By Jesse L. Byock
Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture, edited by Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki (Ashgate, 2003)
Introduction: Medieval Iceland, with its vast saga literature and extensive law books, has long supplied researchers with examples of conflict and feud. It is now a century since the legal historian James Bryce wrote that medieval Iceland was
a community whose culture and creative power flourished independently of any favouring material conditions, and indeed under conditions in the highest degree unfavourable. Nor ought it to be less interesting to the student of politics and laws as having produced a Constitution unlike any other whereof records remain, and a body of law so elaborate and complex that it is hard to believe that it existed among men whose chief occupation was to kill one another.
Despite the eloquence of Lord Bryce’s formulation, his last line is patently wrong. The chief occupation of early Icelanders was not to kill one another. To the contrary, Viking Age Icelanders only killed in moderation. Whatever the desire of individuals for vengeance, Icelanders as a society were principally concerned with finding workable compromises that avoided recourse to violence. Most studies of blood taking and peace making in early Iceland have rather determinedly followed Bryce’s lead. Analyses of Icelandic feuding have tended to focus on the detail s of wonderfully narrated incidents of saga blood letting, that is, crisis situations on which the sagas dote, rather than on distinguishing underlying societal structures and normative patterns that held violence in check. In this article I shift the focus away from the homicidal aspects of Icelandic feuding and instead reconsider the dynamic of feud and conflict resolution in tight of the organizational structures that evolved in this community of medieval European immigrants.