This 73 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.
Icelandic law assumed that a freedman (leysingi) might have difficulty earning his living. Grágás specifies that if a freedman could not maintain himself and did not have a son or daughter to look after him, then his manumitter was required to support him.[i] The manumitter was compensated by becoming the legal heir if his freedman died childless. Freedmen (leysingjar) were in this respect a single generation of former slaves who were not completely free from their manumitters. They remained united to manumitters by bonds of quasi-kinship, remaining dependent on them as minor children were on their fathers.[ii]
Ulfar has done well for himself; far from having difficulty earning his living, he has accumulated enough wealth to arouse the greed of those around him. Because he has presumably never looked for support to his manumitters, the Thorbrandssons, he may well think that he owes them nothing, that his self-earned property is his to dispose of as he pleases, without recognizing their claims. The Thorbrandssons, on the other hand, are within the letter of the law in considering themselves heirs of the childless Ulfar, even if they never maintained him in his lifetime.
[i] Grágás 1852b: 17 (Ch. 134); 1879: 126 (Ch. 93).
[ii] Hastrup 1985: 116.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland