Viking Age Iceland: Ulfar’s Fall

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

This is 80 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.

Snorri’s prediction that the lands will fall to the stronger party is an accurate assessment, for in the end Arnkel does not realize his ambitions. Yet before he meets a violent death at the hands of Snorri and the Thorbrandssons (Chapter 37), he gains control of almost all of Álptafjord. After Thorolf Lamefoot dies (Chapter 33), Arnkel acquires his father’s farm at Hvammr (4 on Maps 11 and 12). This acquisition further reduces the Thorbrandssons’ freedom of movement. Both sides of the ridge between Úlfarsfell and Hvammr, site of the meadow where Ulfar and Thorolf first came into conflict, are now controlled by Arnkel, hemming in the sons of Thorbrand whose property is the only one in the fjord still outside Arnkel’s control (see Map 12).

In considering their position the sons of Thorbrand may have been aware of stories recounting the limitations of independent action by bœndr when asserting their rights. One particular example they surely were aware of was the tragedy of Snorri goði’s uncle Gisli Sursson, as told in Gísla saga Súrssonar. Gisli, a bóndi, becomes embroiled in a personal dispute with Snorri’s father Thorgrim – who also happens to be Gisli’s own chieftain, neighbour, and brother-in-law. Gisli, physically a match for his opponent, attacks and kills Thorgrim. [IS3] Legally Gisli is in no position to survive the consequences of his act. By killing the chieftain with whom he has been allied, he has at one stroke removed the most logical person to whom he could turn. Gisli’s action has further consequences. It signals to people with political clout that he is both untrustworthy and unsuccessful at feuding. Rather than exercising self-control, and coolly waiting for the proper moment to take his vengeance, Gisli’s passions become enflamed. In his need to respond to his exaggerated concept of honour, he acts too quickly.

As Gisli finds out, no matter how honourably motivated his action, there is little willingness by others to defend him or to seek a settlement for him in the courts. The disaffected include the members of Gisli’s close family, who give him very little support. His sister becomes a determined enemy and his brother is angered because of Gisli’s violent act. In killing a chieftain to whom he is related by marriage, Gisli has lowered his relatives’ status and undermined their political strength. The brother of the chieftain whom Gisli has killed, after assuming the vacant goðorð, quietly and determinedly seeks vengeance against Gisli. Gisli is virtually powerless in the court system against the force of a chieftain supported by his followers at the thing, and he is declared a full outlaw.

 [IS3]Changed to incorporate the fact, omitted in VAI 2001 and MS, that the guy Gisli kills is Snorri goði‘s dad, and so this story must have been very well-known in the camp of Snorri’s thingmen, such as Thorbrandssons (Gisli’s story was indeed a cause celebre in Iceland, as decades later even a completely unrelated person from Southern Quarter, Njal’s son Skarphedin, knew it).

— 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.