Viking Age Iceland: How Does This Crazy Thing Even Work?
Here at History Books, we have really driven this Iceland thing into the ground, huh? It’s just so fascinating! What else could I possibly say on the subject that I haven’t already dribbled incoherently on this website or blown into your ear while you wished you were somewhere else? The answer is LOADS MORE!
What I’d like to do with this post is to address a couple points Jesse Byock addresses in his wonderful book Viking Age Iceland. A handful of questions popped up while reading The Book of Settlements and Byock answered these with detailed information. I don’t want harp on about the same old points over and over, like I am prone to do. But these are the questions I want to answer:
- · Why wasn’t Iceland conquered until late in the 13th century?
- · How did the Free State survive as long as it did?
- · How did the legislative and judicial branches of Iceland operate, and how did it thrive without the executive branch?
- · How did Christianity affect the social structure?
- · What led to the surrender of Iceland to the Norwegian crown?
As you probably know by now, Iceland was first settled in 870 for the most part by Norwegians, although there were plenty of folks from Britain and various other Viking settlements scattered through the North Atlantic, like the Orkneys.
There were many reasons why Iceland looked enticing. First and foremost –free land! Remember, part of the reason for the Viking expansion was lack of resources, money, and people plum running out of room! Wait, there’s a huge island sitting offshore with just a couple of monks farting around? Let’s take it! Many historians blame the mass exodus from Norway to Iceland on the tyranny of King Harold Finehair. While this was a bit of an exaggeration, Fairhair’s actions had a huge impact on not only why Norwegians were heading over to Iceland but also how the emigrants built the country’s legal infrastructure.
For hundreds of years, families could own their own land and farms in Norway without the hindrance of a king or overlord. They were protected under Norwegian law from any taxation that the petty kings and jarls who were competing for power might try to place upon them. This centuries-old right was challenged by the punk upstart Harald Fairhair who was trying to unite Norway under one crown. To pay for this expensive conquest, King Harald started to collect a tax from all the farmers, including the freemen who had lived untaxed on their family farmsteads since the Bronze Age. Many of the Norwegians packed up and headed to Iceland where Harald couldn’t bother them. Others stayed to stand up to the king and later had to run for their lives. They also ended up in Iceland. Still others were criminals who killed folks and stole things and had to run from the law. And they ended up in Iceland, too! Talk about a melting pot!
Why didn’t Harald follow any of these groups to Iceland? If he wanted to demand payment of taxes, confront his political enemies or even snag a thief, why on earth did he stay in Norway and let a potential gold mine, a large mass of free land, keep to itself? Jesse Byock answers this question by stating that King Harald was too busy trying to get everything straight in Norway. With all the other kings and jarls to subject to his crown, it seems that Iceland mattered little in the grand scheme. Plus, an expedition of that magnitude would have cost a lot of money that he didn’t have AND leave the mother country exposed. That still doesn’t quite explain why so much time elapsed between the Age of Settlements in Iceland and the end of the Free State. This was a country without a military or defense. I’d like to make an uneducated speculation: would it be possible that Harald’s successors had learned of the fragile state of Iceland’s ecosystem? There wasn’t much land left at this point. And the land that was in use was being abused. This could be a total shot in the dark. But surely by the 11th century, Norway had to have known that Iceland had almost no natural resources. Aside from building an empire, there would have been few reasons to swallow up the island under the Norwegian crown.
So the Icelanders were left on their own to construct a constitution and build a nation without the influence of a king, or really even a ruling class. At the time of its inception, Iceland was a group of farmers who lived on scattered and isolated farmsteads. The memory of King Harald imposing on their land pulsed fresh in their minds as they created a complex system of legislative and judicial checks and balances. There is a lot take in, but we’ll give it a shot.
Iceland was broken up into four regions: north, east, south, and west. Each region was further broken down into local chieftaincies. A chieftaincy could contain multiple chieftains. A free farmer had the right to choose which chieftain he would follow. The reason could be for a variety of things, such as blood ties or maybe a chieftain is famous for his knowledge of the law. Regardless of the reason, a man’s chieftain could be his neighbor or could live a day’s hard ride on the other side of the island. This was right to choose their leader is what defined and protected Iceland throughout its span of the Free State.
The relationship between freeman and chieftain is an interesting and possibly unique one. No oaths were sworn. It was a formal and public agreement that was beneficial for both parties and could be terminated if either party felt like their needs were not being met. The two sides needed one another—the more followers a chieftain had, the more wealth and power he could gain, while the farmer depended upon his leader to protect him in and out of court. Yet, the Icelanders, because of their constitution and because of geographical set up of the island, kept a chieftain from growing too powerful in one specific area. Remember, they wanted their freedom and did not want anyone meddling in their business like pesky Harald. Because there were no sworn allegiances, the chieftains could not maintain a military force for an extended period of time. His followers, or thingmen, could afford together at an assembly (thing) or the national assembly (Althing), but that was special circumstances. Leaving their farmsteads for a long period of time could mean total demise for him and his household.
What was the role of a chieftain? One of the chieftain’s original duties was to oversee religious ceremonies and temple upkeep. This role was dropped and/or adjusted after the Christian conversion in the year 1000. More important were their roles in the judicial courts and as legislative administrators.
Each of the four regions had a spring thing (SPRING THING!) at which court was held and cases were brought against each other on a local level. After some initial deliberation, each region decided it would be more prudent to have multiple things that the people could attend. They designated three things to each region except the north, which had four. The Althing was held in the summer, and all of the chieftains were expected to attend. This is a truly remarkable practice wherein a group of elected officials, whose duties did not overshadow their principle occupation as a farmer, made laws, overheard difficult cases, and agreed, as a group, upon extremely difficult issues, such as foreign policy and the prices of imported goods.
Explaining how the court system works is very difficult. But it is here where we see the invaluable nature of the chieftain, and, again, how the Icelanders were able to survive as long as they did without a king or a government.
Here’s how it’s broken down: Let’s start with a dispute, the plot of any saga. Let’s say our dispute is between two neighbors and is over who owns a piece of property. Each neighbor claims he has a right to it, and eventually, one man offends the other. Now, these men could take matters into their own hands and just wallop the offender or kill him, which often happened. But let’s say in this instance, these are men of moderation. They want to settle their dispute within the legal limits (which does include manslaughter). The first step is to go to their respective chieftains and see if they will take their case. A chieftain has the option of denying his thingman’s case. Many times a chieftain will only act if there is payment—mostly property—and would then take the case to the local thing, or, if it was a big enough case, to the Althing.
Now, any freeman was theoretically allowed to take a case to court, just like in our wonderful United States. And yet, like in our United States, a freeman would not be considered worth anything if he didn’t have somebody representing him. In our case, it’s a lawyer. In their case it was the chieftain. As a representative, the chieftain took matters out of his thingman’s hands, and, as a man with power and authority, could manipulate the law in order to meet his follower’s (and, in turn, his own) needs.
There existed both inside and outside of the courts third party roles for both chieftains and free farmers. An advocate was a person who would speak on behalf of a person in a dispute. A man of goodwill was someone who would step between the feuding parties and try and find a resolution. The purpose for these third parties was to take a dispute out of the original parties’ hands and to avoid violence.
While violence was an option in a dispute, the majority of the country worked to repress it. Icelandic law states that if a person is killed that the offended party can legally take blood vengeance. This option could snowball into an all-out blood-feud. But Iceland would not have been able to handle prolonged violence. Its structure as a free state, as a rural egalitarian country with no real government, would have been in jeopardy. Therefore a lot of people got involved in disputes in order to avoid violence. The lack of escalated violence (there was never open warfare) can be attributed to both the streamline push for other options within the legal system and to the above mentioned territory-less chieftains who did not have the power, wealth, or authority to build an army large enough for prolonged battle. This, I think, was another key to the Free State’s longevity.
There were laws covering basically EVERYTHING. If something popped up and there wasn’t a law for it, the issue would be addressed at the Althing. The chieftains would debate and talk about it and, depending on the general consensus, would create a new law. Seriously, there were a TON of laws. And if somebody broke a law, it was brought by a chieftain, to the courts at the spring thing (SPRING THING!). If a settlement couldn’t be reached there, it would be brought to the Althing. But without an executive branch, how were all these able to be enforced? That difficult task fell upon the chieftain, who had, at best, minimal power. But criminals and habitual law breakers were stripped of their rights as freemen and were therefore unprotected under the law. This meant anybody could kill you and they wouldn’t even get in trouble!
Here’s the crazy thing: because of the isolated nature of the Icelanders, disputes became almost a social event. So many people got involved that it was a chance for interaction. And people made careers and built status and wealth based on other people’s problems! I tried to equate this phenomenon with something from the United States. My best comparison would be social services, like welfare. It began as a way to help people in need and now there are social workers and counselors and all kinds of people who make a living (albeit a meager one) assisting people in their problems. Weird, huh?
One might think that the introduction of a religion like Christianity into a country like Iceland would have devastating consequences to its social and judicial structures. You can look all over medieval Europe to find leftover Christian-Roman courts, or royal courts impartial to the will of a monarch. Christianity was bound to upset the order that Iceland had worked so hard to maintain. The people were indeed split between new believers and the worshippers of the old gods. Yet Iceland, in is mechanical, practical legalistic culture, treated the split like any other dispute. It was brought to the Althing, and, as I’ve described in a previous post, was resolved in a peaceful and pragmatic way. Again, Iceland wanted to maintain its order and not succumb to violence, so the law speaker, Thorgeir, decided that in order to avoid civil war, the nation would adopt Christianity, while worship of the old gods would be allowed behind closed doors.
But even a century after King Harald Fairhair’s attempt to claim what wasn’t his, Iceland was still stingy about its land and freedom, and they did not allow the Church to take hold like it did in other European countries. Churches were built on private property, just as temples were, and the buildings and land were owned by the Church only theoretically. In this way, the church did not grow into a powerful entity. In fact, Iceland was considered low on the list of priorities in the spectrum of Christianizing and organizing Scandinavia. Because of this attitude, the Icelandic Church evolved on its own, isolated from Rome and church officials, and within the confines of Iceland’s complex social structure. It grew to complement the culture that held the church in check, rather than oppose it, like so many of its European contemporaries.
The chieftains originally transferred their power to the church and became priests. To them, the roles were the same, just in a different arena. No longer caring for the temple, they now cared for the church. This was eventually stopped because the chieftains had the potential to grow too powerful (which is eventually what happened anyway).
The isolation of the Icelandic Church proved both helpful and ultimately disastrous. Being separated from the rest of the Christian world allowed Iceland to maintain its identity. Instead of being bullied into the religion, the Icelanders took a practical approach and were able to slowly integrate themselves into it. I think it was this slow and steady approach that created the mindsets of people like Snorri Sturluson who accepted Christ and yet still revered the mythology and the history of their pagan past enough to write it all down. Not in any other culture do we see Christians writing so respectfully about their heathen ancestors. And yet, the integration of the Church into Iceland’s social structure in the end led to the demise of the Free State. The bishop Gudmund Arason fought the traditional Icelandic way of life and demanded an independent court system for the church. It was an already tumultuous time in the mid-13th century, where a handful of powerful families had grown too powerful for poor little Iceland to contain. Gudmund added to the chaos with his band of vagrants by killing a man who opposed to church’s demand for more power. His unruly behavior opened the door for the Christian King Hakon of Norway to step in and take control of the crumbling state of Iceland in 1262. And while Iceland remained somewhat autonomous, Iceland was now subject to a foreign king, thus, the end of the Free State.
I hope this wasn’t too difficult to follow. Obviously, it would be much better for you to read Jesse Byock’s book. But I hope that I was able to portray a little of how Viking Age Iceland functioned and to help you see how, at least in a convoluted and grammatically atrocious way, how fascinating the history of Iceland is.