This is Part 8 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.
As noted earlier, acumen in the area of law was especially valuable for a leader. Returning to Mord the Fiddle, whose story comes from a saga and is not strictly factual, we find an account that shows a leader’s use and abuse of the law. Mord’s story involves questions of honour, and, like so many features of Icelandic culture, honour is repeatedly tied to competition. The common human concerns for the honour and ethics of the individual and his family play a significant role in the Icelandic texts, as they do in almost all medieval literatures. Honour in the sagas, however, tends to exhibit a highly personal orientation. It is often more closely tied to maintaining life, property and status or to exacting revenge than it is to the more epic ideal of an individual’s sacrificing himself for obligations to liege lord, religion or the defence of a people. In Iceland, loss of honour signalled that the individual was incapable of defending either himself or his property.
From the impressive introduction of Mord at the opening of Njal’s Saga, we might guess that he is a man with a problem. Unn, his daughter, is unhappy in her marriage to a well-born and successful farmer named Hrut, half-brother to the chieftain Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson. For Mord, the young woman’s complaint is important. He has only one child, and Unn is his heir. The matter she raises jeopardizes the future of his line and the integrity of his property. Mord quickly assesses that if Unn follows the proper procedure from the start, he will later, when he argues the matter at the assembly, have an airtight legal case against her husband. The passage below takes up the story shortly after Unn arrives at the annual Althing. She has ridden south to the general assembly from her new home in Laxárdalr (the Salmon River Valley) without her husband (Chapter 7):
Her father, Mord the Fiddle, was there. He welcomed her warmly, and invited her to stay with him in his booth during the Althing. She accepted.
“What have you to tell me of your companion Hrut?”
“I have nothing but good to say of him,” replied Unn, “insofar as he is responsible for his own actions.”
Mord was silent for a while. Then he said, “What is troubling you, daughter? For I can see that you want no one but me to know of it. You can rely on me better than on anyone else to solve your problems.”
They moved away so that their conversation could not be overheard. Then Mord said to his daughter, “Now tell me everything about your relationship, and let nothing deter you.”
“Very well,” said Unn. “I want to divorce Hrut, and I can tell you the exact grounds I have against him. He is unable to consummate our marriage and give me satisfaction, although in every other way he is as virile as the best of men.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mord. “Be more explicit.”
Unn replied, “Whenever he touches me, he is so enlarged that he cannot have enjoyment of me, although we both passionately desire to reach consummation. But we have never succeeded. And yet, before we draw apart, he proves that he is by nature as normal as other men.”