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A Land Without Lords

How Early Icelanders Settled Their Feuds

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

The settlement of Iceland caused the first western mass migration across the Atlantic. “It was like the Oklahoma land rush,” says scholar Jesse L. Byock.

Iceland's frontier society was a social experiment. For more than three hundred years, farmers notorious for feuding managed to govern themselves without benefit of barons, knights, lords, or monarch.

The society created by the Icelanders has been portrayed as a democracy, but that is a romantic and exaggerated view, says Byock, who is a professor of Old Norse and Icelandic studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Iceland was “proto-democratic.” What medieval Iceland and democratic societies share is a struggle with the issue of overlordship.

“Icelanders rejected overlordship,” says Byock. They created a complex rule of law, but formed no government bodies or military authorities to enforce the law or to manage conflicts. Guided by self-interest in preserving their rights as freemen and the social order in their non-hierarchical community, medieval Icelanders used consensus to resolve disputes.

To understand how a people famous for long-lasting feuds reached consensus, Byock studies the family sagas. Unlike some other classes of Icelandic saga, the family stories are not fantastical adventures or chivalrous tales. Instead, they deal with issues of land ownership, insults, accusations of witchcraft, claims on beached whales, stolen hay, feud negotiations, and other everyday matters. The thirty or so chronicles, written in the vernacular, focus mainly on people and events of the mid-tenth to early eleventh centuries, the period shortly after Iceland’s settlement.

The family sagas are similar to the realistic novels of the nineteenth century, says Byock. Although all the details are not necessarily true, they paint a picture of the society’s attitudes and ways of functioning.

As the Icelandic sagas interpret events, Norwegian royal power drove the first settlers to the North Atlantic island. King Haraldr Fairhair, who ruled from 885 to 930, reputedly was a tyrant. His practice of taxing land owners who had traditionally held their lands as inalienable family possessions caused some of his subjects to emigrate to the British mainland, the Hebrides, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and Iceland.

Although medieval Icelanders claimed that increased royal power compelled their ancestors to move to Iceland, Byock says the story is more complicated: Iceland represented opportunity.

Soon after Scandinavian seamen came upon Iceland in 850, rumors began to fly through the northern countries about a place with large tracts of land that were free for the taking. There were no inhabitants, except for a few Irish monks, and it was removed enough to be safe from invasion.

“The family sagas would have one think that the ancestors who settled Iceland were all aristocrats, or that Iceland was the retirement home of free-booting vikings who had gotten into trouble with the king. But most of the settlers were just ordinary farmers,” says Byock.

From 870 to 930, hordes of land seekers and their families made the perilous journey to Iceland. The movement of those ten to twenty thousand people, mostly from Norway, was made possible because of improvements in shipbuilding and the wealth that had been brought back to Scandinavia by vikings. (The word vikingr means pirate. Most medieval Scandinavians would never have used the word to describe themselves.).

The first landnámsmenn, or landtakers, found their new home green and verdant; the bird life was vast, and the land was covered in scrub birch. But the subarctic ecosystem was fragile. Land productivity dropped rapidly with deforestation and livestock raising. After the first 60 years, most of the good sites were taken. The getting and keeping of limited land and resources fueled many of the feuds in the family sagas.

Feuds could begin when one party bought land that another party claimed, or when inheritance was in question. Disputes between families would occur if land that was part of a woman’s dowry wasn’t returned when the wife and husband separated. Insults, seductions, and thefts of sheep, hay, and horses sometimes escalated into killings.

Among Byock’s favorite stories is Njál’s saga, which he first read as a law student. Njáll is an honorable man who believes that “Our land must be built with law or laid waste with lawlessness.” Unfortunately, he is saddled with a dishonorable family that continually perpetuates feuds that Njáll then tries to mend using legal channels.

At one point, Njáll reaches a money settlement with Flosi, the kinsman of a man murdered by Njáll’s sons. (The Icelanders often exchanged money as compensation for murder.) However, one of the sons ruins the settlement by insulting Flosi, who retaliates by attacking Njáll’s household.

Instead of fighting, Njáll orders his family into the house, which the attackers set afire. Only Njáll’s son-in-law escapes. Resolution only occurs after legal skirmishing, vengeance killings, and finally, the marriage between Flosi’s niece and Kári, Njáll’s son-in-law.

Modern readers of the family sagas have tended to look at them mainly as a literature of conflict, filled with people unable to resist a good fight. This view tends to support the stereotype that Icelandic society was exceptionally anarchic and violent.

But Byock contends that the family sagas taught medieval hearers and readers (by the thirteenth century, most Icelanders were literate) how to succeed in their world. The sagas provided a code of conduct and showed people how to use the law and a complex system of advocacy that characterized Iceland’s non-hierarchical society.

The Icelanders had several ways to resolve differences. The person who had done wrong could offer a self-judgement that would allow the injured party to fix the terms of settlement. When this occurred, there was the expectation that the injured party would practice hóf, or moderation, in setting terms. Dueling, until it was outlawed, was another option. Arbitration was the most common way to redress wrongs.

The local courts provided Icelanders with a forum for negotiation and arbitration. The worst feuds eventually went to the courts at the Althing. This national assembly of chieftains, which had formed in 930, met every June on the Thingvellir, a plain in southwestern Iceland. (Thing means assembly.)

During the two-week-long proceedings, the council of chieftains would make new laws that would be announced by the Law Speaker, nominally the most important person in Iceland. In each of the three years of his term, the Law Speaker would also repeat from memory one third of the entire body of law. (The Icelanders only began putting their law -- known as Grágás, or gray goose -- into writing in the twelfth century.)

Legal cases were heard in the four Quarter Courts: there was one court for each section of the country. To prevent bias, judges were drawn from around the country and were assigned by lot to each court. Although chieftains named them, the judges could be disqualified if interested parties believed they might be unfair.

A successful court outcome depended on advocacy, bringing in a network of supporters, says Byock. In Njál’s saga, for instance, the politically astute Flosi visits various important men after he killed Njáll’s family. In preparation for the Althing, Flosi buys support, reminds possible advocates of past obligations, and promises them future friendship. Kári, Njáll’s son-in-law, is a foreigner and doesn’t know how to exploit the advocacy system well, and he doesn’t get the just outcome he expects. This triggers a fight at the Althing. Blood is shed, and then the Law Speaker and two other leaders negotiate a truce.

When fighting broke out at the Althing, it usually didn’t last long. If disputing parties showed up with large numbers of armed supporters, it indicated that a “significant number of men had chosen sides and were prepared to participate in working toward and honorable resolution. With chieftains and farmers publicly committed, a compromise resting on a collective agreement could be reached. Men of goodwill would arbitrate,” writes Byock in his book Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power.

The family sagas are filled with examples of aggrieved individuals going from one chieftain’s booth to another at the Althing, lobbying for their cause, says Byock.

Sometimes, the advocates would take on a person’s case out of high-mindedness and a desire to do what was right. But often they could increase their property holdings and prestige by arguing in support of the supplicant. In return for their brokerage of a problem, advocates also might receive a good marriage alliance or foster care for a child.

Because Icelandic law had no provisions for the government to administer a death penalty or other punishments, advocates and arbitrators also worked with injured and offending parties to reach settlements on murder, theft, and assaults. Vengeance killing was allowed in some circumstances; and fines were common. Aggrieved parties could ask that their opponent be declared a lesser or full outlaw. To be declared a full outlaw was a virtual death sentence -- no one could offer the outlaw help and anyone was free to kill him.

Ideally, a prudent person would develop a network of supporters who would take his side because of some self-interest, says Byock. “It was a very commercial way for people to conduct themselves.”

A chieftain’s performance as an advocate and arbitrator was important if he wanted to keep the loyalty of thingmen, farmers who had allied themselves with him. The Icelandic chieftains didn’t hold huge territories, and they didn’t have the power that higher ups in other medieval societies had to use force. The farmers could not be compelled to do something against their will, and they could change allegiances.

Advocacy made it possible for ambitious men to advance and for a non-hierarchical society to function. Bringing in advocates also limited violence because the strong supporters were not about to foolishly risk their power, Byock argues. Because they were somewhat detached, they could take some of the hot-headedness out of a feud.

The aim of the legal system wasn’t necessarily to reach a just solution, only a compromise that would be considered fair enough to maintain the status quo and prevent major shifts in the power balance.

Until the mid-thirteenth century, the Icelanders had been able to keep that balance. For most of the three centuries that the Icelandic Free State existed, there were no significant differences between chieftains and prosperous farmers. Byock asserts that Norway was able to gain control in 1262, partly because of the turmoil that ensued when a few families began to concentrate the power that had previously been dispersed in Icelandic society.

Iceland wasn’t unique in having active assemblies of freemen. They were a common feature of most early societies in northern Europe. The rights of freemen and the concept of a jury were also found in southern Europe.

What made Iceland unusual was the pervasiveness of advocacy and the attention to consensus. It was the main way medieval Icelanders dealt with each other, Byock says, and offers today’s students an early model of conflict resolution.