This 53 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.
Rather than a socially destructive force to be controlled by sheriffs, bailiffs and royal agents, as in many contemporaneous European societies, feud in Iceland became a formalized and culturally stabilizing element. Respected men served as negotiators, and feuding became the major vehicle for channeling violence into the moderating arenas of the courts and into the hands of informal arbitrators, where public pressure was applied. In Iceland’s single “great village” environment goðar found honour in containing disruptive behaviour. Leaders gained prestige and standing by publicly playing the role of men of moderation (hófsmenn) and goodwill (góðviljamenn). Churchmen acted as advocates, and small farmers and even free labourers participated in the settlement process, acquiring status and prestige by serving as jurors (kviðir). The law courts had no judges in the modern sense directing the jury. Instead some farmers, usually twelve, would be called to say what they thought were the facts, and in that way give evidence. Another panel of jurors would act as judges, deciding the outcome of a case by agreement among themselves.
The feuding process and the complex social and legal mechanisms that evolved to contain it were characteristic features of Iceland’s medieval culture. In the absence of institutionalized chains of command, feuding took over the burden of adjusting status, wealth, and power. Although this system, with its intricate court procedures and its emphasis on resolution by compromise, did not always work smoothly, it did provide manageable solutions in disruptive situations.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland