He will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Iceland, from the 10th through 13th Centuries, had a legislature (the Althing) and courts, but no executive branch:

Unlike the Rom, the Icelanders’ problem wasn’t foreign oppressors — it was that they were the Viking equivalent of those hard-core libertarians who live in compounds in Montana where the Feds can’t reach them. In this case “the Feds” were the forces of King Harald Fairhair, who had just taken over and centralized power in Norway. Some Norwegians decided they would rather live on a remote and frequently-exploding piece of rock on the edge of the world than be anyone’s subject: thus, medieval Iceland.

If an Icelander thought a crime had happened, they would go to court and plead the case themselves. If the court pronounced a guilty verdict, it would demand a penalty from the criminal. Usually this was a fine paid to the victim; even murders were punished with wergeld. If the criminal paid the fine voluntarily, all was well. If they refused — or didn’t even come to court — then the court could declare the criminal an outlaw, meaning it was legal to kill him and take his stuff. And:

One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right — the right to be reimbursed by the criminal — and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.

A second objection is that the rich (or powerful) could commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment against them. Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of the problems which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the thirteenth century. But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem. A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga that provides striking evidence of the stability of this system. Conflict between two groups has become so intense that open fighting threatens to break out in the middle of the court. A leader of one faction asks a benevolent neutral what he will do for them in case of a fight. He replies that if they are losing he will help them, and if they are winning he will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford! Even when the system seems so near to breaking down, it is still assumed that every enemy killed must eventually be paid for. The reason is obvious enough; each man killed will have friends and relations who are still neutral — and will remain neutral if and only if the killing is made up for by an appropriate wergeld.


  1. T. Greer says:

    This summer I read Njal’s Saga, a few of the sagas included in the Sagas of the Icelanders volume, Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland, and William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye and Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland.

    I did not get to Miller’s Why is my Ax Bloody? (or any of his other rather fascinating titles) but I would like to.

    My thoughts from all this reading were numerous. But some highlights:

    *It is a great shame that Thomas Schelling never read the Sagas. They are made for Schelling.

    *William Ian Miller is almost as good as Shelling might have been. (And better than Friedman, if Alexander’s summaries are correct). This guy is something else.

    *Every libertarian needs to read at least Njal’s Saga and Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking. Maybe not all of the latter but parts.

    *Every science fiction author should read them too. The social and legal world of med iceland is way more out-of-this-world than most science fictionists can manage, but presented as engrossing literature, not some pseudo-scientific ethnographic report.

    *It is possible to have a system of laws that people follow and obey without having any government at all. Law precedes government.

    *But those systems are also very bloody. The Icelanders chose freedom, equality, and violence.

    *Isegoria would really like William Ian Miller.

    As a final note–not something from my reading, but a response to Friedman glossed by Alexander: it is very difficult to read the Saga of Burnt Njal as a manifesto in favor of the system’s stability. The titular character spends the entire book talking about how the law is king… and is burnt alive in house for his efforts. The feuding spirals out of control until almost every faction in the island is involved. You might call that stable–but normally speaking, when the death of man blossoms into battles with tens of people on each side, and a killings and counter killings stretch on for two decades we would not call this situation ‘stable.’

  2. T. Greer says:

    Though perhaps the book Isegoria would like more is Eye for an Eye. The same wergeld system in Anglo-Saxon England is analyzed with some depth, with fun interludes into questions like this: just how much more is your pinky worth than your ring finger?

  3. Isegoria says:

    I’ve been meaning to read the sagas forever, and I have a copy of Byock’s Viking Age Iceland I’ve been meaning to get to, too, but the tsundoko is powerful. Now I have to add Miller? “Almost as good as Shelling might have been and better than Friedman” is pretty high praise!

    As for science-fiction authors reading the sagas, I must highly recommend Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” which is included in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century. (It came up earlier, when I was discussing books that have influenced me and ideas behind their time.) I also recommend his Uncleftish Beholding, an explanation of atomic theory bereft of borrowed Latin words.

    I agree that Friedman seems oddly upbeat about Icelandic anarchy, but it is saying something that it lasted hundreds of years before spiraling out of control — like democratic republics.

  4. Graham says:

    Well, every form of government spirals out of control sooner or later — whether it is then restored to something like its previous form or replaced by something else is the larger variable and the philosophical question for so-minded historians. Was the principate still the res publica?

    The pre-existing form might affect the frequency and scale of the disruptions — a despotic monarchy might collapse under conditions a feudal or tribal or oligarchic one might survive, they all probably stall more frequently but less intensely than republics. Fewer players, more specific stakes, less challenge to the overall definition of the system.

    Apart from that — thanks — I now have a Japanese slang term to call my very own and which describes my lifestyle. And here I thought only anime or flower enthusiasts could have those.

  5. T. Greer says:

    One has to be careful with the sagas. By definition, they tell the stories of when the system when it was not working right. They pass over the peaceful years–sometimes decades!–in the stories as something too boring to talk about.

    As a system for providing prosperity, the Icelandic laws and norms worked pretty well (better than most big empires or petty kingdoms of the middle ages). As a system for providing justice they worked less well. It was a system in which might made right, and if your side was mighty enough you had no need to stick to the rules. A lot of what went down was really just power politics.

    This is hardly unique to iceland of course. But not quite the idyl that Alexander describes.

    The other thing that Alaxander/Friendman doesn’t really seem to care about–but which Miller does–was the overwhelming importance of honor and face in this system. So contrary to Alexander’s claim that most people would bow out before the charge of outlawry was laid, plenty of people would accept the claim in name of honor and fight all comers who came. Millar has given a lot of careful thought to why people in honor cultures do what they do. His legal analysis is a Schellingesque, but he takes emotions far more seriously than economist types would. He is Schelling meets Gavin de Becker meets a crusty Oxford professor of Old English.

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