This is Part 9 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.
Having heard his daughter’s plight, Mord devises a plan to get her safely out of both the marriage and the house, while laying the groundwork for a future legal claim against Hrut for a sizeable part of the couple’s property. Mord sees that the crucial element is to have the husband away from home when the wife names witnesses at the couple’s bedside. The threat of possible violence from Hrut is clear in the precision of the directions that Mord gives to Unn in order to throw off pursuit by Hrut:
“You have done well to tell me this,” said Mord. “I can give you a plan which will meet the case so long as you carry it out in every detail.
“First, you must ride home now from the Althing. Your husband will have returned [Hrut was in the West Fjords collecting rents on his livestock], and he will welcome you warmly. You must be affectionate towards him and compliant, and he will think the situation much improved. On no account must you show him any indifference.
“But when spring comes you must feign illness and take to your bed. Hrut will not try to guess the nature of your illness, and he will not reproach you; indeed, he will tell everyone to take the greatest care of you. Then he will set off with Sigmund west to the fjords. He will be busy fetching all his livestock and rents from the west, and he will be away from home far into the summer.
“Later, when it is time for people to ride to the Althing, and when all those who intend to be there have left the Dales, you must get up from your bed and summon men to accompany you on a journey. When you are quite ready to leave, you must walk to your bedside with those who are going to travel with you. There at your husband’s bedstead you must name witnesses and declare yourself lawfully divorced from him; do it as correctly as possible in accordance with the procedural rules of the Althing and the common law of the land. You must then name witnesses once again at the main door.
“With that done you must ride away. Take the path over Lax River Valley Heath and across to Holtavord Heath, for no one will search for you as far as Hrútafjord, and then carry straight on until you come to me here. I shall then take care of the case for you, and you will never fall into his hands again.”
Unn now rode home from the Althing. Hrut had already returned, and he welcomed her warmly. Unn responded well and was affectionate toward him. They got on well together that year. But when spring came, Unn fell ill and took to her bed. Hrut rode off west to the fjords, leaving orders that she was to be well looked after.
When the Althing was due, Unn made her preparations for the journey. She followed her father’s instructions in every detail and then rode off to the Althing. The men of the district searched for her but could not find her. Mord welcomed his daughter and asked her how she had carried out his plan.
“I have not deviated from it at all,” she replied.
Mord went to the Law Rock, and there gave notice of Unn’s lawful divorce from Hrut. People thought this was news indeed. Unn went home with her father, and she never set foot in the west again.[i]
Elements of law, honour, family, property and money are intertwined in this story, and in the course of this book we will unravel the different threads in stories like this one. But what of power and leadership? At least a part of the answer lies in what follows in the saga. Mord knows his law, and so far he has got his way. Now he makes an all-too-human mistake. He gets greedy. According to Grágás, Iceland’s “Grey Goose” Law (discussed in Chapter 17 along with issues of marriage and divorce), women involved in divorce had rights. If Unn’s divorce had been initiated or caused by the husband (which had to be proved, at least to the satisfaction of the court), the wife’s side could claim all the property that both families had committed in the marriage agreement.[ii]
Unn’s divorce is done; now comes the case over the couple’s property. In order to win, Mord has to show that Hrut’s failure to consummate the marriage initially caused the divorce. This is a messy business. It involves the public humiliation of Hrut, an otherwise successful man. Mord is undeterred by the consequences, in both money and shame, faced by his former son-in-law. Although [IS1] presumably legal – the charge is still unproven – Mord’s stance is punitive and grasping.
[i] With slight modifications these passages are from Njal’s Saga 1960: 52-5.
[ii] Grágás 1852b: 42-3 (Ch. 150).
[IS1]MS and VAI 2001 had the following sentence lodging between these two words – ‘The next year at the Law Rock, Mord assesses that Hrut must pay a sum equal to the whole of the marriage property, that is, both Unn’s dowry and the contribution or bride price that originally came from the bridegroom or his family.’ This is cut because of changes in the paragraph after the quote.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland