Icelandic Law



Today we’re discussing the legal system of saga-period Iceland in Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.

First, a little background:

Iceland … is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 360,390[4] and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.[b][8]  …Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fieldsmountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. … Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

According to the ancient manuscript Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island.[9] In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin.

The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world’s oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century.

Iceland today is a small country; Iceland in the saga era was even smaller. Official records weren’t kept until the 1700s, but at that time, the population was a bit under 50,000 and stayed there for over a hundred years, so I think it’s safe to put 50,000 as our max population for the saga period.

Ethnically, the male population was about 66% Viking and 34% Scottish/Irish slaves; the female population was about 60% Scottish/Irish slaves and 40% Viking.

Note that Iceland’s population went from about 50,000 to 350,000 in two hundred years–seven times bigger–yet Wikipedia claims, “Due to a shortage of labor,[21] immigration to Iceland will most likely increase in the future.[22]” How the fuck do you septuple your population and still have a “shortage of labor”?

Utter nonsense.

Anyway, back to the Viking age, when people solved their problems by stabbing each other, setting their houses on fire, and kidnapping the women:

In saga-period Iceland a thousand years ago, if you killed someone his relatives sued you.

Despite being a bunch of Vikings and their slaves, Icelanders still set up a legal system that was sufficiently complex that modern scholars aren’t sure exactly how it worked. (I’m sure if some future legal scholars tried to piece together the American legal system from old episodes of Perry Mason plus some law review articles, they’d also be confused.) Our understanding of the Icelandic system similarly comes from a combination of entertaining stories (sagas) and a collection of legal texts written down later, the Gragas. It’s tempting to claim that Gragas must be correct, since it is actually a collection of legal texts, but I challenge you to read a bunch of US case law and use it to piece together how US law actually works in practice. (You won’t.)

As for what we know:

The political system they developed [in Iceland] was based on Norwegian traditions with one important innovation–there was no king.

At the base of the system stood the godi [note: the d should be crossed]… The original godar seem to have been local leaders who built pagan temples and served as their priests. A godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services. The godord was his congregation. The relationship between the godi and his thingmen was contractual not territorial. The godi had no claim to the thingman’s land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.

It’s hard to have a king or exert much power over people when population density is low and they can just move on if you annoy them too much. I don’t think this is really a political innovation so much as a reality of low-density frontiers-like areas.

Personally, I don’t like using non-English terms when perfectly good translations exist. the godi (plural, godar) is a priest. The godord is his congregation.

Under the system of laws established in AD 930, these local leaders were combined into a national system. In 960, Iceland was divided into four quarters, each containing nine godord clustered in groups of three called things. …

The one permanent official of this system was the … lawspeaker; he was elected… His job was to memorize the laws, recite them once during his term in office, provide advice on difficult legal points and preside over the … legislature.

I once tried to figure out how many laws the US has and came up with an official answer of “no one knows, not event he government.” It’s not exactly clear what is and isn’t a law–for example, if the state mandates that parents whose kids have more than 10 unexcused absences from school in a year be charged with truancy, then does the schools’ procedure for reporting medical absences count as a law? Our system is complicated, and no mortal could ever memorize it, much less recite it all in a timely manner.

The existence of the lawspeaker was probably just necessity in a system where not everyone was literate, but it also provides a check on the number of laws (and thus the structure that the law takes,) since it must be humanly possible for someone to memorize them all.

The godord [congregation] itself was two different things. It was … the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi [priest], to be members of that [congregation]. … The godord was also a bundle of rights, including the right to sit in the [lawcourt] and appoint judges for certain courts. … it was the right to be the person through whom ordinary farmers plugged into the legal system.

So everyone has to be associated with some congregation of other, but you get to chose the one you want to be part of. Once you’re part of a congregation, you have to pay your priest an annual tax, which pays for the expenses of the men who attend the annual lawcourt and decide cases. Membership in the congregation and thus the right to sit in the legal assembly and hear court cases could be bought, sold, given away, inherited, etc.

For serious offenses, conviction meant full outlawry. … It was legal to kill an outlaw, illegal to feed him, shelter him, or help him to leave Iceland. … A lesser outlaw had the right to leave Iceland and could return in three years.

If you’re declared an outlaw, then the court takes your stuff and gives it to the victims or their surviving relatives (saving some for any of your innocent children).

Prosecution was up to the victim or his kin… Most cases in the sagas were settled out of court, usually for money damages. … Many were settled by arbitration. .. Calculations by two different scholars suggest tat only about a tenth of cases went to a final judgment by the court.

Lest you think this is a lot, 97% of criminal cases in the US end with plea bargains rather than actual court trials.

Icelandic law distinguished between killing and murder–secret killing. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately. … Murder cost the killer the ability to raise legal defenses, such as the fact that his victim was an outlaw or had forfeited his immunity by attacking [first, I presume.]

Since this is a system of privately enforced law in which people essentially join a legal society and then pay taxes to it, there’s always the possibility that the poor will be too poor to afford justice, or the rich so rich they can buy their way out.

The former was not a problem, the authors argue, because the money for a successful conviction was always potentially available, so even people too poor to prosecute a case could sell their case to someone else who would be happy to pursue it for profit.

The latter case, the rich buying their way out of trouble, became a problem as the poor peasants (and slaves) who made up Iceland’s initial population gradually built up their estates and some families became significantly more wealthy than others:

By the Sturlung period there were many areas where all or most of the godord were held by one family, reducing or eliminating the ability of the individual thingman to choose his godi and creating a de facto, if imperfect, form of territorial sovereignty…

Another possible source of concentration of wealth and power was the introduction of Christianity…

A second and related cause of the breakdown was the introduction into Iceland of a foreign ideology–monarchy. … Several of the leading figures, when out of Iceland, usually as a result of a settlement that included temporary outlawry, became retainers of the king…

Population growth=all of the good land gets snatched up. Over time, some families get richer and accumulate more power. Eventually, they use that power to get more power, setting themselves up as local lords; with all of the good land taken, people have nowhere else to go if they get fed up.

Exit provides a workable system if there are other places to go; not if everything is closed off already. Eventually, bigger societies become more hierarchical, except in Iceland’s case, this led to a total breakdown of the system.

Of course, even during the breakdown, Iceland was still safer than the US at the peak of the crime wave:

According to a calculation by a scholar who went through the Sturlung sagas counting bodies, during more than fifty years of the violent breakdown of the traditional system the number of people killed or executed each year, on a per capita basis, was roughly equal to the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States in 1975.


Today, of course, Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries:

Murder rate per 100k people in 2012: light blue = 0-1; darkest blue > 20

That’s all for today; next week we’ll look at Somali law. Should be fun. Take care.

2 thoughts on “Icelandic Law

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