Viking Age Iceland: A Story of Contradictions

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 1 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

There was a man named Mord; he was called the Fiddle. He was the son of Sighvat the Red, and he lived at Voll in the Rang River Plains. He was a powerful chieftain and a great lawyer — so great a lawman [lögmaðr] that no case was thought to be legally judged unless he took part.

Njáls saga (chapter 1)

Njal’s Saga begins with a famous vignette that highlights issues explored in this book. Set in tenth-century Iceland in the middle of the Viking Age (AD c. 800-1100), the opening lines quoted above describe a great leader. First we are told the name of Mord’s impressive father and then the site of his family’s landholding at Voll, located on the broad plains that border the East Rang River in southern Iceland. Next comes the reason for Mord’s greatness. Those familiar with chieftaincies and tribes, and the epics that such groups engender, would have expected to hear of Mord’s deeds of valour: enemies slain, territories taken, and booty and slaves acquired. Instead the saga relates a quite different story. Mord, an important leader, made his mark not as a warrior but as a lawyer, an advocate with a deep knowledge of law and legal procedures. This simple description of a chieftain goes to the heart of early Icelandic society and its sagas.

Mord’s fame is well known to readers of the sagas, but neither the nature of his power nor the source of his authority has received much comment. In fact the society that developed on this large and distant island in the North Atlantic has long perplexed scholars. Iceland was first settled by Norsemen as part of the seaborne expansion of the Viking Age, but the authority of its leaders was not that of warlords, warrior chieftains or regional lords. Years ago the legal historian James Bryce wrote that medieval Iceland

“is an almost unique instance of a community whose culture and creative power flourished independently of any favouring material conditions, and indeed under conditions in the highest degree unfavourable. Nor ought it to be less interesting to the student of politics and laws as having produced a Constitution unlike any other whereof records remain, and a body of law so elaborate and complex that it is hard to believe that it existed among men whose chief occupation was to kill one another.”

Since Bryce’s day, the study of Iceland has flourished, and numerous writers have explored different facets of the island’s medieval culture. But the essential contradictions that Bryce noted remain unresolved. This book addresses these contradictions by examining the underlying structures and cultural codes that bound the different parts of Icelandic society into a cohesive polity. It is a social-historical study that employs the tools of history and anthropology and takes into consideration the ethnographic, literary and legal attributes of the sagas. It brings together the natural and human forces that shaped the new society, exploring the way Iceland’s Viking Age social order came into being and how it functioned. The answers tell a great deal about society, saga and life in the medieval north.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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