Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

by William Ian Miller

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Dubbed by the New York Times as "one of the most sought-after legal academics in the county," William Ian Miller presents the arcane worlds of the Old Norse studies in a way sure to attract the interest of a wide range of readers. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking delves beneath the chaos and brutality of the Norse world to discover a complex interplay of…  See more details below


Dubbed by the New York Times as "one of the most sought-after legal academics in the county," William Ian Miller presents the arcane worlds of the Old Norse studies in a way sure to attract the interest of a wide range of readers. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking delves beneath the chaos and brutality of the Norse world to discover a complex interplay of ordering and disordering impulses. Miller's unique and engaging readings of ancient Iceland's sagas and extensive legal code reconstruct and illuminate the society that produced them.

People in the saga world negotiated a maze of violent possibility, with strategies that frequently put life and limb in the balance. But there was a paradox in striking the balance—one could not get even without going one better. Miller shows how blood vengeance, law, and peacemaking were inextricably bound together in the feuding process.

This book offers fascinating insights into the politics of a stateless society, its methods of social control, and the role that a uniquely sophisticated and self-conscious law played in the construction of Icelandic society.

"Illuminating."—Rory McTurk, Times Literary Supplement

"An impressive achievement in ethnohistory; it is an amalgam of historical research with legal and anthropological interpretation. What is more, and rarer, is that it is a pleasure to read due to the inclusion of narrative case material from the sagas themselves."—Dan Bauer, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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Miller (law, Michigan) explores the workings of the intricate legal system in a stateless society. Eight fairly self-contained essays examine the social order, the sources of information, the economy, households, kinship, feuds and other dispute processes, the legal process, and arbitration in Iceland during the age of the sagas. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Bloodtaking and Peacemaking

Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

By William Ian Miller

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-52682-9


Introduction: The Institutional Setting and the Ranks of Persons

Historians of medieval England and continental Europe have the luxury of being able to assume that their intended audience is conversant with some of the basics of their topics. If readers don't know where England is, or the names of its kings and the main incidents of its political history, they blame only themselves for not knowing and not the author for not having supplied the information. But historians whose field is early Iceland are granted no such grace by their audience. Even the few specialists in the field expect to be reminded with each book they read when Iceland was settled and what a family saga is. Except for the Icelanders themselves, who are not a numerous nation, Old Norse scholars, who are even fewer, chess aficionados who remember Fischer and Spassky, vulcanologists, and those people on Greenpeace's mailing list (like my wife), few outside the Scandinavian world know much about Iceland, let alone its early history. To write about early Iceland and intend to be understood is to supply background that would be inappropriate if supplied by the historian whose turf had the (mis)fortune to become populous, powerful, and central to the story western nations like to tell about themselves. What I propose to do in this chapter is to give enough of the nuts-and-bolts history and culture of Iceland for readers to orient themselves; here I provide the broad outlines of the system of governance, the ecclesiastical estate, the rankings of men and women, and the politics of honor. The nuance lacking in the information presented here will be postponed to fuller discussion in the substantive chapters that follow.

According to Ari Thorgilsson (d. 1148), writing in the first third of the twelfth century and the author of the earliest surviving native narrative source, Iceland was settled by Norwegians between 870 and 930, during what has become known as the Age of Settlements (Íslb. 1: 4, 3: 9). The Icelandic sources prefer to explain the settlement by reference to the rise in Norway of Harald Finehair, whose successes were resented and feared by chieftains and local big men. A scene in Laxdœla saga is typical:

When Ketil learned that King Harald intended to offer him the same condition he gave other leading men—to become his tenant and receive no compensation for fallen kinsmen—he summoned a meeting of his kin and announced: "Our dealings with King Harald are known to you and there is no need to mention them now; it is of greater import to consider the difficulties on our hands.... It seems to me we have only two choices: to flee the country or be killed in our tracks. I would rather have the same end my kin have had, but I do not want to lead you into such difficult straits on my word alone, for I know the temperament of my kin and friends: you would not want to leave me even though it would be a trial to stand by me."

Bjorn, Ketil's son, responded, "I will reveal my views quickly. I wish to follow the example of other upstanding men and flee this country. I don't think it's to my advantage to wait for Harald's slaves to chase us from our lands or kill us off."

People approved of this view and thought it nobly spoken.... Bjorn and [his brother] preferred to go to Iceland because they had the impression that they had heard many compelling reasons for doing so. They said that good land could be had for free, that there were many stranded whales and good salmon fishing, and fishing in all seasons. (Lax. 2:4–5)

The passage suggests that the push of prudence was assisted by the pull of opportunity. Whatever the validity of these late sources in preserving reasons for the settlement more than two and three centuries earlier than their composition, it is clear that the settlement of Iceland was but one consequence of the Viking phenomenon, whatever its causes may have been: land hunger, shipbuilding technology, political and social transformations in the Scandinavian homeland, the allure of poorly defended wealth in England, Ireland, and the continent, or the love of adventure. Other evidence shows that many of the settlers had previously settled in the Hebrides, Orkney, Ireland, and Scotland. With them came an indeterminable number of Celts, as slaves, concubines, and wives. Strangely enough, the first Norse settlers to arrive in Iceland were met by some Irish hermits and anchorites, who, in their effort to achieve ever greater misery in the service of the Almighty, would sail their curachs to uncharted seas, trusting in God to care for them. The Irish presence in Iceland may have anticipated the Norse arrival by nearly a century (Jóhannesson 1974, 3–7). Ari says that they left when the Norse appeared "because they did not wish to be here with heathen men" (Íslb. I: 5). They might also have been enslaved or killed, since the Norsemen, as we know, felt either alternative a suitable end for Celts.

Besides these Irishmen, the settlers found a land virtually empty: some seventy-five percent of the area was covered with either volcanic ash or glaciers. By 930, according to Ari, the land was albyggt, or fully settled, although the sagas provide evidence of continued immigration as well as some reverse migration to Norway. Sometime in the tenth century the basic settlement pattern was fully established. Farms were located in river valleys and in the lowlands along the coast and the few ill-advised attempts to settle at higher elevations were soon abandoned. Bioarchaeological findings suggest that maximum levels of land exploitation were reached sometime in the early eleventh century and began to shrink thereafter as a consequence of poor conservation and deteriorating climate (McGovern et al. 1988).

The basic unit of residence, production, and reproduction in Iceland was the farmstead. Until the end of the eighteenth century, there were no villages or towns, no nucleated settlements at all. Turf, to the chagrin of archaeologists, provided the main building material for housing. What native timber there was, dwarf birch and ash, was unsuitable for extensive use in building and, in any event, was quickly depleted by the early settlers so that by the eleventh century Iceland had become the treeless land it still is. The main crop was grass, which fed the sheep, cattle, and horses the settlers brought with them. During the summer months, sheep were pastured in the uplands where some household members would be assigned to shielings to care for and milk the animals. The sheep were rounded up in the fall and brought back to the farms below. Cereals, mainly barley, were harvested in some areas in the south and west, but the short growing season was precariously close to the minimums needed for the plants to complete their life cycle. Climatic deterioration eventually led to the abandonment of cereal cultivation in many places so that by the twelfth century a certain annual feast in honor of St. Olaf would only be held "if two measures of grain were available for purchase at the Thorsnessthing" (Hafl. 10:27; see also McGovern et al. 1988; Gunnarsson 1980b). The scarcity of grain meant that the violence of the sagas was usually unassisted by inebriation. Sheep provided most of the calories people consumed and the means to retain them once consumed. The meat and dairy products from the herds were supplemented, as Bjorn heard tell in the passage quoted above, by fish and stranded whales.But in spite of the richness of the oceanic resources, the social organization of the economy revolved around animal husbandry (Jóhannesson 1974, 288–3 10; Gunnarsson 1980b, 14–23). The society was considered by its members, and was in fact, pastoral and agricultural, not maritime. The chief sources of wealth were ultimately a function of the control of grazing land and livestock.

Estimates of population size in 930 vary widely from 20,000 to 70,000. By the end of the eleventh century the range shifts upward from 50,000 to 100,000 (Hastrup 1985, 169–71; Karlsson 1975, 5–8; KLNM 13 : 390–92). None of these estimates are any more than hunches. The upper figure "feels" too high, the lower one a little too low and it has become usual practice to split the difference. Circa 1100, Bishop Gizur took a census of the farmers qualified to pay a certain Thing attendance tax, called þingfararkaup (see below p. 25). There were 840 so qualified in the East Quarter, 1200 in the South, 1080 in the West, and 1440 in the North. But attempts to construct a total population figure from these very round numbers founder on our feeble knowledge of household size and of the numbers of those households too poor to qualify for the Thing tax.

Whatever the the size of the population there are some small indications that by the twelfth century the land must have been near the limits of its carrying capacity. Just how near can be deduced, albeit by indirection and inference, from the following brief notice: "That summer (1118) thirty-five ships came to Iceland, but only eight returned to Norway that fall after Michaelmas. Owing to this great increase in population there was great famine in many districts" (Hungr. 8: 71; also Kristni saga 14: 30). We have no way of knowing the average size of the crews manning these ships, but we do know that the pressure created by more mouths to feed was also exacerbated by substantial losses of livestock that summer in the north (Hungr. 8: 71). Still, it would seem that a society unable to absorb roughly eight hundred extra adult males for a period five months longer than anticipated was a society shadowed by Malthusian crisis. The prospect of famine must have been part of people's consciousness.

Courts, Jurisdiction, and the Hreppr

The form the new colony took was constrained by the environment and the social and cultural baggage, whether Scandinavian or Celtic, the settlers brought with them. Within these limits they could create their society in their own image. The image they chose was largely taken over from Norway and there is reason to believe, or at least several generations of German romantics and even recent scholars have wished to believe (e.g., Sawyer 1982a, 58), that the Icelandic social arrangements preserved much ancient Scandinavian practice. What formal governance there was was accomplished by a system of annual meetings of free men, called Things, and by the authority exercised by chieftains (goði, pl. goðar) of which more anon. By the early eleventh century a governmental structure had evolved that would remain the model of "public" authority until the demise of what is known as the commonwealth in 1262–64 when the Icelanders surrendered their independence to the Norwegian king and became subject to Norwegian law soon thereafter. The chief developmental milestones were these: the establishment of a Thing for all of Iceland, the Allthing, which was to meet annually for two weeks at midsummer at Thingvellir in the southwest of the country (c. 930); the division of the country into quarters, one for each point of the compass and the creation of Quarter courts (c. 962); the conversion to Christianity (1000); the establishment of the Fifth Court (c. 1005); the institution of the tithe law (1097); and the demise of the commonwealth (1262–64).

Each Quarter, ideally, had three local or district Things, except for the North, which had four. These local Things (várþing, "spring-Thing") met every spring and at them lawsuits were heard and administrative matters were handled. According to the model envisaged by the laws of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, each local Thing was presided over by three chieftains. They hallowed the assembly grounds and selected the judges who heard the cases tried there. Each householder (bóndi, pl. bœdr) had to declare himself to be "in Thing" with a chieftain, that is, to become his thingman. The Thing attachment of each bóndi's household members followed that of the household head. In theory then, all people belonged to a Thing located in the Quarter in which they resided. A court for each Quarter met at the Allthing. Litigants who belonged to the same local Thing had the option of initiating all but petty cases involving three-mark fines, which had to be tried locally, at either the local Thing or in their Quarter court at the Allthing. The Quarter courts also provided the forum for those cases in which no judgment could be reached at the local Thing, and they served as courts of first instance for cases between litigants who were attached to different local Things. The appropriate venue in such cases was the defendant's Quarter court (Grágás Ia 40–41, II 356). Like the local Things, the Quarter courts were presided over by a panel of thirty-six judges selected by the goðar. Each of the three chieftains at the local Thing appointed twelve judges; at the Allthing each of the thirty-six chieftains holding what was designated an "ancient and full" chieftaincy was to name one judge to the panel.

The Fifth Court served as a court of appeal for cases ending in a divided judgment in the Quarter courts. Judgments in the Quarter courts required the concurrence of at least thirty-one judges, but in the Fifth Court, judgment could be had by simple majority. The Fifth Court was made up of a panel of forty-eight judges, one chosen by each chieftain, whether he held an "ancient and full" chieftaincy or a "new" chieftaincy established at the time of the division into quarters. These new chieftaincies, three per Quarter, were created to equalize the representation of the other Quarters with the North Quarter, whose people had insisted on having four local Things and hence three more chieftains than the other Quarters. Judgment was still to be given by thirty-six judges, it being the responsibility of the litigants to dismiss twelve judges, six by each party, prior to judgment (Grágás la 82–83; Njála 144:401). The Fifth Court also had original jurisdiction for cases involving harboring of outlaws, runaway slaves and churchpriests (see below p. 28), as well as perjury and offers of bribes that occurred at the Allthing (Grágás Ia 78).

The forty-eight chieftains sat as the Logrétta or a court of legislation. The Lawspeaker (logsogumaðr), and eventually the two bishops, also had a seat. Each member, except the bishops and the Lawspeaker, was to appoint two thingmen as advisers to sit with him in the court. The Logrétta made and altered law and decided what the law was if there was disagreement about a rule. It granted exemptions from the effects of certain laws, most notably the ecclesiastical prohibitions on marriage within certain degrees of kinship, and it elected the Lawspeaker (see Grágás Ia 208, 211–17; generally Jóhannesson 1974, 63–66 and Líndal 1984, 124–3 0).

The Lawspeaker was elected to his position for a three-year term. It was his responsibility to tell anyone who asked him what the law was. He was also obliged to recite the law in such a fashion that all the sections of the law were rehearsed by every third Allthing and the procedure section was repeated each year. If the oral law was only one-fourth as extensive as the surviving manuscripts, this task would require a prodigious memory in addition to expert knowledge. The law obliged the Lawspeaker

to recite all the sections so extensively that no one knows them much more extensively. And if his knowledge does not stretch so far, then before reciting each section he is to arrange a meeting a day before with five or more legal experts, those from whom he can learn themost; and any man who intrudes on their talk without permission is fined three marks, and that case lies with the Lawspeaker. (Grágás Ia 209)

The Lawspeaker was the only paid officeholder in the system of governance. He was to receive 240 ells of vaðmál annually, which was financed from payments made to the Logrétta to purchase permission to marry within the prohibited degrees. He was also to receive one-half of the three-mark fines adjudged at the Allthing and in those local Things in which he happened to participate (Grágás Ia 209, 217).

There were also other meetings of formal nature. Two weeks after the Allthing, assemblies called leið, pl. leiðar, or haustþing (fall Things) were held locally. Cases were not heard at these convocations; they were to provide a forum for announcing matters concluded at the Allthing and for reciting the calendar for the coming year. In addition, ad hoc courts were formed pursuant to various procedures. Among these were courts called to partition meadows and jointly owned pasture (Grágás Ib 84–86, II 455–60; Ib 115–17, II 488–94) and hreppadómar, courts called an arrowshot from the home of a defendant who had shirked his responsibilities for supporting dependent kin or the district poor (Grágás Ib 174–76, II 252–54), and the féránsdómr, a court held to confiscate and settle an outlaw's estate.


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