1117 in Iceland and England

1117 in Iceland and England

By Peter Foote

The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London 14 March 2002

Extract: But I should make it plain at this point that 1117 in England and 1117 in Iceland represent a coincidence, not a connection, a coincidence though which may permit some comparison and more especially some contrast. The laws of early Iceland are my main topic. As a species of literature and as a fount of historical information at various cultural levels students and scholars alike tend to find these problematic, intractable, amorphous, even mysterious. Discussion which may help to throw light on their nature is, or ought to be, welcome. Or so I hope. So I start with 1117 in Iceland. That summer was BergÞó—rr Hrafnsson’s first summer as Lawspeaker, and at the General Assembly:

the novel resolution was taken to write our laws in a book at Hafliði M‡asson’s during the coming winter, following the account and counsel of Hafliði and BergÞó—rr and other wise men selected for the task. They were to make all the new-law proposals that seemed to them better than the old laws. The proposals were to be announced in the Law Council the following summer and all those kept to which the majority of the Law Council men did not object. And it came about in due course that Vígslóði and much else in the laws were written and read out next summer by clerics in the Law Council. And all were content with that and no one made any objection to it.

This well-known passage from Ari Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók was written within ten years or so of the event – we need have no doubt of its accuracy and we may be glad to have it. Ari doubtless included this information because he saw written law as a sign of national maturity, a statement of national identity, and found it needless to give the further details we would have welcomed. How many and who were the other experts consulted? What was written besides Vígslóði? What was read out in the Law Council in 1118 – the whole of Vígslóði and “much else in the laws” or only the novelties that improved the earlier regulations – and were men reminded what those earlier rules were? One thing we can be certain

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