Friday, August 1, 2014

What Women Want: A Deeper Look at Women, Law, and Violence in Njal's Saga

Welcome back, History Fans!

The last couple months have been a whirlwind! I am officially a resident of Indianapolis, and I begin my new career as a 911 call taker at 5:00am tomorrow morning. Moving, recording, and training have been taking up much of my time so I haven't been as astute in my studies as I'd like. In fact, I had to do homework so I could be certified to help keep people alive over the phone! However, I've been crawling my way through Njal's Saga during lunch breaks and evening deck hangs (until the wasps show up and drive me back inside). A curious passage in the saga took me back to William Ian Miller's book, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking. If you remember, we discussed his book earlier here on History Books. Mr. Miller took us into the subtle and complex world of Icelandic law. In his book, he breaks down the same curious passage from the saga, which is what I want to discuss today: the social limits of the law.

In Njal's Saga, we have a formidable and respected warrior, Gunnar, who is married to the trouble-making Hallgerd. Prior to this point in the saga, Gunnar's buddy Njal has helped him out of a few tight spots, but the wives of both men have carried on a relentless blood-feud, trading bodies. On one side a slave is killed, on the other side, a servant has his brains bashed in by an axe. Gunnar and Njal politely exchange the money due for the compensation of each man. While the blood-feud escalates, both men chastise their wives but without much conviction and the killings climb the social ladder so that the compensations get more and more expensive. The men maintain their friendship and even manage to have relatively normal (at least what we can see) relationships with their wives, even though they are picking off  each others' households one by one.

A famine is ravaging through Iceland at this time. As you might recall from our previous discussions, the early settlers really destroyed Iceland's ecosystem and while farming continued normally for centuries, there was a period of adjustment where famines like this were not uncommon. Gunnar is a friendly fella, so he is sharing his wares to all his buddies and kin who are hit hard by the lack of food. What a nice guy! But soon the famine catches up with him and he is in a tight pinch. Rumor has it that a man named Otkel up in Kirkjubaer has PLENTY of butter and cheese, so Gunnar decides to ride over to this guy's farm to ask him to sell his food. This is highly unusual and against common custom in Iceland. First of all, Gunnar is not invited. It's seen as pretty rude to just show up unannounced. Secondly, Gunnar doesn't allow Otkel to invite the traveler in for a meal and conversation. Instead, Gunnar asks his would-be host at his doorstep if he would sell him some of the excess food he's heard so much about.

William Ian Miller breaks down the context of the conversation that takes place thereafter between Gunnar and Otkel. The three conventional modes of commerce are discussed, which include a purchase of the goods, a gift to be compensated for in the future, or a raid, suggested by Thrain Sigfusson, which meant that the goods would be taken by force right then and there only to be settled later through a lawsuit or arbitration. Our focus in this study, however, is not on the different way Icelanders purchased their goods. Instead, we went on between Gunnar and his wife after this failed quest to buy food.

With Otkel refusing to sell, and quite within the social right to do so, offers to sell Gunnar a slave. Gunnar accepts, already having taken a hit to his honor decides he doesn't want to leave empty handed and buys the slave. Some time after his return, Gunnar's wife decides to get back to her old tricks again. She decides to send that same slave back to Kirkjubaer to steal the butter and cheese he wouldn't sell. She threatens to kill the slave if he doesn't obey. The slave, Melkolf, tracks back to his master's farm, steals the food, and kills the fucking dog! Why, Melkolf?! He was just a cute little doggy! Anyway, Gunnar returns from the Althing and finds his wife Hallgerd serving a tremendous feast. He realizes at once that the food did not come from by acceptable means. And here is where we want to focus our attention. When Hallgerd proudly confesses she stole the food, Gunnar loses his temper and strikes her.

Now, I don't know how acceptable it was to hit a woman in medieval Iceland. Probably at this point in history, like today's NFL, it's totally acceptable. YOWZA! We want to look past (but certainly not belittle!) the domestic violence for now and point out a couple things that make this interaction so interesting. First of all we need to explore Hallgerd's back story. She had been married twice before. Her first husband had struck her and she had him killed almost immediately. Her second husband's brother struck her and she had him killed, too. She later divorced from her second husband only to marry Gunnar. Yet Gunnar lives on through the saga for quite some time. I haven't finished it yet so I am not certain if Hallgerd's wrath catches up to him or not, but the pattern is disrupted. She is not avenged immediately for reasons I will discuss in more detail below. The second peculiarity is that Hallgerd has been making Gunnar's life miserable for a long time. She's been picking off the Njal's household and servants. Njal is a man that Gunnar greatly respects and whose friendship he relies upon. Yet when his wife openly has three different people who are attached to Njal killed, Gunnar hardly tells her off. He meekly goes to Njal and pays him the compensation for each person. Yet when she steals some food from a neighbor, his wrath is such that he strikes her in the face.

 Here is a blurry photo an acceptable medieval domestic violence. 
I am sure glad we're past that point in history!


After going back through some of William Ian Miller's book, it became clear why this passage played out the way it did. In Iceland, you were expected to announce your misdeeds before you did them. For example, in every case where someone was killed in the blood feud between Hallgerd and Njal's wife, the women hinted that someone would end up dead, the men who killed for the women announced their intentions to the men they killed and allowed the victims a chance to fight. In each case, the killings were settled out of court because Gunnar and Njal were friends. However, an unannounced killing was considered murder. Does that sound like a thin line? You were a rotten scoundrel if you killed someone without owning up to it. Secrecy in Iceland was extremely taboo. And the same concept can be applied to the transfer of goods. It would have been completely acceptable for Gunnar and his men to steal Otkel's food when they visited him. They would have told him their intentions, Otkel would have had a chance defend himself, the men would have taken the goods, and Otkel would then sue for compensation later on at one of the Things.

What Melkolf does is completely unacceptable on a couple different levels. Neither he nor Hallgerd announces their intentions. They did not work within the social guidelines that made taking someone's goods permissible. Secondly, Melkolf goes at night in secret. A man who works in secret is not to be trusted. And perhaps worst of all, stealing from a man during a drought or famine could not have brought any honor to your name. Gunnar knows this. When he realizes the food at his table was obtained by such despised means, he has it taken away to be replaced by his own meat.

Hallgerd's actions up to the point of the theft were completely acceptable although a little eccentric. Blood-feuds were certainly common, although not the norm. And everything was done within the boundaries of not only the law but more importantly the social and cultural expectations and rules. She crossed a line when she sent Melkolf the Dogkiller off and, Gunnar knew he had been shamed in a serious way. He lost his cool and dealt his wife a mean blow to the head. Hallgerd's response is that Gunnar will wish he hadn't done that. Yet Hallgerd does not act in the way she had when she was previously beaten by other males. On one hand, the man the typically did her killing for her had been a part of her blood-feud. So maybe she didn't have the means to avenge the violence against her. Or perhaps she knew how huge her crime had been. We certainly are not excusing Gunnar for his actions. And knowing Hallgerd like we do, it will probably come back and bite him in the end. But taking into consideration all the subtleties that live within people's words and actions, I think that Hallgerd knew she had crossed the line and quite literally took one on the chin. She does not immediately retaliate because she knew she was in the wrong.

Melkolf's handy work
 (yarpnews.wordpress.com)


Women were not totally without power. We discussed in one post the importance of goading in Icelandic society. Even within the saga we see a stark contrast to Hallgerd in a woman named Unn. While Hallgerd acts on her own volition, Unn, who was also in an unhappy marriage, seeks the counsel of others. Once again, we see the importance of consulting out in the open. And while Unn does not announce it to the world, she follows her kinsman's advice and legally divorces her husband. She does it without disgracing herself and while maintaining a hold on her wealth and property. Her husband certainly loses face, particularly because her grounds for divorce were that he couldn't satisfy her in bed, but she does so within the social confines. I guess you could say he was a little UNN-happy with the outcome.

Njal's Saga is a goldmine of information, especially on the cultural landscape and the law. I am hoping that one of my classes, Gender Studies in the Viking Age, may illuminate our research a little more. What we can tell is that women could act on their own to an extent. Yet they could not participate in the law. What protection did they have? Could they also face sentences if they were not allow to defend themselves or make a lawsuit on their own? Unn makes certain moves that lead us to believe that she is an independent woman, while her counterpart Hallgerd is exposed as being a malicious person who crosses the cultural line and seems to be somewhat helpless in the end. As scholars we also have to keep in mind that this saga was written centuries after the Viking Age and that the gender roles may very well reflect the culture in which the manuscripts were written down. But we don't let that discourage us! Onward, History Fans, and keep your hands to yourselves!