This 72 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 conflict, which hitherto has been a neighbourly squabble over hay, becomes more serious. Thorolf, though taking no immediate action, continues to brood over the wrong done to him. At his Yule feast he serves his slaves strong drink and incites them to burn Ulfar in his house, but the plot fails when Arnkel sees the fire and puts it out. The next day Arnkel has Thorolf’s slaves led to a promontory and hanged.
Frightened by the attempt on his life, Ulfar places himself under the protection of his chieftain Arnkel (Chapter 31)[IS1] : “After that [the attempted murder and the hanging of the slaves], Ulfar transferred to Arnkel by handsal agreement all his property, and Arnkel became his guardian [varnaðarmaðr].” Arnkel’s acceptance of the burden of guardianship is not gratuitous. In return for Arnkel’s protection, Ulfar assigns all his wealth (fé sitt allt)[i] to the chieftain in a formal agreement (handsal) which we later learn was duly witnessed. With one variation, the transaction between Ulfar and Arnkel is, according to the law books, an example of arfsal, cession of the right of inheritance. Arfsal, a binding agreement, differs from arfskot, fraud or cheating in matters of inheritance.[ii] In arfsal, one of the two parties agrees to take the other into his household and care for him in return for an assignment of inheritance rights. The variation in this instance is that Ulfar continues to live on the property he is relinquishing instead of moving to Arnkel’s farm.
The handsal between Ulfar and Arnkel especially affects a group of neighbouring farmers, the six sons of Thorbrand, who are the foster-brothers of Arnkel’s rival Snorri goði. Ulfar had been freed by Thorbrand, who is now an old man and whose sons have taken over his property and rights. Thorbrand’s sons feel they have been cheated by Arnkel’s transaction with Ulfar: “The Thorbrandssons did not like this handsal because they had thought themselves owners of Ulfar’s wealth, as he was their freedman.” In accordance with the laws on arfsal, those who originally stood to inherit [IS2] may nullify a transaction if they are not in agreement with the assignment. In the instance of a freedman without children, Grágás, the record of Iceland´s early laws, is very precise: the manumitter (frjálsgjafi) is the heir.[iii] If a freedman such as Ulfar signs away the rights of his manumitter, he can be accused of arfskot, according to Grágás.[iv]
[i] Fé in this instance has the legal meaning of both land and chattels, as in Grágás 1852a: 15 (Ch. 4): “þar er maðr leggr fe til kirkio. hvartz þat er i londom eða bv fe. eða lausom avrom …” See also Grágás 1879: 17 (Ch. 13); 1883: 15 (Skálholtsbók, Ch. 5).
[ii] Grágás 1852a: 247-9 (Ch. 127).
[iii] Grágás 1852a: 227 (Ch. 119); 1879: 72 (Ch. 60). An apparent exception occurs when the manumitter is himself the freedman’s slayer. See Lúðvík Ingvarsson 1970: 316; Grágás 1852a: 172 (Ch. 96).
[iv] Grágás 1852a: 247 (Ch. 127); 1879: 85 (Ch. 66).
[IS2]MS had “land” after it.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland