Viking Age Iceland: Ulfar Claims Orlyg’s Land

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

This 78 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 becoming Ulfar’s guardian, Arnkel had acquired control of a property at the expense of the sons of Thorbrand. The transaction brings still other advantages to Arnkel. Not only is Ulfar a childless landowner, but his brother Orlyg also has no children. When Orlyg dies, Ulfar, backed up by Arnkel, claims that he is his brother’s heir and takes possession of all of Orlyg’s property, including his farm Örlygsstaðir. In doing so he is once again openly thwarting Thorbrand’s sons, who had expected to inherit because Orlyg, like Ulfar, was their father’s freed slave.

Although Ulfar’s and Orlyg’s farms are both small, together they make up a substantial portion of the usable land within the fjord. Furthermore, Örlygsstaðir borders on Kársstaðir, the farm of the Thorbrandssons. By acquiring control first of Úlfarsfell and then of Örlygsstaðir, Arnkel has extended his property to the borders of Kársstaðir. The question of what he intends to do next makes the situation dangerous for the sons of Thorbrand. Their confrontation with Arnkel over Orlyg’s property (Chapter 32) clearly shows that the owners of Kársstaðir feel cheated:  

And when Orlyg died, Ulfar sent immediately for Arnkel, who came quickly to Örlygsstaðir. Together Ulfar and Arnkel took into their possession all of Orlyg’s property. When the Thorbrandssons learned of the death of Orlyg they went to Örlygsstaðir and laid claim to all the property there. They declared that whatever their freedman had owned was their property. Ulfar, however, said that he held the right to his brother’s inheritance. The sons of Thorbrand asked Arnkel what he intended to do. Arnkel replied that if he had a say in the matter Ulfar would not be robbed by any man as long as they were partners. Then the sons of Thorbrand left and went immediately out to Helgafell [Snorri goði’s farmstead].  

As noted earlier, Grágás clearly stipulates that the manumitter is the rightful heir of a childless freedman. (Again the sons of the manumitter, Thorbrand, are concerned with protecting their inheritance.) As the law, to our knowledge, does not allow a brother’s claim in such a situation, Arnkel is acting illegally in asserting his right to Orlyg’s property. Although the law explicitly upholds the sons of Thorbrand as Orlyg’s heirs, Arnkel through his previous experience knows that they will not act without the backing of their chieftain Snorri.

By taking the property Arnkel is humiliating Snorri; he seems convinced that Snorri will back down in the face of an open challenge, and that is exactly what happens. When the sons of Thorbrand go to Helgafell to seek Snorri’s aid, the chieftain again refuses to support his thingmen and foster-brothers. He even manages to blame them for the dispute, stating that he “would not quarrel over this issue with Arnkel because they [the Thorbrandssons] had been so careless as to let Arnkel and Ulfar arrive at the property first and take it into their possession.” Without the support of their goði, Thorbrand’s sons again find themselves outmanoeuvred. As in the earlier exchange with Arnkel over Ulfar’s property, they back down and do not openly contest their neighbour’s seizure of their inheritance. Snorri, however, cannot fail to understand the threat made by his foster-brothers when they remark, as they leave Helgafell, that their chieftain “would not long retain his authority if he did not concern himself with a matter such as this.”

— 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.

%d bloggers like this: