This 49 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.
In the absence of national or regional leaders who might foster dissension with other countries over trade, wealth, dynastic claims, conquest or territorial dominance, Iceland developed in response to its own circumscribed needs. The society that emerged was based on a system of decentralized self-government that functioned largely through personal relationships between leaders and followers. This system fostered a political stability that lasted from the end of the settlement period (c. 930) until the thirteenth century.
The Viking Age settlers began by establishing local things, or assemblies, which had been the major forum for meetings of freemen and aristocrats in the old Scandinavian and Germanic social order. The tenth-century Icelanders altered the equation. They excluded overlords with coercive power and expanded the mandate of the assembly to fill the full spectrum of the interests of the landed free farmers. The changes transformed a Scandinavian decision-making body that mediated between freemen and overlords into an Icelandic self-contained governmental system without overlords. At the core of Icelandic government was the Althing, a national assembly of freemen[i] which operated through a socio-political system in which the governmental elite, the goðar, were not linked by a formal hierarchy. Theoretically and often in fact, the goðar acted as equals.
To some extent the value of possessing a goðorð was enhanced because so few chieftaincies existed. Around 965, as part of a series of constitutional reforms, the number of goðorð was limited to thirty-nine by agreement at the Althing. As part of the arrangement (see Chapter 9), an additional nine men were given the title of goði. The duties of these new chieftains, however, were limited mostly to participation in the legislative and political functions of the Althing. It is important to keep in mind that the actual number of chieftains (individuals calling themselves goðar) at any particular time in early Iceland was more than the number of chieftaincies, because each of the men who shared a goðorð could call himself a goði.
[i] Byock 1986b.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland