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Historical Oddity: The Birth of a Commonwealth in Medieval Iceland

A 19th-century depiction of the Alþingi of the Commonwealth in session at Þingvellir. (Wikipedia)

A 19th-century depiction of the Alþingi of the Commonwealth in session at Þingvellir. (Wikipedia)

By John Engle

Iceland is an odd place with an odd history. Despite being ranked among the wealthiest nations today, for much of its history it was left out of the growth and development of culture and technology throughout the Medieval period. It has never been a particularly hospitable environment for human habitation. Wind-blasted, cold, and rocky, it was an island left unsettled by humans long after it was discovered.

Yet humans have always found ways to inhabit and thrive in even the most unpromising of lands, and a significant number of Norwegians set out to demonstrate that in Iceland in the closing decades of the Ninth Century CE. The impetus for these bold pioneers to abandon their ancestral homelands for this terra nullius was twofold. Firstly, the lack of arable land in Norway made even the rough Icelandic plains attractive to those who lacked property but still desired to build farms and to raise families. Secondly, the unification of Norway and the centralization of its power structure under Harald Fairhair and his heirs led many independent spirits to chafe at the yoke of royal power. Iceland was a refuge for these early political refugees.

These early pioneers found a fairly barren, inhospitable land, but they swiftly went about making a home for themselves. In many ways the settlers succeeded in replicating life as it was on the Scandinavian mainland, with family and clan groups forming the primary centers of social life. Architectural and farming practices were successfully transplanted wholesale, if in somewhat more rustic form.

Yet the settlers failed to bring along one thing: a government. The traditional nexuses of power in the Medieval world, royal families and noble elites, staked no claim to the Icelanders. This state of affairs proved somewhat unstable, as no set rule of law resulted in feuds that cost many lives. Eventually the most respected and powerful clan leaders met to resolve these problems. As pragmatic as they were warlike, the Icelanders agreed to establish a permanent government to uphold a binding rule of law and to arbitrate disputes between individuals and families.

In 930CE this government took shape as the Althing, or assembly. It would be a sort of proto-parliament, with seats apportioned to the major families and regions. The Althing was to be a deliberative and legislative body, as well as central judiciary. No one was denied access to it by merit of birth. Vitally, this governing structure allowed the rule of law to take hold while still maintaining a decentralized social structure.

It was settled that the permanent meeting place would be in a valley within easy riding distance of the major population centers. As a quirk of history, or maybe as an auspicious sign, the particular valley chosen happens to fall directly on the dividing line of two tectonic plates. On one side is the plate carrying most of Europe. The other, to the west, holds the eastern North American continent. The Icelandic pioneers could not know that, of course, but looking back on it through history, it does have a certain synchronicity. Here, in this rugged frontier, men with little or no education had settled on a break with the only way of governing they had ever known, a break as palpable as the split in the earth dividing the Old World and the New over which they met.

While far from as representative as what modern citizens would expect from a legislative body, the Althing was a remarkable first step in the direction of parliamentary governance. The body was large enough to include many landowners, not simply the mightiest in the land. It enacted a binding law that was recognized and respected by the citizenry with a remarkable zeal. The respect for the rule of law was inculcated in Icelanders in a time when much of the rest of the world was ruled by the fiat of kings or warlords.

The difference in mindset between the Icelandic people and the Scandinavian society they left behind is perhaps best reflected in the extant legends and sagas of the two groups. Scandinavia is famous for its bloody epics detailing the exploits of mighty heroes who are celebrated for their slaying of obscene numbers of enemies and monsters. In Iceland, the sagas still have some of that blood and thunder, but the centerpieces of the stories tend to revolve more around intricate legal disputes and oratorical, rather than martial, brilliance. Njála, perhaps the most famous Icelandic saga, is replete with these legal fights as much as the traditional stories of bloodshed.

Over the centuries, despite successive foreign invaders, occupiers, and overlords seeking to quash it, the Althing and the ideals of the rule of law it represented to the early Icelanders has persisted, showing much the same resilience as the bold people who devised it. It remains the chief governing body of Iceland, though it now fits squarely in the mold of modern parliamentary democracies. In fact, it can claim to be the oldest extant parliament in the world. It is a living reminder of humans’ desire to rule themselves and to be free of arbitrary government.

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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