Viking Age Iceland: “The Travels of Unn and Hrut”

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

This is Part 10 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.

When Hrut came home, he was shocked to find his wife gone. But he kept his composure. He stayed at home for the rest of the year and discussed the matter with no one.

Next summer he rode to the Althing with his brother Hoskuld and a large following. When he arrived, he asked if Mord the Fiddle were present and was told that he was. Everyone expected that he and Mord would discuss their differences, but this did not happen.

One day, when people were assembled at the Law Rock, Mord named witnesses and gave notice of a money claim [fésök] against Hrut concerning the money affairs [fémál] of his daughter, which he assessed at ninety hundreds. He demanded immediate payment of this sum, on penalty of a fine of three marks. He referred this action to the proper Quarter Court, and gave notice of it, in public, at the Law Rock.

The sum that Mord demands is remarkable. It is not only large[1] – it seems to actually be more than was stipulated in the marriage agreement.Discussing the agreement with Hrutr, Mord says (Njal’s Saga, Chapter 2): “She [Unn] will have sixty hundreds, and that property must be increased by a third once she moves to your farm”. This way Mord determines that Unn’s “bride price” – the contribution to the dowry that an Icelandic bridegroom or his family were to pay (discussed in Chapter 17) – was to be a third of her initial dowry of sixty hundreds, that is, twenty. Thus the sum total of what Unn owned, dowry paid by her father plus the bride price paid by Hrut, was only eighty hundreds. Mord, however, lays claim to ninety.[IS1] 

Desiring to get his hands on all the wealth and a little more, Mord leaves no room for the type of quiet, personal negotiations called for by the delicacy of the matter. He drives his case forward in the public eye, pushing Hrut too far. Incensed both by his former father-in-law’s handling of the case and his arbitrary demand for extra money, Hrut openly rebukes the greedy old man and [IS2] challenges him to a duel (hólmganga).[2] Hrut’s response moves the dispute from a test of legal acumen to a test of physical strength. The duel, which was legal at the time, functioned as a form of appeal.[i] Hrut offers Mord sporting terms: double or nothing.

When Mord had made this announcement, Hrut replied: “You are pressing this matter with greed and aggression rather than decency and fairness, demanding more than belongs to your daughter, [IS3] and for that reason I intend to resist it. You have not got your hands on the money yet; it is still in my possession. I declare, and let all those present at the Law Rock be witnesses, that I challenge you, Mord the Fiddle, to single combat for the bride price and dowry. I myself shall stake an equal sum, the winner to take all. But if you refuse to fight with me, you shall forfeit all claim to the dowry.”

Here the saga raises the question faced by each generation of Icelanders beginning shortly after the landnám: were disputes to be resolved by means of negotiation and compromise, that is through consensus, or by recourse to violence? Both courses of action were legal in this feuding society. The operation of power and authority in Iceland ultimately depended upon which course individuals and groups chose. A man like Mord had to mitigate his own greed so as not to give fighters like Hrut public approval to fall back on physical prowess. Moderation, or the lack of it, was articulated in terms of honour and shame.

[1] Counted in ells of woven wool or vaðmal, ninety hundreds is approximately the value of ninety cows or several average farms.

[2] Hólmganga, literally “island going”, was a duel fought on a small island. At the Althing, this was a sandy islet in the Öxár River below the Law Rock. Duels were outlawed at the beginning of the eleventh century.

[i] Ciklamini 1963; Bø 1969; Byock 1993a, Hólmganga”.

 [IS1]Added here to explain an important point in the saga narrative.

 [IS2]Added here to explain an important point in the saga narrative.

 [IS3]Added here to clarify the fact that saga underscores in this way that Hrut did his math correctly and Mord’s extra 10 hundreds weren’t lost on him.

— 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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