The Icelandic Free State
by Loren Cobb
As I write this it has been snowing steadily for three days, and the world outside is white beyond white. My cat and I are gathered warm around the hearth, thinking about another cold and snowy place one thousand years in the past: the Free State of Iceland. Here is the story.
In the year 866 Norway was little more than a collection of small coastal kingdoms, smaller chiefdoms, and individual farms, the whole united only by common traditions and language. The richest agricultural lands of Norway were in Vestfold, a coastal zone to the west of Oslo. Harald Fairhair, proud King of Vestfold and beneficiary of its agricultural riches and shipbuilding prowess, began in that year to unify of all Norway under his rule.
In this Harald was merely continuing a centuries-old European expansion of feudal powers to every corner of the continent, but to the independent farmers of Norway, who had never owed fief or paid land tax to anyone, the sudden arrival of royal tax collectors came as a rude shock. By ancient custom and law, the independent landowners of Norway owned their land in allodial title, free of any tax or feudal service obligation. They weren't about to give up those rights without a fight.
As told in the Heimskringla saga of Iceland, Harald's ships defeated the assembled forces of all the petty kings in a naval battle at Hafrsfjord. In the climax of the battle the great berserker Thor Haklang laid his ship alongside King Harald's, and the fighting was hand-to-hand between the king's men and crazed berserk warriors clad only in wolfskins. Thor Haklang fell on that day, and all of Norway soon fell under iron-fisted feudal rule.
For each province in his new kingdom, Harald appointed a jarl to give judgments at law, to impose fines, to collect taxes, and to raise an armed militia. As told and retold in scores of Icelandic sagas, there were many landowners who could not accept the new legal and social order. Beginning in the 880s, a Norwegian diaspora began. Disgruntled farmers and chieftains outfitted ships, then rounded up their cattle, wives, slaves, and retainers, and set sail for freedom in the outlying islands of the Viking realm: the Færoes, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and above all, Iceland.
Iceland: The New Frontier
Not much at all was known about Iceland in those days, other than that it was empty, fertile, and very remote. The island had been discovered in 850 by a Viking ship that was blown off course, but the first permanent settlements began only in 874. Given their twin needs for freedom and distance from King Harald, it was almost ideal for the families of the Norwegian diaspora. A land rush ensued.
As recorded in the Icelandic Landnámabók ("Book of the Land Taking"), farming families by the hundreds set sail for Iceland, each hoping to find and claim a place in some secluded fjord where they could disappear from tax collectors and feudal jarls forever. The earliest settlers claimed enormous tracts, but they were accused by later settlers of taking too much. In the end King Harald himself set the rule: no man could take possession of an area larger than he and his crew could carry a cauldron of fire across in a single day.
There was a different rule for a female head of household: she could take only as much land as she could walk around from dawn to sunset on a spring day, while leading a two-year-old well-fed heifer. At least one woman, Aud the Deep-Minded (Auðr Ketilsdóttir), laughed at that rule and claimed a huge spread. By 930 all useful land had been claimed, and the era of the land-taking was over.
How to Govern?
The great question for the new nation was how to set up a government that freedom-loving Icelanders could tolerate. They wanted a society with no king, no jarls, no sheriffs, no jails, no taxes, no feudal obligations whatsoever. What did that leave? Was it even possible? The Icelanders' answer had elements of genius; it survived peacefully and successfully for more than three centuries at a time when the rest of Europe was convulsed with wars, crusades, mass migrations, famines, and troubles without end.
An essential and unique feature of Icelandic society in those times was the complete absence of towns and villages. Each farm stood by itself as a self-contained economic and social unit, consisting of the farmer and his wife and children, their unmarried relatives, foster children, slaves, employees, and indigents living under the protection of the farmer. Every farmer kept the peace within his domain, insofar as he was able, but disputes between farmers required something further, some social mechanism for conflict resolution that didn't act like an overbearing feudal lord.
Icelandic society of one thousand years ago did not use writing. History was entirely oral, in the form of sagas that were repeated over and over as evening entertainment around the central hearth of the long houses. The many laws of the land were memorized word for word; in fact one of the principle duties of the leader of the legislature the "law-speaker" was to recite one third of the laws every year at their annual meeting. It was a very litigious society, despite the absence of written law everyone, it seemed, knew every wrinkle and detail of the law by heart, and played the angles for their best advantage. Every famous legal case that established a precedent or revealed a defect in the law quickly became the subject of its own saga, and in that way became known to everyone.
The annual meeting of representatives of all the people of Iceland, known as the althing, was established in 930 for the purpose of reviewing and amending laws, and hearing disputes and accusations. Thus the althing was simultaneously a legislature and a court of law. A person could be found guilty of a capital crime at the althing, but by design the althing lacked any public officials empowered to apprehend or execute an outlaw. Instead, the outlaw had to be captured and killed by private citizens which in practice meant the family and friends of the injured party. By eliminating the role of peace officer, the law of Iceland in effect regulated and gave legitimacy to the blood feud. It was an astonishing experiment.
Icelanders quickly recognized that some farmers were much better than others at handling religious matters, working with the law, and mediating disputes. Even before the althing was established, such a farmer was known as a goði, or chieftain (literally, speaker for the gods). When the althing was founded the number of chieftains in all Iceland was limited by law to just 39. Although they were chieftains in origin, these were the people who gradually became the representatives of the people at the althing. At the same time, a chieftaincy became a private possession that was normally inherited from father to son (women were ineligible), or it could be sold, given as a gift, or shared among several farmers.
Chieftains were not elected in formal elections, but the weight and influence of a chieftain at the althing depended critically on the number of Icelanders who declared that he was their representative. Every free Icelander had to select a chieftain to represent him; in doing so he became one of the chieftain's thingmen. An incompetent chieftain would lose thingmen, and his chieftaincy would rapidly lose value. Finally he would either give it away, or share it with someone more competent. Thus the people were represented in the althing in a way that was, in the end, democratic even though the chieftaincy itself could be bought and sold at will.
To obtain the support of a chieftain and all of his thingmen in a dispute, an Icelander first needed to convince him to take the case. Depending on the complexity of the dispute, and the potential dangers involved no dispute in Iceland was ever free of physical danger the chieftain would propose a price for his assistance. This price was customarily high, unless the petitioner was a close friend or relation of the chieftain. Support, mediation, and justice could be purchased, but only if you were willing and able to pay the price.
Their system was set up so as to give disputants a powerful incentive to settle disputes quickly, usually with one party offering to pay the other a settlement. If that failed, then each party would attempt to enlist the aid of a chieftain to represent him in mediation, or before the althing. If either of the disputants failed to find a chieftain, or didn't like the decision that the mediator or the althing offered, then his or her final recourse under the law was physical violence, either a formal duel or a deadly attack (which had to be preceded by a public announcement). The ever-present threat of deadly violence served as a further incentive to all parties to agree to a settlement, but the demands of medieval honor occasionally outweighed any possible monetary compensation. The Icelandic sagas are replete with the tragic stories of multigenerational blood feuds that began with a simple disagreement among parties too stubborn or too concerned about their honor to agree to a financial settlement.
The End of the Free State
Iceland lived at peace under the unwritten constitution of the Free State for 300 years, from 930 to about 1230, with little social disruption and what seems to have been a very low level of serious crime (at least by medieval standards). The powers of the chieftains were strictly limited by the farmers and the power of the althing. It was not until 1230 that any strongman or warlord or feudal jarl could establish a foothold and this was not for lack of trying! There are many theories about the decline of the Free State, but in the end I think it was brought down by two influences that seemed harmless or actually beneficial at the time: a growing economy and the medieval Christian church.
At inception, and for at least a century thereafter, Iceland was extremely poor. The agricultural surplus was razor thin, and famines were frequent. Other than a small supply of coins from Europe, there was no money: woven cloth served as a medium of exchange in the place of coinage. In the 11th century things began to improve, and by the 13th the richest landowners had sufficient financial resources to seek additional power within the political system. Some became storgoðar strong chieftains who were able to buy and control other chieftains, to raise private militias, and to reach out for support to the King of Norway. Their armed struggles for power and influence created chaos beyond anything that the constitution had been designed to handle.
An earlier crisis, equally threatening to the Free State, had occurred in the year 1000. Christianity had appeared in Iceland, just as in other parts of Scandinavia, and many new converts wanted the althing to declare the entire island to be Christian. King Olaf of Norway threatened to cut trade relations with Iceland if the island did not convert. A civil war could have resulted, but the full power of the althing's conflict mediation system was brought to bear on the dispute. In the end both sides agreed to abide by the decision of one man, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, the law-speaker of the althing. He was himself a follower of the ancient Æsir pagan faith, but with many ties of blood to the Christian community. After great internal struggle, Thorgeir ultimately chose to commit all Iceland to the new Christian religion. This was the Free State's first severe test, which it survived without descending into a ruinous civil war.
At first the new Christian Church of Iceland had little supervision or influence from continental Europe. In the year 1096 the althing made a critical mistake: it granted to the Church the right to collect a tax for its support. From its humble beginning as a small collection of chapels built and owned by individual farmers, the Church gradually acquired ownership of vast lands, wealth, and properties. With property and wealth came power and influence, despite legal restrictions and secular control by the althing. By the 13th century the Church had become a powerful advocate for introducing the feudal system into Iceland. Church leaders gave King Haakon IV of Norway an opening to political influence. It was all he needed.
By 1262 the althing concluded that it could neither suppress the armed battles occurring between the new warlords, nor control the Church. The only power they could see that could dominate both was the Norwegian crown. Public meetings were held in every local thing with royal representatives, to lay out the options. After several years of agonized discussion, the people of Iceland authorized their althing to make a petition to King Haaken to take over sovereignty of the state, to enforce peace among the warlords, and to counterbalance the power and wealth of the Church.
Thus ended history's first and perhaps only experiment in governing a democratic state with no executive, no armed forces, no police or prosecutors, and no governmental services of any kind.
The fate of the Icelandic Free State suggests to me that an isolated libertarian society can thrive for centuries with a constitutional democracy but no executive power whatsoever until it grows too rich, or allows any group to become too powerful. Such a society appears to be stable as long as it is relatively poor and isolated, but that stability apparently declines with increasing economic surplus and closeness to the outside world.
It may also be true that the stability of a purely libertarian political system vanishes when any significant non-state center of power emerges, grows rich, and throws off its controls. Of course, non-state power centers are dangerous for any form of government, not just libertarian. One of the symptoms of a failing state is the appearance of heavily-armed militias and private armies, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Somalia.
Modern democratic societies protect themselves from violent overthrow by maintaining a state-owned monopoly on organized deadly force: the armed forces and the police. The stability of the modern democratic state is found in the dynamic balance of powers between the armed forces, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and the free press. When this dynamic balance fails, then police states and military dictatorships arise. The Icelandic Free State ultimately failed for lack of an executive backed by a monopoly on organized deadly force. The althing and its institution of justice the regulated blood feud proved too weak to overcome the gathering strength of armed and ruthless private militias, not to mention a rich and influential church.
Those of us who work for peace throughout the world should contemplate the example of the Icelandic Free State with great care and attention. What social and spiritual institutions and what kind of dynamic balance of powers will be needed to preserve democracy and to prevent war and oppression, in a world overflowing with economic and military powers?
"With law, the land shall be built; without law, the land shall be laid waste..." Saga of Brennunjál, Iceland.
Revised 18 March 2008 to more accurately portray the conversion of Iceland to Christianity.
Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!
Somalia is not a good example of a failed state. Somalia has been governed for many centuries by clans. A clan does not claim to have a monopoly over territory, although a clan will own land. Everyone must belong to a clan, or else be a guest of a clan. Each clan has its own set of laws, called Xeer. Theory predicts and practice shows that these laws will be mostly identical.
When you try to impose a monopoly government over this clan structure, the clans are constantly trying to break through. If the government is a dictatorship, the dictator will belong to a clan, and he will run the government for the benefit of his clan. If the government is socialist, the people who do the central planning will belong to a clan, and will plan for the benefit of their clan. If the government is democratic, each clan will run a member for office, and the numerically-superior clan will win and (you guessed it) run the government for the benefit of his clan.
The "heavily-armed militias" and "private armies" are clan militias. The clans have rules for interactions between clans (interestingly, men are encouraged to marry a woman from another clan, and the woman is expected to change alligiance to her new clan). However, if you have someone trying to monopolize the government, they can play one clan off against another. Usually this does not work, because there are enough clans to be able to gang up on any two clans that try to work together to oppress the other clans. However, if the group trying to monopolize government is able to bring in outside resources, it is possible that they could succeed in their manipulations.
This Wikipedia article has good information: Anarchy in Somalia.
Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting, and publisher of The Quaker Economist.
Your quotation from the Njal Saga ("With law, the land shall be built; without law, the land shall be laid waste...") is most appropriate. When the saga begins law is based on mediation by chiefs and trials at the Althing. However, by pagan law one could always challenge an opponent to trial by combat. Thus, it worked out that justice was merely rule by the strongest.
Gundar represented the best that pagan society could offer. He was a mighty warrior, but just and honorable. He married badly a woman as strong-minded and independent as he was so he was constantly making peace for the quarrels she provoked with Njal's equally strong wife. But Gundar died in a feud, his wife refusing to give him strands of her hair to repair his broken bowstring. Njal died, too, his home burned over his head. If Gundar could not make the pagan system work, nobody could. It was morally bankrupt.
Christianity brought fundamental reforms, and peace came with it. When the church became corrupt, that was later, and later the Icelanders eagerly adopted the Lutheran church (and, unfortunately, also the austere clothing and narrowness of belief) in an effort to reclaim local control. One generation's solutions may not work for all time, but those who can learn from the past should be able to understand why they have inherited the system they have, and to realize that it is never easy to make any system work.
The saga is a great read, especially if you read it aloud. The narrative is compelling, but not for anyone who attempts to skim it. A saga is like Christianity, not enjoyable for those who do not take it seriously, but powerful for those who do.
William Urban, Monmouth, Illinois (Peoria-Galesburg MM)
I think you left out a critical point about Iceland's conversion to Christianity. While it was up to one man, a critical deciding factor was that Christian Norway was going to sever trade with them if they did not convert. So the conversion wasn't so much about religion but economics. Even after they converted, the Icelanders were allowed to keep some of their pagan practices of exposing infants and eating horsemeat in a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Wikipedia has an article: Christianization of Iceland.
Thanks for the interesting article about a fascinating place and time period, but I am perplexed by the references to the Iceland free state period as having a constitution. My understanding is that Iceland had no consitution until the 19th century. The first Law Speaker was sent to Norway to learn the Norwegian code of law and he (and subsequent law-speakers) were tasked with reciting a third of the law at each session of the Althing. They were not reciting a constitution, but a code of law, though under the circumstances there may be little difference.
Connie Battaile, Ashland, OR.
I read with great interest your letter on the Icelandic Free State. It's a fascinating history that raises provocative questions about capitalism, democracy, libertarianism, and religion, and the political and social lines that connect them all.
One point puzzles me: You state, "In the end King Harald himself set the rule: no man could take possession of an area larger than he and his crew could carry a cauldron of fire across in a single day." This implies that Harald had some control, or at least influence, over the Norwegians who settled Iceland. However, I can find nothing of that relationship in your narrative.
Thanks again for a wonderful saga.
Copyright © 2008 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved.