This 52 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 situation was unusually dangerous because Haflidi, having been betrayed, was intransigent. Seeking vengeance, he steadfastly refused to engage in reasonable negotiations. Normally third parties would have intervened to arbitrate a compromise solution, but the two weeks of the Althing slipped by without intervention by “men of good will” (góðviljamenn) and a major clash became more likely. At this juncture (Chapter 28) Ketil Thorsteinsson, who was not involved in the feud, comes forward. He tells Haflidi about an experience of his own which concerned issues of honour, prestige and the call for blood-taking:
“It seems a great pity to your friends if a settlement is not reached and this case is not brought to a good end. Yet many think it is hopeless now, or nearly so. I know of no advice to give you, but I have a parable to tell you.
“We grew up in Eyjafjord, and it was said that we were promising. I made what was thought to be the best possible match – with Groa, the daughter of Bishop Gizur. But it was said that she was unfaithful to me.
“I thought it hard that there was such talk. Trials were held and they went well. But nevertheless the persistent tales were offensive to me, and for this reason I grew very hostile toward the other man [his wife’s seducer]. One time when we met each other in passing, I attacked him. But he ducked under the blow and I found myself under [IS1] him. Then he drew his knife and stabbed me in the eye so that I lost my sight in that eye. Then he, Gudmund Grimsson, let me get up, and it seemed to me there was something wrong about this. I had twice his strength, and so I thought we would compare similarly in other things.
“I fiercely wanted to avenge his wounding me with the strength of my kinsmen and to have him outlawed. We prepared our case. But some powerful men offered to support him, and therefore my suit came to nothing. It may now also happen that men come forward to support Thorgils, even though your case is more just.
“When my case had reached this point, they [Gudmund’s party] offered to pay a fine in settlement. I thought about what I had had to endure and how heavily it had all weighed on me, and I refused the offer… And I found, when thinking about my honour, that no offers could have been paid which would have sated my honour.”
Ketil, helped by his religious nature (with Haflidi’s backing, he later became a bishop), came to realize that his demand for absolute justice was not reasonable and settled the dispute. The point of Ketil’s tale is well made, for shortly thereafter Haflidi submits his case to reasonable arbitration, and a settlement is arranged which both men then honour. This adherence to rules, which made it honourable to address order more than justice, was inherited from Scandinavian legal tradition and underlies Njal’s famous statement in his saga, when feuding parties would no longer play by the rules: “Our land must be built with law or laid waste with lawlessness.”
[IS1]MS had “underneath”
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland