Tuesday 3 March 2015

Fire, Ice, and Feuds: an examination of the Medieval Icelandic legal system

Early Medieval Icelandic society was an interesting form of republic. It was not a kingdom and was more of a big village than a nation. Disputes were common, and Iceland had a legal system effectively structured for conflict resolution in the culture and society of its time.

In many respects Iceland can be seen as an extension of mainland Scandinavian society, and should be considered in a way as part of Scandinavia, even if it was only culturally and not geographically attached. (It is superior to use the term Scandinavian than the term Viking, for viking is a verb, and more properly describes an occupation than a people; although many people did choose to be vikings full-time, it was usually a seasonal activity.) Although part of Scandinavia sociologically, Iceland possessed independence and some variations, similar to the independence and variations among the three western Baltic nations. Finland was distinct from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, being a different culture with an ethnic and linguistical heritage that was eastern and non-Germanic. Iceland, although more distant from Scandinavia than Finland, was more Scandinavian than Finland. As a part of Scandinavia culturally, Iceland must be understood with an examination of the mainland.

Much like Scandinavia, Iceland is a cold, harsh climate. People needed each other to live. Survival was difficult, but the Icelanders were hardy people who came mostly from Norway, another harsh and frigid climate, with a selection from Sweden, Denmark and the British Isles. The survival techniques usable in Iceland would have been known from experience in Norway, Sweden, and the Faeroes Islands. The people of Iceland were quite familiar with sea travel, cold weather survival, and land travel in harsh northerly areas. Roads were rare in Early Medieval Scandinavia. Mainland Europe had old Roman roads, but they did not go very far north and were mainly around the Mediterranean and the Island of Britain. The only significant road in the Baltic area was the Army Road in Denmark. Towns were also scarce in Scandinavia; often the towns were seasonal trading villages set up temporarily and then abandoned for the winter. At the time of Icelandic settlement, Europe had recently been comprised of semi-nomadic tribes, which lead to a mentality of localisation; this, combined with the difficulty of winter travel, created an environment in which strong control of larger regions was impractical.

The society and mentality of Scandinavia at the time of Icelandic settlement was centred around the family and farm, not the greater community, reminiscent of the settlement era American plantations. The travelling mentality of the Migration Era still lingered and the economy of pillaging was very much alive. Norway and Denmark raided each other prolifically, and also raided the west of Europe. Denmark tended to pillage the mainland and Norway piratouslly visited the British Isles, both sharing the English Channel, creating an expansion trend with the places attended corresponding relevant to the land's placement cartographically; this is not a hard set rule of behaviour, but a tendency reflecting the relative geographic locations of the lands being raided and the host territories launching the wealth-collecting expeditions. Trading and pillaging were both common, and peaceful expeditions were also quite present within the same geographic locations, traders being vastly more welcome to over-winter than the pillagers, although both occupations often made themselves guests of the land during the colder months. Continuing the geographic collation trend of Norway and Denmark, Sweden went east. The distance that must be travelled and the political stability of the East made viking expeditions too expensive and pessimistic to be practical, causing peaceful ventures to be the norm. These peaceful eastern ventures from Sweden often took the form of trading, but not always. Travelling abroad to live and work temporarily was a common practice of Scandinavians. Many served as huscarles in England or obtained military contracts with the local officials in the British Isles (the same occupational activity was also performed in Scandinavia when the ambitious for employment were not ambitious for travel). Swedes, often called Varangians in the East, would spend months or years serving as warriors in the lands they travelled to. Constantinople, called Mikligarth by the Scandinavians, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and also a choice environment for Swedish warriors, although Swedes were not the only Scandinavians to travel east or serve in the Byzantine army, and the regions farther north were utilised by Scandinavians for trade and employment, particularly the region of Russia around Kiev. The Byzantine emperors hired the aforementioned and used them as mercenaries and as Palace Guards. The emperors elite bodyguard, called the Varangian Guard, was composed mostly of Swedes but other Scandinavians were involved from time to time, and was even given the right of plundering the palace after an emperor died according to one Saga. After fleeing Norway, Harald Sigurdsson (later Harald Hardradi, king of Norway) spent much of his life in a successful military career in Byzantium before returning to claim his kingdom in western Scandinavia. The Scandinavian lands required expansion as a result of demographic pressure, and each of the three nations needed places to emigrate to. Sweden had Eastern Europe, Denmark had Western Europe with Normandy and the eastern side of the British Isles with the Danelaw, and Norway had the western side of the British Isles with the Orkneys and the North Atlantic with Iceland.

The origins of Icelandic people influenced the development of Icelandic legal and social formation. Iceland was discovered by Irish monks who were seeking hermithood, but their numbers were small. The actual settlement of Iceland began around 870 and the major influx of residents continued until around 930; most of the settlers came from Norway and the Scottish Isles. It has been said that the reasons for emigration came from the activities of King Harald Hárfagri of Norway, but scholars speculate this assertion to be dubious; one reason for the doubt is the missynchronisation of dates. A Scandinavian was blown off course around 860 and the adventurous northerly peoples, always interested in new lands, attempted settlement in the 860s but did not succeed in permanent settlement until Floki Vigerdarsson's expedition in 870 or 874 (there is disagreement among sources). Harald Hárfagri did not become a king in Norway until c.880, and his ambition to unify all of Norway under his crown did not succeed until his victory in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which is difficult to place on a timeline but is most likely to fall somewhere in the area of 885-890. Harald's activities that would drive people into the North Atlantic (including changing laws, being harsh to his opposers, invading the Scottish Isles, and removing landowner rights) occurred after Hafrsfjord, and so therefore it is chronologically inconsistent for the settlement of Iceland to have been driven by the regal Norwegian. The majority of Icelanders were of Western Scandinavian descent, but settlement reasons were probably no different from the reasons for general Scandinavian expansion at that time, with people seeking new land for personal reasons or because of crowding at home, and the mentality of migration still lingered from earlier times. Although Iceland was a separate country, it maintained many adaptations of the mainland systems and connexions therewith.

Scandinavian society was primarily organised locally, with free-men valuing their individuality as hereditary landowners (not to be confused with modern individuality, which is the ideology of charting one's own course and being different from others; Medieval Scandinavian individuality was the ideology of local rule and family freedom from royal management). The Scandinavian lands, as well as the British Isles and Mainland Europe, were divided into tribal lands and local kingdoms; the Early Medieval Era saw many unification efforts in all the European areas, but their effects were fleeting and success fluctuational. Unification of what would eventually be the countries of today did eventually happen, and the groundwork had been laid by the late medieval period, but the spirit of localisation was influential in the mentality of the lower classes for many years. This is evident in the way that Scandinavian legal affairs were handled. Most cases were handled at local things (assemblies of freemen), and district things handled cases that the local things were incapable of resolving satisfactorily. Districts desired local independence from regal micro-management, and would not always honour the ordinances of the royal court; indeed in some times there were legal stipulations for district counsels to be capable of denying the king's new laws admittance into local legislative tradition. Laws varied from area to area, and lands were divided and sub-divided into jurisdictions and regions. The land of Norway was divided into four districts, with each region subdivided into local communities. The majority of Icelandic law was borrowed from the Western Norwegian district, which is not surprising considering the geographic translation behaviour of Scandinavians (those in the west of Scandinavia travelling west, those south going south, and so on, a trend of radial expansion correlating geographically). The difference between Icelandic legal structure and mainland Scandinavian legal structure is that Scandinavia had kings and Iceland did not, but, in the stead of a king, the Icelandic Commonwealth (c.930-1271) invented a new presidential office, that of the Lawspeaker; the lawspeaker did not have the power of a king but had the duty of presiding over the Althing (the annual assembly of the Icelandic Commonwealth) and possessed the chair in the legislative assembly. He was elected to a three-year term and had the duty of reciting one third of the law from memory each year (Icelandic law was codified in 1117-1118, before which it was recorded mentally and transmitted orally).

The organisation of Scandinavian society was based in the medieval style of local and personal allegiance rather than the modern style of nationalism. There were no police or standing armies. Fighting forces were raised when needed, and powerful people maintained personal retinues of warriors as a "hearth guard", but this private foce was a small household security comradeship and not an army. Friendship and kinship were the binding factors for building military forces, and armies were amassed for purposes and not for the sake of possessing a national military. Regional defence forces were sometimes maintained in coastal areas to prevent the district from falling victim to the favoured economic pastime of pillaging, but the soldiers were typically fighting farmers and rarely full-time professional warriors. The captains of military units came from the nobility, but the bulk of Medieval armies were drawn from the peasants who were commoners and not soldiers, spending most of their time farming, and fighting for their lords only in a very small portion of the year. Laws were for order and used as social governors, but enforcement was the task of the litigant and not the state. Support from chieftains and powerful individuals was essential for litigation and retribution. The legal system was based on compensating the victim and not punishing the crime. This system was made possible by the economy of Early Medieval Europe.

The Early Medieval Scandinavian economic system used silver as the standard monetary unit, but cloth, cattle, and gold were also valued and used as trade commodities. The Scandinavian term for "wealth" is most accurately translated as "cattle", which displays the concept that wealth is more than money. Wealth is power for flourishing. Wealth is not simply tradable value, but includes provision for survival and continuation: the difference between "an income" and "a living". The economy was a gift-economy involving barter and trade. Honour was a commodity that ran the society and economy. Gifts were given, honouring the individuals and families involved, and therefore bartering for support and friendship. Simple economic transactions were done by trading, but the real power was gained by trading gifts for loyalty. The poem "Beowulf" applauds the value of a generous king, and abrades stinginess. The gift economy is lubricated by prestige and fuelled by honour. It is because of this social system of honour that compensation as crime punishment was possible. The crime being punished effectively punished the criminal by hurting pride, but the criminal's honour was not harmed because, when punishment was carried out legally through the system, the honour of all was satisfied. This being understood, it is important to also understand that punishment was not the primary goal of criminal litigation. The primary goal was compensation, compensating the victim to satisfy the honour of those harmed and undo the injury caused by the crime. The crime was considered an offence against the individuals and family harmed, not against society in general as modern thought imagines. The concept of justice was a practical repair of damaged wealth and honour, not an ethereal ideology of righteousness. Honour was the most important issue in law and culture.

Silver was valued in Scandinavian society, and was the most prolifically preferred medium of exchange (there are instances in which livestock or cloth were the preferred, but silver was preferred in more places over longer periods of time more often, and often the values of the others were put in terms of their silver equivalent). Many fines were imposed in silver, although were not always paid with the metal specifically but rather the metal was used as a standard of value. Silver being the more common and preferred monetary unit has lead some to mistakenly postulate that silver was more valued than gold, which is preposterous; silver was a standard but not the most valuable substance. Silver from England was greatly valued because the English had a system of minting pennies that had a consistently pure content, and so could be trusted and were valued highly everywhere. Arabic silver coins were also highly valued and usually came from Afghanistan. Gold was more valued, and has always been more rare and valued in all societies in all times. There are times and places where something was valued more than gold (desert people fight over water, but still use gold and silver as their money, valuing gold higher than silver, and some rare times, such as in Egypt, when iron was newly discovered, gold was second to the new, rare and highly prized iron because of its unique strength), but gold was always valued higher than silver. For the Scandinavians, silver was the favourite, but that does not mean that it was the most prized. Codified Icelandic law gives legal fines and requirements, usually denoted in silver, one of the standard monetary systems, but also gives exchange rates which fluctuated across times and regions; these exchange rates include the ratio of gold and silver values, in the which case gold is always more valued than silver, usually in an eight to one comparison. Iceland has a better record of codified law and legal activities, and has the literary tradition of the sagas which gives us an understanding of their society, and other Scandinavian countries are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas, but do not receive as large a space in the historical records as domestic Iceland. Iceland is, therefore, better documented for our study, but mainland Scandinavian culture is not going to be so radically different from the rest of the world, and especially from Iceland, which was comprised of people primarily from Norway and was a spin-off of mainland Scandinavian culture and society, as to have a reversal of precious metal values. Historical accounts and legal records describe transactions and settlements in which gold is valued higher than silver. Artefacts from the time show that silver was more common, and gold was less common; this shows that gold was more rare and so should be more valued. If the manner in which the precious metals are used in the artefacts is examined, it becomes apparent that gold was more greatly prised. Often when gold is used to decorate an item, it is not solid gold but rather gold plated bronze because gold was so expensive; gold usually decorates smaller portions of an item than silver, and this ratio changes with the wealth of the item's owner, with some high-class and regal items being solid gold. Gold is displayed in more prestigious locations on artefacts, composes or decorates more prestigious items, and is found belonging to the higher ranks of society. The archaeological evidence suggests that gold was the favoured metal, even though silver was the more common. Silver was the favoured metal for exchange, but gold was more prestigious and more valuable.

The value of gold is further illustrated by an historical account. In Laxdæla Saga, chapter 26, the story of an inheritance allotment is found. This record describes an event in which the father of two sons also has a third, illegitimate son (an illegitimate son is a son born out of the primary marriage, and was called a bastard, meaning of impure linage or mixed blood, and was usually the result of polygamy; the Medieval Scandinavians were not a Christian society until later, and even then the transition took time, and the pagan roots caused different views on marriage than commonly held in civilized society today). In Iceland at that time, there was a law that forbade arfskot, or the cheating of heirs; the father was the head of the family in which the sons were members, and their birthrights could not be annulled by the father, for he was a caretaker of the family's dynastic wealth rather than the sole owner. Each legitimate son had a right to a portion of the family estate, and so in this case each son could claim one half of the wealth. Icelandic law also stipulated that an illegitimate son could be given up to 12 ounces without permission of the legitimate sons; the legal standard was in silver ounces as the unit of value. In the aforedescribed historical account, the father asked his sons if the illegitimate son could inherit equally with them; one son approved but the other refused, and so the father could not give the illegitimate son more than legally allowed. The interesting turn in this tale is that the father consequently asked the son who disapproved of sharing his inheritance with the bastard if he would permit the giving of twelve ounces to the third man, but failed to specify that it was ounces of silver. The son consented, and the father gave the illegitimate son a gold bracelet weighing eight ounces and a sword worth four ounces of gold; the value of the gift totalled twelve ounces of gold. The son who objected to the bastard's inheritance was greatly displeased, for the father had given gold instead of silver, and gold was worth eight times as much as silver, but he had given permission for the bequeathal of twelve ounces and so could not contest the result of the transaction. This event occurred in the latter half of the tenth century. The saga was written by an unknown author in the middle of the thirteenth century. The events described above clearly indicate that, although silver was the standard, gold was the more valued.

The Icelandic political organisation was a form of feudalistic republic, based on the gift economy. Feudalism originally was not a form of slavery and oppression (as understood by people of today, mostly influenced by France and very late Medieval and Renaissance times as viewed through the chronological bias lens of later eras trying to make their own time look better by changing the image of earlier years, a form of propaganda generated by Enlightenment persons) but was a system designed to protect people by forming a syndicate; the peasants were given land and protection from the lord, and the lord was given labour and military service from the peasants. The term "lord" comes from "hlāfweard" meaning "loaf-ward", or the keeper of the bread; the meaning of "lord" displays the concept of provision and generosity being the defining attributes and honour of rulers. This feudal system provided for the vital needs of the people and supplied protection, and protection was an important concern in a violent age with many marauding tribes pillaging and plundering and exacting treasures from their neighbours. Feudalism originated from freemen voluntarily becoming peasants under more powerful local chieftains (voluntary is a loose term, for circumstances and the land possessions of the chieftains, coupled with the political instability and violent hazards, gave them no other option). This feudal system continued in Iceland, but with a different form. The lords, called chieftains, did not function under kings and their "serfs", called thingmen, were free to transfer their allegiance to other chieftains at their free choice. The chieftains gained their power from the thingmen whom they could call upon for aid, and the thingmen had support from the chieftains. Both forms of feudalism were systems of mutual aid and support, helping everyone in the agreement, a co-operative union functioning off the principle of strength in numbers. These forms of feudalism were based on giving, an exchange of gifts of land, service, support, assistance, loyalty, and trade commodities, with honour binding it all together, a blend of honour and practicality for survival in a dangerous age.

In the beginning, Iceland had 36 chieftains (called Gođar, they originally held the office of a priest as well and served as both religious and civil leaders), more were added to make the total 39 in 965 and 48 in 1005. Iceland was divided into quarters, reminiscent of Norway's division into four districts. Each quarter had thing assemblies for it, and there was an annual assembly, called the Althing, for all of Iceland established in 930. The government of Iceland was not centralised, but was ruled locally by the leadership of chieftains, who were political and not geographical leaders. Rule was done by the people, mostly influential, honourable, and prominent aristocrats, but those leaders required support from the freemen to hold their position, and their position was only that of respected leaders. The government was an organised leadership and not a system of rulers, and people's prestige and military might based on supporters is what enforced legal requirements, and settlements were reached by agreement without imposed laws, with laws being established by agreement among leaders. The leaders established laws, and these laws governed Icelandic legal society, but people could choose to be unlawful at will, but so choosing would result in shame and outlawry, which meant no protection from anyone but the closest of friends (who often tried to keep their assistance of the legal outcast to a minimum and typically it only went so far as to facilitate escape into exile) and resulted in either self-imposed banishment or death (sometimes both, as enraged vengeance-seeking people tracked down enemies in foreign lands and even killed them in public). Laws guided honour rather than forcing compliance, for crimes were defined as offenses against persons rather than violations of edicts, and honour was the life force of society. Chieftains would support their thingmen, but only if they abided legally (submitting to the legal system, not necessarily doing everything right in the first place). An individual without the support of a chieftain was on his own and consequently helpless.

The legal system of Iceland was designed to encourage peace, peace being a term that must be understood relative to the days in which Early Medieval Icelanders lived, being fraught with conflict and violence in the midst of a culture that honoured valour in combat. Icelandic leaders desired to avoid large destructive feuds. Civil war was dangerous and would tear the land apart, destroying the society and dropping the population to levels below the minimum natural requirement for a settlement to survive in North Atlantic climates. Sagas describe countless events of simple transactions, conversations, sports, games, feasts, and daily activities igniting brawls. Many times, violence was the answer. People travelled armed, and Havamal, the Viking poem of wisdom, instructs to always have a spear nearby. Peace was not freedom from danger, but an avoidance of excessive lethal combat.

Iceland was divided into districts (all of Iceland was also divided into quarters around 965), thing assemblies were gatherings of regions, and they were paramount aspects of society. Although legislative assemblies, they were more than legal. Things were places of social and economic meetings, providing a substrate for culture; news was exchanged, games were played, friendship and kinship ties were formed and sometimes broken , and conflicts were resolved, born, or furthered. All thingmen were required to attend their springtime district thing, but the things were organised and maintained by the chieftains, and the districts were divided by the areas closest to the chieftains with thingmen attending the assemblies of their chosen chieftains. It was at these assemblies that most courts were held. Autumn things were not as important and were not legally required nor did they facilitate courts. After the Althing was established, the trials that could not be satisfactorily resolved in springtime things were referred to the Althing, where chieftains gathered but thingmen were not legally required to attend. Most legal proceedings occurred in the district things, displaying the early medieval preference for localised organisation.

Some courts were held at locations where they were needed. Eyrbyggja Saga describes a door court that was held to accuse someone of theft and procure the required search warrant. The court was convened on the spot, with six men appointed as a jury (less than required for more serious legal action) but the court was interrupted by an attack from the farm to be searched, and a battle and a feud began. The practice of courts being held outside of things was an early legal behaviour that fell out of usage, and is not described in codified Icelandic law. Its existence is present in saga evidence, but sparse. Things were better suited for litigation than the scene of conflict, for unwatched land containing naught but argument and lacking third party mediation is a breeding ground for feuds.

Courts were held in the open air, and, except for the early tradition of on-site courts mentioned above, a tradition to quickly exit the realm of the acceptable, were held at designated things. The trial was to be held at the thing geographically closest to the crime, but after some legal reforms in the 960s a dissatisfied litigant could arrange a redo at the Althing, and courts were established for this purpose, with quarter courts dedicated to the four divisions of Iceland. Cases that were not satisfactorily dealt with locally were transferred to the quarter courts, and suits could be taken directly to the quarter court initially without holding trial in a local tribunal if the implications of the dispute were significant and serious enough to warrant such action. Later a fifth court was created in c.1005 for cases that were deadlocked or otherwise impeded from continuing in the quarter courts. Both parties in a lawsuit must be satisfied by the court's decision or the settlement would not be upheld. If an agreement could not be reached, or if there were legal issues, such as technicalities, preventing the case from progressing, the court could become deadlocked and unable to proceed without moving to a higher court or the regrettable but common acts of violence that shook things up and changed the aspects and ingredients of the dispute. The courts were to settle and avoid violent feuds, not cause or exacerbate them.

Chieftains were responsible for managing and maintaining things and the courts therein. Chieftains did not serve as judges, but appointed judges from among respected freemen. This enabled chieftains to participate in the legal system without special interest problems, and so they could bring lawsuits to court on behalf of themselves or their thingmen. Jury members were appointed by the person bringing the case to be tried and were selected based upon legal status and proximity to the crime. A jury member must be a legally free adult man, landed (owning enough land or cattle to qualify as a householder and not a dependant) and of sufficient age (at least twelve years old), and not related to the plaintiff. Jury members must also be the eligible persons closest to the scene, and if there was someone who would be better appointed to the jury than a jury member, the jury member could be removed from the case. The number of jury members varied depending on current law, sometimes being nine and sometimes twelve. There were thirty-six judges in a court, and at least thirty-one judges had to be in agreement about the verdict for a case to be settled. The fifth court had four dozen judges in the beginning of the case, and one dozen were removed by the litigating parties to reduce the number to three dozen; the reasons for removal were not legal but solely based on the preference of the litigants. The judges were appointed by the selection of chieftains. The jury did not decide the case, but decided if there was a case to decide, and if the case was not a legal issue they would state that it was so. The judges decided the verdict and the sentence, but sentences were usually forms of fines, banishment, and outlawry.

Typically, a fine would be imposed for a crime. The fine was not, however, imposed to punish the crime but rather an allotment of compensation to be paid to the victim to satisfy the honour of the family that was offended. Compensation money was even the solution to a killing, except in rare cases. The law stated that if a killing was done, the body must be covered and someone informed of the event. This law, when obeyed, did not prevent retaliation on the part of the friends and family of the violently deceased, but assisted the killer in maintaining legal standing and the ability to acquire support. Typically, killing was the result of a previous conflict that escalated, or an outburst of fighting caused by some trigger or antagonisation, and was not isolated; rarely was a killing not matched by a body of offences enacted by the opposing party simultaneous or previous to the aforementioned killing. In extreme cases, compensation was not the retribution, but rather banishment or outlawry was verdicted. In outlawry, the person's possessions were forfeited, half to the prosecutor and half to people in the area who are lawfully entitled to receive the confiscated property. Outlawed people were not to be helped nor harboured, fed nor forwarded. Outlawry enabled the offended to exact revenge without fear of retaliation, for anyone could lawfully kill an outlawed man, and an outlawed man was abandoned by everyone and consequently became extremely vulnerable, being reduced to a legal status beneath than that of a rabbit. Banishment was less severe, but if the banished one returned, outlawry was automatically imposed. Both banishment and outlawry were not always for the entirety of a person's existence, for there were two versions of each; there existed both full and partial outlawry and banishment. Full was for the rest of the convict's life, partial endured a duration of three years. Two sentences of partial translated into full. Although it may seem simplistic, the Icelandic court system included many complexities.

