In the middle of the sixteenth-century, the Danish king made a decree to the effect that all who were then part of the Danish kingdom should become Lutheran. Opposition formed to the new religion, with the Catholic Bishop Jón Arason of Hólar leading the Icelanders who refused to obey the king’s command. However, the back of all opposition was broken when, at Skálholt in 1550, Jón Arason was beheaded together with his two sons. These events have always been thought to mark the beginning of the Reformation in Iceland.
Tyranny and Thinkers
The common Icelandic occupation was agriculture, although fishing made up an important second source of income. Different types of restrictions, including on the movement of the labour force between fishing villages and farms (the so-called “vistarband” or residency law), had a negative effect on the country’s economic development. Towards the close of the eighteenth-century, various preparations were made in order to change the nation’s economy, in transport, agriculture, and the postal service, but these went poorly.
Natural disasters and disease have dealt harsh blows to the Icelandic people. According to a census of 1703, there were at the time 50,000 Icelanders all told, but this number was cut by a third (down to 35,000) after the plague which raged in the years 1707-1709. About half a century later, in 1783-1784, the worst volcanic eruption and earthquakes in the nation’s history hit, with great loss of life and property.
Despite the bitter difficulties which the nation experienced during the time, it was at this period that it received two of its greatest intellectuals, the Reverends Hallgrímur Pétursson and Jón Vídalín. Hallgrímur is famous for his Passíusálmar (1666, Psalms of the Passion of Christ). The work, which includes fifty psalms, describes and interprets the passion of Christ in a clerical way. These psalms have been printed more often than any other Icelandic book, and have been translated into many languages. Bishop Jón Vídalin was an important and excellent orator and wrote, amongst others, a book of family sermons called Vídalínspostilla (1718-1720), sermons collected for reading out on Sundays and at yearly festivals. This book enjoyed great popularity through to the last century and has gained a lasting place in Icelandic literary history.
At the time, the nation got to know the printing press, which Bishop Jón Arason brought to the country in 1530. There were many books printed at Hólum in Hjaltadal during the late 16th and the 17th century, one of them was the Bible in Icelandic, printed in the year 1584.
The seventeenth-century has always been thought to represent a dark age in the nation’s history, with the Danish blamed for it. Their poor government and oppression, together with religious orthodoxy, witch-hunting and poor seasons lead to the difficulties which afflicted the nation during this period. This historical view is now subject to some revision. For instance, the point has been made that the Danish governed in a manner which was consistent with common attitudes to government in other nations during this era. It did not govern with malice alone. Likewise, the religious orthodoxy was considered to be very restrictive and to have held back progress, yet it is now pointed out that during the seventeenth-century the Danish stood at the forefront of the sciences and that Icelanders who studied in Copenhagen really gained a great deal from it.