Around the year 900 AD, a small band of Scandinavian farmers, sailors, & traders – Vikings, if you will – founded a society without king, without army, without wars, with few taxes, & by their standards a very limited number of serfs. Instead of these trappings, the new society evolved what was probably the most advanced legal-political system of the European Middle Ages. This new, freer society was Iceland – & it would keep its independence until Norway took over its government near 1262 AD. It is in this almost utopian context, a 350 years span of sovereignty & political freedom, that the renowned Sagas evolved. Yet the following facts are more History than fiction.
The innermost core of the young Icelandic society was the Althing, an early form of nationwide parliament. Composed of 40 important chieftains, the Althing debated issues & suggestions brought to them by the peasantry, often filtered through more local political gatherings, & eventually turned some of these proposals into law. Aside from this legislative role, the Althing functioned as a court of appeal or even, for important cases, as the main court of justice. This juridical power, by no means only benign, is the true key to Iceland’s peculiar political system, & to the fact that such a system could function for so long without autocracy or large scale conflict.
Again, the Iceland of the Saga days almost seems a utopia. Developed & driven from the bottom up, by citizens & gradualist pragmatism – not top-down, by elites & abstract concepts. An apparently flat hierarchical structure, decentralist, almost democratic in the modern sense, & with even distribution of a blessedly restrained wealth base. Most male Icelanders were free peasants, with the remarkable right to choose their chieftain independently of where they lived. & far more important: to replace him when dissatisfied.
All this ought to have made the average citizen fairly powerful with respect to the elites of his society. So he was to an extent, especially in comparison to Iceland’s neighbours across the sea. But by what practical mechanisms, hidden or obvious, could such a utopia be contrived to work here, while clearly working nowhere else? This is what a modern classic by one of the world’s leading authorities on Viking culture & Iceland, Jesse Byock of UCLA (see reference below), aims to show.
An important & obvious explanation of Iceland’s political success is that the island was a virginal, formerly entirely uninhabited colony, founded by frugal settlers – & without the natural resources, population, cities or trade to build up a national wealth base important enough to create inequalities, or even to be worth fighting about.
There is something to that. But plenty of frugal societies on resource-poor land, such as feudal Japan or many ancient Greek city states, have had an authoritarian part. A better hidden explanation, uncovered by Byock, is that Iceland surely was fair, politically organic, & almost democratic – but not to the extent it seemed.
Iceland’s countless & notorious feuds, featured repeatedly in the Sagas & which often involved the very limited farmable soil, were not always decided axe in hand. Just as often they ended in the court system, which in practice meant the Althing, which again meant: in the hands of the most powerful chieftains. Violence was thus channelled into a robust web of rituals & legality, which there was overwhelming consensus to respect. At least in appearance.
For this very system, designed to protect from the mighty, gave the mighty an enormous occult influence. The only protection for a peasant whose land was threatened by a forceful neighbour – often a chieftain – was another chieftain. Only the latter had the authority in court, & the negotiation skill behind the scenes, to defend the peasant. For this semi-monopoly on authority even the “helpful” chieftain could exact an exorbitant fee. Often the price was the entire land of the peasant he defended. The peasant kept his life & his “honour” – presumably meaning a bare minimum of control over his destiny. Force & arbitrariness had, after all, not prevailed entirely over him.
Fortunately Iceland had checks & balances. Partly the codified law itself, which certainly did not cater only to the powerful. Partly the many chieftains peripheral to a given feud, extremely reluctant to see one of their own gain too much land or ascendancy. & finally the peasants themselves, who by virtue of their numbers had strength & legitimacy to counteract the greed of the chieftains. Still, an inbuilt imbalance of power remained. Slowly, as centuries passed, it would concentrate ever larger wealth on ever fewer crafty chieftains. And it was in fact the gradual escalation of armed conflict between these super-chieftains which, in the end, led to Norway’s intervention & to the fall of the republic of the Sagas.
Byock’s study, built on the impressive legal documentation from the period, & also on what the sagas reliably reveal between the lines, is one of the rare satisfying accounts of a real-life historical utopia. Satisfying both because the utopia maintains some degree of credibility & standing – & because its limitations are so lucidly exposed.
Byock, Jesse L. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, & Power. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0520069541.
Byock, Jesse L. Viking Age Iceland. London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 978-0140291155. More general & all-round expansion on the study above.
Njal’s Saga. Translated by Robert Cook. London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 978-0140447699. The preeminent Icelandic saga.