Viking Age Iceland: Thórsnes Thing

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

This 77 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 positions of the two men are clear. Neither likes the other, and Snorri, who is in complete control of the situation, sees no reason even to be civil to the father of his rival. If Thorolf wants Snorri to use his power, he will have to appeal to an interest other than the chieftain’s sense of duty. Thorolf, aware that something more is required, offers to give Snorri some of the compensation for the slaves if Snorri will take the case. Snorri flatly refuses his support, saying that he will not interject himself into the dispute between father and son.

Thorolf then realizes that if he wants to uphold his rights he will have to offer Snorri something of real value. And Thorolf does indeed possess a worthwhile bargaining unit, a property in Álptafjord called Krákunes, on which stands a valuable forest. He offers to transfer this property, “the greatest treasure in the region,” to Snorri by a formal handsal agreement if Snorri will prosecute Arnkel. With all the power of understatement the saga author lets us know that Snorri feels a “great need” to possess the forest. So in return for taking on the case of Thorolf’s loss of his slaves, Snorri accepts a handsal of the land.

At the local spring assembly, the Thórsnes Thing, Snorri brings the case against Arnkel for the killing of the two slaves. When the two chieftains arrive at the thing, each has a large following. After the accusation has been made before the court, Arnkel calls witnesses to prove that he caught the slaves in the act of burning a farmstead. Snorri replies that Arnkel could have killed the slaves with impunity if he had done so at the scene of the burning. Grágás supports Snorri’s contention, specifying that men may be struck down as being outside the law when caught in the act of setting a fire (með ellde tecnom til breno).[i] According to Snorri, Arnkel forfeited his right to kill the slaves when he did not act immediately but later had them taken to a promontory to be executed. Therefore, Snorri claims, Arnkel has failed to observe the law and thus is unable to use it in his own defence.

After a discussion of legal points, the arbitration process begins. Men come forward offering to help in the resolution of the dispute. Two brothers, who have connections with the opposing parties, are chosen to arbitrate, and they arrange a settlement. Arnkel pays a modest sum to Snorri, who in turn passes the pouch to Thorolf; Snorri has already been paid in land. But Thorolf, who expended so much energy in bringing about this confrontation between Arnkel and Snorri, feels cheated: “I did not expect, when I gave you my land, that you would pursue this case in so petty a manner, and I know that Arnkel would not have denied me such compensation for my slaves if I had left it up to him.” Apparently it does not occur to him that Snorri is less concerned with discrediting Arnkel and getting a large sum for the slaves than in winning his legal point in order to keep Krákunes.

The forest acquired by Snorri carries a price beyond the aid promised to Thorolf. As the saga makes clear, Arnkel believes that Snorri has unlawfully acquired title to the Krákunes woods. Arnkel’s view is that his father Thorolf “committed arfskot when he transferred the forest to Snorri goði.” Here Arnkel seems to be in the right: Thorolf’s transfer of the forest to Snorri is an instance of arfskot in that the title was conveyed without the prior agreement of Arnkel, Thorolf’s rightful heir. According to Grágás,[i] Arnkel, as the heir, has the right to bring an action to remove the testator, in this case Thorolf, from control of the property. Arnkel, however, has little to gain from such an action, as Thorolf is no longer in control of the forest and as he himself will inherit his father’s other property. Arnkel therefore waits until he thinks the time is ripe; then he rides over to Krákunes and kills a man named Hauk, one of Snorri’s freeborn followers, who is transporting wood from the forest to Helgafell. By killing Hauk, Arnkel is openly claiming that Snorri has no right to take wood from Krákunes. At the same time he is asserting his own control over the forest.

[i]Grágás 1852a: 247 (Ch. 127); 1879: 84 (Ch. 66).

[i]Grágás 1852a: 185 (Ch. 109).

— 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.

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