This 75 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 sons of Thorbrand choose not to act alone, even legally. Theoretically they could have summoned Arnkel either to the local thing or to the Althing. The reality of Icelandic legal procedures, however, did not support freemen challenging a chieftain alone, i.e., without the support of other chieftains. Court cases often depended on bold posturing and displays of manpower. Without a following of thingmen, these bœndr would stand little chance against Arnkel goði and his thingmen. The saga does not suggest that Thorbrand’s sons even consider taking independent court action. Instead, they turn to Snorri goði.
Snorri, apparently seeing little opportunity for self-aggrandizement in taking on a case against Arnkel, refuses to support the Thorbrandssons. Snorri was an astute power-broker who was revered as an ancestor by many of the prominent people of the thirteenth century, including the Sturlungs. As the present example reveals, Snorri’s reputation was based on shrewdness rather than on physical prowess. In view of Arnkel’s clear intention to push his claim, a confrontation at the courts on behalf of Thorbrand’s sons would be dangerous for Snorri. On the other hand, what has Snorri to gain by supporting his foster-brothers? If Arnkel wins the case, he keeps the rights to the land. But if Snorri wins, he would be expected to turn the rights over to the Thorbrandssons. If Snorri exacts from them a price commensurate with the risks involved, such as Ulfar’s property, he would himself arouse the hostility of these potentially dangerous men. Snorri, who is not a rash man, chooses not to put himself in a precarious position. Snorri’s refusal to support his thingmen makes them legally impotent. Even though they are powerful and well-born farmers with clearly established rights, they are helpless without an advocate.
Theoretically, Ulfar might have turned to Snorri goði for assistance, but that option is not realistic. Snorri, who lives at a distance out on Thórsnes, could not effectively aid Ulfar if Arnkel or Thorolf should harass him. Furthermore, an agreement with Ulfar would probably be counter-productive for Snorri. By accepting what Ulfar has to offer (assignment of his land) in return for protection, Snorri would probably anger the sons of Thorbrand. Such action might even force them to unite with Arnkel against Ulfar. Given the choices, Arnkel is really the only suitable advocate for Ulfar, though it is questionable what advantage Arnkel would have in seeing Ulfar enjoy a long life.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland