This 76 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.
Financial considerations again enter into the continuing legal process when a bargain is struck between Thorolf Lamefoot and Snorri goði. Once more, a farmer requests the support of a chieftain in return for a specific payment. As the details are different from Ulfar’s transfer of his land to Arnkel, however, the situations of Ulfar and Thorolf present a notable contrast. Ulfar is a freedman who desperately needs protection; Thorolf is a well-born man under no physical duress. Thorolf’s intention is to exercise his rights in order to obtain personal revenge against Arnkel. He is prepared to go to Snorri and to contract for the support of his son’s chief enemy, a man with whom he has no ties of friendship or kinship. Presented in unusually sharp detail, the scenes are tightly narrated examples of how a clever leader bargains with a determined bóndi and gains land in return for his advocacy.
Thorolf is especially irked by Arnkel’s refusal to pay compensation for the hanging of his slaves after the failed attempt to burn Ulfar to death. According to two complicated entries in Grágás,[i] Thorolf’s claim for compensation is probably justified. A master whose slaves have been killed has the right to demand that the issue be settled in court. Here is another example of a bóndi who knows his legal rights but lacks the strength to uphold them. Thorolf needs an advocate.
Determined to seek vengeance, Thorolf swallows his pride and solicits support from the other local broker, Snorri goði. As the meeting begins, the goði offers food to his unexpected guest, but Thorolf refuses it, saying that he has “no need to eat his host’s food.” Thorolf informs Snorri that, as a major leader in the district (héraðshöfðingi), the chieftain is obligated to support those who have suffered injury. The appeal to Snorri’s sense of justice or duty is a waste of time. When he hears that Thorolf wants to prosecute his own son, Arnkel, Snorri viciously humbles the old man. Reminding Thorolf of his family ties, Snorri declares that Arnkel is a better man than his father.
[i] Grágás 1852a: 190-91 (Ch. 111); 1879: 395-7 (Ch. 379).
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland