Viking Age Iceland: The End of Arnkel’s Ambitions

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

This is 81 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 story of the conflicting claims in Álptafjord reveals the profits accruing to an ambitious leader, such as Arnkel, as well as the dangers and the choices he faces. Arnkel repeatedly manipulates the law to gain possession of new and valuable properties while abusing the rights of freeborn farmers. However, he miscalculates. The sons of Thorbrand can be cheated, but they cannot be ignored. Snorri, no rash opponent, is well aware of the dangers that he faces. He has been biding his time, waiting for the proper moment for revenge. What Snorri needs is determined allies to face Arnkel, and he knows it. Perhaps not by chance, the moment to secure these allies comes at his own autumn feast, when he allows himself to be shamed into supporting his thingmen. It is a negotiation, a contract freely entered into [IS1] between goði and bœndr. Both sides get what they want, with Snorri agreeing finally to take part in an attack on Arnkel. In response to their taunts, Snorri gives one of them an axe, remarking that it would be a suitable weapon with which to kill Arnkel. The farmer Thorleif kimbi, who is equally hard-nosed, replies: “Don’t think that I will hesitate to swing this axe at Arnkel once you are ready.”

Once they are assured of a chieftain’s backing, the sons of Thorbrand become a serious threat to Arnkel. Events move quickly. Snorri and Thorbrand’s sons await the right opportunity. One night they learn that Arnkel has gone alone with only a few slaves to tend to the hay on his newly acquired lands. At a distance from his men at Bólstaðr, Arnkel is an easy target. Although he defends himself courageously, the sons of Thorbrand, with Snorri in command, kill him.

Details of the ensuing court case are sketchy, but the outcome is clearly a success for Snorri. The only sentence of outlawry – banishment for three winters – for the killing of Arnkel falls on Thorleif kimbi, one of Thorbrand’s sons who had publicly taken responsibility for administering the death blow. As to the lands, the saga later tells that Bólstaðr, Arnkel’s farm, is deserted while Örlygsstaðir and Úlfarsfell return to the possession of Thorbrand’s sons.

For all his local wealth and power, Arnkel seems not to have made many friends among his fellow chieftains. Nor had he created a successful system of family or political alliances, and no competent advocate steps forward to prosecute his killers. Perhaps what is not said but understood is that Snorri, a master politician in other tales such as Njal’s Saga and Laxdæla saga, was not sitting idle during the time that he was suffering abuse from Arnkel. Instead, he was quietly gathering assurances from other goðar that when the moment came, he and his followers would not be attacked in the courts for the killing.

Left on their own, Arnkel’s female heirs take over the responsibility of bringing a court case, but they lack the power to pursue the suit successfully. According to the laconic description in Eyrbyggja saga, the result of the suit is “not as honourable as one might have expected for so important a leader as Arnkel. The leading men of the country then made it law that never afterwards should a woman or a youth less than sixteen winters be the chief prosecutor in a case of manslaughter; and this law has held ever since.”[1]

In its story of Arnkel, Eyrbyggja saga shows a system of order in which the ambitions of a chieftain could be frustrated by bœndr who know how to assert their rights. In order to maintain these rights, freemen needed to know the law and their rights and had to be prepared to choose between options, including compromise and violence. Farmers kept chieftains from gaining the upper hand through extralegal mechanisms. These mechanisms, which protected the freemen’s rights, operated only when freemen could establish consensus among themselves to oppose the unreasonable demands of a chieftain. Eyrbyggja saga shows bœndr entrusting their goðar with power and threatening to withdraw that support when the agreement was no longer beneficial to them.

[1] This passage agrees with entries in Grágás 1852a: 167-9 (C. 94); 1879: 334-6 (Ch. 297).

 [IS1]MS had “negotiation, resulting in a freely entered contract” instead.

— 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.