For with law shall our land be built up and settled, and with lawlessness wasted and spoiled.
- Njal's Saga, ch.69
When truth and fairness are different from what is law, better it is to follow truth and fairness.
- Bandamanna Saga, ch.6
The Norsemen of the Viking Age (roughly 750-1100) are best known as bloodthirsty invaders and marauders. Less well known is that they were part of a far-flung culture of significant sophistication and refinement (by the standards of the time), with a well-developed body of art, literature, and poetry, technological advances in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, and (most importantly for our purposes) a complex and comprehensive body of laws. Many of the integral concepts in our own legal system, including popular assembly and trial by jury, have mirrors in (or derive at least in part from) examples in the laws of medieval Scandinavia and its colonies, which stretched from the shores of Newfoundland to the Volga River and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle. Many elements of Anglo-American tort, real property, and contract common law can be traced directly to Norse precedents.
The sagas of medieval Iceland, committed to writing between the mid-twelfth and the early fifteenth centuries, record details of countless legal battles and proceedings. From these we know a great deal about the development of early civil procedure, alternative dispute resolution, and legal penalties (this "practical" law sometimes differs a great deal from the "normative" law codes of the period, such as the Icelandic Gragas or the Gulathinglaw and Frostathinglaw of early Norway). One such incident, the story of a tort settlement almost gone bad, is reported in charactaristically laconic (but grimly humorous) style in the Saga of Gudmund the Worthy:
Some Norwegian merchants chopped off Skaering [Hroaldsson]'s hand. Gudmund the Worthy was given self-judgment in the injury case. Haf Brandsson and Gudmund together adjudicated compensation in the amount of thirty hundreds, which was to be paid over immediately. Gudmund then rode away from the ship.
But the Norwegians confronted Haf, who had remained behind; they thought the judgment had been too steep and they asked him to do one of two things: either reduce the award or swear an oath [of compurgation]. Haf refused to do either.
Some people rode after Gudmund and told him what had happened. He turned back immediately... Haf told him where matters stood.
Gudmund said, "Swear the oath, Haf, or else I will do it, but then they will have to pay sixty hundreds. The oath of either of us will have the same price as Skaering's hand."
The Norwegians refused this offer.
"Then I will make you another proposal," said Gudmund. "I will pay Skaering the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man among you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skaering and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man's hand as cheaply as you wish."
This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original amount immediately.
There's a lot going on here, and some of it will be beyond the casual reader, but anyone who has been involved in lengthy (and often acrimonious) settlement discussions will doubtless appreciate the simple elegance of Gudmund's solution.
Professor William Miller has an extensive discussion of this case, and many other aspects of medieval Icelandic law, in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997). Professor Miller's other books, though more broad in focus, also contain insights into human behavior and society that are of use to legal practitioners and businesspeople alike.
For more general looks at the law and culture of medieval Scandinavia, see, e.g.:
- Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (Penguin, 2001)
- Eric Christiansen, The Norsemen in the Viking Age (Blackwell, 2006)
- Angelo Forte, et al., Viking Empires (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005)
- Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (2d ed.) (Oxford Univ. Press, USA, 2002)
For another look at the story of Gudmund the Worthy and the hapless Skaering, see my story "Gudmund's Solution," The Bencher: The Magazine of the American Inns of Court (March/April 2006).