Changing Layers of Jurisdiction and the Reshaping of Icelandic Society c. 1220-1350

Changing Layers of Jurisdiction and the Reshaping of Icelandic Society c. 1220-1350

By Jón Viðar Sigurðsson

Communities in European History: Representations, Jurisdictions, Conflicts, edited by Juan Pan-Montojo and Frederik Pedersen (Pisa University Press, 2007)

Abstract: The great breach with the Free State period (c. 930-1262/64) came with the law-books Járnsí_a in 1271, bishop Árni’s Christian Law in 1275, and the Jónsbók of 1281. The section on the assembly in both the secular law-codes formally abrogated the constitution of the Free State. The Al_ingi thereby became a law-court. Instead of being an independent legislative and judicial institution it became the highest authority of the delegated government in Iceland. In this process the old kin-based aristocracy was transformed into a service aristocracy which received its power not from the householders but from the king, who in turn had received his from God. The strong vertical and mutual ties of friendship between chieftains and householders disappeared. While the chieftains had previously been obliged to help their friends, now as the king’s servants they had to prosecute and punish those who had formerly been their supporters. To compensate for these changes the only option open to householders was to strengthen the ties among themselves in their communes, which thus became the foremost social institution in the country. In the age of the Free State, the chieftains’ gifts and feasts had resulted in economic levelling, particularly since the chieftains partly subsidized their householders’ farms. In a series of letters to the king from c. 1300 the householders complained about the country’s poverty. This should, however, not be seen merely as a tactical manoeuvre on their part. It also testifies to worsening conditions resulting from the termination of the gift-exchange economy. These shifts steered society as a whole toward a market economy. The aristocracy began to invest its wealth, and purchased farms from its earlier friends and followers. One result was an increase in the number of tenants.

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