Gizur of Iceland

(d. 1117)

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(d. 1117),

bishop. Harold Hardrada, the notable Norwegian military leader, described Gizur as fit to be a king, a leader of Vikings, or a bishop. Gizur followed his grandfather, also called Gizur, and his father, Isleif, as bishop of Iceland; it was his achievement to divide it into two dioceses, Skalholt (in the south-west) and Holar in the north. He also committed Iceland's laws to writing for the first time and may well have been connected with Icelandic development of sagas, poetry, and history, not to mention the explorations of Greenland and Newfoundland.

The unusual story of Iceland's acceptance of Christianity closely involved Gizur's family and destiny. In the year 1000 the Icelandic assembly, composed of a pagan majority and a Christian minority, converted through English, Norwegian, and possibly German settlers, had been deeply divided about the future of their country. The Althing had decided that the future of the country should be a united one: hence all should remain pagan or all should become Christian. They did not however decide such an important matter by a majority vote: instead, they left the decision to a single wise man, chosen by the assembly. After some chosen solitude, he made his decision, promised in advance to be accepted by all. This was that there should be one religion and one law: the Christian religion and the Icelandic law. The only concessions to traditional heathenism were permitting unwanted infants to be exposed to death from the elements, and the practice of private and secret sacrifices to the traditional pagan gods. After a few years these concessions were abolished.

Initially the few priests were foreigners. But soon Gizur the White was consecrated bishop. He had been one of the first to accept baptism. We do not know whether he was a widower at the time of his consecration: quite probably not so. He certainly had a son mentioned above, who succeeded him in office, and even a grandson (our Gizur) who did the same. Reformers in the Church disapproved of such hereditary succession, but only little by little did the Church in Scandinavia come to accept the norms of western Europe, in the time of Augustine of Trondheim (d. 1188). Anyway, Gizur II introduced tithes and provided for the poor, carrying out a taxation census to make this policy possible. His cult was approved for Reykjavik and Iceland. Feast: 28 May.

G. Jones, A History of the Vikings (1984); M. Cormack, The Saints of Iceland (1994); Bibl. SS., vii. 55.

Subjects: Christianity.

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