Precise verbology was required in legal proceedings. The wording and sequence of litigation actions were important; cases could be lost because of procedural errors. When both sides of a dispute had grievances (as was often the case) the first to publicly accuse had an advantage. If a case went to court before another, the accused could lose legal standing and so be unable to prosecute; the danger of early summoning (summoning to court, delivering a subpoena) was that the more time an enemy had to ruminate forthcoming litigation, the better prepared the enemy would be. It was wise to subpoena an enemy before being summoned oneself, but also wise to delay the summoning as long as possible. The accuser had until two weeks before a district thing assembly and four weeks before the Althing assembly to summon the accused to court, and at the Althing was required to declare the accusations from the Law Rock (a large stone on the grounds of the Althing with judicial significance). The case must be prepared properly. An improperly cited jury member would be removed from the case, and the case could be lost because of a lack of a jury. If the majority of the jury members were cited legally, the case could be maintained but the prosecutor would be fined heavily (three marks for each unlawfully cited juror), except this fine would be imposed as a separate accusation and so formed another layer in the dispute. Strategy in law was important, and so was knowledge.

There was no one presiding over the court cases. The judges decided the case, the jury filtered the case, and the complainants pleaded the case. If a law was not known, it would not come into play. Lawyers were important; lawyers were not people of that profession but were simply people educated in law, therefore they knew the law and could strategise cases. Many people knew laws, and most chieftains knew the laws, but there were laws that people forgot. The Lawspeaker was required to have the entire body of laws memorised, and people would go to him with legal questions. He did not provide advice, he merely answered whether or not a specific law existed, and it was the responsibility of the one asking to formulate the question. The Lawspeaker told if something was the law, not what laws applied to a situation. Cases could be lost or salvaged because of a knowledge or lack of knowledge of law.

The legal system of Iceland appears to have been designed to prevent feuds and encourage arbitration. The court system was complicated, difficult, and harsh. People could become outlawed, people could be fined heavily, people could lose cases because of technicalities, people could be sentenced without their grievances being addressed, people could loose the ability to bring their grievances to law. Procedural errors could do more damage than simply a lost case; errors could bring charges of unlawful proceedings and incur acidulous penalties. The courts decision was made by three dozen judges, and their verdict must be unanimous or nearly so, and the judges were merely freemen appointed by chieftains; cases could become deadlocked because of an inability for the judges to agree. It was often better to solve conflict outside of court, and many disputes were resolved by arbitration. Some disputes were dealt with by arbitration entirely, which prevented private matters from becoming public knowledge; sometimes they began in the courts and were moved to the arbiter's realm after the issues were revealed to the public arena, which made private matters public but publicity also prevented unfair dealings; sometimes resolutions were attempted by arbitration first, and moved to the courts if things were unsatisfactory for one of the parties.

When disputes were addressed outside the court system, the arbiters followed the legal system, but as a governor to guide rather than to be strictly adhered to. Often the arbiters were chieftains, but sometimes they were powerful and influential people without chieftainships; those who served as arbiters were much more respected and prominent than the freemen appointed as judges, and were also known by the complainants. Although judges were impartial, they were also uninterested and uninvolved. Arbiters knew the case and were involved in the dispute as advisers and supporters, sometimes restrainers, and sometimes even participants; although they would have interests and would rarely be completely impartial, the arbitration was usually performed by multiple people who came from both sides of the dispute, but this was not without exceptions, as sometimes a single person was selected to resolve the issue. Often arbiters had interests in both sides, rather than one side only. Arbiters desired and worked towards settlement, and they were usually people who were striving in that direction before the case came before public law, if indeed they failed to prevent the dispute from progressing far enough to enter formal adjudication. The Scandinavian form of arbitration did not use a third party as today, but used a counsel comprised of people from the two parties; this system of primary party arbitration kept private disputes as private matters. Arbiters were respected and trusted by both parties, and their wisdom and honour was known by the contestants. They knew law and functioned well in and out of court, and were moderate. Lawful and unlawful action was taken into consideration, and the standard legal penalties were often imposed, but the stringent court proceedings were not relevant. The courts had to follow law strictly, but arbitration could make alterations to the norm out of expediency for the sake of reaching a settlement. Disputes were personal, and arbitration served the personal needs better than the courts. A return to peace, with the honour of all satisfied, was the goal and purpose.

Arbitration was a more moderate approach to conflict resolution, and moderation was important. Although vengeance and valiance were honoured, and not being bested was honourable, exercising restraint gave honour. An overbearing and excessive individual was despised by everyone. When things were in proper balance a person was more respected. The balance of power between chieftains was particularly important, and if one chieftain became too powerful, or was gaining too great of control, the other chieftains would band together and address the issue to restore national balance. A person could loose support because of unruliness or immoderation.

The honour of individuals took a higher place than the law. The law was grounded in the honour of the men who made and used it. People rose to prominence because of their quality, and their prominence is what granted them position. The wisdom of prominent people, chieftain or not, was what honoured them and made them prominent. It is these people who were arbiters and who's counsel was sought. It is because these people were respected that the Icelandic Commonwealth functioned with the honour system and gift economy. The law gave structure to society, and the legal system was for practical functionality and organisation of the honour economy. Valour and restraint in proper moderation was maintained by prominent persons and is what maintained the balance of the Icelandic nation. All the parts of Scandinavian culture and society functioned together for the effectiveness of the machine that was the Icelandic Commonwealth. This mechanism is well displayed by the peaceful conversion to Christianity.

Iceland received multiple missionaries over the years. The conversion attempts were not successful, but converts were made, and slowly the number of Christians in Iceland increased. Some Christians were people of the faith who came from other lands, but some also were converted in Iceland from the old religion to Christianity. The Norwegian King, Olaf Tryggvason, who ruled from 995 to 1000, took a militant approach to missionary work. King Olaf made a career of converting all of Norway, and also turned his ambitions outside his borders. Tryggvason sent missionaries to Iceland and put pressure towards conversion. Iceland became divided between two camps, the old faith and the new faith. The division escalated and there was talk of dividing Iceland into two law systems, one Christian and one Pagan. This division threatened civil war, and so peace had to be arranged. The dispute, which began small but quickly grew into a major national problem, was essentially a feud not unlike the kind Iceland had experienced for many decades before. The two parties gathered in force at the Althing in c.1000 and disputed heatedly, but not violently. It was apparent that the land needed to be united under one law and one faith, and so each side selected a representative for arbitration. The Christian representative deferred to the Pagan, who was Lawspeaker. The Lawspeaker, although pagan, had sympathies in the other camp, and so was a good selection for a mediator. He spent an entire day in solitude, then declared that Iceland should be Christian after making everyone swear to abide by his decision. Although many people were displeased with the loss of the old faith, the conversion was upheld. A conversion that, in Norway did not last and divided the land in war, was peacefully successful in Iceland.

The peaceful conversion of Iceland to Christianity was a triumph of Iceland's legal system that displays conflict resolution on an issue that reaches far deeper than blood feuds; religion is connected to the very soul of someone's being, and has always been the most dividing conflict across times, as belief holds the mind with roots that go deeper than any other personal issue. In a time when most of Europe was ruled by kings and suffered wars, Iceland was a relatively peaceful republic. Iceland had feuds, but never to the point of civil war, and the Icelandic Commonwealth endured free of international war. Early Medieval Iceland had a system of law and conflict resolution that was very effective in the Scandinavian honour society. Geography and the topography of Icelandic culture created a society in which vassalage was impractical. The relationship between chieftains and farmers was a form of mutual dependency similar to early feudalism, but lacking servitude and requiring the freedom of those involved. When other nations were moving towards centralised governments, Iceland remained decentralised with the power in the hands of people following local authority because of respect and not imposed control. Icelandic legal structure is a gem of history that warrants further study.


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