Viking Age Iceland: Establishing Governing Principles

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

This 63 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 particular, legal differences disrupted the solidarity of the extended families that had migrated to Iceland but whose members had settled in different parts of the country.[i] The problems could probably have been tolerated had not the idea of some form of unified country-wide structure appealed to the self-interest of the colonists. The initiative for establishing the Althing, the national assembly, seems to have come from a large and powerful kin group which traced its ancestry to an early ninth-century Norwegian hersir (warlord) named Bjorn buna. Years ago, the Icelandic scholar Sigurður Nordal developed the idea that kinship with Bjorn buna was the basis for selecting those who were first chosen to be chieftains, and the concept is still intriguing.[ii] The children of all Bjorn’s sons, among them the matriarch Unn the Deep-Minded, came to Iceland. One problem is that the sources about Bjorn and his descendants may be somewhat skewed. For instance, Ari the Learned, the chieftain, Christian priest and historian who wrote The Book of the Icelanders may have been one of Bjorn’s many descendants.

The actual events that lay behind the founding of the Icelandic government are not recorded and can only be surmised. According to Ari in The Book of the Icelanders, a man named Ulfljot was sent to Norway, probably in the 920s, to adapt the West Norwegian law of the Gula Assembly (Gulathing) to Icelandic exigencies. With good reason some scholars, especially the legal historian Sigurður Líndal, doubt the authenticity of Ari’s story and question the existence of Thorleif the Wise (an important figure in Ari’s account) and the age of the Gulathing.[iii] They suggest that the Gulathing and its law, rather than being ancient tradition, came into existence after the establishment of the Althing in Iceland.

Even Ari’s intent in telling the story raises questions. Because of his own political and family ties, Ari may well have exaggerated in his writings the importance of Norwegian influence, masking the influence of other Scandinavians and Celtic immigrants. Concerning the latter there are place names, especially in the western quarter, such as Brjánslækr (Brian’s Stream) and Patreksfjord (Patrick’s Fjord). If Ulfljot did, as Ari says, undertake his trip back to Norway, his task was probably to seek clarification on certain matters about which the Icelanders, in fashioning their own laws, were unsure, rather than to bring back an entire legal code. Most importantly, the laws of the Gulathing and the Free State’s Grágás show few consistent similarities. Jakob Benediktsson sums up the dissimilarity between them: “Norwegian legal traditions applied only to a limited extent to the society that was being created in Iceland. In many areas establishing new constitutional arrangements and new legal procedures was unavoidable. The innovations were then little by little hallowed by custom.”[iv]

[i] Family grouping was traditionally an important concept in Norse society and, in the Grágás law books kinship is reckoned out to the fifth degree, to the thriðjabrœði, or fourth cousin. Grágás 1852a: 173-4 (Ch. 97), 194 (Ch. 113); 1852b: 25-6 (Ch. 143); 1879: 75 (Ch. 61), 113 (Ch. 87), 341 (Ch. 300); 1883: 450.

[ii] Nordal 1942: 111-19; see also Sørensen 1977: 19-20.

[iii] Líndal 1969: 5-26.

[iv] Jakob Benediktsson 1974a: 171. See also Grágás 1980: 8-10.

— 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.

%d bloggers like this: