Reviewed by: Glenn P. Hendrix, chair, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP
While planning a trip to Iceland this year, I became interested in Icelandic history, which led me to The Sagas of the Icelanders. Iceland was settled by the Norse starting in about 870 A.D., but functioned without a state until 1262, when the Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian crown.
Beginning in 930, Icelanders would gather annually at an assembly (the “Althing,” considered to be the world’s oldest running parliament), but there was no ruler or executive power to carry out its decisions. Instead, the collective will of the community, as expressed by the Althing, was implemented by private action. For certain offenses, a person could be declared an outlaw and subject to being killed by literally anyone.
This world is captured in the Sagas, a series of stories about feuds and other conflicts in 10th- and 11th-century Iceland (based on oral traditions that were first recorded in the 13th century). While curious about the sagas, I thought they’d be archaic and somewhat difficult to read. I initially planned to skim a few pages just to get a sense of them. Instead, I found myself hooked. The stories are entertaining in a Game-of-Thrones kind of way, with well-developed, relatable characters.
Beyond that, and most interesting to me, was the critical importance of law in this stateless society. Despite the absence of any central authority, lawsuits (conducted before a council at the Althing) and arbitrations feature prominently in several of the sagas. In an environment in which the threat of violence was ever-present, the medieval Icelanders developed a complex set of oral codes and legal procedures to resolve disputes. Although fighting prowess was highly prized, as one would expect in a Norse community during the Viking Age, so too was legal prowess.
My favorite saga was Njal’s Saga, a book-length tale (300 pages in the Penguin edition) in which the eponymous character, Njal Thorgeirsson, is renowned for his skills in advocacy and legal maneuvering. He utters the memorable phrase, “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste.” True in medieval Iceland, and true in our own society as well.
Buy Sagas and support Global Atlanta here:
Editor’s note: Global Atlanta receives a commission on any books purchased through the Amazon links above. These links were added after the reviews were received and had no bearing on the books selected or the content of the reviews. If you find yourself wanting to purchase this book, clicking through from our site would be a good way to support our publication.