Photo: Andreas Bloch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Icelandic Vikings Had A Complex Justice System Based On Blood Feuds

The practice of blood feuding was a fundamental aspect of the Icelandic judicial system during the Middle Ages. A feud, something so complex that it lacks an agreed-upon definition, involved vengeance and hatred among groups - animosities that played themselves out through acts of aggression, compromise, or dishonor. 

In Iceland, blood feuds were not only part of the Viking justice system, but also social and political in nature. According to the Icelandic sagas and other historical sources, blood feuding involved specific guidelines and processes.

For Icelandic Vikings, blood feuds were surprisingly effective techniques employed to maintain social order. In the absence of any formal, written Norse law, blood feuds served an essential role in ensuring fairness while simultaneously facilitating peace.

Photo: Andreas Bloch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • In The Absence Of A Formal Legal System, Families Took It Upon Themselves To Avenge A Slain Relative

    In Iceland during the ninth, 10th, and 11th centuries, justice was enacted via communal action and cooperation. Absent anything resembling a police force or the centralized legal system that exists today, Vikings used customary rules and processes to resolve disputes. Once a year, members of individual regions of Scandinavia would assemble into bodies known as "Things," which would settle disputes and vote on sentences against wrongdoers.

    In this context, avenging a kinsman was an accepted practice - a task that the offended parties would then carry out. Kinship wasn't limited to blood relation, however. "Family" could be a biological relative, an in-law, fostered children, or even close friends.

    Participating in a blood feud was both a choice and an obligation. As illustrated in the events of Njal's Saga, seeking retribution for a kinsman's slaying often involved financial compensation or retaliatory slayings. Njal's Saga recounts a blood feud that takes place across decades, one full of familial dishonor, hostile clashes, and ultimately, reconciliation.

    As the saga unfolds, numerous members of two kin groups participate in the cycle of slaying, remuneration, and vengeance.

  • All Slayings Were Required To Be Either Highly Public Or Properly Published, Otherwise They Would Be Considered 'Mord'

    An important step in avenging the demise of a kinsman was making that slaying public. Accusing someone of manslaughter involved no real investigation or presentation of evidence, but publicizing the slaying allowed for it to be classified as manslaughter. Not reporting a slaying could result in a declaration of morð, or murder.

    The distinction was essential to the feud process. Morð was devoid of honor, while amends could be made for manslaughter. Morð reeked of shame, an act that was most likely committed without giving an individual the opportunity to defend him or herself. Manslaughter, on the other hand, gave the target's kinsmen a chance to react and make things right.

    Someone who committed manslaughter had to be willing to answer for their offense and, ultimately, it was the responsibility of the slayer and the target's kin to publicize a slaying. It was only with public knowledge of a slaying that reconciliation was possible. 

  • Kin Could Respond To A Feud-Slaying Either By Asking For Reparations Or By Reciprocating It

    When a slaying took place - and was made public - the target's kinsmen had two options. Feuding behavior in Icelandic society was based in reciprocity, meaning another slaying could make amends for the initial offense. The kinsmen of a deceased man could seek out the slayer or his kinsmen and exact revenge. Another possibility was the payment of wergild or "man price," also known as blood money.

    In Njal's Saga, the interchangeability of slaying and remuneration is clear. When the saga begins, Njal's wife Bergthora and Gunnar's wife Hallgerd exchange harsh words. While the two husbands are friends, their wives are hostile to one another, to the degree that Hallgerd sends a slave to take out one of Njal and Bergthora's slaves, Svart.

    After the slaying, Njal accepts silver in lieu of a retaliatory slaying, although his wife Bergthora is unsatisfied with the payment. She then sends a servant, Atli, to slay Kol, triggering a payment from Njal back to Gunnar. The silver Njal pays to Gunnar matches what was previously given to him, but neither the aggression nor the compensation payments come to an end. 

  • Feuds Were Most Often Begun Against Families Who Had Fewer Members

    Archaeological evidence indicates that connections among kin groups were multifaceted, and not solely based on blood. Relations by marriage, foster relationships, and illegitimate siblings were all present and, based on the findings, "killers had significantly more kin than victims."

    This suggests the instigators of blood feuds were generally from larger kin groups, potentially acting under a sense of protection and support through that network. Men with a small group to protect them were more vulnerable than their counterparts with widespread protections. In other words, a kinless man could be eliminated without an expectation of retaliation. 

    An additional factor in the size of one's social and political network involved appearing before the Althing - a national assembly of the smaller, regional Things. When the goðar, or chieftains, were in attendance, they had retainers with them known as "thingmen." The number of thingmen grew as the goðar extended their social and political services, potentially totaling into the hundreds.

    When Thorgils Oddason and Haflidi Masson appeared before the Althing in 1121, they had 940 and 1,440 thingmen, respectively. 

  • Not Responding To A Blood Feud Was A Threat To One’s Honor

    Revenge and retaliation, essential to the system of justice in medieval Iceland, were intricately tied up in notions of honor. When any instance of suffering was not acted upon, dishonor plagued the target of the offense. By not responding to a robbery, an injury, or an unfair business exchange, an individual sacrificed their honor. When an individual was slain, it was the duty of his kinsmen to respond on his behalf.

    It was dishonorable to not avenge the slaying of a kinsman, but there was also no honor in doing so in an inappropriate way. For example, it was not acceptable for a group of men to attack a lone slayer to exact revenge. Rather, revenge had to be carried out with a relative amount of fairness and restraint.  

    In Iceland, payment was the more accepted path of restraint, whereas Norwegians seem to have held different beliefs. While appearing before the King of Norway, Icelandic Viking Snegla Halli was told the payment he received for the passing of his father did not negate his obligation to exact revenge. Halli refutes this view in The Tale of Snegla Halli. "I was a child when [my father] was killed, and my kinsmen took up the case," the Viking says. "They arranged a settlement on my behalf, and among us it does not sit well to be called by the name of griðnfðingr [settlement-breaker]."

    In other words, Halli considered the matter settled, and would dishonor himself if he chose to break the agreement already in place. 

  • It Was Customary For Feuds To Be Settled During A Yearly Congregation Between All The Houses Of Iceland

    Individual localities and regions met to deal out justice in Things, which were superseded by the Althing that met each year. At the Althing, disputes that had not been resolved at a Thing were presented, ideally, to bring them to an end. The Althing was made up of a network of goðar, or chieftains, and a system of lesser courts. Headed by logsogumaðr, or "law-speaker," the Althing proclaimed new laws, heard disputes, and decided matters of governance. 

    As depicted in Njal's Saga, the Althing brings together individuals from throughout Iceland, and serves as a mediator between feuding kin groups. During one gathering, Gunnar's wife Hallgerd sends one of her slaves to steal from a local farmer, Otkel, while both he and Gunnar are at the meeting. This leads to a confrontation between Gunnar and Otkel that results in Otkel and his companions being dispatched.

    This dispute then appears before the Althing where it is resolved - temporarily - by financial means.