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What is the value of Njal’s Saga as a source for the historian of ‘Law’ in Viking Iceland?

What is the value of Njal’s Saga as a source for the historian of ‘Law’ in Viking Iceland?

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Examines to what extent one can rely on Njal's Viking Saga in order ot understand the true workings of the Icelandic legal system in its early years.
Examines to what extent one can rely on Njal's Viking Saga in order ot understand the true workings of the Icelandic legal system in its early years.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
What is the value of 
 Njal’s Saga
as a source for the historian of ‘Law’ in VikingIceland?
The
 Íslendingasögur 
written in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provide a cohesive and detailed portrait of Viking Iceland so convincing it is nowonder their validity was accepted for centuries. Their credibility lies primarily intheir unusual form; their unadorned prose, objective stance, chronological discourseand overall clarity. Such rhetoric being more associated with medieval historicalannals than fiction. Today the sagas have been relegated by most historians to theworld of historical fiction, and the extraction of fact is greatly discouraged. Nevertheless some scholars continue to look at the sagas as a blueprint for the partialhistorical reconstruction of Viking Iceland.
 1
 Njal’s Saga
with its fixation on Icelandiclaw has been of particular significance for those attempting to extract a better pictureof the Icelandic legal system.
2
This agenda is also encouraged by the fact that
 Njal’sSaga
is set in a time when the Icelandic Commonwealth and legal system were firmlyin place (975-1025) and also narrates two principle events in Icelandic legal historynamely the acceptance of Christianity and the establishment of the Fifth Court.Taking into consideration the literary function of law, the text as a work of socialdiscourse and the temporal gap between the events recorded and its writing, this essaywill unearth what historical truth may and may not be inferred about the Viking agelegal system.First, one must consider the fictional element of the Saga. While the style andform suggests otherwise, the
 Íslendingasögur 
were not only written to preserve the past but also to entertain. Therefore, there is going to be a degree of exaggeration andfabrication which must be acknowledged. Just as the word ‘saga’ in Icelandic denotes
1
Lars Lonnroth
 A Critical Introduction to Njal’s Saga
(Berkeley 1976)
2
(Lonnroth 1976)
1
 
 both ‘history’ and ‘story’, the saga itself is a mixture of both. It is a work of hybridityand the author draws from a diverse array of material to meet his literary agenda. For Robert Kellog the text is like an epic in that it synthesises “history, myth, ethicalvalues and descriptions of actual life ”
3
while for Robert Kook “it is impossible todisentangle the four components in the saga; authentic history, the inventions of oraltradition, written sources and the contribution of the thirteenth-century author”.
 4
 Lawas this essay will illustrate, formed the backbone of Icelandic society and was an idealcomponent to this literary endeavour, Henry Ordower noting how “the legal systemand judicial process form part of the stock material from which the family sagas areconstructed”.
5
 The literary function of the legal system is two fold. Firstly, the law definesand enriches characters, Ordower arguing that the reader “learns more about these personalities through their legal interactions than through direct authorial descriptionsof them”
6
. Consequently all major characters are involved in legal matters at one pointor another. For example of the four greatest lawyers in the Saga, Njal and Thorhallemerge heroic due to their intellect and noble use of the law while Mord Valgardssonand Eyjolf Bolverksson are villainous as a result of their reliance on legal trickery
7
.Gunnar meanwhile is characterised both by his ignorance of the law and the lawsinability to contain him a feature best seen in chapter 24 when after failing to producethe witness statements necessary, he resorts to violence
8
. Gunnar is heroic in that hestands in defiance of law.
3
Robert Kellog, Introduction to
The Sagas of the Icelanders,
edited by Ornolfur Thotsson. (London,2001), xviii.
4
Robert Kook, Introduction to
 Njal’s Saga,
edited by Robert Kook. (London, 2001), xiv.
5
Henry Ordower, “Exploring the Literary Function of Law and Litigation in Njal’s Saga”,
CardozaStudies in Law and Literature
, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring- Summer, 1991), 41.
6
(Ordower, 1991, 45)
7
Robert Kook, trans.
 Njal’s Saga,
(London, 2001)
8
(Kook 2001, 41)
2
 
This rhetorical use of law creates difficulty for the historian. For example, inorder to express the villainous nature of Eyjolf the author casually deviates fromstandard legal procedure, Kook noting how his devious plan for Flosi to switchallegiance to a godi in a different Quarter, thus forcing a procedural error on the prosecution, “cannot have been valid, since Flosi’s change of Thing allegiance willcome
after 
the suit has already been brought in the correct quarter”
9
. Ordower notes asimilar deviation when the author allows Hallgerd to take a direct role in theformalities of her marriage agreement with Glum, contrary to the written law, just sohe can “disclose the full breadth of her independence, pride, and wilfulness”
.Law also propels the narrative forward, with the friction between prosecutionand defence dominating the narrative. Ordower identifies that “unsuccessful prosecutions anticipate and build the dramatic tension leading to each climax”
. Thisfunction requires the author to distort the law. For example the entire sequence whereGunnar masquerades as Peddler-Hedin to initiate the legal action against Hrut isunnecessary, given that “the author [has] already accepted the availability of analternative procedure” namely publication at the Althing.
Njal’s insistence thatGunnar speak the legal formula in Hrut’s home is illogical and the author hasdistorted the law to advance the plot, disclose Njal’s intellect, Gunnar’s bravery andadd variety. A more significant legal discrepancy occurs in chapter 143 when at aturning point in the legal battle, Mord summons Flosi on the grounds that he paid afee to Eyjolf for conducting the trial on his behalf. The charge is “bring money intothe court”
, which Kook argues, more likely applied to the bribing of judges, pointingout how “there is no indication in early Icelandic law that hiring legal services was
9
(Kook 2001, 338)
10
(Ordower 1991, 45)
11
(Ordower 1991, 49)
12
(Ordower 1991, 43)
13
(Kook 2001, 265)
3

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