Friday, September 27, 2013

GOOOOAAAADDDD!!!!: The hows and whys of Icelandic women circumventing the legal system



Greetings, History Fans! I wanted to take a quick timeout from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland to talk about women! Hell yeah! I fully intend on posting a more in-depth review of his book once I get all the way through it, but the idea of women during the Viking period has always been something that peaked my interest. So we are going to take a quick break from the overall picture to look at the women in Iceland, how the law restricted them, and how they found a way around the law to meet their needs.

A large portion of Byock’s book deals with the question of whether or not sagas should be used as an historical reference. The stories are not completely factual. However, Byock points out that the seemingly mundane details within the stories give us a really great vantage point into what life was like during the early period of Viking Age Iceland.  Now, it is also important to remember that the sagas deal with the dramatic. So the portraits of characters, particularly women, are not altogether flattering. Of course the authors aren’t going to write a nice saga about a wife who treated her husband very well and had a normal boring life. That could very well have been the majority of the cases for women. Think about this: when our country gets blown to smithereens and all that’s left to explain our culture are the Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver, later cultures are going to be scratching their heads for sure!

Icelandic society provided some opportunities for women. They were allowed to own land, and some, including Aud the Deep Minded, became wealthy and powerful landowners. A woman could even inherit a chieftaincy, but she could not become the chieftain. She would have to find a man to fulfill the role of a chieftain. And while women could not hold the role of chieftain or an advocate in the official sense, they could, with their influence of raised status, become unofficial advocates. A woman like Aud the Deep Minded could hand out terrific advice but could not do it officially within the legal system.

While women were allowed to attend the things, even the Althing, they were not allowed to take part in the courts or really speak at all. Up unto this point, women could virtually live alongside men and still take part in a social life, or whatever social life there could be on an isolated farmstead. But the courts were where it was at! It’s like all the blonde bimbos were invited to the local high school sock hop, but not allowed to dance! Iceland was built around the legal system that existed not just to protect a person’s rights, but more accurately and more importantly, it existed so that a person could exercise his rights. It was more of an offensive weapon than a defensive.

So you can see what kind of position this would put a woman in. She could enjoy many of the same rights as men, but had no way in which to enforce them. Since the legal system allowed for only men to flex their muscles, a woman had little choice but to try and get their husbands, fathers, sons, and kinsmen to flex their muscles for her. It is this point that the authors of the sagas drive home, and we see the conniving and manipulative women who lean on the best weapon they had in order to get their way: goading.

Now some of you might be saying, “Now, Zack, all women goad!” And I’d say that’s sexist! Plus, you’re thinking of nagging. And yes, all women nag. But the women of Iceland would goad their kinsmen into action. They were extremely cunning and impossibly patient, often waiting years before taking action. To understand this method of persuasion and of action, two questions must be addressed. First, what action was so important that a woman had to keep bothering her husband or relatives to perform? And second, why was it so difficult for her to persuade them?

Without diving deep into family relations in Medieval Iceland, it is difficult to understand how a family unit functioned. When a man and a woman got married, their alliances were bilateral, which meant that the new couple stayed connected to both sides of the family. This could lead to rough situations in which extended family members that supported different chieftains could end up on opposite sides of a feud. These feuds could erupt from small infractions, like someone grazing on another farmer’s property, or stealing cattle. But one of the main causes of conflict was the murder of a relative.

In Iceland, as in many places around the medieval world, the killing of a relative called for vengeance. In the Viking world, blood vengeance was an obligation. In Iceland, however, it was an option. A man had a right to, within the confines of the law, demand compensation for the killing of his kinsmen, or, if no middle ground could be sought, he could kill a member of the accused’s family. You see how these blood feuds could really get going! But imagine this: what if a woman’s nephew or son is killed, and her husband settles for compensation, or a payment. Or, what if her father or brother was killed, and her husband, who was not that close to that side of the family, accepted terms that did not involve violence. Would the wife feel cheated of justice? Maybe she thinks some silver doesn’t replace her lost loved one. There is not much that she legally can do. This is where goading is an invaluable tool. She can convince the men of her family to take action. There are some great examples within the sagas of a woman who waits until her husband dies to convince her sons to avenge her father’s death. Another woman, whose father was burnt inside his home, serves her family charred sheep heads to remind them of what happened. Another woman waits years before she shakes out a blood-splattered cloak of her husband, in order to shame her sons into action.

At a quick glance, women, then, are painted in a rough hue. It is THEY who demand blood. It is THEY who keep those blood feuds rolling. But, there are examples of level-headed women who calm their hot-headed husbands from taking action. A wife keeps her husband from challenging a younger man in combat, which her husband would surely lose, and shame would come down upon their family. So we need to keep that initial thought in mind: we are getting the dramatic tales, the extreme cases, and that these manipulating women, who are doing what they can to find justice in the midst of inequality, are not the standard.

Why did women have to work so hard at getting the blood vengeance? Surely, in the midst of the carnage and chaos of the Viking age, men would love to swing an axe and take a life for the Almighty Thor! But the answer lies deep within the philosophy of why Iceland was settled in the first place, and in how it thrived as an egalitarian Free State with minimal warfare for as long as it did.

First and foremost, Iceland was not the center of Viking activities. In fact, Iceland seems to be a place to lie low or to retire. Sure, sons of farmers would join in the activities of the Vikings from Scandinavia or the Orkney’s, but it wasn’t really way of life on Iceland itself. Once the constitution was put into action (after some revisions) in 960, it became clear that though violence was an option in Iceland, it was not a preference. Iceland was a patchwork of isolated, independent farmers. There were no cities! No towns! And the chieftains were non-territorial. This means that even IF a chieftain wanted to get in a scuffle, his thingmen, who swore no oaths and could easily switch allegiance to another chieftain, could be scattered across the island. It would take a while to get all of his followers together for a battle, which is why these large acts of violence typically occurred around the assemblies (things). But a farmer could not afford to be gone from his isolated farmstead for an extended period of time. Who would watch it? Who would take care of it? Iceland’s constitution was made without the presence of a king or authority figure who demanded taxes, fealty, or allegiance. These were free men!

This is not to say that killing, or even extended violence, did not occur during the Free State period on Iceland. But, for most men, it was a last resort. Your typical man was considered a hof, a man of moderation. This means that a man would know the law, know when to push and when to hold back. They believed in a balance. If a kinsman was killed, a blood vengeance was available to them. However, to barrel ahead and murder the offenders would be just as bad as the first killing, and balance would not be secured. A man of moderation believed in honor. And if a compromise within the courts could not be met, he would look to violence as a means of justice. For these reasons, men were reluctant to enter into an extended blood feud. Women, who could also be hof, suffered few of the social consequences because of their exclusion from the legal system and could therefore push her husband or her relatives to take an action that they might otherwise try to avoid. Women! Am I right, fellas?!

Well, I accidentally wrote a lot more than I intended. Time flies when you’re restraining the rights of women. But in all seriousness, I’m glad that Jesse Byock spent some time discussing this subject. It’s been a question of mine since I started studying the Vikings. I’m sure that the role of women in Scandinavia and the actual Vikings is much different, and I look forward to learning more about it. Until next time!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Book of Settlements

Welcome back, History Fans!

You must be shaking your heads, with your arms crossed and your feet stamping. Okay, so my commitment to post more didn't quite hold up! SO SUE ME, YA MORONS!

Anyway, I have a pretty good excuse. I was making a cool record, then I got to go overseas to Sicily! As soon as I got back, I turned my attention to a five-week tour with the band. And even though I was reading (William Faulkner, Robert Jordan), I still slacked on my history studies. I even had a cool plan to post all these awesome photos from my time in Sicily. Lots of History in Sicily! But the camera on my phone is rather dismal. Plus, most of my pictures were of the pizzas I ate.

In other History Books news, I was accepted to the University of Nottingham into their Viking and Anglo-Saxon masters program. Huzzah! Those Brits won't know what hit them when ol' Melton shows up!
I am also applying to the University of Iceland to their Norse and Vikings program. Either way, I will be spending a lot of money for a really useless degree. Huzzah again!

And that's a nice segment to today's post: Iceland. I know, you're probably sick of hearing about it. I've kicked the dead horse enough times that I've got its guts permanently embedded on my sneakers. But I keep learning more and more. And more questions arise with every new bit of information.

In my quest to learn more about the Vikings, I decided to begin with some primary sources. My favorite of which, was Adam of Bremen's History of the Arch-bishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Adam was a great writer, if not a little too eager. His facts had to be double checked. But he was passionate about his work. Since then I have dabbled in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (boring!), Saxo Grammaticus' History of the Danes (LOOOOONG), and The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastic History of the English People (Bede's cool, but this book kinda predates the Vikings). So I finally opened my copy of The Book of Settlements, which is basically an account of the colonizing and settlement of Iceland.

At first glance the book looks pretty dull. It's like a biblical list of genealogy but with way cooler names. But hidden in these lists are excellent glimpses into the lives of Icelanders. Almost absentmindedly, the authors skip over a story that to the public at hand was well known, but to us is a total mystery. But therein lies a terrific bit of information.

A really great example is the story of Thorarin, who gets into an argument and kills some dudes. He is judged by a 12 man jury of his peers, but is left off by a technicality. The priests and lawmakers aren't satisfied and follow him and catch him in violence again. After that, he is banished to outlawry and either has to make a living in the desolate interior of Iceland or take off to find another place to live.

It's important to note that while some Icelanders were Vikings, Vikings in general were not Icelanders. Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, started migrating to Iceland to escape Harold Fine-Hair, who was using some barbaric tactics to unite Norway under one king and to convert them all to the Christian cause. These guys were mostly farmers. And, even though they eventually bent to Christianity, it was not a bloody affair. And even though there were outlaws, disputes, murders and raids, Iceland was not really a Viking target, nor was it run by jarls or kings looking to get rich quick.

And here's the big question that's been bothering me: Why did it take until the 13th century for Iceland to be conquered. You're looking at nearly 300 years between the story of Ingolf tossing his pillars out of his boat to see where in Iceland he should settle, and the when Norway finally claimed the island for its own. I'm certainly glad it was left to its own powers. That's what made it fascinating! But why? Was it because Norway was not unified and had to take care of its own problems before it started pulling in other territories? Surely many kings had a chance to steal Iceland, a small and relatively poor country with absolutely NO defenses. Or, could it be because Iceland really had no value? How long did it take for the farmers and sheep herders to ruin the soil? Did the Danes and the Norse sail over and say, you know, this really wouldn't be worth the time and effort.

But it DID become a commodity. A center of learning and culture! The most boring type of importance! Sure, they've got no money, land, natural resources, good looking girls, or fighting men, but they've got books!

Consider this: You can feel the sludgy and forced Christian admonitions from Saxo and Adam of Bremen. Even Snorri Sturluson to some extent has to acknowledge the one true God in his writings about the old ones. But The Book of Settlements has no such glaring footnotes. There are some great stories about certain Christians to whom wild and perhaps miraculous circumstances seem to follow, but there is also great coverage of the heathen followers. And not in spiteful he-shoulda-known-better kind of way. The authors mention Thorkel Moon (awesome name) who was one of the wealthiest and noblest heathens to ever have lived. He was a good man who helped others and just happened to have different gods. There is also mentioned "the godless:" a family who kept no gods but trusted in their own strength. In this case, their river ran dry, but once again no reprimands or explanations aside are given. The Icelandic writers had such a reverence and interest in their heritage that it overshadows the writers' convictions at the time. It's quite a beautiful thing.

I'm about 1/3 of the way through The Book of Settlements, and it's getting me all riled up and ready to dive back into some Jesse Byock books!

Until next time, whenever that will be!