• Niclas Klitgaard Poulsen
4. term, History, Master (Master Programme)
The Icelandic Commonwealth (c. 930-1264) was built by, among others, Norwegians dissatisfied with King Harald Finehair's tyrannical reign of the newly united Norway. Iceland served as an immigrant sanctuary, and the society was built to regain the rights they had infringed by the new Norwegian monarch.
The new Icelandic society was a leaderless, proto-democratic society heavily dependent on the status-quo being upheld. In a leaderless society like the Icelandic Commonwealth, it was the duty of the citizens to maintain order and ensure that the new society did not collapse. Thanks to the island's location it was safe from foreign threats, ensuring that the new society could prosper. However, that also meant that the biggest threat to the Icelandic Commonwealth was the Icelandic people.
The Icelandic Commonwealth was threatened multiple times, by the numerous feuds the powerful and influential Icelanders engaged in. Chief among the motives behind the initiation of conflicts and feuds was the Icelandic concept of honour and the desire for increased social esteem. Honour and esteem were fundamental parts of the Icelandic Commonwealth, therefore any offence had to be dealt with, often through violent measures.

The famous Icelandic family sagas feature various detailed depictions of violent acts as well as detailed descriptions of attempts at resolving the diverse conflicts and feuds. This thesis delves into the topics of violence, feuds, resolutions, hidden players and honour, to provide a broader understanding of the society of the Icelandic Commonwealth society's views on violence, and how it dealt with resolving disputes, as represented in the sagas of Egil and Njal. To achieve this, the thesis employs critical analysis to analyse the Icelander's views on violence along with the Icelandic Commonwealth's judicial system's effectivity in handling violent disputes. Through analysis of the various examples of violent disputes, arbitrations and legal cases, depicted in the two sagas, the Icelandic Commonwealth's views on violence are presented as quite nuanced.
Violence is presented as an accepted part of everyday life for the Icelanders of the Commonwealth period in the sagas of Egil and Njal. For example, the Icelandic citizens were encouraged to challenge each other to obtain honour and esteem, as part of the social evaluation. These challenges often were either violent acts or simulated violence in some fashion. Vengeance through violent means due to loss of honour is also shown to have been deemed an acceptable use of violent means. However, this thesis presents that there were limits to the Icelander's acceptance of violence, even when it concerned avenging lost honour and as part of the social evaluation. Despite violence being accepted by the Icelandic society, to an extent, the individuals who disturbed the balance of society for personal gain through violent means or abuses violence to circumvent the law is condemned, as shown through analysis of such characters in Egil and Njals saga.
Order and balance of the Icelandic Commonwealth depended on the citizens being able to uphold the balance themselves and live peacefully with the other inhabitants. The Icelandic Commonwealth has been applauded by scholars for its advanced legal system and extensive code of law that helped guide the citizens to uphold the balance. However, through analysis of the numerous depictions of arbitrations and legal action that attempted to control or quell the violent feuds and violent tendencies of the Icelandic people, the Commonwealth's system is shown to be lacking, inefficient and manipulable.
Publication date1 Jun 2020
Number of pages72
ID: 333399115