Viking Age Iceland: Chieftains

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This 50 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 sources mention many chieftains in the early centuries. Just how they acquired the capital necessary to function as leaders during the early period has not been well explained. Yet the answer to this question opens the path to an understanding of how the different elements in Iceland’s medieval society were able to function as a cohesive political body. To succeed, a goði had to have charisma as well as skill in managing relationships with thingmen, in supervising disputes and feuds, especially in the final court and arbitration stages, and in winning legal cases. Despite the deference accorded to successful goðar, the society’s egalitarian ethos was so strong that the goðar participated in governmental processes that were often proto-democratic.

For the chieftains, permanent coercive power remained unobtainable until the very end of the Free State. Even then, in the thirteenth century, they were unable to translate their power into operable state structures. Repeatedly during the history of the Free State the rights of free farmers tempered the demands of the goðar. Throughout this study I explain the prerogatives enjoyed by the bœndr and the strategies by which they defended their rights. Here too there are hints of early democratic development as well as signs of a self-limiting pattern of state formation.

The tenth-century settlers developed economic and legal processes that institutionalized barter, the public brokerage of power, and the conduct of feud, all of which hindered the emergence of overlordship. Farmers chose their personal goði from among the available chieftains of the quarter. Thus an individual free farmer or bóndi enjoyed more self-determination than he would have in a society dominated by lords. For several centuries the island enjoyed stability free of the internal dynastic dissension that existed in petty states in the Viking Age homelands or in areas controlled by kings or regional rulers. During this time, however, low-intensity feuding continued throughout the country.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

Published by Jules William Press

Jules William Press is a small press devoted to publishing the best about the Viking Age, Old Norse, and the Atlantic and Northern European regions. Jules William Press was founded in 2013 to address the needs of modern students, teachers, and self-learners for accessible and affordable Old Norse texts. JWP began by publishing our Viking Language Series, which provides a modern course in Old Norse, with exercises and grammar that anyone can understand. This spirit motivates all of our publications, as we expand our catalogue to include Viking archaeology and history, as well as Scandinavian historical fiction and our Saga Series.

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