The Protocol of Vengeance in Viking-age Scandinavia

220px-Gísla_saga_Illustration_3_-_Thorgrim's_SlayingThe Protocol of Vengeance in Viking-age Scandinavia

Sefanit Tucker (Yale University)

Vexillum, Vol.3 (2013)


The Protocol of Vengeance in Viking-age Scandinavia seeks to discuss the importance of honor and the established structure of revenge in Northern Europe, namely Iceland, between the 9th and 10th centuries. In spite of both modern and contemporaneous portrayals of a violent people without law, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate the specific cases in which Viking society condoned and employed violence. To this effect, the paper will use particular examples from several major sagas, the only written records of pre-Christian Scandinavia, to outline the precise nuances of violence that corresponded with particular circumstances and stature of the individuals involved.

From historical sources such as the Annals of St. Vaast to personal accounts from scholars like Alcuin of York, it is evident that the even the contemporaneous conception of Vikings included images of senseless barbarians who attacked the innocent, mainly Christians, and left behind nothing but devastation. Violence in Viking society, however, was not haphazard, but rather part of an organized system of action developing over three centuries, based on the individuals involved in a feud and the corresponding method of settlement. Violence, especially in the form of vengeance, was both the opportunity and means for preserving honor in Viking-age Scandinavia and followed concrete principles. A protocol of appropriate vengeance can be proposed which, along with the examination of extenuating circumstances, can facilitate the comprehension of the rare written accounts of early Scandinavia, including Njal’s Saga  ,Egil’s Saga ,Hrafnkel’s Saga ,Gisli’s saga,and the Vinland Sagas. Though the events of the sagas took place largely in the 10th century, they were not transcribed by the Scandinavians themselves until the late 13th century resulting in the influence of later social and political forces on the historical accounts. However, the sagas are the most proximate records of Viking-age Scandinavia and are thus extremely valuable to understanding this protocol of vengeance.

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