Viking Age Iceland: Limitations on a Chieftain’s Ambitions and Strategies of Feud and Law: Eyrbyggja saga

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

This 69 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.

“Don’t think that I will hesitate to swing this axe at Arnkel once you are ready.”

Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 37[IS1] 

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Old Sicilian adage

In exacting payment for his services, a goði was subject to restraints. Such limitations are particularly evident in a feud related in Eyrbyggja saga (The Saga of the People of Eyri) between two strong chieftains whose contest over power and land polarized the local community. The prospect of arousing the vengefulness of local farmers often frustrated the ambitions of a chieftain. In Eyrbyggja saga, Arnkel goði chooses to ignore this risk. In return for his services he acquires through a contractual agreement called handsal (“handsale”, referring to a witnessed slap or shake of hands at the conclusion of an agreement) the rights to properties to which he had no prior claim. By this action, involving arfskot (cheating of heirs, or transferring land without the heirs’ consent), Arnkel arouses the animosity of neighbouring farmers who are willing to fight to maintain their claims to the lands. The story of Arnkel marks the limits that a chieftain, greedy for wealth, exceeded at peril of his life. Set within the context of a long-standing rivalry between Snorri goði and Arnkel goði, the events that develop from the machinations of a bóndi named Thorolf Lamefoot form a narrative unit (Chapters 30-4) with ramifications immediately following (Chapters 35-8).[i] The story frequently turns on actions that stem from greed, fear, ambition or downright meanness, as it describes coldhearted bargaining between farmers and chieftains[ii][IS2] . Timing, that is the knowledge of when to take vengeance, is crucial.

[i] Further ramifications are described in Chapter 63, when Thorolf returns from the grave to take vengeance on Thorodd, one of the sons of Thorbrand (Vésteinn Ólason 1971: 11; see also Byock 1982: 131-3).

[ii] Sections of this chapter appeared in Byock 1988.

— 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.