Lawyers in the Old Icelandic Family Sagas: Heroes, Villains, and Authors

Lawyers in the Old Icelandic Family Sagas: Heroes, Villains, and Authors

By Alan Berger

Saga-Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research, Vol.20 (1978-81)

Introduction: In no other literature but Old Icelandic is such prominence given to the manly art of legal prosecution and defence. Along with the accomplishments of skill in arms and verse-making, many a saga hero is credited with a knowledge of law and legal procedure. Many of these heroes are shown duelling with their enemiesin a series of legal disputes forming a series of chapters. In some sagas legal conflict plays such a large role that the sagas deserve to be called “lawyer sagas”, as other sagas are called “outlaw sagas” or “poetsagas”.

The great number of legal episodes in the family sagas has never won critical esteem. On the contrary, disapproval is common. Modern readers who appreciate the literary values of the sagas do not appreciate “the details of legal procedure which fill so many pages of the sagas, somewhat to their detriment as artistic creations”. Readers ofprevious generations who valued the historical features of the sagas did not value “the law quibbles characteristic of the forged sagas… which lower the tone of much of Njal’s Saga”.’ Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century copyists of Njals saga, whether they regarded the saga as literature or history, abbreviated or omitted much of the law.’ Considering the long-standing aversion to law, perhaps “lawyer saga” would be more pejorative than descriptive. A closer look at some law in the sagas may help explain why there is so much of it.

A typical example of a saga episode involving legal material is found in Chapter 27 of Viga-Glums saga:

One spring Thorvaldr from Hagi came to Hrisey with a cargo ship, intending to gather provisions. When Kloengr learned of it, he decided to go with him. As they were leaving the fjord they found a whale newly dead; they forced ropes through it and towed it in along the fjord the rest of the day. Kloengr wanted to tow it to Hrisey because it was nearer than Hagi, but Thorvaldr wanted to tow it to Hagi, saying that was also lawful. Kleengr says that it is illegal not to bring it to the land of the finder who is nearest. Thorvaldr said that he was the one who was right about the law, and that the kinsmen of Glumr did not need to encroach on their lawful share – “and whatever the law is, the more powerful ones will decide.” Porvaldr had more men that time, and they took the whale from Kloengr by force, although both were landowners. Kloengr went home very upset. Thorvaldr and his men laughed at Kloengr and his men, saying they were not able to hold on to the whale.

Click here to read this article from Saga-Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research

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