This is Part 11 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.
The older man has overstepped the bounds of discretion. Mord finds no consensus of support for his position, and no one assists him against Hrut. Faced with the choice of life or death, Mord chooses life and loses both property and honour. The saga continues (Chapter 8):
Mord was silent, and conferred with his friends about the challenge. Jorund the goði told him, “There is no need for you to ask our opinions; you know well enough that if you fight Hrut you will lose your life as well as the money. Hrut is a successful man; he is great by achievement, and he is a very good fighter.”
So Mord announced that he would not fight with Hrut. There was a great shout of derision at the Law Rock, and Mord earned nothing but ignominy from this.
The shamed husband’s call for single combat is a rejoinder that focuses on honour, leaving no room for negotiation. Whereas Hrut, a young man, might otherwise have been too shamed to challenge an older man to single combat, in this instance Mord has given Hrut the opportunity.
It will never be known whether these events concerning Mord and his daughter actually happened. Certainly what we have just read was embellished by the saga author. For the original Icelandic audience the important point was that the story was plausible. It could have happened, and this very old story offers us considerable insight into the public and private worlds of medieval Iceland. Was there perhaps an element of social dialogue between the medieval storyteller and the saga audience? Surely the story points to the fact that duels and recourse to violence, although legal, rarely settled underlying economic and family issues. Such actions merely postponed the reckoning. Issues often churned in memory until later, setting off a feud. That happens in Njal’s Saga. Hrut, triumphant in his manoeuvring at the Althing, keeps all the property, including Unn’s dowry. No one in Mord’s family forgets it. Long after Mord is dead, the issue of Unn’s dowry brings an additional humiliation to Hrut and becomes the seed of a dangerous conflict. Eventually the matter leads to a feud, involving people who had nothing to do with the original dispute.
The Sagas: An Ethnography of Medieval Iceland
Jón Jóhannesson published a work on Iceland’s early history in which he . . . mentioned almost none of the events recounted in the Íslendinga sögur [family sagas], just as if they had never taken place. Yet Jón Jóhannesson was far from being extreme in his views. Shortly after his History appeared, I asked him whether he believed that the sagas were pure fiction. “No, not at all,” he answered, “I just don’t know what to do with them.” – And this is still the situation today.
Jónas Kristjánsson, “The Roots of the Sagas”
Mord’s story is a good example of the nature of the family sagas. The most comprehensive extant portrayal of a Western medieval society, the sagas had both a social and a literary function, but their dual nature is often ignored. Historians and anthropologists, even those interested in social history, have tended to avoid using the sagas as source material. These vernacular prose narratives are relatively late sources, most of them dating from the thirteenth century. At times the storytellers invented characters and occurrences. When Icelanders are portrayed travelling abroad, the stories sometimes have an air of fantasy, but when the action is set in Iceland, even the supernatural episodes are usually framed in a formal social setting. In this latter context the stories reveal cultural patterns and normative codes, indicating to the reader basic guidelines for social and political conduct.
One small story like Mord’s only hints at values. A whole collection of such stories is a different matter. In some, though certainly not all ways, the sagas approach the type of ethnographic material collected by anthropologists in the field. In one way the sagas may even have an advantage over most ethnographic observations, which have a weak point. Because they cannot cover an adequate span of time, anthropological observations rarely capture the full range of variability affecting the community under study. The sagas do not have this problem. They capture a wide range of variability, offering deep insight into the mentality of the culture group as well as the changing environment.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland