Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coasts by Vilborg Davidsdottir

Transl Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing –’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

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Source: Review copy. Amazon Crossing paperback, 218 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link

10 thoughts on “Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

  1. cbjamess says:

    i’ll have to take a look at Amazon Crossing. I’ve been reading more and more books in translation theses days.

    • gaskella says:

      I’ve got another of their books now – completely different – a German crime novel which sounds really good too. I don’t read enough in translation really, so getting my hands on these is a good boost.

  2. Alex says:

    Iceland seems to be the new Sweden. I’ve just picked up the second of Quentin Bates’ detective novels set there, Cold Comfort. The first, Frozen Out, was excellent, exploring as it did the social problems brought about by the financial crisis in Iceland’s banking system. I’m thoroughly looking forward to the new one.

    • gaskella says:

      Definitely the new Sweden it would seem. Apparently 10% of the population are published authors…

  3. Desperate Reader says:

    Sounds quite interesting, will be investigating more. I would love to go to Iceland one day and now wonder if they have that many authors, how many bookshops do they have?

  4. Biblibio says:

    As someone increasingly suspicious of Amazon’s move to control all aspects of the book industry, I’ve been skeptical to jump on the AmazonCrossing wagon, despite the wonderfully noble premise behind the work they’re doing. I haven’t read any of their translations yet, but your review of On the Cold Coasts makes this sound a lot more interesting than Amazon’s blurbs ever did…

  5. LizF says:

    Like the sound of this one and the Quentin Bates crime novels too.

    I have had a hankering to go to Iceland for years and I’m looking forward to Sarah Moss’s new book about taking her children to live there which should be out soon.

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