Saga - 2013, Blaðsíða 130
helg i þorláks son
HISTORICAL POWER STRUCTURES, TRANSPORTATION AND
COMMUNICATION AROUND BREIÐAFJÖRÐUR BAY
This article shows how transportation by sea enabled Breiðafjörður to connect
into a geographical unit during Iceland’s Commonwealth Era, and thus how res-
idents of this region were joined to form a separate social entity by 1130. Sources
indicate that a political entity emerged here around or after 1200, i.e. a proto-state
led by the chieftain Þórður Sturluson (died 1237). This entity would have been
able to achieve administrative permanence if the region had continued to develop
as elsewhere in Iceland, where areas ruled by more than one chieftain were con-
solidated to form single proto-states and later counties. Two questions are
addressed: what brought about the same initial trend around Breiðafjörður, and
why did this not also result in a single county?
Throughout most of this region, Þórður Sturluson wielded some power and
influence, basing them above all on boats and sea traffic, since he probably found
it important to have the support of major farmers who in times of trouble would
be able to provide and man large boats.
In the more easterly parts of the north coast, his struggle for authority led to
serious clashes with other chieftains. Although the land routes there were far
from easy, the combination of boats and horses improved the prospects. One
must keep in mind that the mainland was important to those farming in the tiny
Vestureyjar islands, and vice versa. The key mainland locations of Gufudalur and
Staður were linked to the main coastal trail via boat and horse, and the site of the
þing, or local assembly, by Þorskafjörður fjord was situated nearby. Thus this area
was by no means isolated from the beaten path.
However, Þórður Sturluson’s proto-state was subject to a variety of threats
and finally disintegrated. Here, comparisons are drawn between him and some
of the more powerful Breiðafjörður chieftains of the 15th and 17th centuries, who
probably also derived a great deal of their power from boats.
Those who came from rich ancestors, owned extensive land around the bay,
controlled good boats, had strong ambitions and maintained a prominent social
position were likely to take a regional lead. While the ruling monarchy could have
appointed a single county magistrate for the entire bay and its surroundings, this
was never done. The main hindrances were probably long-standing fragmenta-
tion related to geographical conditions and traditional arrangements, together
with political discord which hindered formal unification and instead preferred to
keep power divided between three or more county magistrates.
Saga vor 2013 NOTA_Saga haust 2004 - NOTA 8.5.2013 12:23 Page 128