This 47 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.
Cultural focus, a long-established anthropological concept, is the tendency of every culture to exhibit more complexity and a wider scope in some of its aspects and institutions than in others.[i] When a society focuses on a particular dimension of culture, that dimension is more likely to develop new ways and to generate innovation because more activity and closer scrutiny are directed to it than to other aspects. In Iceland the cultural focus was on law, and disorder was avoided through dependence on legalistic solutions arrived at through arbitration and court cases.
Icelandic law was based on custom, and it proved to be highly adaptable to change over time. To an unusual degree, law became the catalyst in the conceptualizing of life outside the family. Law set the parameters of successful arbitration, and served as an element of continuity throughout Iceland’s medieval history. This reliance was more pronounced in times of crisis and dispute, when judicial process was used as a model even in private arbitrations, thus supplying the means to reconcile the most divisive forces within the society. An example (discussed in Chapter 16) is the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. This potentially explosive situation was channeled into the normal procedures of legalistic dispute processing, where it was treated as a feud between two groups and settled at the Althing through negotiation and compromise.
[i] For the classic formulation of cultural focus, see Herskovits 1970: 542-60.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland