This is Part 40 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 immigrants who founded Iceland became participants in what in some ways was a headless or stateless society. Early Iceland can loosely be so described because its leaders, the goðar, wielded little executive power and did not rule over territorial units. The concept of statelessness, however, should not be carried too far. Iceland did have specific elements of statehood: a formal national legislature (the lögrétta) and a well-defined judicial system that embraced the entire country. Social stratification, although it existed, was restrained by the absence of kings or even regional princes or warlords. Among the landed there were differences in wealth and prominence. Distinct cleavages existed between landowners and landless people and between free men and slaves. Although early Iceland was essentially headless, it did have distinct aspects of an embryonic state. How can this mingling of attributes be explained? The answer is that early Iceland experienced a complicated evolution. This dynamic has been largely overlooked, yet it holds the key to understanding Iceland’s medieval society and culture.
The mixture of state and stateless existed because Free State Iceland was the product of two different cultural forces. On the one hand, it inherited the tradition and the vocabulary of statehood from its European origins. On the other, Iceland was headless because of the class values of the immigrants. On this very large island, a late Iron Age European culture group took advantage of the safety afforded by the North Atlantic to eliminate the hierarchy of command and the taxation necessary for defense. As a result, the society simplified. It moved down a few rungs on the ladder of social complexity.
What has not been recognized about the settlement of Iceland is that the evolutionary machinery was in many ways running in reverse. Rather than a simple society that had reached a modest level of complexity as part of an evolutionary progression, Iceland at the start went the other way. Initially it “devolved,” shedding most of the aristocratic strata of Viking Age society. In their own eyes the tenth-century settlers and lawgivers almost certainly had limited goals. By emphasizing the rights of free farmers, they adjusted social arrangements, making them less complex than in Norway with its king, aristocrats, regional warlords and legally defined levels of free and unfree. Reflecting the desires of landowning farmers, Icelandic institutions eliminated a significant number of the roles played by elites and overlords. By avoiding the formation of self-perpetuating executive structures, the farmers collectively retained control over coercive power. In doing so they denied would-be elites the crucial state function of monopolizing force. Leadership was limited to local chieftains who often operated like “big men,” individuals whose authority often was temporary.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland