In the thirteenth century, Reykholt was one of the three major estates controlled by Snorri Sturluson, poet, chieftain, and would-be king of Iceland. Reykholt was wealthy estate and luxurious by the standards of the time. Snorri literally built a house fit for a king, planning renovations inspired by the palace of the Norwegian king. His renovations including the expansion of a bathing pool fed by a nearby hot spring into the medieval equivalent of a hot tub.*
Reykholt was also the site where Snorri met a violent end in 1241 at the hands of men who supported Snorri’s former sons-in-law against him in the struggle for the control of Iceland. Snorri received a warning that Gissur of Haukadale and Kolbein the Young were plotting against him; he doesn’t seem to have cared. On September 22, Gissur’s men entered Reykholt unopposed and broke into Snorri’s sleeping quarters. The elderly poet jumped out of bed and ran into the neighboring building, unarmed and dressed only in a nightshirt. He took refuge in a cellar storeroom while Gissur’s seventy men searched the house. When Gissur discovered Snorri’s hiding place, he sent five of his men down into the cellar where they struck him down.
Today, little of Snorri’s estate remains.** Reykholt is home to Snorristofa, a research institution devoted to promoting research into the Snorri, the sagas, and medieval Iceland. For those of us who have no need of their small, excellent library or their writers’ cottage, the institute offers a well-designed exhibit of the major themes of Snorri’s life: in many ways the cliff notes version of Song of the Vikings.
*Hot springs were a big deal in medieval Iceland. Not only did they provide a reliable heat source in a cold place with limited access to wood for fires, they also provided warm water for cooking, bathing and washing clothes. More important, if less obvious to a modern American, control of a hot spring had serious agricultural benefits. Warm water meadows meant grass sprouted sooner in the spring and stayed green longer, making a richer hay crop and the ability to keep more of the horses, sheep and cattle by which wealth (and survival) were measured.
Today hot springs not only provide geothermal heat and cheap electricity, they also power greenhouses–an astonishing thing in a place where historically all vegetables have been imported. One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the stop at a farmstand that was selling greenhouse-grown strawberries. Really excellent strawberries. My Own True Love and I ate a pint of them in the van on the way to the next stop. Okay, I’ll admit it. He let me have more than my share.
**Even the hot tub is a reconstruction.