This is Part 41 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 social order that emerged in Iceland displays a mixture of features affected by its initial devolution. It was marked by aspects of statelessness and egalitarianism as well as by elements of social hierarchy. Characteristics of both ranked and stratified societies were present, as the immigrant society evolved in new ways. Although Iceland was not a democratic system, proto-democratic tendencies existed. The rich variety of features makes Viking Age Iceland a fertile ground for examining theories of cultural and social change. Early Icelanders repeatedly opted for legally based governmental solutions that for centuries hindered the development of executive authority. In this respect social and governmental developments in Iceland were at variance with those in mainland Scandinavia.
On the mainland, kings were enlarging their authority at the expense of the traditional rights of free farmers. The emigrants to Iceland were well aware of this process. Although it would be going too far to assume that the settlers and their descendants knew exactly what they wanted, available evidence does suggest that the early Icelanders knew quite well what they did not want. In particular, they were collectively opposed to the centralizing aspects of a state. This vital factor led to a significant amount of experimentation in social and governmental arrangements, which can be seen in the sagas and the laws. From the viewpoints of both anthropology and sociology, Iceland is an example of a self-limiting pattern of state formation.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland