Viking Age Iceland: Leadership

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

This is Part 7 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.

Icelandic chieftains, called goðar (sing. goði),[1] were more like political leaders than the warrior chiefs of many contemporary cultures. They possessed only slight formal authority to police, and until well into the thirteenth century had almost no military means to forcefully repress the surrounding population. As leaders they were unable to limit the access of other farmers to natural resources, and they had no privileged control over a region’s surplus production. Like other prominent farmers, they were able to weather bad times, but there were no community works such as extensive irrigation systems, waterways or fortifications whose upkeep and defence offered the goðar a leadership niche. Goðar, both as individuals and as a group, had only limited ability to compel the free landholding farmers (bœndr, sing. bóndi) to do their bidding. The situation did not change for those farmers who were a chieftain’s thingmenn (sing. thingmaðr),[2] meaning legally recognized followers.

Although not a commanding nobility, the goðar functioned as leaders of interest groups composed of thingmenn drawn from among the bœndr. These groups, established through personal alliances, were based on shared self-interest between leaders and their thingmenn. A bóndi who had become a thingman of a goði was referred to as being “in thing” with the chieftain. The political office of a goði was called a goðorð, a term that means the “word” (orð) of a goði. To all appearances the goðar assumed leadership peacefully, with the consent of the free farmers, early in the tenth century. A chieftaincy or goðorð was treated as a private possession that normally passed to a family member, though not necessarily a first son. In addition to being inherited, a goðorð could be purchased, shared or received as a gift. There were perhaps more than twice as many chieftains as chieftaincies, because each of the several men who shared a goðorð could call himself a goði.

Scholars sometimes translate the term goði as priest-chieftain because it is derived from the Old Norse word goð, meaning “god.” Probably the term stems from the responsibilities that early Icelandic chieftains had as priests of the old religion. The written sources originate in the later Christian period and are not reliable concerning pre-conversion religious practices.[i] Although we cannot be precise about numbers, there is no doubt that many goðar exchanged their previous religious function for that of Christian priests when Iceland converted to Christianity in the year 1000.[ii] Having survived and in part engineered so dramatic a religious change, the goðar retained their traditional authority. Embracing the new beliefs, they held on to their occupational monopoly, solidifying their political control in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Whether in heathen or Christian times, the goðar were a small-scale elite able to exert both ideological and political power.

[1] Hereafter the English term “chieftain” and the Icelandic term goði (pl. goðar) are used interchangeably. Referring to goðar as chieftains is an old scholarly tradition, though the correspondence is not exact.

[2] Maðr, plural menn, is a word that appears frequently in Old Norse. Similarly to the English words “man” and “men,” it can be gender specific, but often means “people”.

[i] Olsen 1966.

[ii] Because of uncertainty as to what calendars the medieval Icelanders used at different times, a controversy exists as to whether the conversion should be dated by our modern calendar to 999 or 1000. Since the precise date is in doubt, and probably will remain so, I have chosen the traditional year of 1000. Ólafía Einarsdóttir 1964: 72-90 argues for the year 999. Jakob Benediktsson in his introduction to Íslendingabók 1968 reviews in detail the question of dating, including the views of Ólafía Einarsdóttir 1964: xxix-xv.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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