the mutual relations between different animal species as well as between animals and different groups within Icelandic society – not only men, but also women, who, despite their daily contact with at least certain types of animals, are underrepresented in narrative sources.

Anastasija Ropa, PhD

Lead researcher
Department of Management and Communication Science
Latvian Academy of Sport Education

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