It is a very disputed question who the people were that first settled the Faroe Islands and when they did so. Studies made by natural scientists and tales of travels by seafaring Irish friars have led scholars to believe that the Faroe Islands were populated by middle of the 7th century AD. There is no agreement on this matter, however, and the belief is not supported by archaeological findings.
On the other hand, the Norwegian colonization during the Viking Age is well documented. Throughout the Viking Age (approx. 800-1050 AD), large-scale emigration from Norway led to the establishment of Norse agricultural societies, partly in areas populated by Celtic peoples bordering the Irish Sea and on the islands off Scotland's western and northern coasts, and partly in uninhabited areas in the North Atlantic. Contact between the areas of Norse settlement was strong and one of its results was to introduce a number of Celtic cultural elements into the otherwise purely Norse Faroese culture.
The Norse Vikings in the Faroe Islands built scattered farms of Norwegian design around the country. From these, people farmed the land, reared cattle and sheep, hunted birds, caught fish and gathered food. To a large extent they did so on a subsistence basis, but Faroese farms have never been entirely self-sufficient. Important goods like timber, iron and other metals, limestone and tools, as well as luxuries, had to be imported. Thus goods were produced for export in return, such as wool, wadmal, tallow, fish oil, stockfish and feathers and down.
To enforce law and order, a parliament was established in Tórshavn patterned on Norwegian tradition. Furthermore, local parliaments might possibly also have been established, one in each of the six regions: Suðuroy, Sandoy, Vágar, Streymoy, Eusturoy and Norðoyar. The age of these local parliaments in not known.
Once a central royal authority had emerged in Norway, the king tried very hard to conquer the Norse countries in the Atlantic, with some success. The Faroe Islands were brought under the Norwegian crown as a tributary country, presumably in 1035. Collection of taxes was carried out by the king's sheriff, who also received fines payable to the crown and managed its properties.
In the Viking Age, most Faroese were pagans. Christianity was introduced around the year 1000 and churches were built on farms. The Faroe Islands became an independent bishopric at the beginning of the 12th century, with its seat at Kirkjubær, which subsequently became the spiritual and cultural centre of the Faroe Islands throughout the Middle Ages. The Episcopal see mediated influences from the Nordic countries and Europe into the Faroese society this was witnessed by its monumental buildings which were not constructed according to Faroese house-building tradition, but represented European ecclesiastical architecture.
Gradually the church and the king became the dominating spiritual, political and economic institutions in the Middle Ages. The political change towards the end of the 13th century, whereby parliament turned into a law session with its law-speaker designated by the king and men of the Legislative Court were appointed by the sheriff, meant a weakening of the independence of the parliamentary institution and a confirmation of the royal authority. The king's right to propound laws gradually became the basis of all legislation and he acquired the right to change the sentences of the Legislative Court.
In the late Middle Ages, from around AD 1400 onwards, the Faroe Islands were exposed to a mixture of trade, fishing and piracy from the countries bordering the North Sea. Prices of agricultural goods dropped, while the demand for fish ran high in Europe. Throughout the early Middle Ages, the Faroe Islands' foreign trade had concentrated on Bergen in Norway, whence the Hanseatic traders from Lubeck distributed the goods to the countries around the Baltic. Discontented with the dominance of Lubeck in the fish trade, merchants from the Hanseatic cities around the North Sea began to disregard all prohibitions and exclude sailing to its tributary countries. In the race with the Dutch, the British and the Frisians, it was the Hanseatic city of Hamburg which won and took over all foreign trade in the Faroe Islands until 1553.
The influence of the North Sea countries was strong in the late Middle Ages. The supply of inexpensive corn, accompanied by high fish prices, caused a reduction in Faroese corn production and the islands never again became capable of producing enough for domestic consumption. The Hamburg merchants established a trade market in the Faroe Islands, in Tórshavn, where earlier a market had probably been held every year in connection with the session of the parliament. Tórshavn would keep its position as the only trading city for nearly 400 years. Finally, the Faroe Islands changed their currency during this period. In the Viking Age silver had been the measure of value. During the Middle Ages, to counteract the shrinking value of the silver coins which had been common currency during the Viking Age, people had started to calculate values by ells of wadmal. Trade with the North Sea countries brought the Rhine guilder to the Faroe Islands where, along with the Faroese guilder, it served as the only currency until 1790.
