Old Icelandic Law

Paper- Justice Done_ Outlawry Crimes in Medieval Iceland


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Grágás I: Assembly Procedures SectionQuarter Courts, pg. 53.

“It is prescribed in our laws that we shall have four Quarter Courts. Each chieftain who has an ancient and full chieftaincy shall nominate a man to join a court. And those are full and ancient chieftaincies which existed when there were three assemblies in each Quarter and three chieftains in each assembly. The assemblies were then not split up. If chieftaincies are divided into shares, then those who have part of ancient chieftaincies are to arrange it so that nomination is made in the way now told. Then the Quarter Courts are complete.”

Source: Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 53.


Grágás I: Treatment of Homicide Section, On Burning, pg. 169.

“It is prescribed that if a man asks another to go with him to burn a building with people or people’s property in it, the penalty is lesser outlawry [1]; and the same applies to anyone who promises to go, and nine neighbors of each one of them are to be called locally. If they set out and fire with them, then neighbors are to be called from the place where they took the fire. But once fire is taken for burning the fall with forfeit immunity and the penalty is outlawry [2]. But if they burn a building with people or people’s property in it, the penalty is outlawry, and neighbors [of the people burnt] are to be called locally.”

Sources and Notations

[Gen.] Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I.(University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 169. Also, this type of homicide is somewhat “featured” in Njal’s Saga, giving a taste for the cultural opinions regarding such action.

[1] It is much like full outlawry (see notation 2), but less severe. It generally called for a person to go abroad for three years, but sometimes this also resulted in some loss of property. It was not uncommon, at least in the saga world, for people to go raiding abroad while outlawed.

[2] Full outlawry (skóggangr) was the most serious punishment that the Icelandic system could offer. It mean the “loss of all juridicial status and property, privileging anyone to kill the outlaw and indeed obliging the prosecutor to do so (Grágás Ia 189).” William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 234.


Grágás I: The Lawspeaker’s Section, Appointing the Lawspeaker, pg. 187.

“It is also prescribed that there shall always be some man in out country who is required to tell men the law, and he is called the Lögsogumaðr (Lawspeaker). And if a Lawspeaker dies, a man from the Quarter in which he last had his home is to be selected to recite the assembly procedure the following summer. Men (of the Law Council [1]) are then to appoint a new Lawspeaker and make the decision who it is to be on Friday before suits are published (19th-25th of June). It is good if all agree on the same man, but if any Law Council man opposes what most want, lots are to be drawn to decide to which Quarter the Lawspeaker should fall. The men of the Quarter in whose favor the lot is drawn are to appoint the Lawspeaker they agree on from among those they can get to do it, whether he is from their Quarter or some other Quarter. If the men of that Quarter do not agree, it is to be decided by majority. But if there are equal numbers of those with seats on the Law Council who each want their man as Lawspeaker, those are to prevail whom the bishop in that Quarter joins in supporting. If there are Law Council men who refuse what others want but do not themselves put forward a man for the Lawspeakership, their votes are to be deemed worthless.

When men have decided who it is to be, the Lawspeaker is to be appointed by the Law Council, and one man is to announce it and the others give their assent, and the same man is to have it for three summers continuously unless men do not wish to change then. From the Law Council at which the Lawspeaker is appointed men are to go to Lögberg and sit down in his place and give men places at Lögberg as he wishes, and men are to then make their speeches.”

Sources and Notations

[Gen.] Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 187.

[1] The Law Council, Lögrétta, is described in more detail following the Lawspeaker Section. In a nutshell, the Law Council is a gathering of “four dozen men,” consisting of “twelve men from each Quarter.” They are all goðar (chieftains). When these men gather, it would be at the Althing, or the national assembly that was held each year in the middle of summer (in June).

On Killing of Foreigners:

“If foreigners are killed here in the country, Danish or Swedish or Norwegian, the in the case of these three kingdoms that share our language the suit lies with the kinsmen of the dead man if they are here in the country. But in cases for killing foreigners from all lands other than those with the languages I just told may be prosecuted here on grounds of kinship by nobody except father or son or brother, and only there if they themselves had previously acknowledged the kinship here in the country.” (1.)

When looking at the text of a legal passage, most people (namely those who do specialize in the study of historical law) see such words as dull and perhaps even fanciful or idealistic. After all, many of Iceland’s early laws were not adhered to, as various sagas have suggested.(2.)  Now, before I seek to demonstrate the value in such mundane passages, it will likely be beneficial for some to know the approximate dates for these laws, which is the mid-thirteenth century.(3.) With that said, I would like to take a moment to bring us all together to look at the passage with a fresh set of eyes.

At first glance, we are meet with more questions than answers. The passage that follows this might be helpful, but, because I have a sense of mercy for your poor souls, I have kept it quick and simple.(4.)Who would be the testifying “father or son or brother” of the victim if they are not in Iceland? Furthermore, what does it mean to have “previously acknowledged the kingship” in Iceland?(5.) Before we pain ourselves in answering that question, let’s ponder the situation rather than the law itself, even if just for a moment.

Without worrying about details, this small passages suggests that Iceland was accustomed to foreigners visiting their country, likely for means of trade.(6.) Yet, let’s not be silly and assume that every foreigner came for a singular reason, or that they were always prompt about their leaving. Regardless of reason, these foreigners were given legal representation (at least idealistically). Furthermore, the foreigners were not always Scandinavian, but of other nationalities, or “lands other than those with the languages I just told.” In a sense, Iceland, which often seems like such an isolated place, was actually quite prepared and aware of the world beyond their horizons. Even more impressive, perhaps, is that these foreigners were able to use other networks of kinship (assuming I am understanding the text correctly) to receive legal representation in Iceland.

Before I go further than I am qualified to comment on (though, I imagine I have already crossed that boundary), I should state my true purpose for dissecting this passage as I have. The aim here is to show that even passages of law can be read from a slightly different perspective, in which we can reveal aspects of society and culture rather than strictly legal matters. It may seem uninteresting for me to post Icelandic law, but a great deal of it is much like the sagas themselves, and thus they ought to be read (at least occasionally) with a less strict mindset. In other words, if law is only read literally, then the subtle hints imbedded about their worldview and society within them would remain hidden to us.


1. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 160.

2. It would be responsible of me to cite quite a few of these sagas, but, given that this is not a compressive essay on the topic, I believe one example should suffice: Henry Ordower, “Exploring the Literary Function of Law and Litigation in Njal’s Saga,” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1991): 41-61.

“…not a single legal proceeding in the saga runs its course to a judgment. Whenever a settlement is forthcoming, it results from arbitration or, occasionally, from force or the threat of force.” (51)

3. Most of this legal material comes from two manuscripts: Konungsbók (1260) and Staðarhólsbók (1280). Denis, Foote, and Perkins trans., Grágás, 13.

4. For those of you that are genuinely interested in Icelandic law, worry not, for I do plan to continue the rest of the passage regarding foreigners next time I post about this subject in particular.

5. I believe the idea here is to say that the foreigner can be represented by either his/her father, son, or brother because they are the most direct kin (as well as male). If this refers to a foreign kinship network, such as the Irish system, it would make sense to only recognize the more direct kin because that would help to simplify the native legal handling of such a case. The second question then refers to the need for that kinship to have been made publicly aware while in Iceland, so that the people of Iceland “acknowledge” the bond of kinship in the eyes of their law as well. It is a bit speculative, but given that my explorations in Icelandic law are still quite young, it is all I can currently offer.

6. Icelandic law, like most legal record, is reactive. In other words, if a law exists it likely means that the situation occurred often enough to need formal recognition. With that information, we can infer that foreigners came to Iceland frequently enough to have need for legal representation.

On Killing Foreigners, Part II (On Ship and in Lodgings):

“If a man is killed at a ship and has no kinsmen here in the country, the case lies with his partner. A partner in accordance with the law is one of a pair whom the less well-endowed puts all he has into the partnership. But if not partner exists or if it is his partner who does the killing, the the case lies with the messmate, the man who most often shared with him over food. Now if there are more messmates than one who equally often shared with him over food, then they are to draw lots for the suit but all have equal shares in the compensation. But if no messmates exist, the the case lies with the ship’s masters, and the one who owns the biggest share in the ship has the suit, but if they own equal shares in ship, then they are to draw lots to see who is to conduct the suit but they have equal shares in the compensation.(1.)


If he is killed as he goes from ship to lodgings, the procedure is the same as if he were killed at the ship.

If he is killed while lodging with a householder, the case lies with the householder. But if the householder kills him, the case lies with the chieftain whose assembly group he (the householder) belongs. But if he is one and the same (the chieftain himself), then the case lies with the other chieftains of the same assembly.

If he is lodging with a woman and is killed there – now if someone lodges with her who is a lawful assembly participant on behalf of her household, the case lies with him but she has the compensation; but if no one of this kind exists there, or if it is a man of this kind who kills him, then the case lies with the chieftain to whose assembly group the woman belongs.(2.)

The procedure is to be the same as if the man were killed in his lodgings until he rejoins the ship for good and all. But at the ship the procedure is to be the same as was told for the preceding summer (as told above).”


You may view Part I here.

Gen. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 160-1.

1. As boring as legal passages may seem, this small paragraph offers an interesting amount of information involving the nature of ships and their crews. For example, based on this law, the men of a crew all shared in the ownership of their vessel. Such a statement could provide a starting place for researching the nature of ship ownership in the medieval period (for the Norse countries, at least) and perhaps even the Viking Age.

2. Unfortunately, Icelandic law went through hoops to avoid giving an actual, direct voice to women. As can be observed here, men were always preferred in the eyes of Icelandic law. Though, this does not mean that women were mistreated by the law. Still, it is good to be reminded that, despite our hopes and wishes today, past societies were not always as representative as we would have liked them to be.

On the Obligations of the Community in Regards to Child Baptism:

“It is the first precept of our laws that all people in this country must be Christian and put their trust in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.(1.)

Every child that is born is to be brought for baptism at the first opportunity, however deformed they are.(2.) If the child’s natural heir is present, he is to bring the child for baptism, and a second man must go with him if he asks him to. If the child’s natural heir is not present, the the householder who is lodging the woman who has given birth is to bring the child for baptism and a second man must go with him if he asks him to. If neither of them is present, then the men who are legally resident in the house are to bring the child to baptism. If such men are not available, or if there are not enough of them, then those who live closest must take the child for baptism or give help. If someone whose duty it is does not bring a child for baptism or a man who is asked to go refuses, the penalty is lesser outlawry and the case lies with anyone who wishes to prosecute.(3.) That is the penalty for both of them and the summons in the case is to be made locally and nine neighbors of the man prosecuted are to be called at the assembly.”


Gen. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 23.

1. This may come across in a rather unpopular way, but it is something I must often stress: the people who wrote these texts, including the Eddas, were Christian. Now, this does not have to be an ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ thing, mind you. In fact, it is terribly irresponsible to assume that such sources are immediately invalidated on these terms alone. Nothing, after all, happens suddenly; change takes time. I will leave it at that, however, or else this footnote will turn into a long discussion (or rant) regarding the complexity of the medieval relationship between Christianity and heathenism. Though, I should mention that, although the laws say that “all the people in this country must be Christian,” it does not mean that this was actually enforced, being more like a social pressure if anything. In fact, it probably attests to the insecurity of it all, if it must still be stated in their laws. Also, although I should provide concrete examples for this,  it was not unheard of for people to worship both religions. 

2. In medieval Christendom, it was imperative to make sure that your child received baptism immediately, because, if the child died before being baptized, he/she would not be granted access into heaven.

3. This is a serious punishment. Lesser outlawry meant that the individual was forced to leave Iceland for three years, and if he did not oblige, he was then sentenced to full outlawry, which meant leaving Iceland permanently. If he did not abide by that, he could legally be killed.

On Bishops:

“We shall have two bishops in the country. One shall have his seat at Skálaholt, the other at Hólar in Hjaltadalr. The one in Hjaltadalr is to make a visitation in the Quarter of the Norðlendingar(1.) once every twelve months, while the bishop in Skálaholt is to visit three Quarters, one each summer, the Quarter of the Austfirðingar, the Quarter of the Rangæingar, and the Quarter of Vestfirðingar.(2.)When he travels through the quarters the bishop is required to visit every established commune so that the people may meet him, and to consecrate churches and chapels and oratories, and to confirm children and to hear confessions. 


“When a bishop consecrates a church a fee of twelve ounce-units is due to him but he gives that money to the church he has consecrated. Wherever he consecrates a chapel or oratory, whichever of the two he consecrates, he is to take six ounce-units. The householder who gives the bishop lodging is to provide him with horses on the day he leaves. His serving men and neighbors are required to lend the bishop horses if the householder asks them to do so. The man who refuses in fined three marks is he has a horse to lend.

“The bishop is to have it announced in every commune, when people attend church, to whom the money people have paid the bishop is to be delivered. Every one is required to have a quarter of his tithe delivered to the householder whom the bishop appoints. The payment day for that sum in the Thursday when four weeks of summer has passed. If the sum is not forthcoming as prescribed, then it is lawful for the man whom the bishop has made his agent to name witnesses to witness that payment is not forthcoming.(3.) It is lawful for him to summon for that and to claim it like other tithes; it is also lawful for him to publish his claim for the money at the assembly and the penalties are the same in either case. When a man is to pay a tithe to the bishop, he is to pay in gold or refined silver or homespun or trade cloaks.”(4.)


Gen. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 35-6. If you care about medieval Icelandic history at all, it is important to know about the bishops, and to acknowledge how the system of Christianity was working during the very time in which many sagas and eddas were being recorded.

1. Ibid., 35. Meaning ‘People of the North’.

2. Ibid. Meaning ‘People of the East Fjords’, ‘People of Rangá(?)’, and ‘People of the West Fjords’ respectively.

3. Ibid., 36. I just find this wording to be a bit humorous: ‘naming witnesses to witness witnessing’.

4. Ibid. This gives some interesting insight into the ‘currency’ options that likely circulated in Iceland during this time (the thirteenth century).

On the Responsibility for Horses:

“When men put their horses into someone’s keeping at the General Assembly in accordance with the article of the law, the man who accepts a horse is not to use it for anything except for driving horses to where they are kept or from there to Þingvǫllr and for keeping paid watch on them, and he is not to ride any horse so much that it does not stay well filled out. At the close of the Assembly he is to show the owner his horse alive or dead, and the man who accepted it is not responsible for it unless it has died from his mishandling. If at the close of the Assembly he does not show the horse, neither alive nor dead, then at the close of the assembly the owner is to publish a suit, to be prosecuted the following summer, for payment for the horse against the man who accepted it.”

Source: Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 122.
Image: King Olaf Speaking at the Assembly, by Halfdan Egedius.

On the Nomination of Judges:

“It is prescribed that the courts are to be nominated or decided today.(1) Each chieftain (goði) is to nominate a man from his assembly third to join a court unless he has leave from the Law Council to do otherwise. A male of twelve winters or more capable of taking responsibility for what he says or swears, free, and with a settled home, is to be nominated. A man who is a principal in prosecution or defense or who has transferred prosecution or defense in a case now prepared for the Assembly is not to be nominated to join a court. A man who has not learnt to speak the Norse language in his childhood is not to be nominated to join a court until he has been in Iceland three winters or more.

“If a man such as has now been excluded allows himself to be nominated to join a court or transfers a case to someone else because he wished to have himself nominated to join a court, then he is fined three marks(2) for that, and any cases he had are invalid, whether prosecutions or defenses, unless he gets a panel verdict that he did not know that cases were prepared against him.”

Img. King Olaf Speaking at the Assembly, by Halfdan Egedius.
Gen. Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 53.
1. That would have been on Friday, June 19-25, which would have been the day  after the Assembly gathered. (Ibid., 53; footnote 2.) The exact date varied, but it was always held ten weeks after the beginning of summer, which, according to the old calendar, began in April and lasted until October.
2. Three marks would have been equal to about 24 ounces of (usually) gold or silver. (Ibid., 251, 253.)

Tenant’s Rights – On Legal Action, Fuel, and Woodlands.

“If anyone grazes a tenant’s meadows or even if they graze his pastureland, then he has the right to prosecute for that or to transfer the case to someone else if he so wishes. But if he will do neither, then the case lies with the landowner.

“He has the right to cut the peat he needs for his own fuel alongside places where peat has previously been cut on the land he has rented and joining his peat pits to them. But if there is no peat bog on the land he has rented, then he has the right to use wood for fuel, if wood was used for fuel there in the immediate past, and he may use both kinds of fuel if that is what was done previously. He has the right to arrange for fuel supplies as had been done in the preceding season, unless something different is stipulated between them.

“If woodland goes with tenant land, then the householder has the right to cut faggot-wood there and also cask-hoops and smaller pieces. He is also to have charcoal for putting an edge on scythes from the woodland. He is to make use of fuel from that land as he would if he were going to be householding there for a longer time.”

SOURCE: Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás II (Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2000), 151-2.

Medieval Icelandic Law (The Grágás) – Women’s Rights: On Reclaiming Property during Separation.

“If relations between man and wife get so bad that the woman thinks herself in straits for means of any kind needed for her subsistence, then she has the right to tell the bishop of the Quarter about it. If it seems advisable to the bishop, he has the right to give her leave to claim her own property, whether he wishes to give her leave to claim all or some of it, and she is then to have a claim made for whatever part of the property she is given leave to claim by the bishop, whether that is a larger or smaller part. The woman herself is always the principal in claims for her own property from her husband, those that were formally guaranteed to her in the bride-price agreement, whether it is so that the bishop gives her leave to make the claim or that her husband out of neglect sleeps elsewhere than in her bed for six seasons.”

SOURCE: Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás II(Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2000), 272.

The Grágás: Medieval Icelandic Law – On Punishing Berserks.

“If a man falls into a berserk frenzy, the penalty is lesser outlawry, and the same penalty applies to men who are present unless they restrain him – they are liable to no penalty if they succeed in restraining him. But if it happens again, the penalty is lesser outlawry.”

SOURCE: Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 39.

NOTES: The interesting part about this law, although brief, is that there was enough trouble with ‘berserks’ that a law code seemed necessary. It is also worth mentioning that this punishment even applies to those who entered a berserk rage involuntarily, meaning that someone with a possible medical or mental condition would have been punished for entering such a fury.

The Grágás: Medieval Icelandic Law – On Misplaced Faith.

“People are not to do things with stones or fill them with magic power with the idea of tying them on people or livestock. If a man puts trust in stones for his own health or that of his livestock, the penalty is lesser outlawry. A man is not to keep ‘unborn’ livestock.(1) If a man has ‘unborn’ livestock and lets it stay unmarked with the idea of putting more trust in it than other livestock or if he uses superstition of any sort, the penally for that is lesser outlawry.”

Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 39.

. The term ‘unborn’ could apply to animals born via a Caesarean delivery or an animal who was not attributed to a human being (unowned), and thus not indicated as such by any marking.

Something to consider when looking at medieval Icelandic laws is that they were often reactionary, meaning that the law was created to solve an already existing problem. Although the Icelanders had converted to Christianity, their written codes still reflect a battle against ‘folk’ practice (if I may call it such). It is interesting to see how certain traditions and customs take a long time to fade – and some never quite do. More interesting, perhaps, is the severity of this ‘crime’! Lessor outlawry meant banishment from Iceland for three years!

The Grágás: Medieval Icelandic Law – On the Practice of Magic.

“If someone uses spells or witchcraft of magic – he uses magic if he utters or teaches someone else or gets someone else to utter words of magic over himself or his property – the penalty is lesser outlawry (three years banishment), and he is to be summoned locally and prosecuted with a panel of twelve. If a man practices black sorcery, the penalty for that is full outlawry (permanent banishment). It is black sorcery if through his words or his magic a man brings about the sickness or death of livestock or people. That is to be prosecuted with a panel of twelve.”

Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 39.

The Grágás: Medieval Icelandic Law – On Women that Men can Kill for.

“There are six women a man has right to kill for. One is a man’s wife, two a man’s daughter, three a man’s mother, four his sister, five is the foster-daughter a man has brought up, six is the foster-mother who brought a man up. It is prescribed that if a man arrives to find another man forcing a woman to lie with him there, a woman he has right to kill for, and the man has forced her down and lowered himself down upon her, then he has the right to kill on her account there at that place; or likewise if he finds him in the same bed as the woman, so that they lie side by side, because it was his will to have wrongful intercourse with her; then a man has the right to kill on her account in both instances even if intercourse has not taken place.”

Andrew Denis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 154.




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