Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland

Harriet Jean Evans Tang

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of your book? 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about it! It is incredibly exciting to finally see this work published. Since I started working on animals in Old Norse sources, I knew I wanted to write this book. 

This book, at its heart, is about domestic animals and how we share our worlds with them. It is a multi-disciplinary project, investigating the multispecies communities of Viking age and medieval Iceland through their representations in medieval literature and laws, and the organisation of Viking-age farm sites. It moves through stories and interpretations of settlement, the organisation of farms, the attempted organisation of society in laws, before culminating in two chapters focussed primarily on the Sagas of Icelanders, and the kinship with and anxiety towards domestic animals expressed in these medieval texts. It deals with both animals collectively, and the many individual animals who are singled out in the sagas for special relationships with human figures. 

The reason for a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on both literary analysis and interpretations of archaeological sites lies in the nature of the material: the so-called Sagas of Icelanders are collections of stories heavily rooted in their landscapes and those agents who inhabited them. These stories cannot therefore be divorced from the world in which they were circulated and recorded; after all, Iceland swiftly became a land of domestic animals, dominated by the cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats that the settlers brought with them from Scandinavia and the British Isles. As a result, I knew from the start that I needed to look at the archaeology of settlements in Iceland: as the animal-human relationships in these communities, out of which these stories emerged, were formed through interspecies meeting points on farm sites and in their landscapes. The places in which these animals and humans interacted were as important as the animal actors themselves in these relations: and the animal-human relationships examined were both formative towards the creation of places and formed by the places in which the multispecies communities of Iceland lived and worked.

This is the first study in English on animal-human relationships in Old Norse sources, how did you decide that this was what you wanted to pursue?

The first moment I realised I wanted to explore human relationships with animals was an obsession with Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse in Norse mythology, who is explained by Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century Icelandic poet, politician, mythographer and historian, as having been conceived by Loki in the form of a mare. This led me to research humans and horses for my MA dissertation at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York; and although Sleipnir, sadly, ended up featuring little in the dissertation, in the process of research I fell in love with the horses of the Sagas of Icelanders and the legendary poetry in the Edda. Their vibrant, personal, and emotional relationships with humans in these texts set the spark for exploring multispecies relationships more broadly, and after that, a PhD on animal-human relations seemed the next logical step. This was especially the case after reading about the possible animal presence in the tenth-century house at Aðalstræti in Reykjavík, which features in the book – and I am privileged to now work as part of the team (on the COHABITing with Vikings project at Durham University) who have confirmed the presence of (spoiler alert!) goats in this house alongside humans.

… and the Man Responds – Can you tell us what this chapter is about?

This is the conclusion to the book, but as well as summing up the discussions from the preceding chapters, the belief at its core is that the organisation of farm sites, compilation of sagas and telling of oral stories, the translation of medieval texts and interpretations of archaeological remains are all a human response to animal action. Iceland is seen as a co-created society, reliant on domestic animals, and equally protective and inherently suspicious of them. The ways in which humans sought to control and live with these animals, as seen from analysis of farm sites and legal texts show knowledge and careful consideration of animal behaviour and needs, as well as human preferences, and the tension between the needs and desires of both bleeds into the Sagas of Icelanders at the same time as some animals in these texts are depicted as the best and most socially useful companions to humans.

Specifically, the chapter highlights animals as embodied agents in the world and acknowledges their relationships within and engagement with the social worlds of humans in the medieval period. It proposes that future researchers should actively consider the multispecies communities in which they work and of which they study, embracing understandings of the past that are inclusive of non-human animal subjects as well as human ones. 

If you could share one fact that really surprised you (or that you found especially interesting!) what would it be?

So many things! But if I had to pick one, it would be the detailed knowledge and lived experience evident in some of the descriptions of animal behaviour. These are real, living, breathing animals being described, even in these fictional and at times fantastical narratives. The description of a traumatic winter calving, the death of the mother cow, the slaughter of the (likely infertile) heifer calf and the survival of a boisterous bull calf who is labelled monstrous by an old woman but exhibits normal bull behaviour – that was the most striking episode to unpick and explore and I am convinced came out of a personal knowledge of cattle husbandry and calving on the part of some storyteller somewhere who contributed to the episode now found in Eyrbyggja saga (ch. 63).  

What was the strangest role you found that domestic animals played?

It is hard to choose. On the one hand, Freyfaxi the horse acting the role of a social human in reporting an offense (Hrafnkels saga). On the other, Mókolla, a ewe in Grettis saga who seems to teach Grettir empathy for other creatures by constantly bleating on top of his hut and keeping him awake after he kills her lamb. But there are so many fantastic moments of animal-human relationships that hint at their vital role in these farming communities: roles that we might consider strange today but may have been considered perfectly commonplace in the medieval communities in which these stories were compiled together into larger narratives. 

Is there anything else about your book that you would like to share?

We are involved with animals. Whether it is watching videos of panda cubs on YouTube, visiting a “cat café,” wearing leather shoes, or eating a bacon sandwich human society is intertwined with animals. And when we read medieval literature, or excavate a Viking Age farm site, we are reading narratives that were first inscribed upon stretched animal-skins, or handling bones that supported the non-human denizens of a place. And these animals had voices and agency, likes, dislikes, favourite humans and places. In many ways, they may have been considered persons. This book is an attempt to bring some of these non-human animals to the forefront of Old Norse scholarship and show how understanding relationships with animals in the past are not only vital in better understanding these multispecies communities, but also, perhaps, better understanding our own.

Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland

Harriet Jean Evans Tang

£60.00 / $85.00

9781843846437, Hardcover, August 2022


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HARRIET JEAN EVANS TANG is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University. She has a PhD from the University of York, and occasionally returns to teach and supervise in their Centre for Medieval Studies and Department of English & Related Literature.