This 51 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.
As an effective way to diminish the damages of feuding, a revised form of conflict management evolved. Feud in Iceland was more a public than a private matter. As such it was discussed at the assemblies and directed to the law courts. This public trajectory assisted peacemaking regardless of whether arbitrations and settlements were made in or out of court. Iceland’s overseas Norse community was culturally split between the military values of the mother country and the more peaceful realities of the new land. When involved in disputes, Icelanders postured in the manner of Viking Age warriors, yet the threatening and the posturing described in the sagas led only to mild battles. “Warfare,” to use the anthropological term for small-scale feuding and socially structured violence, occurred mostly at the individual or the family level. Even when several hundred farmers assembled, there were very few deaths. As seen from the sometimes exaggerated crisis situations in the sagas, small groups might be sufficiently motivated to kill a few of their opponents, but larger groups found solutions, avoiding large-scale fighting. As a society Icelanders consistently acted with restraint. They learned to ritualize and even to limit the use of force. Only at the very end of the Free State did the endemic feuding reach the level of open warfare, and even then random violence was sporadic.
The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi (Thorgils saga ok Hafliða) recounts an episode of feud, restraint and compromise. Two powerful chieftains were at loggerheads, and a mediator, a man with clerical ambitions, intervened. Set in the early twelfth century, the saga, which is found in the Sturlunga compilation, tells the story of two powerful chieftains, Thorgils Oddason and Haflidi Masson. Other men frequently tried to arbitrate the dispute between these goðar. Both leaders went to the Althing of 1121, Haflidi with 1,440 men and Thorgils with 940. Earlier, when the two men had discussed a settlement at the Althing, Thorgils, defying attempts to reach a settlement, had viciously attacked and maimed Haflidi.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland