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Vikings: Lawless or Law-Abiding?

A Viking Ship with the Tjald by Nicholas Roerich

Believe it or not, the Vikings, that is, the Norse, were very law-abiding. Norse law was customary, handed down orally from one generation to the next. Changes were discussed and the law was recited at a Thing or assembly. If there was no further dissent, it was accepted. The older members of a Thing were expected to remember and be able to recite the law, and, to help memorise the law, it was composed in alliterative formulae.

Literacy among the Vikings

Like the sagas, the laws weren’t written until after the Norse became Christian in the 10th and 11th centuries. In comparison, the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland became Christian and Gaelic laws were written as early as the 5th or 6th centuries. In Sweden, the conversion was later still because the pagan religion was strong support of kingship. Gamla Uppsala remained a place of sacrifice to Odin, Thor and Freyr until the 13th century. To put things into perspective, Richard I the Lionheart went on the First Crusade at the end of the 12th century. 

Burial Mounds of Viking Kings
The Burial Mounds of Viking Kings

The Vikings’ Althing

The law of the Vikings was based on the proceedings of the Thing, the assembly of freemen of an age to bear arms, who met to put the law into effect, pronounce judgements, and discuss all matters of interest to the community. In his description of early Germanic peoples about AD 100, Tacitus wrote that the assembly of freemen limited the power of Germanic kings and leaders. Without their support, leaders could make no important decisions.

The Thing or assembly was governed by established procedure and met at regular intervals during the year. Similar to the laws of other northern European peoples, Norse law focussed on paying compensation for wrongdoing–even for violence and murder–rather than punishing the person responsible for the crime. The support of an injured person’s family was what was important, not capital punishment. There was a sliding scale of compensation (mannboetr) depending on the seriousness of the crime and the rank of the wrongdoer.

Killing in Njal’s Saga

When a man killed another, he often admitted it freely, especially a revenge killing. In Njal’s Saga, Flosi and his men gave themselves up to Sigurd, Earl of Orkney who asked them what happened to his follower, Njal; Flosi responded, ‘Only this, that I cut off his head.’ Another of Earl Sigurd’s men was Thorstein whose sister was married to Flosi. His brother-in-law offered to give all he owned if the earl were to spare Flosi. The earl was angry but accepted Thorstein’s compensation and Flosi took the place of the man he killed in the earl’s retinue.

The Blood Eagle

Torf Einar, ruler of Orkney, was obliged to seek revenge for the father who did not love him. Hálfdan arrived in Orkney; everyone was afraid of him and some gave him allegiance. Torf-Einar himself fled to Caithness in Scotland. 

Hálfdan conquered the islands and set himself up as king over them. Later in the year, however, Einar came back to fight him and though the [sea] battle was fierce Einar came out as the victor. Around evening time when it was growing dark Hálfdan jumped overboard, and Einar composed this verse to satirise him:

Our duty is to the dead,

our father: here the fight

grows fierce, while at Møre

what says the ale-swilling earl?

Nought of the sword-swing.

Einar, not Thorir, would avenge their father Ragnvald. Einar and his men lay all night without tjald (tents), and when it was dawn they searched the whole island and killed every man they could find. Then Einar said, ‘What is that I see upon the isle of Ronaldsay? Is it a man or a bird?’

Tjald was the tent or awning used on the ships at night.

A Viking Ship with the Tjald (painting by Nicholas Roerich)

They went to it and found it was Hálfdan Long Leg, and took him prisoner. Afterwards Earl Einar went up to Hálfdan, and cut a spread eagle upon his back, by striking his sword through his back into his belly, dividing his ribs from the backbone down to his loins, and tearing out his lungs through the slits in his back. 

He dedicated the victim to Odin as a victory offering … 

Happy I am, keen

heroes have spear-hacked,

bloodied the king’s boy:

brave the bold act

–but hard to hide

what a howling I’ve caused:

the corbie [crow] croaks

over carrion in Orkney.

The Justice of the Vikings
A man is executed by the Blood Eagle

Einar had a burial mound built for Hálfdan–he was buried as befitted a king’s son. When King Harald’s sons heard about his death, they were angry, and the king gathered an army and went to Orkney. When Einar heard the king had come he crossed to Caithness again. 

The blood eagle was a ritual carried out by the son of a murdered man to avenge his death. Despite modern horror at such an act, it was lawful, that is, violence and murder were handled by recourse to law. 

According to the Heimskringla:

Then messages went between the king and the jarl [Earl Einar]. It came about that a meeting was arranged; they met and the jarl gave himself up entirely to the king’s judgement. King Harald deemed that Einar the Jarl and all the Orkneys should pay him 60 gold marks. That seemed too much to the bonders; then did the jarl offer to pay all himself…The jarl paid all the fine to the king, and in the harvest [season] the king went back east.’(Monsen & Smith 1990: 64-5)

Bonders (aka boendr) were land-owning farmers.  A chieftain brought boendi to the Thing, his legally recognised followers. Einar paid compensation to King Harald for the death of his son, and managed to die in his bed of old age. 



Johannes Brønsted, The Vikings, 1971

Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 2001

John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, 2001

Robert Kellogg (Introduction) & editors, The Sagas of the Icelanders, 2000

Carolyne Larrington, trans., The Poetic Edda, 1996

Magnus Magnusson & Herman Pálsson, Njal’s Saga, 1971

Herman Pálsson & Paul Edwards, trans., Orkneyinga Saga, 1978     

 Snorre Sturlason, Erling Monsen, ed., A. H. Smith, trans., Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings, 1990

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Images from Wikimedia Commons 

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