Astrid Ogilvie

Reflections of Change: The Natural World in Literary and Historical Sources from Iceland ca. AD 800 to 1800 (ICECHANGE)

Iceland is well known for its rich literary tradition, which includes a wealth of written works encompassing many genres, from the famous "Sagas of Icelanders" to numerous other corpora of great value. This documentary archive contains much information on the natural world (e.g., accounts of volcanic eruptions, encroachments of glaciers, flash floods, extreme winters, severe storms and damaging sea ice), an environment subject to rapid and volatile changes capable of causing great societal hardships. The project undertakes a systematic analysis of weather, climate and other environmental information in Icelandic literature - encompassing historiographic, literary and normative documents from the early medieval period to ca. 1800. Past environmental impacts, extreme events, and human adaptations to environmental changes can provide valuable points of comparative reference for present and future socioenvironmental change. Research questions concern the development and transmission of local environmental knowledge, the emergence of native ideologies of nature and environment, the development of land and resource use systems, and the influence of operative conceptions of human-environmental relations on social structures and movements. The project is also important because it will illuminate ongoing work on the environmental history of Iceland. The research will lay the foundation for a larger research program with a similar focus extendable throughout the North Atlantic region.
Final report
The ICECHANGE project has undertaken a systematic analysis of descriptions of the natural world drawn from the literature and history of Iceland for the period ca. AD 800-1800. These dates were chosen for the following reasons. The traditional date for the settlement of Iceland is AD 871, but there is some evidence for a slightly earlier date. Furthermore, some of the early sources refer to events immediately preceding the settlement. The end date of 1800 was chosen as a cut-off point because after that time sources become so prolific that it would not be possible to address them all in a 3-year project. The date ranges also allowed for a millennial-scale perspective. The project has taken advantage of the wealth of written records from Iceland encompassing many different genres and has undertaken a systematic analysis of weather, climate and other environmental information in the rich corpora of Icelandic literature, encompassing historiographic, literary, and normative documents. The focus has included accounts of volcanic eruptions, encroachments of glaciers, flash floods, extreme winters, severe storms, and the harmful sea ice that drifted to the coasts. As anticipated, they have revealed an environment subject to rapid changes with extreme consequences that frequently caused the human population considerable hardship. The investigation of these aspects were divided into four main project stages and five focus tasks.

The four project stages have been carried through as planned. These have been: i) investigations of previous work relevant to the project; ii) an inventory of environmentally relevant source documents with special emphasis on previously un-researched and unpublished documents; iii) close reading and analysis of documents selected (from the inventory task) for their interesting environmental elements (literary texts) and environmental information (historical sources); iv) a synthesis of project results and integration of knowledge from archaeology and the geosciences. Emphasis was placed on five focus tasks: i) eco-critical analysis of literary works; ii) analysis of climate data in historical source materials (in order to reconstruct climatic variations over the project period); iii) documentation of natural hazards (in particular volcanic eruptions and storms) from historical and geological records; iv) analysis of land management and resource systems in historical source materials; v) human responses to system disturbances: both a) prolonged or recurring events; and b) extreme natural hazards and pandemics. Highlights of project results from these five focus tasks are as follows:

1) The eco-critical and integrative analysis of literary works has focused on the concept of environmental memory as well as several novel approaches to the investigation of such works in the light of recent studies exploring the longue durée of human impacts on island landscapes, the impacts of climate and other environmental changes on human communities, and the interaction of human societies and their environments at different spatial and temporal scales. See, e.g., Hartman et al., 2017. This article also illustrates the benefits of an integrated environmental-studies approach that draws on data, methodologies and analytical tools of environmental humanities, social sciences, and geosciences to better understand long-term human ecodynamics and changing human-landscape-environment interactions through time. Another important focus has been a re-evaluation of the interface among humans, nature and environment as reflected in a variety of literary texts. This has been achieved by developing a long-term (longue durée) perspective on human perceptions/conceptions of nature and environments that change, sometimes fundamentally, over the course of time. A deeper understanding of these changes can shed valuable light on modern conceptions of nature, the environment and social-ecological relations as well as on multivocal understandings of the past and both temporal and spatial/geographical contexts. The new readings of Icelandic literary sources in the ICECHANGE project have served to develop a fresh understanding of all these concepts, as facilitated in part by application of recent ecocritical theory as well as through the kinds of environmental humanities methodologies mentioned above. Such approaches regard the gradual (intergenerational and wider diachronic) evolution of literary works (including narratives, motifs, and multivocal understandings of place in historical, cultural, biographical and environmental terms) in the light of organic (iterative) processes of development over time as these play out in dynamic local traditions of negotiating, understanding, memorializing and even renegotiating the past. The new approaches to literary environmental history and so-called “green” cultural studies prominent in this work in the ICECHANGE project have been significantly informed by recent theoretical contributions from material ecocriticism and cultural ecology (Hreinsson, 2018abc; 2019), historical ecology (Crumley, 2016; Crumley et al., 2019; Isendahl, 2019) and integrated environmental humanities (Hartman, 2015; 2016abc; Hartman et al., 2016; Hartman, et al. 2017; Lethbridge and Hartman, 2016).

ii) The project has also placed a major emphasis on historical descriptions of environmental change. Analyses of climatic variations and natural hazards for the period 1400 to 1700 resulted in: a) descriptions of environmental stress involving famines, mortality and livestock deaths (Ogilvie, 2020); as well as analyses of sea-ice incidence and storms (Ogilvie, 2021). An analysis focusing on climatic and geological history of the period 1600 to 1800 is forthcoming (see articles in preparation in the publication section). Climatic analyses for the project have also contributed to overview articles e.g., by Pfister et al., 2018.

iii) The third focus task of the project was the documentation of natural hazards. A particular emphasis has been on the incidence of the sea ice that reaches the shores of Iceland, brought on ocean currents from East Greenland. The ice had a variety of negative impacts. These included the prevention of fishing when the ice was fast to the shore, as well as precluding the much-needed trading vessels from landing. Even more detrimental was the reduction in temperatures on land that the sea ice caused. This had a severe effect on the all-important grass crop. (For most of Iceland's history, the climate has meant that agriculture was marginal and grass for the livestock was the most important crop). When the grass crop failed, and there was insufficient hay to feed the livestock over the winter, they could die, with consequential famines for the human population. For the early timeframe of the project, sea-ice data are fairly sporadic but it is likely that there were severe sea-ice years in, for example, 1233, 1261, 1306, 1320 and 1374. There is some evidence that temperatures in Iceland were relatively mild on the whole for the period 1395 to 1430. Between 1430 and 1560 there are very few contemporary sources. The 1580s and 1590s were likely to have been periods with much sea ice. The severe ice-years around 1600 are well documented, as are the years 1615 and 1633. From ca. 1640 to ca. 1680 there appears to have been little sea ice off Iceland’s coasts. During the period 1600 to 1800, the decades with most ice present were probably the 1750s and the 1780s. Although a climate deterministic approach has been avoided, there can be little doubt that severe sea-ice years were complicit in the many famines that occurred in Iceland's history. The two most devastating volcanic eruptions to occur during the project period were Öræfajökull in 1362 when an entire district in the southeast was laid waste, and the Lakagígar eruption in 1782-3 which had a catastrophic effect in Iceland, not because the eruption caused direct loss of life, but because of the indirect effects as a result of the emission of volcanic gases and ash, distributed by wind. The grass, the basic food supply of the grazing livestock became polluted and flourine poisoned. Approximately a quarter of Iceland´s population died as a result of the eruption. See Demarée and Ogilvie, 2017 and the discussion by Ogilvie in Damodaran et al., 2018.

iv). The fourth project focus task involved investigating land management and resource-use systems and thus questions relating to economic and social organization systems. Examples of new and significant research for the project include questions concerning the extent of medieval settlement in Iceland. It is becoming clear that currently available written evidence on sub-tenancies only shows the tip of the iceberg. New lines of research show that the number of deserted sub-tenancies is much larger than previously thought. This discovery has the potential to change many of the parameters for the evaluation of Icelandic medieval social, economic and environmental history. Another discovery touches upon the place of whale beachings in the medieval economy. A large number of contemporary documents describing these resources and their uses is available in the "Diplomatarium Islandicum". This material has not been analysed or used in research until now. The analysis of these documents shows that these beachings were important sources of whale meat and blubber from the 13th century onwards, an extremely welcome additional food source. The prominence of beached whales in these documentary records indicates that they were much more important than hitherto thought. In short, many of our analyses of early written sources have resulted in re-evaluations of conventional wisdom concerning social-environmental changes and resource-use practices in Iceland during the medieval era.

v). The fifth focus area of the project has been on evaluating human responses to system disturbances. A key research question has been on how people coped with short-term extreme events such as storms, avalanches, glacial floods, sea-ice years, famines and epidemics. During crisis years (as in the early 1600s, the 1690s, the 1750s and the 1780s) years of severe weather and sea ice (as well as the background of unfavourable economic and political conditions) caused starvation and loss of life. Responses seem to have primarily taken the form of the desertion of farms as well as an increase in the recourse to fisheries. A further focus has been on shipwrecks. In data analysed for the period 1599-1700 shipwrecks are noted in: 1599, 1600, 1602, 1603, 1608-1610, 1613-1616, 1618-1621, 1623, 1625-1629, 1631-1633, 1635-1645, 1647, 1648, 1650, 1652-1656, 1658, 1661-1663, 1665, 1666, 1669-1672, 1674, 1678, 1681-1685, 1687-1690, and 1694-1700. In other words, there would appear to be shipwrecks among local Icelandic fishermen almost every year during this period (Ogilvie, 2021). Epidemics were also highly disruptive occurrences in Icelandic history, sometimes causing changes in land use and resource systems. Notable epidemic events occurred in: 1402-1404 and 1494 (the plague); and a smallpox outbreak in 1707-09. An interesting development is that the latter may even have had an impact on the fisheries as the resulting population decline meant that there were fewer men to man the boats.

