Viking Age Iceland: Ulfar’s Demise

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

This is 79 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 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.

Ulfar does not enjoy for long the use of Orlyg’s property, for old Thorolf Lamefoot is still plotting. While riding home alone from Arnkel’s customary autumn feast, Ulfar is ambushed and killed by a man sent by Thorolf. By chance, Arnkel is standing outside his house and sees the killer running across a field. Now, though his protection has proved ineffectual in keeping Ulfar alive, he acts quickly in his own interest. Sending some of his followers to kill the runner,[1] he immediately rides to Ulfar’s farmstead where he claims that, as Ulfar’s protector, he should inherit the property.

Meanwhile, Thorbrand’s sons, having learned of Ulfar’s death, set out to claim the property of their freedman for themselves. When they reach the farmstead they find Arnkel, supported by a following, already there. Arnkel, denying the precedence of their claim (tilkall), supports his own by bringing forward witnesses who were present when Ulfar assigned his property to Arnkel by handsal. Displaying an intense interest in legal maneuverings, the saga-teller has Arnkel declare that “he would hold firm to his right to the property since the original agreement had not been challenged at law. Arnkel warned them [Thorbrand’s sons] not to encumber the property with a legal claim because he intended to hold on to it as though it were his patrimony.” Again Arnkel is the master of the situation, both legally and physically.[i]

Outmaneuvered and overpowered, the sons of Thorbrand leave the farmstead and once again seek the help of their chieftain, Snorri. As before, Snorri refuses to support his thingmen. He does, however, point out to the Thorbrandssons that, although Arnkel has established a legal claim to the lands and has taken possession of the chattels, the property lies equidistant between them and in the end “will fall to the stronger.” Snorri reminds his foster brothers that they “will have to put up with the situation as others do since Arnkel now stands above all men’s rights here in the district. And that will continue as long as he lives, whether it is longer or shorter” (Chapter 32). In this way, Snorri incites his followers to violence.

[i] The laws apparently imposed a time limit on challenges to the transfer of inheritance rights, although the exact provisions are unclear. See Grágás 1852a: 249 (Ch. 127).

[1] To kill so quickly a man whom he only suspects to be an assassin is curious. Few details would need to be changed in the story to implicate Arnkel in the killing of Ulfar. Certainly, Ulfar’s death was to Arnkel’s advantage. The few sentences toward the end of Chapter 37 eulogizing Arnkel may be a later interpolation.

— 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.