Viking Age Iceland: Handsal

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

This 74 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.

By promising protection to a farmer in need of support, Arnkel has, through the legality of handsal, taken possession of a valuable piece of property. In establishing a claim to the land by means of Ulfar’s arfsal, Arnkel has ignored the inheritance rights held by the well-born sons of Thorbrand. Nevertheless, he is still manoeuvring within legal limits. Ulfar, for his part, is considered to have committed arfskot and is stirring up animosity in the district by selecting Arnkel as his protector. Yet few other viable options are available to him. Consider Ulfar’s position. His most direct procedure would be to attack and kill Thorolf, but he wisely refrains from choosing a solution that would be foolhardy for a simple farmer (a freedman) whose opponent is kin to a chieftain. By killing Thorolf, Ulfar would force Arnkel to seek redress, perhaps even blood vengeance. Possibly Ulfar fears that he would be injured in a confrontation with the tough old Viking. Another choice open to Ulfar is to seek protection from the sons of Thorbrand, who are his legal heirs. As powerful warriors they would be dangerous enemies to any opponent. Because they do not possess a goðorð, however, they cannot exercise the full power of the law in Ulfar’s favour. Further, their chieftain lives much farther away from Ulfar than does Arnkel, whose land is no more than a long arrow-shot away.

The Thorbrandssons also have options. They can attack Arnkel with the intention of killing him. Although in the end the Thorbrandssons do just that, at this stage they are not willing to go that far. As Arnkel is a skilful opponent and a powerful chieftain, these farmers choose to handle the dispute through the proper legal channels. Their next move is to seek the advocacy of their goði. Ulfar’s, and initially the Thorbrandssons’, rejection of a violent solution is similar to farmers’ restraint in similar situations in other family and Sturlunga sagas; under duress, farmers consciously avoid initiating action against their chieftains. As the goðar guard the privilege of their official position, so, too, the bœndr keep their conduct within the limits imposed by that position.

— 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.