With the Reformation, the power of the medieval church was reduced and the king's power increased by the same token. The Faroese bishopric was abolished and the properties of the church were taken over by the Crown. Economically this was probably the most severe catastrophe in the history of the Faroe Islands, since now the annual rents from half of all the land and one-quarter of the tithe earlier collected by the Faroese church left the country. In terms of national identity, the Reformation was also a reactionary force, opening the way to Danish influence upon Faroese society which would last for several centuries. The Norwegian crown had by now come under the Danish monarchy, Danish officials and pastors were sent to the Faroe Islands, and Danish became the language of the church and the court. The old links with Bergen were in fact re-established for a short time when the Faroe Islands were brought under the regional jurisdiction of Bergen and trade connections were restored, but at the beginning of the 17th century both trade and ecclesiastical authority were moved to Copenhagen.
The Faroe Islands today are a modern society with comparable living standards to the other Nordic countries, but also face the same profound economic and social problems that threaten the modern welfare state.
Hotels in the Faroe Islands
to Thorshavn Faroe Island
On the economic front, radical changes took place throughout the Middle Ages to the production system, the farms. The overwhelming majority of farms became divided into smaller ones by inheritance and a consequence of the church's secular greed for property was that about half of all land was owned by the church at the time of the Reformation around AD 1540.
Consolidation of royal power meant increased control over trade. Even before the Reformation it had become a virtual monopoly, often leased out, but from 1709-1856 it was operated by the king himself. The monopoly trade had its own fixed prices, independent of changes in economic circumstances and served to isolate the islands still further. The Faroese parliamentary institution was gradually weakened and the power of the Danish officials reinforced, and the islands increasingly slipped into the bureaucratic system of the monarchy. When the Faroes were separated from Norway in 1814 and the general assembly was discontinued in 1816, this was strictly a formality. The Faroe Islands became a county in the Danish kingdom. In 1850 the constitution that had been introduced in Denmark the precious year was imposed on the Faroe Islands without any local consultation.
A new invention, the knitting needle, had become known towards the end of the 16th century in the Faroe Islands and gained important economic significance. Knitted socks became the main export article from the Faroe Islands at the beginning of the 17th century and at the same time the production of wadmal for export ceased completely. Socks remained economically important for two centuries or more.
In terms of the economy and population, however, some progress was made. Over the period from 1801-1860 the number of inhabitants almost doubled, from less than 5,000 to around 9,000. One reason was that great advances in agriculture enabled cultivation of potatoes, which had been introduced at the end of the 18th century, along with fodder for a modest number of cows. At the same time fishing increased, techniques for salting fish became known, and some production of saltfish began. When the trade monopoly was lifted in 1856, the path for economic growth was clear, although the first oceangoing fishing boat was not acquired until 1872. From that time onwards, fishing beyond inshore waters escalated rapidly and production of saltfish provided the basis for improving living standards in the Faroe Islands and later economic development.
For centuries there had been a trend towards weakening and abandonment of Faroese institutions, which was finally broken by the re-establishment of the general assembly in 1852. Although the new general assembly had only the status of a county council, it included the establishment of a political forum in the country. Through the Danish "People's High Schools", nationalistic sentiments gained a firm foothold in the Faroe Islands and started to manifest themselves from the 1880s and after. The campaign to preserve and restore national values soon became a political struggle dominated by the problematic question of political dependence on Denmark which has been one of the two main issues in Faroese politics ever since. Distant-water fishing and the production of saltfish caused the emergence of a large working class, whose conflicts with factory owners led to the formation in the 1930s of both Social Democratic and Conservative parties, the other main polarization in Faroese politics.
The outbreak of the Second World War isolated the Faroes from Denmark, whose sole representative remained the supreme magistrate. The Faroese were forced to establish provisional legislative and executive bodies. Furthermore, for practical reasons the British garrison accepted a special Faroese flag. The insatiable British fresh fish market offered possibilities for large export revenues, and the national movement was strong. After the war it was unthinkable to return to the old county status, and after several years of negotiations the present home rule constitution was adopted in 1948, where-by the Faroe Islands are "a Home Rule National Society in the Danish Kingdom" with the general assembly as a legislature and the government as the executive body on specifically Faroese matters. Under home rule, the Faroe Islands have extensive autonomy in matters of the economy and trade, one consequence of which has been that they have managed to stay outside the European Community. Economic development has been rapid. A hypermodern and efficient fishing fleet has been built up, mainly supplying fresh and frozen fish, and several factories have been build around the country for processing fish products. Lack of resources caused by much too intensive fishing, reduced possibilities for distant-water fishing and over-optimistic investment have recently caused severe operating problems for the fisheries sector, and thereby for the entire national economy and society.
The Faroese are also a "historical" nation conscious of the significance of the historical contexts that have created their modern society. All the way from the Viking Age heritage which still leaves its mark most firmly on the culture today, through the eternal process of adapting to nature's whims, and up to the steady and growing influences from the world about them.
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