The ICECHANGE project has been extremely successful in all aspects and has resulted in a large number of presentations and publications, some of which are still in press. However, perhaps the most significant project result to date is the fact that ICECHANGE is playing a part in highlighting the potential value of the humanities in environmental and climate research. As an example of this, a recent article (see that makes the point that the humanities have a crucial part to play in the solving of climate-change issues refers to an ICECHANGE prize-winning article by Hartman et al, 2017. A further significant forthcoming result of the project will be the book co-authored by team members. Other important results include the unearthing of very many unknown historical and literary sources, in particular in unpublished manuscript form, that are highly relevant for the project. This effort includes the first steps in the establishment of a database of over 14000 photographs of manuscript pages containing nature/environmental poetry, deriving from two manuscript collections that include comprehensive registers made by the lay-philologist, Páll Pálsson (1806-1877). These combined collections are perhaps the most representative assemblage of Icelandic post-reformation poetry. The project has worked to design and trial run an open-source platform and online interface to crowdsource citizen-science transcriptions of a selection of these unpublished literary works in manuscript as a pilot project. Both the extensive high-resolution photographic documentation of these previously unpublished works in manuscript form (from 1700-1900) and the pilot project to test a platform and methodology to digitalize transcriptions of these works as an open-access database for a follow-through project are a particularly significant result of the ICECHANGE project.

It should be noted that a number of lectures and conference papers planned for 2020 have been impacted by the emergency lockdowns and cancellations occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, workshops, conferences and other public events were cancelled for this reason, and in other cases they were postponed and are in the process of being rescheduled for 2021. The pandemic had a very disruptive effect on the immersive project workshops of the ICECHANGE team planned to take place in Iceland, Sweden and the UK during 2020, at which forthcoming joint-authored papers, chapters and one book project to be published by the ICECHANGE team were scheduled for substantive synthesis work. This development has had the effect of slowing final integration activities and efforts on these published outcomes. These works are still slated for publication but may not appear in print before later 2021 and 2022 as a result.

In spite of these Covid-19-related delays, the output of the three-year project has been prodigious. It has resulted in: one published book; two books in progress; eighteen published articles; ten articles in progress; four extended abstracts; one report in published conference proceedings; fifty-two conference presentations; and seventeen individual presentations. Furthermore, as noted in the "Publications" section of this report, an open-access domain for the ICECHANGE project is in the process of being finalized for a launch in March-April 2021.


Crumley, Carole L. 2016. Historical Ecology. (In) Hilary Callan (ed), The Wiley Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Hilary Callan, (ed). New York: Wiley Blackwell.
Crumley, Carole L., Lennartsson, T. and Westin, A. eds. 2019. Issues and Concepts in Historical Ecology: The Past and Future of Landscapes and Regions. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hartman, Steven. 2015. Unpacking the Black Box: the need for Integrated Environmental Humanities (IEH) (2015). In Future Earth Blog, published 3 June 2015.
Hartman, Steven. 2016a. Revealing Environmental Memory: what the study of medieval literature can tell us about long-term environmental change.” In Biodiverse Nr. 2 2016 (May 2016) online. Tidskrift från Center för Biologisk Mångfald, Sveriges Landbruksuniversitet. PRV utgivningsbevis nr. 21404.
Hartman, Steven. 2016b. Att avkoda det ekologiska minnet: Vad studier av medeltida litteratur kan berätta om historiska miljöförändringar.” In Biodiverse Nr. 2 2016 (May 2016). Tidskrift från Center för Biologisk Mångfald, Sveriges Landbruksuniversitet, 4-7. PRV utgivningsbevis nr. 21404.
Hartman, Steven. 2016c. Climate Change, Public Engagement & Integrated Environmental Humanities, Teaching Climate Change in the Environmental Humanities, Eds. (In) Shane Hall, Stephanie LeMenager and Stephen Siperstein (eds), Routledge: Abingdon & New York, 67-75. ISBN: 978-1138907157.
Hartman, Steven, Ogilvie, A.E.J. and Hennig, R. 2016. 'Viking' Ecologies: Icelandic Sagas, Local Knowledge and Environmental Memory. (In) Parham & Westling (eds), Cambridge Global History of Literature and Environment (Cambridge UP), 125-140. DOI:
Isendahl, C. 2019. Introduction: Bridging the Past and Present, (In) Christian Isendahl and Daryl Stump (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology, 483-485. Oxford University Press, 48-485, 978-0-19-967269-1].
Lethbridge, Emily and Hartman, Steven. 2016, Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas (IEM) and the Icelandic Saga Map (ISM) Project, PMLA Vol 131: 2 (March 2016), 381-391. DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2016.131.2.381
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SEK 6,720,000.00
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