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

Title in Swedish: Förändringens reflektioner: Naturen i litterära och historiska källor från Island ca. 800 till 1800

The ICECHANGE project (award number P16-06051) is funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (see It is led by Dr Astrid Ogilvie of the Stefansson Arctic Institute (SAI) and co-led by Professor Steven Hartman, Mälardalen University, Västerås, Sweden. The Co-PIs are: Jón Haukur Ingimundarson, (SAI, University of Akureyri); Viðar Hreinsson, (SAI, Natural History Museum of Iceland, Reykjavík Academy); and Árni Daníel Júlíusson, (National Museum of Iceland, University of Iceland, Reykjavík Academy). The project is due to run from 2017-2020.

ICECHANGE will undertake 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 have been 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 has been 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 this 3-year project. The date ranges also allow for a millennial-scale perspective.

Iceland is well known for its rich literary and historical tradition that includes a wealth of written records encompassing many different genres, from the famous "Sagas of Icelanders" to numerous other works, less well known internationally. The Icelandic penchant for meticulous environmental and social observation make these sources a treasury of information concerning perceptions and knowledge of changing environments over the course of many human generations. The documents include accounts of volcanic eruptions, encroachments of glaciers, flash floods, extreme winters, severe storms, and the harmful sea ice that drifted to the coasts, thus revealing an environment subject to rapid changes with potentially extreme consequences, capable of causing the human population considerable hardship. The project will undertake a systematic analysis of weather, climate and other environmental information in the rich corpora of Icelandic literature, encompassing historiographic, literary, and normative documents from the early medieval period to ca. 1800. Here the term “normative” is used to refer to non-narrative documents such as written deeds, commercial agreements, and livestock inventories.

This investigation is divided into four main project stages and five focus tasks. The four stages include: i) a review 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) synthesis of project results and integration of knowledge from archaeology and the geosciences. Emphasis will be placed on the following 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 (volcanic eruptions, storms, avalanches, glacial encroachments and flash floods) 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.

Results will include: i) a reconstruction of past temperature and sea-ice variations in Iceland; documentation of environmental hazards (e.g., volcanic eruptions and glacial advances) over the project time period; a detailed analysis of human adaptations and responses to natural hazards; identification and cataloging of literary sources, some unpublished, of particular interest to present and future analyses regarding environmental elements. It is also envisioned that the research will lay the foundation for a larger research programme in environmental humanities among a wider network of researchers that can extend a similar focus throughout the entire North Atlantic region in an integrated study of human responses to long-term environmental change that can link the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.