This 48 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.
Leadership functioned in a kind of market economy, with the forces of supply and demand playing a significant role. Candidates competed for the supporters necessary to claim a chieftaincy (goðorð), which offered prestige and an opportunity to amass wealth and power through privileged access to processes of law. Depending on the acumen of the individual, the results could be significant. Alliance with a chieftain gave a farmer the promise of present or future services. In many ways, it was a pay-as-you-go system. Services, or the expectation of them, were negotiable and exchangeable, and had monetary value.
With coercive power privatized, Icelanders did not need to pay taxes for the upkeep of state institutions of enforcement. The solution was economically efficient.[i] It avoided a governmental hierarchy and lowered the cost of government to almost nothing, yet it provided a minimum of state-like, executive branch services. Once private enforcement was established, the rights to vengeance-taking were often sold by family members to advocates, who sometimes were aspiring farmers but for the most part were chieftains. Through the office of chieftaincy, a seat in the national legislature, the lögrétta, was marketable personal property. Nevertheless, acquisition was only the entry price: a leader needed personal abilities to succeed as the head of a following of thingmen. Farmers in conflict who were unable to enforce their claims turned to advocates, especially goðar, who had the support of a group and enjoyed superior opportunities to manipulate the legal system. For their support of farmers and other chieftains in lawsuits and feuds, goðar expected to be paid, even though transferable wealth was in limited supply in Iceland.
The marketable nature of the goðorð had a profound effect. The availability of this relatively low-level yet paramount position of authority contributed significantly to the stability of the Free State in the early centuries. As class distinctions did not constitute formal barriers to acquiring the office of chieftaincy, an ambitious, successful farmer could set his sights on becoming a goði. Reward could be sought within Iceland’s social and political systems rather than in changing them. Until the appearance of overlords in the thirteenth century (discussed in Chapter 19), there is no evidence that Iceland’s peasantry was disgruntled.
[i] Friedman 1979; Solvason 1991.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland