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Coercion, vengeance, feud and

accommodation: homicide in
medieval Icelandemed_339 139..175
Hucu Fiiru
Quantitative methods were employed to situate medieval Icelandic homicide
in comparative context. Estimates of homicide rates were derived from
samtarsgur, and found comparable with European rural medieval homi-
cide estimates: late twelfth-century Iceland was probably not as violent as a
qualitative reading of the sagas might suggest. There were signicant differ-
ences in patterns of vengeance between slendingasgur and samtarsgur.
In slendingasgur, farmers committing homicide faced ight, outlawry or
death; chieftains who initiated homicide might escape justice, although most
became embroiled in feud. In samtarsgur, lethal vengeance following
ordinary homicide was less common, and not a source of feud. These results
generate a critique of previous notions of reciprocity in Icelandic vengeance,
and support more recent interpretations of early medieval Icelandic society as
a highly unequal, divided society. Both sources suggest that, although ven-
geance may have been legitimated in the language of repayment, vengeance
is best understood within a cross-cultural context as competitive behaviour
designed to achieve superiority rather than parity.
Introduction
Nearly two decades ago, Ross Samson commented that historians con-
cerned with the nature of wealth and authorities of goar (chieftains) have
* The idea for this study came from a remark by William Ian Miller, that homicide rates are not
recoverable in medieval Iceland, since we know neither the number of homicides nor the
number of people (Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland
(Chicago, :,,c), p. ,c,). In addressing this challenge, I am very appreciative of the supervision
and support provided by Dr Scott Ashley in the conduct of the study and the preparation of this
paper. I am also grateful to Dr Chris Callow, and two anonymous reviewers, for their critical
comments on earlier drafts, who have encouraged me to tighten the study and clarify a number
of points of interpretation. Correspondence to hrth@blueyonder.co.uk or :; Lindisfarne
Road, Newcastle on Tyne, NE: :HE, UK.
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Main Street, Malden, MA c::, USA
tended to be blinded by the evidence for feuding.
:
Two years earlier,
William Ian Miller had published his landmark study of feud in medieval
Icelandic society. Millers view, inuenced by anthropological thinking,
was of a society deeply permeated by fundamental conceptions of reci-
procity, payment and requital as the currency within which all social
relationships were transacted.
:
A view of the relationship between inde-
pendent farmers and chieftains emphasizing reciprocal relationships of
support and protection was highlighted then, and subsequently, by Jesse
Byock.
,
A radical revision challenging the view of independent choice by
farmers to support particular goorsmenn (leading men) was initiated by
Samson and has more recently been developed and vigorously articulated
by Jn Viar Sigursson and Orri Vsteinsson.

Interwoven with these


issues about the structures within Icelandic society have been assump-
tions and questions about the extent of violence in medieval Iceland.
Millers vision of medieval Iceland as a violent society is hard to mistake.
Yet his focus on the structuring of relationships led him to give greater
emphasis to the symmetric elements in the society, and hence to feud,
:
R. Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?, in G. Plsson (ed.), From Sagas to Society:
Comparative Approaches to Early Iceland (Eneld, :,,:), pp. :o;, at p. :o;. Goar and goor
were not exactly chieftains and chieftaincies; Vsteinsson has argued in favour of Kjartanssons
view that goor represented primarily a right to representation at the Aling, rather than a local
chieftain role, and that chieftains were of many sorts some with, some without goor. In
both samtarsgur and slendingasgur the term goor is used to refer specically to the role (for
example buying, or holding, a goor), whereas the person holding the role is occasionally
described as goorsmar, but usually described by the term hfingi (pl. hfingjar), commonly
translated as chieftain. Their authority over men is sometimes referred to as mannaforr. In the
analysis and discussion of the data, I have used the terms goorsmar (sing.) and goorsmenn
(pl.) to facilitate clarity when referring to the holders of goor. In the broader discussion of
relationships between farmers and their goorsmenn, I have however generally chosen the terms
hfingjar or chieftain deliberately to include Vsteinssons wider range of local power holders.
See also Gurn Helgadttir (ed.), Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar (Oxford, :,;), note :/:o, p.
,; Helgi Skli Kjartansson, Fjldi goora samkvmt Grgs: Erindi utt mlstefnu Stofnunar
Sigurar Nordals jl (Reykjavk, :,,); Orri Vsteinsson, The Christianization of
Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change (Oxford, :ccc), pp. ;,; Orri Vsteinsson,
A Divided Society: Peasants and Aristocracy in Medieval Iceland, Viking and Medieval Scan-
dinavia , (:cc;) pp. ::;,,. For examples, see Austringa sgur, ed. Jn Jhannesson, slenzk
Fornrit [henceforth F] :: (Reykjavk, :,,c), pp. ,, ,, ::, ::, ,c,; The Complete Sagas of
Icelanders including Tales, ed. Viar Hreinsson, , vols (Reykjavk, :,,;), IV, pp. ,c, ,:, ,,;,
,:, ,: (trans.); Sturlunga saga, ed. Jn Jhannesson, Magns Finnbogason and Kristjn
Eldjrn, : vols (Reykyavk, :,o), I, pp. :,, :,;; II, pp. :o:, :o,; Sturlunga saga, ed. J. McGrew,
: vols (New York, :,;c), II, p. :,,, :,; II, pp. :, :,c (trans.).
:
W.I. Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago,
:,,c): the anthropological literature is addressed at pp. :;,,, violence at pp. ,c:.
,
J. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power (Berkeley, :,), pp. :::::; J. Byock, Viking
Age Iceland (London, :cc:), pp. ::,:.

Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?; Jn V. Sigursson, Chieftains and Power in the


Icelandic Commonwealth, trans. Jean Lundskr-Nielsen (Odense, :,,,), pp. ,,:c:; Vsteins-
son, Christianization of Iceland, pp. ::o, ,:, :,o; Vsteinsson, A Divided Society, pp.
::;,,.
140 Hugh Firth
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rather than to the asymmetric processes of exploitation through
gifts, debt, labour and rent, addressed by Samson, Sigursson and
Vsteinsson.
,
Although Miller focused as much on peacemaking as blood-taking,
Jesse Byock espoused a view of early medieval Iceland with greater
emphasis on brokerage as an alternative to feud (which only) operated as
a form of limited, coercive violence, whilst goar . . . early became politi-
cal entrepreneurs adept at forming ad hoc interest groups of often unre-
lated backers.
o
Byock saw violence as only one option, often avoided
through the mere threat of retaliation: even overt confrontation by armed
men he regarded not as evidence of impending bloodshed or a violent
society, but merely a public display of commitment by supporters on
both sides.
;
In this respect, Byock shares much with a view of vengeance
developed by Christopher Boehm, whose classic study of Montenegrin
vengeance processes emphasized individuals ambivalence amidst emo-
tional turmoil, as well as their deliberate choices in decision-making
which almost always were active and reective . . . sometimes . . . highly
inventive.

Trying to assess the uncertain mix of vengeance and accommodation


in response to wrong has presented a continued challenge for scholars of
conict, whether in the nineteenth-century Mediterranean, early medi-
eval Europe or medieval Iceland.
,
Miller took issue with those including
Byock who followed Max Gluckman in believing the threat of feud acted
to limit violence, although Miller himself noted how the impression of
excessive violence often (might be) a function of the compression of
,
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. :;,,; contrast Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?, pp. :;,:,
:;, Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. ,,oc, and Vsteinsson, A Divided Society, pp.
::,;.
o
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. o;o, :,,,,; Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. :c;, ::;:, and see also
pp. ::o,, :,o:,:.
;
Byock, Medieval Iceland, especially pp. ::c, :;o, :::.

C. Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Enactment and Management of Conict in Montenegro and other
Tribal Societies (Pennsylvania, :,;), at pp. :, :,,. See also C. Boehm, Ambivalence and
Compromise in Human Nature, American Anthropologist ,: (:,,), pp. ,::,,; and C. Boehm,
Emergency Decisions, Cultural Selection Mechanics, and Group Selection, Current Anthro-
pology ,; (:,,o), pp. ;o,,,.
,
A. Heusler, Das Strafrecht der Islndersagas (Leipzig, :,::); A. Heusler, Zum islndischen Feh-
dewesen in der Sturlungzeit (Berlin, :,::); J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Bloodfeud of the
Franks, in J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Long-Haired Kings and Other Studies in Frankish
History (London, :,o:), pp. :::;; Boehm, Blood Revenge; S. Wilson, Feuding, Conict and
Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica (Cambridge, :,); Miller, Bloodtaking; Samson,
Goar: Democrats or Despots?; Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,:,; Byock, Viking
Age Iceland; P.R. Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca, :cc,); S.D.
White, Re-Thinking Kinship and Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe, Variorum Collected
Studies :, (Aldershot, :cc,).
Homicide in medieval Iceland 141
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narrative time.
:c
Michael Wallace-Hadrill had emphasized how accom-
modation was often a product of the fear of vengeance, and that feuding
(was always) . . . necessarily hovering on the edge of bloodshed.
::
The present paper is novel in employing a quantitative approach to
examine the possible incidence of homicidal violence, as well as the
processes behind vengeance and accommodation, in medieval Icelandic
society. (Whitelocks term vengeance is to be preferred to feud, unless
a clear cycle of vengeance is evident.)
::
Was a need to maintain honour
associated with particularly high homicide rates? What were the relation-
ships between free householders and chieftains (hfingjar) where ven-
geance and advocacy were concerned? How might differences between
samtarsgur (contemporary sagas) and slendingasgur (family sagas) be
viewed? Controversy and uncertainty over how far slendingasgur might
reect Icelandic society prior to the thirteenth century has made many
scholars wary of addressing issues of social change and development in
early medieval Iceland. Miller sidestepped the issue almost altogether;
Byock emphasized development after around ::cc. More recently, Jn
Viar Sigursson and Orri Vsteinsson have specically addressed the
process of social and political development between the tenth and thir-
teenth centuries.
:,
This paper hopefully demonstrates the value of a
quantitative approach to reections on changing processes of homicide
and vengeance: the results lend support to recent interpretations of early
Icelandic society as a highly unequal, divided society, rather than one
united by shared assumptions of reciprocity and honour.
Use of the sources
Samtarsgur (contemporary sagas) comprise a detailed but partisan
and selective record of events amongst Icelands most powerful families
between around :::, and ::o. Most are incorporated within Sturlunga
saga, probably compiled shortly after :,cc, and subsequently copied as
two vellum manuscripts in the mid- to late fourteenth century, and as
:c
Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ,c. See also W.I. Miller, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Review), Speculum
,, (:,), pp. ,;o,; J. Black-Michaud, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the
Middle-East (New York, :,;,); M. Gluckman, Custom and Conict in Africa (Oxford, :,,o), pp.
::o (especially p. ::). Gluckmans analysis was based on Evans-Pritchards work: E.E. Evans-
Pritchard, The Nuer (Oxford, :,c). For the inuence of this perspective on the debates about
feuding in early medieval societies, see I. Wood, The Bloodfeud of the Franks: A Historio-
graphical Legend, EME : (:cco), pp. ,,c; and P. Hyams, Feud and the State in Late
Anglo-Saxon England, Journal of British Studies c (:cc:), pp. :,.
::
Wallace-Hadrill, Bloodfeud of the Franks, at p. :;.
::
D. Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (Harmondsworth, :,o,), pp. ,:,.
:,
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. ,,:; Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. ,:;; Sigursson, Chieftains
and Power, pp. ,,,; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, pp. :,o.
142 Hugh Firth
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seventeenth-century paper copies. The standard edition is based prima-
rily on the longer Krksfjararbk manuscript.
:
slendinga saga, the longest single component within Sturlunga saga, is
generally believed to be a late work of Sturla rarson; the inuence of
both the compiler and subsequent copyists is probably not negligible.
:,
Nevertheless, Sturlunga saga is generally regarded as a tolerably reliable
source for historical events and chronology, given the likely interval
between events and saga-writing: some ::c years at most for orgils saga ok
Haia, substantially shorter (typically :coc years) for the other sagas.
:o
Gumundar saga dra is believed to have been written soon after
Gumundr Eyjlfssons death in ::::. Although Magns Jnsson believed
it was a collection of tales, other scholars have seen it as a single tale, on the
grounds of its consistent characterization and composition.
:;
The saga
portrays Gumundr in a distinctively positive light. Likewise, Hrafns saga
Sveinbjarnarsonar, probably composed around ::,cc about events
largely between ::cc and :::;, emphasizes Hrafns restraint in contrast to
that of his rival orvaldr Snorrason: all these sagas are narrative accounts,
written by individuals with a specic motivation affecting their selection of
events, narrative method, and portrayal of individuals.
:
As a source for exploring homicide within twelfth- to thirteenth-
century Icelandic society however, the disadvantage of Sturlunga saga is its
focus on the regional struggles of chieftains and bishops in a period of
rapid political change. Homicides by lesser mortals only appear when
they affect either the reputation of the subject, or the subsequent course
of events. Nevertheless, these near contemporary texts are regarded as
sufciently reliable sources for their core events, that they can be used not
only to provide insights into the structure of disputes at the turn of the
thirteenth century, but also, given some explicit assumptions below, to
generate some crude estimates of the frequency of homicide in Iceland in
this period.
:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson. On manuscripts, see Jn Jhannesson, Um Sturlunga Sgu,
in ibid., II, pp. xiiixxi; J. McGrew, Introduction, in Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,:,;
lfar Bragason, Sagas of Contemporary History (Sturlunga saga): texts and research, in R.
McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old NorseIcelandic Literature and Culture (Oxford, :cc,), pp.
:;o, at pp. :,,. The variant manuscripts differ chiey in their accounts of events after
::o.
:,
Bragason, Sagas of Contemporary History.
:o
Bragason, Sagas of Contemporary History, at pp. c:; Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, p.
:; lafr Einarsdttir, Studier in kronologisk metode I tidlig islansk historieskrivning (Lund,
:,o).
:;
Magns Jnsson, Gumundar saga dra: Nokkrar athuganir um uppruna hennar og samsetning
(Reykjavk, :,c); Jacqueline Simpson, Advocacy and Art in Gumundar saga dra, Saga-Book
of the Viking Society :, (:,o:), pp. ,:;,; Bragason, Sagas, at pp. ,,o.
:
Gurn Helgadttir, Introduction, in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, ed. Gurn Helgadttir
(Oxford, :,;), pp. xicxvi, see particularly pp. xxixxxi; Simpson, Advocacy and Art in
Gumundar saga dra, pp. ,:,; Bragason, Sagas, at pp. ,,:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 143
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The majority of slendingasgur, or family sagas, relate events which
are set during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Most were probably
written down in their present form during or shortly after the major
political upheavals that shook Iceland during the thirteenth century; their
content may have been inuenced by contemporary concerns about the
types of conict current during the mid-thirteenth century. Some were
almost certainly composed much later, during the fourteenth or fteenth
centuries.
:,
Assessment and interpretation of slendingasgur has long
been contentious: two separate but interlinked issues of controversy have
been whether their origins were primarily written or oral, and what
balance of ctional and historical elements they might comprise. Essen-
tially naive historical interpretations were increasingly challenged in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
:c
Sigurur Nordals view of
Hrafnkels saga Freysgoi as a work of ction was generalized as a judge-
ment on all slendingasgur in a dominant consensus during the mid-
twentieth century, with factors such as consistent chronology seen merely
as the product of well-researched storytelling.
::
It is important therefore
to note that Nordal accepted the historicity of many of the bare events in
slendingasgur, particularly those supported by the evidence of slending-
abk or Landnmabk. He recognized that oral tradition could have
preserved (some) historical material for two or three centuries.
::
He
argued that each saga differed in historicity, Droplaugarsona saga being
more dependent on oral tradition, and preferable to Hrafnkels saga in
historical accuracy; his conclusion was that there are no easy distinctions
to be made between saga material based on oral history, the partially
erroneous and the frankly ctitious.
:,
Debate has continued between those who view slendingasgur as pri-
marily thirteenth- and fourteenth-century literary creations, and those
whose view is that many derive from an older oral tradition in which
:,
Vsteinn lason, Family Sagas, in McTurk (ed.), Companion to Old NorseIcelandic Literature,
pp. :c::; Vsteinn lason, Dialogues with the Viking Age: Narration and Representation in the
Sagas of the Icelanders, trans. A. Wawn (Reykjavk, :,,), pp. o::; Gsli Sigursson, Orality
and Literacy in the Sagas of Icelanders, in McTurk (ed.), Companion to Old NorseIcelandic
Literature, pp. :,,c:.
:c
Edwin Jessen, Glaubwrdigkeit der Egils-Saga und Anderer Islnder-Sagas, Historische
Zeitschrift : (:;:), pp. o::cc; Heusler, Das Strafrecht der Islndersagas; Knut Leistl, The
Origin of the Icelandic Family Sagas, trans. A.G. Jayne (Oslo, :,,c), p. :,c. A good historio-
graphical summary is Theodore Andersson, The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins (New Haven,
:,o), pp. :,c, o:, ::,,,.
::
Sigurur Nordal, Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoi: A Study, trans. G. Thomas (Cardiff, :,,), pp. :o;,
,o;; but see also Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, p. ,:.
::
Sigurur Nordal, The Historical Element in the Icelandic Family Sagas (Glasgow, :,,;), pp. :::,
:,o, ,,; Nordal, Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoi, p. o,.
:,
Nordal, Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoi, pp. :,:o, ,,o:. Sigurur Nordal took the view that ::c:,c
years was a very credible timescale for the recollection of historical events, but :,c years was not:
The Historical Element, p. :.
144 Hugh Firth
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signicant events were told and retold with varied embellishments, for
edication, entertainment and amusement.
:
There is signicant evi-
dence for the latter view for certain of these sagas. Laxdla saga portrays
political relationships between farms which appear to substantially pre-
date its presumed thirteenth-century written origin.
:,
Gunnlaugs saga
ormstungu and Harar saga ok Hlmverja describe events which are at
least consistent with recent archaeological ndings.
:o
Egils saga Skal-
lagrmssonar describes the exploits of a tenth-century gure previously
interpreted in purely symbolic and ctional terms, who may well have
been a historical gure who suffered bone-thickening Pagets disease.
:;
Oral storytelling may be able to preserve genealogical information for up
to six generations, although such information is likely to become pro-
gressively corrupted over time as a consequence of current political con-
cerns as well as human error.
:
By contrast, some later sagas such as
Hrafnkels saga and Gunnars saga Keldugnpsfs, appear more one-
:
The debates over saga dating and historicity can be traced through Sturlunga Saga, ed. G.
Vgfusson, : vols (Oxford, :;), I, pp. xxilxxxii; Leistl, Origin of the Icelandic Family Sagas;
Nordal, The Historical Element; Nordal, Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoa, p. :o; Andersson, The
Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins, pp. :o, ::,,,; Jakob Benediktsson, Landnmabk: Some
Remarks on its Value as a Historical Source, Saga-Book of the Viking Society :; (:,o,), pp.
:;,,:; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,:,, ,:,; C.J. Clover, Icelandic Family Sagas
(slendigasgur), in C.J. Clover and J. Lindow (eds), Old Norse Icelandic Literature: A Critical
Guide (Ithaca, :,,), pp. :,,,:o; Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. ,,:; O. Falk, Bystanders and
Hearsayers First: Reassessing the Role of the Audience in Duelling, in M. Meyerson, D. Thiery
and O. Falk (eds), A Great Effusion of Blood? (Toronto, :cc), pp. ,:,c; Gsli Plsson, Text,
Life and Saga, in Plsson (ed.), From Sagas to Society, pp. ::,; Sigursson, Chieftains and
Power, pp. :;,; Adolf Fririksson and Orri Vsteinsson, Creating a Past: A Historiography of
the Settlement of Iceland, in J.H. Barrett (ed.), Contact, Continuity and Collapse (Turnhout,
:cc,), pp. :,,o:; H. ODonoghue, Old NorseIcelandic Literature: A Short Introduction
(Oxford, :cc), pp. ,o;; J. Byock, History and the Sagas: The Effect of Nationalism, in
McTurk (ed.), Companion to Old NorseIcelandic Literature (Oxford, :cc,), pp. ,,,; Byock,
Viking Age Iceland, pp. ::,; lason, Family Sagas, pp. :c::; C. Callow, Reconstructing
the Past in Medieval Iceland, EME : (:cco) pp. ,c:.
:,
C. Callow, Reconstructing the Past in Medieval Iceland.
:o
J. Byock, P. Walker, J. Erlandson, P. Holck, D. Zori, M. Gumundsson and M. Tveskov, A
Viking-age Valley in Iceland: The Mosfell Archaeological Project, Medieval Archaeology ,
(:cc,), pp. :,,::, at pp. ::::; G. lafsson, T. McGovern and K. Smith, Outlaws of
Surtshellir Cave, in J. Arneborg and B. Grnnow (eds), Dynamics of Northern Societies (Copen-
hagen, :cco), pp. ,,,c.
:;
J.L. Byock, The Skull and Bones in Egils Saga: A Viking, A Grave, and Pagets Disease, Viator
: (:,,,), pp. :,,c; Byock, A Viking-age Valley in Iceland, at pp. :,,, :c. Contrast literary
and symbolic interpretations ctionalised biography written by an historian: ODonoghue,
Old NorseIcelandic Literature, at p. ,:; Kaaren Grimstad, The Giant as Heroic Model: The
Case of Egill and Starkar, Scandinavian Studies (:,;o), pp. :,; and M.C. Ross, The
Art of Poetry and the Figure of the Poet in Egils Saga, in J. Tucker (ed.), Sagas of Icelanders: A
Book of Essays (New York, :,,), pp. ::o,.
:
Benedicktsson, Landnmabk: Some Remarks; Kristn Geirsdttir, Fein alleg or,
Skrnir :,, (:,;,), pp. ,:; Callow, Reconstructing the Past, pp. ,cc,; J. Fox, A Rotinese
Dynastic Genealogy, in T.O. Beidelman (ed.), The Translation of Culture (London, :,;,), pp.
,;;;, at p. ,; L. Bohannan, A Genealogical Charter, Africa :: (:,,:), pp. ,c::,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 145
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dimensional and may be entirely ctional inventions, while others such as
Fljtsdla saga are likely to be accounts drawing on and embellishing
earlier written and oral material.
:,
A scholarly consensus on the extent of historical information within
slendingasgur has yet to be reached. The written texts which we possess
derive at the earliest from the thirteenth century, with a few from the
fourteenth and later centuries.
,c
Those scholars who believe slendin-
gasgur should be approached as primarily literary creations, view the saga
writer as not inventing a story, but composing (putting together) . . . and
telling a story over which he had no ultimate authority, built from
elements to an extent historical in origin . . . inuenced by myth and
folktale, and the craft of the gifted storyteller.
,:
An alternative perspective
emphasizes the need to integrate historical and literary perspectives on
textual development. Thus Gsli Sigursson viewed slendingasgur as
orally derived texts, in which most sagas derive from varied stories told to
audiences familiar with their characters. Occasionally contradictory on
chronology or genealogy, they appear to be a mixture of fact and ction,
a set of memories kept alive orally for several generations before being
committed to parchment.
,:
Patrick Wormald referred to a failure of nerve in historians reluctance
to tackle slendingasgur as sources for early medieval Icelandic society.
,,
Both Byock and Miller took up this challenge, adopting a third stance
which used slendingasgur as sources for information about social pro-
cesses in early medieval Iceland.
,
Byock has taken a position that views
the family sagas as drawing on some core of oral historical information,
adapted and embellished by their thirteenth-century authors.
,,
Miller did
not approach these sagas from the standpoint of historicity: his assump-
tion was that literary materials can be used as sources for the social history
of the society which constructed them. From his analysis of orsteins ttr
stangarhggs, Miller concluded that although slendingasgur in some
respects reected thirteenth-century concerns about the rapaciousness of
powerful thirteenth-century chieftains, these sagas portrayed clearly dif-
ferent conditions from those existing in the thirteenth century, with the
much more equitable distributions of wealth and power which we would
:,
lason, Family Sagas, at p. :c. On Fljtsdla saga see Gsli Sigursson, Orality and Literacy
in the Sagas of Icelanders, at p. :,,. A less sceptical view of Hrafnkels saga is set out by Clover,
Icelandic Family Sagas (slendigasgur), at pp. :,,.
,c
lason, Family Sagas.
,:
lason, Dialogues with the Viking Age, pp. :,:c. For another primarily literary approach, see
Plsson, Text, Life and Saga.
,:
Sigursson, Orality and Literacy in the Sagas of Icelanders, at p. :,;.
,,
P. Wormald, Viking Studies: Whence and Whither?, in R.T. Farrell (ed.), The Vikings
(London, :,:), pp. ::,,, at p. ::,.
,
Miller, Bloodtaking; Byock, Viking Age Iceland.
,,
Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. :,,.
146 Hugh Firth
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expect in earlier centuries.
,o
(This could of course be in part the conse-
quence of thirteenth-century chroniclers presenting an idealized view of
the earlier period.)
,;
Current scholarly opinion about the nature and historical value of
slendingasgur remains divided. Jn Viar Sigursson has emphasized the
range of consistent differences between samtarsgur and slendingasgur,
differences in the pattern of conicts, in the position of goorsmenn,
farmers and women, contending that slendingasgur mirror the social
pattern of early Icelandic society.
,
The patterns of conict in slendin-
gasgur might reect thirteenth-century authors perceptions of an earlier
period of honour and stability. Yet Sigursson identied consistent lin-
guistic differences, particularly in vocabulary, between the two sets of
sources. These particular differences in vocabulary are unlikely to be the
result of a coloured portrayal of the past, more likely the reection of real
changes over time in linguistic usage within the society.
,,
It seems prudent therefore to act on the assumption that slendingasgur
comprise a mixture of orally transmitted family histories, misremembered,
distorted and embellished accounts, sometimes idealized and mixed with
invented material, in combinations that can only be disentangled if at all
by careful historical research into each particular saga. As such the
supposed deaths and their contexts cannot be viewed as historical data to
be used for estimations of homicide rates. However, the evidence presented
above suggests that there is good reason to view slendingasgur, with all
their attendant problems as sources, as valid information on probable
patterns of social relationship and conict within an earlier period, situated
somewhere between the tenth and early twelfth centuries.
c
Examining homicide in samtarsgur and slendingasgur
This paper attempts a quantitative approach to the examination of homi-
cide in both slendingasgur and samtarsgur. The reliability of
samtarsgur as a source may also permit us, with some explicit assump-
tions, to hazard some notion of likely homicide rates in Iceland around
the late twelfth to early thirteenth century. Miller believed that homicide
rates are not recoverable . . . since we know neither the number of homi-
cides nor the number of people.
:
Yet population estimates and a set of
sources are indeed available. Population estimates for medieval Iceland
,o
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. ,;o. See also T. Andersson and W.I. Miller, Law and Literature in
Medieval Iceland: Ljosvetninga Saga and Valla-Ljots Saga (Stanford, :,,).
,;
lason, Dialogues with the Viking Age, pp. :,,, :c,.
,
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,:.
,,
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. ,:.
c
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,:o, :;,; Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. ,,:.
:
Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ,c,; Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. ::,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 147
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
vary, but all lie within an order of magnitude. Gunnar Karlsson has
provided a valuable discussion of the assumptions behind differing esti-
mates, most of which use Bishop Gizurrs census of , hundred (,,cc
or ,,oc) taxpaying farmers around ::cc.
:
Early estimates of the
eleventhtwelfth century population of ;c:cc,ccc assumed a constant
ratio between taxpaying farmers and total population between :c,; and
:;c,, a dubious assumption. An alternative approach has assumed the
early medieval population could not have exceeded the eighteenth-
century population of around ,c,ccc. A third approach, attempting to
estimate population based on the oor area of excavated farms, suggested
some ;c,ccc people around ::cc.
,
Karlssons minimum estimate of
c,ccc assumes only ,,ccc households in total, with an average of
individuals including family and farmhands.

On balance, it seems
appropriate to hypothesize a possible population in the range from
c,ccc to ;c,ccc during the twelfth century.
,
Denitions of homicide vary to some degree, but criminological,
anthropological and historical studies show considerable consensus
around the following formulation: interpersonal assaults deliberately
directed against another person outside the context of warfare, which
prove fatal.
o
Homicide rates, calculated using comparable denitions,
vary hugely between different societies, and can vary signicantly over
time within a society. The highest recent Icelandic rates were exceeded
more than tenfold in the United States; over a hundredfold in some
twentieth-century subsistence societies (see Appendix, Table :).
;
These
variations are only partially related to differences in denition, reporting,
:
Gunnar Karlsson, Icelands Years: History of a Marginal Society (London, :ccc), pp. ,:.
Vsteinsson has discussed differing interpretations of Gizurrs :c,; census: Christianization of
Iceland, p. ::.
,
Jn Steffensen, Islands folkemngde gennem tiderne, Medicinsk Forum :o (:,o,), pp. ::,,:.

Karlsson, Icelands Years, p. ,.


,
No estimate of population has been made in relation to the slendingasgur data, as this is
unsuitable for estimating homicide rates. Projecting population estimates backward into the
tentheleventh centuries would however be uncertain given the lack of scholarly consensus on
likely population during and following the settlement period. See Jn Jhannesson, A History
of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth: slendinga saga (Manitoba, :,;), pp. ,:; K. Hastrup,
Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An Anthropological Analysis of Structure and Change
(Oxford, :,,), pp. :o,;,; Karlsson, Icelands Years, pp. ,:.
o
M. Daly and M. Wilson, Homicide (New York, :,), pp. :,:,; C. Boehm, Blood Revenge
(Pennsylvania, :,;), pp. oo, ,, :,::c:; J. Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth Century
England (Stanford, :,;;), pp. ,c.
;
G.H. Gudjonsson and H. Petursson, Some Criminological and Psychiatric Aspects of Homi-
cide in Iceland, Medicine, Science and the Law :: (:,:), pp. ,:; Daly and Wilson, Homicide,
pp. :;,,:. Differing studies use slightly different, but overlapping denitions. The modern
Icelandic data, for example, included both intentional homicide, and violence and negligence
resulting in death (whether prosecuted or not), but excluded automobile fatalities, and
infanticide.
148 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
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the availability of weapons, or medical treatment, although difculties do
arise when studying some underdeveloped societies as to when it is
appropriate to exclude events which might be classed as warfare.

The
present study has therefore avoided sampling those periods in the thir-
teenth century when many of the deaths related in samtarsgur occurred
in battles between groups of signicant size. Homicide in this study
means the death of any adult (:: or over) by another, by intent or
accidentally in the course of conict, including games.
,
Both samtarsgur and slendingasgur are essentially unrepresentative
sources, focusing on the lives and vicissitudes of leading families.
,c
How
then should one surmount the challenges in using these sources to
examine homicide systematically? Sources were selected which could
provide examples of homicides from as wide a cross-section of society as
possible, and could be framed by denable time periods and geographical
limits. The earlier and later periods present differing selection issues.
slendingasgur relate homicides committed by a range of individuals.
Sources describing the East Fjords have a much clearer geographical
focus, and the majority were written before :,cc.
,:
A total of :c, homi-
cides related within the East Quarter of Iceland in Landnmabk, slen-
dingabk and slendingasgur, supposedly situated between ,,c:c,c,
were used to provide the slendingasgur sample for this study.
,:
They
provide insights into possible patterns of homicide and vengeance during
an undetermined period prior to the late twelfth to early thirteenth
century.

Given, Society and Homicide, pp. ,,; Boehm, Blood Revenge, p. :,; Daly and Wilson,
Homicide, p. :;,.
,
Infanticide was also present in Iceland at this time: E. Christiansen, The Norsemen in the Viking
Age (Oxford, :cc:), pp. ,,c. However, infanticide is not included in comparable studies of
homicide rates (see below note ;), and was not evident in this sample. All homicide rates here
and in the following discussion are reported per annum per :cc,ccc total population.
,c
See Vsteinsson, A Divided Society, at pp. :::,c.
,:
lason, Family Sagas.
,:
Where similar events were described in different sources, only one was used. For six incidents
an estimate of deaths was necessary, and in one instance deaths were adjusted to compensate for
poetic licence: see Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ,:,, note :o; Kjalnesinga saga, ed. Jhannes Halldrs-
son, F : (Reykjavk, :,,,), p. ,,,. All recorded victims were male. The number of unrecorded
female victims is thought to be small (see discussion below). These :c, homicides are referenced
at: slendingabk, ed. Jakob Benediktsson, F : (Reykjavk, :,o), p. ; Landnmabk, ed. Jakob
Benediktsson, F : (Reykjavk, :,o), pp. :,:, ,c:, ,:, ,,c, ,,,; Austringa sgur, ed. Jhan-
nesson, F :: (Reykjavk, :,,c), pp. :::, :,o,, o,;,, :c,:, ::c, :,, :,::c, ::;,
:,;,:c; Brennu-Njls saga, ed. Einar lafur Sveinsson, F :: (Reykjavk, :,,), pp. :c,, ::c,
:,:, :;, ,c,; Kjalnesinga saga, F :, pp. ,:;,; slendingabk, Kristni Saga, trans. S.
Grnlie (London, :cco), p. ,; The Book of Settlements: Landnmabk, trans. H. Plsson and P.
Edwards (Winnipeg, :,;:), pp. :::, ::,, ::o; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, pp. ,,:co,
::,o; IV, pp. ,c;, ,:,,,, ,,o;, ,,,;, ,:,,, ,o:, ,, ;,,; V, pp. :o,;,.
Interestingly, the geographical distribution of these homicides in slendingasgur broadly
matches the likely population, excepting fewer homicides in the well-populated lower Fljtsdal:
Austringa sgur, F ::, p. ::; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, p. ,:. Compare the
land-takes at settlement, Byock, Viking Age Iceland, p. ,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 149
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Samtarsgur describe a period of major political change between
around ::cc and ::o. In the course of this period individual goor were
replaced by domains or rki dominated by a single major player who
controlled all the goor in the area. The timing of this process is con-
troversial, but it almost certainly took place at different times in different
areas of the country: in the north and the west it took place between ::c
and :::c.
,,
From :::c these strgoar (powerful chieftains) increasingly
intrigued and fought with each other whilst becoming involved with the
efforts of the Norwegian king to control Iceland. Consequently, many
samtarsgur focus almost exclusively on the storgoar and say little about
homicide more generally within the society. However, Gumundar saga
dra, slendinga saga, Prestsaga Gumundar ga and Hrafns saga Sveinb-
jarnarsonar overlap in providing some detail about both small as well as
larger conicts in the Northern and Western Quarters in the late twelfth
to early thirteenth century, at the very period that rki were being forged
in these areas.
,
These provide a set of : homicides from ::::c for
the Eyjafjrur-Reykjadalur district, which have been used to estimate
homicide rates, and a further o homicides between ::c: in
Arnarfjrur and Drafjrur, which have been combined with the
Eyjafjrur sample to examine sequences and processes of conict involv-
ing homicide.
,,
The numerous deaths after ::c, in the Eyjafjrur district
occurred almost exclusively in the battles between Kolbeinn Tumason
(and, after his death, his brother Arnrr) with Bishop Gumundr over
the extent of clerical authority. These would give a very skewed sample for
examining homicide more generally, and this period has therefore not
been included in the quantitative analysis.
,o
To provide a basis for some
estimate of homicide rates, a signicant sample within a dened geo-
graphical district is preferable: the : homicides within the Eyjafjrur
Reykjadalur area over the two decades ::::c provided such a
,,
Jn Viar Sigursson has argued that this development was well under way by the early twelfth
century: Fr goorum til rkja. run goavalds . og ld (Reykjavk, :,,); Sigursson,
Chieftains and Power, pp. o:,. Other scholars perceive this concentration beginning only at
the end of the twelfth century: Karlsson, Icelands Years, pp. ;::; Byock, Medieval
Iceland, pp. ::,; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, pp. , and p. :, including note o;
Lvk Ingvarsson, Goor og goorsmenn (Egilstum, :,o), I, pp. :,;o:.
,
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,, oo, ,,; Karlsson, Icelands Years, pp. ;o.
,,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::,:;,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. ::,;,; II,
pp. ,:::o. The : homicides in EyjafjrReykjadal are referenced at Sturlunga saga, ed.
Jhannesson, I, pp. :o;, :;c,, :,c, :,, :,,, :c,, :c;, ::c::; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew,
II, pp. :,,o, :,,o, ::, :o, :,c:, :,o, :cc, :c,. The o homicides in Arnarfjr and
Drafjr are at Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::o, ::, :::, ::o; Sturlunga saga, ed.
McGrew, II, pp. :::, ::, ::, ::,,.
,o
For example, : men died during just two battles between Kolbeinn Tumason and Bishop
Gumundrs supporters in ::c: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,; Sturlunga saga,
ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,,.
150 Hugh Firth
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sample.
,;
Based on the :c,; tithe census and the relative stability of farm
settlement subsequently, Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur probably hosted
some ,,co,c of some ,,cc,,oc Icelandic households around ::cc.
,
In order to understand the processes involved in vengeance, homicides
were analysed not as individual disputes, but as sequences of initial and
consequential homicides.
,,
All homicides within the sample districts were
documented, distinguishing initial and consequential homicides, perpe-
trators and victims relationships, apparent motives and consequences.
oc
The most signicant challenge in estimation of homicide rates (for the
twelfth- to early thirteenth-century period) besides an assessment of
population, is estimating the frequency of homicides not present in the
sources. What other homicides might not appear in samtarsgur? First,
the sagas report the deaths of men. How frequently were women also
victims of homicide? The likelihood that this was infrequent is evidenced
by the sources. Women were sometimes injured (as during the frustrated
assault on Sturla Sighvatsson at Sauafell in :::,). Yet when orgrmr
alikarl, reminded of his duty to avenge his father-in-law, raided the farm
of Hkon rarson with fourteen others after money and vengeance,
they directed no violence at Hkons wife despite a torrent of abuse.
When they later found and killed Hkon and his allies, orgrmr ordered
that no one should attack women or children.
o:
During a domestic
dispute over sexual behaviour, Ingimundr killed not his partner orgerr,
with whom he had been ghting, but orgerrs son-in-law who argued
,;
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::,:; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. ::,,,; II, pp.
,:::o.
,
In :c,;, either ,,cc or ,,oc householders were assessed for tithes throughout Iceland. Some
:,:cc or :,c (,:.,%) lived in the Northern Quarter (slendingabk, ed. Benediktsson, F :, p.
:,; slendingabk, trans. Grnlie, p. ::; Vsteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland, p. ::). In
::cc Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur may be assumed to have been the site of one-third to half of
all farms in the Northern Quarter, based on geography, likely population density, and the
probable presence of at least ve goor in the district, at least three held by orvaldr
Gumundarson and one each by gmundr sneis and Hallr Kleppjrnsson (Sigursson, Chief-
tains and Power, pp. ,,:, c, :c:;; Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. ::,:). These gures
suggest Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur held :::o% (:c;,c) of Icelandic households around
::cc. In :;cc, o,o farms were situated in EyjafjrurReykjadalur, of ,c: throughout Iceland
(:o.,%). This range of gures suggests Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur in ::cc were thus a likely
domicile for somewhat less than :o% of the population, or around ,,co,c households.
,,
This approach to understanding the processes involved in vengeance (also adopted by
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,o;c) is clearly preferable to Heuslers analysis of
individual conicts (Heusler, Zum islndischen Fehdewesen in der Sturlungzeit; and Das Strafre-
cht der Islndersagas). Sigursson however does not distinguish samtarsgur from slendin-
gasgur in his analysis.
oc
The analysis distinguished individuals identied as holders of goor together with their
rst-degree relatives (father, brother, son) from other farmers, merchants, farmhands, servants
and slaves. Infanticide was not evident in this sample: see notes , and ;.
o:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,,,, ,:,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. ::;;
II, pp. :;,:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 151
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with him that orgerr should be free to . . . stay wherever she pleases.
o:
Miller also concluded that women were rarely victims of homicide.
o,
Excepting one or two instances of summary justice amongst their
own ingmenn (followers), which might not have been related in
samtarsgur, few homicides initiated by the goorsmenn themselves in
their districts will have gone unmentioned, precisely because the
goorsmenn and their rivals were the theme of these accounts. The
difculty lies in estimating homicide amongst farmers, servants and
itinerant craftsmen and traders.
o
In disputes amongst followers of a single goorsmar, how far might
disputes about insults, debts, women or property have escalated to the
point of homicide? Although the sources are thin on such examples, it
seems likely that goorsmenn would have been drawn in early as brokers
or arbiters of justice, before most such disputes became lethal. Resolving
disputes between his own ingmenn was probably vital to the honour of
a goorsmar.
o,
Indeed in both slendingasgur and samtarsgur, almost
all homicides appear to have occurred between individuals with kinsmen
or allegiances across two or more chieftains. Elsewhere in early medieval
societies there is evidence that men of substance, although they might
pursue violence themselves, had a clear self-interest in minimizing hos-
tilities involving their followers.
oo
The better off were predominately
involved in early fourteenth-century English homicide, on account of
disputes over land.
o;
In nineteenth-century Corsica, whilst homicide
involved artisans, farmers and labourers, it was rarely carried on by such
people, because of the social as well as nancial costs of weapons, pro-
tection and social support.
o
Amongst households sharing allegiance to a
common goorsmar, therefore, disputes are likely to have been mini-
mized, homicide not frequent, and vengeance restricted.
How many homicides not recorded in the sources might have occurred
between farmers and others whose allegiances or kin were linked to
different goorsmenn? We know that goorsmenn were involved rapidly
in serious disputes through examples in the sources where settlement was
reached without the dispute escalating to the point of homicide.
o,
Given
o:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;::; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, p. :o:. Whether
women were frequently victims is discussed further in the next section.
o,
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. :c,:c. See also notes , and ; regarding infanticide.
o
I have added a further ,c% to allow for possible homicides by goorsmenn by way of summary
justice, not recorded in samtarsgur. For examples of homicides by ordinary men, see
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;:,, ::c; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o::,
:c,.
o,
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, p. :,;.
oo
Hyams, Feud and the State.
o;
B. Hanawalt, Crime and Conict in English Communities (London, :,;,), pp. :,::.
o
Wilson, Feuding, Conict and Banditry, pp. ,,;.
o,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :;:,.
152 Hugh Firth
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this involvement of goorsmenn in monitoring conict and enforcing
legal action or settlement of others disputes, we should presume that
they were rapidly involved in almost every dispute involving homicide,
whether or not it gained a mention in samtarsgur. And indeed there
seems no reason to suppose that homicide between followers of different
goorsmenn would have been either more or less frequent amongst men
whose fate was remembered through samtarsgur, or amongst those
doubly unlucky enough to die without such a mention. Such homicides
as do receive mention were those which reected signicantly on the
leading protagonists, or contributed to an otherwise signicant dispute.
;c
Other less signicant homicides involving rival goorsmenn will often
have been resolved between their goorsmenn through compensation or
outlawry. Therefore the simplest method for estimating unreported
homicides committed by farmers, servants and others would appear to be
in proportion to household numbers.
;:
Table : (see Appendix) shows how these principles have been used to
estimate possible late twelfth to early thirteenth-century homicide rates.
The patterns of homicide and vengeance in the data for both the
samtarsgur and slendingasgur samples are shown in Tables ,,
(Appendix), and discussed below.
;:
Medieval Icelandic homicide in context
The total of : homicides in the EyjafjrurReykjadalur district for the
:c-year period ::::c, yields a homicide rate between :o: per
:cc,ccc per annum (see the discussion above, and Table :, for numerical
estimates involved). The homicide rates indicated, even if these are sig-
nicant underestimates, are not high in a comparative context (see
Table :). The present estimates show a large degree of overlap with other
rural and urban medieval estimates available. They suggest that despite
the prevalence of vengeance as a legitimate social process, late twelfth-
;c
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o,,.
;:
Analysis above for EyjafjrurReykjadalur based on the :c,; census (see note , above)
suggests a potential outer range of between :c;,c households (::% of ,,cc to :o% of ,,oc;
mid-point ,;,). Probable stability in farm sites and population between :c,; and :;cc (o,o
farms) lends support for a gure close to or slightly above the mid-range (,;,), or some occ
households around ::cc (Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. ;,,, :c:;; O. Vsteinsson,
Central Areas in Iceland, in Arneborg and Grnnow (eds), Dynamics of Northern Societies, pp.
,c;::, at p. ,:,). Gumundar saga dra and slendinga saga refer to some :,c individuals
(excluding individuals within the same household) within Eyjafjr and Reykjadal at this time.
The sources thus appear to reference approximately one quarter of all households. Recorded
homicides by farmers and others were therefore multiplied by a factor of four for this estimate.
;:
Note that the estimates for homicides rates are based on data from ::::c for the Eyjafjr
Reykjadal district, whereas the patterns and sequences of conict have been analysed using the
combined data from both EyjafjrurReykjadalur from ::::c, and Arnarfjrur and
Drafjrur from ::c:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 153
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
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century Iceland was probably not as violent a society as a qualitative
reading of these sagas might suggest, even in those areas where conict
was still endemic between chieftains trying to build local control.
Differences between likely Icelandic homicide rates and those of other
societies can be related to three features of medieval Icelandic society: the
legitimacy of homicide; frequency of conict between unrelated males;
and social expectations promoting the use of conciliation to resolve or
terminate potentially lethal conicts. These homicide rates are an order of
magnitude lower than homicide rates in a variety of other societies where
notions of payment, getting even, and vengeance have been legiti-
mized.
;,
Before reecting on other medieval data, therefore, some brief
cross-cultural comparisons are in order.
Martin Daly and Margo Wilson approached homicidal behaviour
from an evolutionary perspective, with violence and homicide the rare,
fatal consequences of a ubiquitous competitive struggle among men for
status and respect and control over womens reproduction.
;
They attrib-
uted the enormous variation in homicide rates between societies to
opportunities for conict between unrelated males, and differences in the
social legitimacy of violence.
;,
One might then have expected the rate of
medieval Icelandic homicide to be especially high, given its legitimacy
judged both by law and by common social practice for a variety of
insults including raiding property, actual assault, and sexual insult.
;o
The highest homicide rates documented are amongst the Gebusi and
the Tauade of New Guinea. Honour, face and shame were so important
to the latter that they would often avoid any greeting or farewell, to
circumvent the possibility of a humiliating rebuff. In this highly com-
petitive society anothers gain was typically perceived as ones own loss;
rage and violence were highly legitimated reactions to insult. As in
medieval Iceland, vengeance and compensation for insult (whether theft,
;,
See especially C.R. Hallpike, Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains: The Generation
of Conict in Tauade Society (Oxford, :,;;), pp. :,,, :,,; J. Nash, Death as a Way of Life:
The Increasing Resort to Homicide in a Maya Indian Community, American Anthropologist o,
(:,o;), pp. ,,;c; H. Rose, Lethal Aspects of Urban Violence: An Overview, in H. Rose
(ed.), Lethal Aspects of Urban Violence (Lexington, :,;,).
;
Daly and Wilson, Homicide, pp. ,,. See also N. Chagnon (ed.), Evolutionary Biology and
Human Social Behavior (North Scituate, :,;,), pp. o::o, ,,c:. An evolutionary perspec-
tive predicts few homicides amongst blood relatives. In this sample, with one exception, no
blood relative was killed. The killing of foster fathers was portrayed twice, that of afnes only
once: slendingabk, ed. Benediktsson, F :, p. ; Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp.
,:, :cc; Brennu-Njls saga, ed. Sveinsson, F ::, pp. :o:, ,c:; slendingabk, ed. Grnlie,
p. ,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, pp. :,, :c,;; IV, pp. ,:, ,o.
;,
Daly and Wilson, Homicide, pp. ::,,o, :o, :,:,, :,,;.
;o
Grgs: Lagasafn slenska jveldisins, ed. G. Karlsson, K. Sveinsson and M. rnason (Reyk-
javk, :,,;), pp. :c,o; Laws of Early Iceland: Grgs, The Codex Regius of Grgs, ed. A.
Dennis, P. Foote and R. Perkins (Winnipeg, :,c), pp. :,,o,; Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. o:;,
:,,,. The extent to which this body of law described actual practice is debatable: see
Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, pp. ;.
154 Hugh Firth
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or sexual liaison with a spouse) were both referred to as payment.
Critically, however, restraints on homicide in the form of arbitration or
conciliation were highly unusual. Tauade cognitive models emphasized
bipartite relationships, rather than social or kin-group membership, and
consequentially the social mechanisms for conciliation or negotiation
were minimal.
;;
The present estimates of homicide rates for medieval Iceland are
broadly comparable with twentieth-century !Kung homicide. Amongst
the !Kung, underlying resentments in a culture of banter occasionally
escalated into deadly ghts and feuds. Despite obvious differences, par-
ticularly the absence of mediating authority gures, there are striking
resonances with features of Icelandic conict in the salience of repartee,
the way sexual insult typically led to escalation, and the presence of lethal
vengeance after a long delay.
;
A further cross-cultural comparison is with twentieth- and twenty-
rst-century urban ghettoes. Whereas in many cultures including con-
temporary Iceland, homicide is highly illegitimate and there are many
legitimate alternatives to violence, high homicide rates are frequent
amongst some deprived urban populations.
;,
Marvin Wolfgang and
Harold Rose have noted that insult, jealousy and disagreements
over property were precipitants for a vast majority of these lethal
disputes. Many of them, between acquaintances, were generated by the
vicissitudes of competitive alliances.
c
Elijah Anderson has shown how a
central feature of these honour cultures is competitive socialization in an
environment demanding both the ability to defend oneself, and access to
others who will provide support in the event of a challenge: fundamen-
tally, this task involves managing his self-image, which is shaped by what
he thinks others are thinking of him in relation to his peers.
:
Fascinat-
ingly, Anderson noted that one way to acquire status may be open seizure
of others possessions to enhance ones own worth through violation of
others. Such a close analogy with the function of raiding in medieval
Iceland is arresting.
:
The notable contrast again, however, is the paucity
;;
Hallpike, Bloodshed and Vengeance, pp. :,,, :,,. From Hallpikes data, Knauft calculated
a homicide rate: B. Knauft, Reconsidering Violence in Simple Human Societies: Homicide
amongst the Gebusi of New Guinea, Current Anthropology : (:,;), pp. ,;,cc. Compare
Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ::.
;
R.B. Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge, :,;,), pp.
,;c,, ,,;cc.
;,
R. Roth, American Homicide (Cambridge, :cc,), pp. ,,o.
c
M.E. Wolfgang, Patterns in Criminal Homicide (Philadelphia, :,,), pp. :;, o,;c, :::c.
Rose, Lethal Aspects of Urban Violence, p. :c.
:
E. Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (NewYork,
:,,,), at pp. ;:,.
:
W. Miller, Gift, Sale, Payment, Raid: Case Studies in the Negotiation and Classication of
Exchange in Medieval Iceland, Speculum o: (:,o), pp. :,c.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 155
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
of conciliation mechanisms in urban ghettoes where neither kinship,
marriage, nor local political structures provide the impetus to conict
resolution present in medieval Iceland.
What emerges from comparison with previous studies of medieval
homicide rates, the earliest of which relate to thirteenth-century
England? Ted Gurr reviewed trends in English homicide rates, including
estimates for medieval England by Given, Hair, Hammer and
Hanawalt.
,
P.E. Hair estimated Bedfordshire homicide rates between
::cc;o of :cc per :cc,ccc per annum.

James Given, studying the


same period, calculated yearly rural homicide rates ranging from ,:, per
:cc,ccc in southern England, ascribing higher homicide rates to areas
where manorial control was weak.
,
Givens urban estimates for this
period were :o per :cc,ccc per annum for Norwich, and ,, for Oxford:
Givens estimates for both Norwich and Oxford exceed their rural sur-
roundings.
o
Other authors urban homicide rates for the fourteenth
century, again measured per :cc,ccc per annum, were all substantially
higher: ,o,: for London, oc::c for Oxford, o:,: for Florence.
;
These rural medieval estimates range from ,c, and the urban medieval
estimates range from :o:,: per :cc,ccc per annum.

Two provisional conclusions emerge from this analysis. First, medieval


urban homicide rates appear substantially higher than rural estimates.
Second, the present late twelfth-century Icelandic estimates are compa-
rable in magnitude or only slightly higher than previous rural medieval
homicide estimates.
Daly and Wilson believed homicide rates reected the frequency of
altercations over resources and honour between unrelated men.
,
Such
encounters are more likely in urban than rural settings, and in medieval
Iceland were limited by the absence of village or urban settlements, the
limited development of trade and the sheer low density of population.
,
T.R. Gurr, Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence, Crime and
Justice: An Annual Review of Research , (:,:), pp. :,,,,,; Given, Society and Homicide; P.E.H.
Hair, Deaths fromViolence in Britain: ATentative Secular Survey, Population Studies :, (:,;:),
pp. ,:; C. Hammer, Patterns of Homicide in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-
Century Oxford, Past and Present ; (:,;), pp. ,:,; B. Hanawalt, Violent Death in
Fourteenth- and Early Fifteenth-Century England, Comparative Studies in Society and History
: (:,;o), pp. :,;,:c.

Hair, Deaths from Violence, p. :.


,
Given, Society and Homicide, pp. :,:,, ,,; (and Errata), :,c. Norfolk had the lowest,
Oxfordshire the highest rates. The ranges are dependent on population estimates adopted.
o
Givens lower values for Bristol and London, based only on two years data, are probably
unreliable: Given, Society and Homicide, pp. ,, :;,.
;
Hanawalt, Violent Death, pp. ,c::; Hammer, Patterns of Homicide, pp. :::,; M. Becker,
Changing Patterns of Violence and Justice in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Florence,
Comparative Studies in Society and History : (:,;o), pp. ::,o, at p. :;. Infanticide is absent
or omitted from all these studies.

Excluding the estimates based on two years data, in Given, Society and Homicide, pp. ,, :;,.
,
Daly and Wilson, Homicide, pp. :,:,.
156 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Moreover, both slendingasgur and samtarsgur suggest that homicide
was almost always pursuant to an already existing dispute, often antici-
pated, and rarely an impulsive act between strangers in response to some
insult. The picture that emerges is therefore very different from Carl
Hammers supposition that in fourteenth-century Oxford sharp
tongues, quick tempers and strong drink led to a preponderance of
homicides.
,c
Hammers inferences about Oxford may be exaggerated.
Motivations for homicides in the sagas may have been distorted by those
who related them, to inate the sense of rational purpose and mask the
inuence of impulsivity. Yet the very different environments suggest these
differences may well be real.
,:
In slendingasgur, when Oddr killed a guest
who had rst abused his son in some games and then insulted him, or
when Helgi Droplaugarson killed Bjrn for refusing to pay compensation
after fathering a child by another mans wife, these may have been
impulsive acts in the course of argument. Yet judged by these accounts,
just as orsteinn ornnsson killed his ex-partner Einarr risson
because of a history of ill-treatment, slander and wife-stealing, many of
these fatalities probably occurred during premeditated confrontations
resulting from a catalogue of resentments.
,:
In medieval Iceland, an
injury or death brought risk not only to the individual, but to their whole
family. Indeed, Boehms emphasis on the importance of considered indi-
vidual decision-making resonates with the ambivalence about aggressive
action often evident in these sagas.
,,
The broad similarity between twelfth-century Icelandic and thirteenth-
century English homicide rates belies signicant differences in homicide
patterns. The most striking difference is in the involvement of women. No
women appear either as perpetrators or victims of homicide amongst the
:,, deaths in the two Icelandic samples. In thirteenth-century England
women committed nearly :c% of all homicides and a quarter of their
victims were women. Nearly :c% of all victims were female. Male killing
of a wife or lover constituted about ,% of all homicides.
,
The absence of
women as perpetrators and victims in these Icelandic samples therefore
either reects a silence in the accounts given by the saga-tellers, or a
profound difference in the perception and role of women. The latter
interpretation receives support from Millers examination of rape and the
fate of women in Icelandic conict: Miller concluded that women,
,c
Hammer, Patterns of Homicide, p. :c.
,:
See also C. Wickham, Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western
Europe, Transactions of Royal Historical Society, oth series : (:,,:), pp. :::o.
,:
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :,, ,:, :,:, :,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV,
pp. ,c;, ,:, ,o,, ,.
,,
Boehm, Ambivalence and Compromise; Boehm, Blood Revenge, pp. :c,o, :;,c.
,
Given, Society and Homicide, pp. , ::, :;, :;::.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 157
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
although sometimes raped, were rarely objects of lethal attack.
,,
The
example of Ingimundr and orgerr referred to above supports this
conclusion.
,o
By contrast, in thirteenth-century England many women
were killed in the course of robbery with homicide, something which
would certainly have achieved neither gain nor honour in Iceland.
,;
There is another difference. In medieval England, powerful local indi-
viduals were of course central to the administration of justice and its
desserts. Their role inexecuting criminals was however embedded ina legal
process in which they were conceptually agents rather than principals.
,
Icelandic hfingjar (chieftains), however, typically negotiated or executed
their own justice directly, before disputes reached the legal processes of
ings, remaining principals in the conceptualization as well as the imple-
mentation of justice from the eleventh to the thirteenth century.
,,
Homicide and retribution in slendingasgur: balance
or competition?
The :c, homicides in the slendingasgur sample comprised :, separate
homicide sequences. The deaths portrayed in these sagas were not the
outcome of impulsive encounters between young men, but they were
consistent with Daly and Wilsons vision of homicide as the rare conse-
quence of competitive struggle over status, resources and womens repro-
duction. One source of friction leading to homicide might be supposed
to have been competition for shrinking resources, yet this sample suggests
otherwise.
:cc
Only two of twenty-ve initial killings were motivated by
conict over pasture, sheep or horses; in addition one was motivated by
outright theft and one in the course of debt recovery.
:c:
By contrast the
commonest causes of initial homicides (often following earlier provoca-
tions) were retribution over either sexual transgression or insult, or physi-
cal injury or insult (see Table ,).
:c:
Following nearly half of the initial
homicides, no lethal vengeance was delivered; four sequences ended after
a single vengeance attack, and only seven killings led to a lethal feud
,,
Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. :c,:c.
,o
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;::; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, p. :o:.
,;
Given, Society and Homicide, pp. :co, :o.
,
See for instance P. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, :
Legislation and its Limits (Oxford, :,,,), pp. ::o, ,co;, ,:,.
,,
This process is neatly illustrated by Gumundr dris actions following the death of Hrafn
Brandsson, discussed below: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :o;c; Sturlunga saga, ed.
McGrew, II, pp. :,;oc. See also Byock, Viking Age Iceland, p. ,,.
:cc
On the environmental context, see for example: T.H. McGovern et al., Landscapes of Settle-
ment in Northern Iceland, American Anthropologist :c, (:cc;), pp. :;,:.
:c:
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :, ,c, :,::c, ::;:; Complete Sagas, ed,
Hreinsson, IV, pp. ,:, ,:o, ,:, ,o.
:c:
See for example Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :,, :,o, :,:, :,; Complete Sagas,
ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp. ,c;, ,,,, ,o,, ,.
158 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
(Table ). These conicts thus did not conform to a simple pattern of
vengeance. This was not because deaths were requited with money: only
one sequence ended with compensation alone. Rather, the powerful
brazened the consequences, whereas the powerless ed. Fear and power,
rather than notions of requital and payment, appear to have been the
social processes at work in this society, if we accept the descriptions in
these accounts.
The most striking feature evident from the slendingasgur analysis is
the different outcomes for homicides committed by goorsmenn (and the
more powerful farmers, strbndur), or by other men (Table ,).
:c,
Thus
homicides initiated by farmers did not usually lead to feuds: these con-
icts ended swiftly with the ight of the perpetrator, payment of com-
pensation, or death through a single act of vengeance, typically carried
out by a goorsmar or his family. Njls saga records one Hrappr
rgumleiarson who had killed rlygr lvisson, grandson of Hrgeir
hvta (Hrodgeir the White). Hrappr expected that the men of
Vpnafjrur will be taking action over it. Without the resources or the
backing to defend himself, he ed to Norway.
:c
The fate of orsteinn
ornnsson also neatly illustrates several of these features: orsteinn
killed his former business partner Einarr for stealing his wife. He ed
Iceland, but his two brothers were killed in a vengeance attack led by the
son of his victims goorsmar. Although he returned to Iceland ve years
later, orsteinn did not attempt to avenge his brothers: he sought settle-
ment instead.
:c,
Vpnringa saga tells of a farmer who killed his neigh-
bour in a dispute over grazing rights; outlawed, he failed to leave the
district, stole sheep and consequentially was killed by the young grandson
of a local goorsmar.
:co
The story is told to illustrate the temperament of
the young Brodd-Helgi but it also illustrates the nality of such justice:
as a farmer without support he is rst outlawed, then killed.
Chieftains in slendingasgur typically became involved in lethal justice
(and often, subsequent vengeance) when an initial homicide was pursued
by a goorsmar or his son as a vengeance killing. After orsteinn
ornnsson had killed Einarr for stealing his wife, Einarrs father
approached his brother-in-law orgils, son of a goorsmar, for help to
chase orsteinn down. orgils agreed, leading not only to the intended
:c,
For clarity, in the quantitative analysis, homicides were categorized by whether they were
committed by goorsmenn (or their rst-degree blood relatives), or by others whether
storbndr, bndr, merchants, farmhands or slaves.
:c
Brennu-Njls saga, ed. Sveinsson, F ::, p. :c,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, p. ,,.
:c,
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ;:o; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp.
,c,.
:co
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :o; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, pp. ,,,
,:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 159
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
victims death (orsteinns two brothers), but to orgilss own death.
:c;
These examples support Jn Viar Sigurssons interpretation, that
goorsmenn and their families acted not as mediators, but as participants
in these disputes.
:c
To strengthen their prestige as effective protectors of
their ingmenn, they took on the role of executioners of lethal vengeance.
Only as a consequence did they become parties to feuds which took the
lives of their own family members. In this respect there is a marked
contrast with the later sample, where goorsmenn more commonly inter-
vened in disputes between farmers by pursuing negotiation and settle-
ment.
:c,
Such differences bear upon debates over how far slendingasgur
represent a retelling of existing oral material, how far a projection of
thirteenth-century concerns over the behaviour of a thirteenth-century
aristocracy: idealization of character there may be, but almost certainly
not in the frequency of ight versus vengeance.
::c
Chieftains or their families on occasion killed individuals without
entailing vengeance (and even allegedly without compensation) where
they were condent of power, or where their victims inuence and
support was simply insufcient to retaliate or take legal action.
:::
Rarely in
slendingasgur did men who were not goorsmenn brazen the conse-
quences and survive. Brandkrossa ttur relates how Oddr, the farmer
who killed a guest for insulting him and his son, expressed fury when he
was prosecuted, sentenced to forfeit his farm and leave the district
(herasekr) for this killing. Only a powerful farmer (strbndi) such as
Oddr, said to be an important person would brave prosecution, and
express fury at such an outcome. Strbndi and aspiring goorsmar
:c;
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ;:o; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp.
,c,.
:c
Sigursson in Chieftains and Power, pp. :c, and :o, takes issue with Byock and Miller: W.I.
Miller, Avoiding Legal Judgement: The Submission of Legal Disputes to Arbitration in Medi-
eval Iceland, American Journal of Legal History : (:,), pp. ,,:,, at p. :c:; Byock, Medieval
Iceland, p. ,.
:c,
Contrast Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ;:o and pp. :o (Complete Sagas, ed.
Hreinsson, IV, pp. ,c, and p. ,:) with Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;c:, :;,,
:c,:c (Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :,,:oc, :o,, :c,). Interestingly, orgils saga
ok Haii, in the early twelfth century, describes a dispute whose patterns perhaps lie between
those of slendingasgur and the later twelfth- and early thirteenth-century disputes. Both
Haii and orgils became involved in organizing the killing of men working for their rival, but
only as a result of their already developing rivalry. The prosecution of these cases led to
large-scale armed confrontations, negotiation and mediation of the type that occurred fre-
quently during the thirteenth century: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::,c; Sturlunga
saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :,;c.
::c
For discussion of differing thirteenth-century perceptions of the past, see for example E.P.
Durrenberger and J. Wilcox, Humor as a Guide to Social Change: Bandamanna saga and
Heroic Values, in Plsson (ed.), From Sagas to Society, pp. ::::,; lason, Dialogues with the
Viking Age, pp. :,, and :c,; Bragason, Sagas of Contemporary History, at pp. ,oc; and
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, p. ,:.
:::
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :c,, ::;:, Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, p.
,:; V, p. :o,.
160 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Helgi Droplaugarson, involved in the death of his own stepfather, was
similarly outlawed. Helgi disregarded the verdict for two or three years
before meeting his death. He did not ee because he could count on
support; and indeed his death was avenged by his brother and his asso-
ciates.
:::
Chieftains who initiated homicidal action might escape justice
altogether, although most became embroiled in feud. Amongst both
goorsmenn and powerful farmers, ve perpetrators escaped justice
through their personal and political power. In two cases they posthu-
mously outlawed their victim. In one case the perpetrator mounted a
successful legal defence. One instance was of mor (undisclosed killing).
In the last case, the victims appear to have been too terried to respond.
::,
Attention to the sequence of victims in these homicides is illuminat-
ing, and argues against Millers view that in this period chieftains acted to
repay insult and injury within a framework of reciprocity. Rather, the
evidence is that, as Samson and Jn Viar Sigursson have argued, they
acted proactively and coercively in subtle, sometimes brutal competition
with their neighbours and their rivals.
::
Goorsmenn were almost never
the object of an initial killing in disputes in this sample. Of the four
instances where this appears to be so, three are extremely brief references
where we may suspect a history not related in these sources; in the fourth,
a debt-defaulting hired man was the intended object of the lethal raid.
::,
Goorsmenn only became victims following vengeance committed by
themselves or their ingmenn. By contrast, goorsmenn themselves per-
petrated around a quarter of initial killings. In these instances, they acted
to secure their own personal interests, sometimes as part of a policy of
outright intimidation. Thus sbjrn Hrafnkelsson, insulted by the tem-
porary theft of his horses, visited the offending farmer, lvir, to seek
compensation. When lvir said he was not aware that there was
anything to discuss, sbjrn prosecuted lvir, had him outlawed and
killed, saying this was how he would teach his inferiors not to attack
independent farmers.
::o
As part of a deliberate strategy of provocation
and intimidation, Brodd-Helgi orgilsson attacked and killed several
:::
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :,,;,, :,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp.
,o;,, ,.
::,
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ,c, :c,, :,:, :,o, ::;:; Complete Sagas, ed.
Hreinsson, IV, pp. ,:o, ,o,, ,o,, ,:; V, p. :o,. For the purpose of this example, I have presumed
the mor of Hrafn was instigated, although not committed, by either Brodd-Helgi or Geitir,
both goorsmenn.
::
Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?; Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :,:,.
::,
The deaths of Halldrr and Arnrr rnlfsson, nundr tskubak and rm-Ketill: Land-
nmabk, ed. Benediktsson, F :, pp. ,:, ,,,; Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :,o,
:cc; Book of Settlements, trans. Plsson and Edwards, pp. ::o; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson,
IV, pp. ,o,, ,o.
::o
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ::;:; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, p. ,:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 161
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
members of a party sent to summons him for killing neighbours cattle
and cutting timber from a wood whose ownership was shared, but which
Brodd-Helgi coveted.
::;
The late twelfth century: rivalry, allegiance, and the changing
politics of conict
By the turn of the thirteenth century, social change in Icelandic society was
accelerating.
::
A comparison of homicide sequences from samtarsgur
and slendingasgur reveals continuities but also striking differences. If we
put to one side for now the developing conicts between the most
powerful chieftains, we nd in samtarsgur the continued occurrence of
homicide committed by men of little means. Motives (see Table ,)
reected the frustrations of individual farmers, workmen and servants: a
lover killed the husband of his mistress; a dispute over a stolen inheritance
led to the death of a bodyguard; a servant killed a lodger who had made
him a laughing stock; a farmer was killed in an argument over a cow.
::,
Sexual rivalry, physical injury and ridicule remained a common motive for
these samtarsgur homicides. Five were conicts over property. Two
appear to have been motivated partially or wholly by the conicting
allegiances of men to rival goorsmenn; no such situations are manifest in
slendingasgur.
::c
It is possible this is a consequence of the more ction-
alized content of the slendingasgur; it more likely reects the inuence of
rivalry between the major chieftains on the allegiance and relationships of
ordinary farmers in the late twelfth century.
The major difference between patterns of conict in slendingasgur
and samtarsgur samples is that when farmers and others committed
homicide in the contemporary sagas, there was almost never a killing in
retaliation. In slendingasgur, chieftains were drawn into cycles of con-
ict often lethal for themselves; in samtarsgur, such deaths were almost
always resolved by chieftains. This is consistent with Jn Viar
Sigurssons ndings regarding both minor and major conicts more
generally within samtarsgur: that the majority were resolved through
mediation or arbitration, in the more signicant cases by clergy or
hfingjar.
:::
In slendingasgur the rivalry between storbndi Helgi
Droplaugarson and goorsmar Helgi sbjarnarson led to a long and
::;
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ,:; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp.
,:c:.
::
Karlsson, Icelands Years, pp. ;:; Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. ,, o;,.
::,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;c, :,, ::c::; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :,,,
:o, :c,.
::c
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,, :c,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o, :,o.
:::
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. :oc,. Note that Sigurssons gures relate to conicts of
all sorts, large and small, whereas the present data relate solely to homicide.
162 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
bloody feud. The somewhat parallel rivalry later between Klfr Gut-
tormsson and Hallr Kleppjrnsson resulted in the death of the latter: but
this was resolved by a ne, Klfrs three-year exile to Norway and per-
manent exile from the district.
:::
Homicidal vengeance, and particularly
cycles of vengeance drawing in chieftains on both sides, was remarkably
less frequent in the late twelfth-century sample. The death of Gumundr
Hallsson for trying to steal a horse might well have spiralled into a cycle
of vengeance between goorsmenn had it occurred in slendingasgur: in
the event it was resolved with a large ne and the perpetrators exile from
the West fjords.
::,
Table , illustrates this: in slendingasgur nearly two-
thirds of all deaths were a result of vengeance attempts; in the later
sample, barely more than one-third occurred as a result of vengeance.
An example mentioned earlier (Ingimundr, who killed his son-in-law
for protecting Ingimundrs partner, then was killed himself ) might super-
cially seem typical of patterns of vengeance in slendingasgur.
::
Yet
amongst ten twelfth- to thirteenth-century homicides by men of ordinary
means, it is the sole instance where a death was revenged by homicide. A
second example reveals changing practice over time. In ::, Hrafn
Brandsson, second husband of a well-off young woman with a history of
extra-marital liaisons, was killed by her new lover Hkon rarson.
Rather than become embroiled in vengeance, Hkons uncle Gumundr
dri, mindful of his rivals, rapidly negotiated and paid fteen hundred
ounces of silver and gave gifts to those brokering the deal, before others
might initiate a prosecution.
::,
Table shows this striking change in
outcomes of homicide by farmers: in slendingasgur, half of all initial
homicides by farmers were followed by lethal vengeance, and only one
resolved by compensation alone; in the twelfth-century sample, only one
such homicide resulted in a vengeance killing.
::o
This reluctance to use
lethal vengeance may have been due to an increased awareness of its risk.
More likely it reected changes in social structure. Earlier, farmers
resorted to vengeance because of the unreliability of other forms of
accommodation in a society with poorly developed power and judicial
structures. By ::cc, there was a clearer hierarchy of effective power;
hfingjar (chieftains) were expected to resolve disputes, especially those
:::
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. ::c; Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, p. :,;
Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV, pp. ,,,c; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, p. :,:.
::,
Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, ed. Helgadttir, p. :; Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, p. ::o;
Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, p. :::.
::
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;:,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o::.
::,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :o;c; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :,;oc.
::o
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :,o and :;; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson,
IV, pp. ,,,oc and cc; Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;:,; Sturlunga saga, ed.
McGrew, II, pp. :o::.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 163
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
within their own sphere of inuence.
::;
Allegiance was increasingly some-
thing exacted, rather than given. In this context, victims relatives were
under greater pressure to avoid pursuing their own vengeance, whatever
their inclinations. We see evidence of such resolution following serious
injury as well as homicide.
::
With the exception of those struggles in which the most powerful
chieftains threw their weight into confrontations with rivals, late twelfth-
century goorsmenn were more reluctant to commit initial acts of homi-
cide.
::,
This may in part have been because the stakes were higher, as the
patterns of power-holding amongst chieftains were shufed.
:,c
When Jn
Ketilsson had Bjrn Gestsson killed for instigating a series of thefts, he
lost his goor to Gumundr dri in consequence; when Kolbeinn
Tumason went to execute his rival Bishop Gumundrs followers, he
himself was killed in the mele.
:,:
In slendingasgur individual chieftains bullied individual farmers. The
twelfth-to thirteenth-century hfingjar used threats of force to intimi-
date whole communities, extracting both money and followers.
:,:
Chief-
tains also deployed power in more subtle ways. slendinga saga relates a
conict between two rival goorsmenn. Sigurr Ormsson seized property
held in trust by Smundr Jnssons father. After Sigurr refused a settle-
ment, Smundr had the unfortunate farmer on the land killed. This was
a conict between chieftains with a lesser man as victim, leading not to
feud between the families, but to a threatened battle, resolved without
bloodshed when Sigurrs backer, Kolbeinn Tumason, failed to support
him.
:,,
There is one similarity here with slendingasgur: a powerful per-
::;
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. ,:,, :,;, :,,, :c,:.
::
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :;:,.
::,
The killing of goorsmar nundr orkelsson by Gumundr dri represents the culmination
of such rivalries; the killing of Bjrn Gestsson by Jn Ketilsson, ostensibly for theft, and
mundi, ingmar of Hrafn, are the only other initial homicides committed by a goorsmar
in this sample: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :o;, :,c, :::; Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnar-
sonar, ed. Helgadttir, p. ,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :,,, ::, ::. Often major
confrontations were temporarily resolved without loss of life: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson,
I, pp. :c,, :o::; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,,; II, pp. :,o;. The two decades
from ::c: showed the same infrequency in initial acts of homicide by goorsmenn.
:,c
The process of consolidation whereby goor were transferred and accumulated by a shrinking
number of powerful chieftains is particularly evident in Gumundar saga dra and slendinga
saga. In :: there were ve goor in the Eyjafjr district, one probably shared; by ::c: there
were just three: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, p. :,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, p. :,,.
See also Byock, Viking Age Iceland, pp. ,:,, ,,; Karlsson, Icelands Years, pp. ;::;
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power, pp. oo; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, pp. ::o,
:,,;, :,o.
:,:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :o;, :,,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,,;
II, pp. :,,o; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, p. :o.
:,:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ,,, :o; II, pp. ,c, o,;; Sturlunga saga, ed.
McGrew, I, pp. :,,, ,::; II, pp. ::,, ,c:.
:,,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,;,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. ::o.
164 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
petrator (Smundr) escaped justice by prosecuting and successfully out-
lawing the victim (in this case Sigurr himself ).
The outcome of such disputes, even for powerful chieftains, was
therefore typically a consequence of the political backing (or lack of it)
which they were able to develop. Vice versa, pursuing and mobilizing
vengeance was also one source of political capital, particularly for younger
men like orgrmr alikarl building their inuence as chieftains. Indeed,
all of those (few) initial killings perpetrated by goorsmenn led to ven-
geance or a cycle of vengeance in the samtarsgur sample, suggesting
that such lethal events were a clear and explicit component within these
chieftains political strategies (Tables and ,).
:,
In the disputes between
the most powerful of these chieftains, despite the accounts in
samtarsgur of large confrontations, in most instances ghting was
avoided. Yet we should not in any way underestimate the lethal conse-
quences of these major confrontations. When the rivalry built over ve
years between Gumundr dri and nundr orkelsson did nally erupt
in ::,;, six men died in the burning of nundrs homestead, and seven
more in the subsequent vengeance.
:,,
When Kolbeinn Tumason
attempted in ::c to enforce control over the clergy in the north, twelve
men died; nineteen more in subsequent attempts at vengeance.
:,o
Because
more died in such confrontations than in encounters between individual
farmers, craftsmen or servants, goorsmenn were responsible for propor-
tionately as many deaths in the samtarsgur samples as in slendingasgur
(Tables ,,). And each of these individual killings, battles and burnings
of the thirteenth century can be seen as the direct outcome of political
competition for superiority between rival hfingjar.
Implications: retribution, accommodation and the realities
of power
Medieval Iceland was a society undergoing sustained and radical change
between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Rapid deforestation as a
consequence of settlement and the resultant erosion doubtless accentu-
ated competition for grazing, fuel and building materials.
:,;
Insecurity
over households viability can only have heightened tensions between
neighbours. Yet the homicides in each of these very different samples were
tied in to a process of social change rather than the result of immediate
environmental pressures. Motivations for initial homicides in both
:,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,:c,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o:c,.
:,,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;,:c;; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o,:cc.
:,o
These latter deaths lie outside the ::::c sample: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp.
:,,,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. ::;.
:,;
However see Karlssons discussion, Icelands Years, pp. ,:.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 165
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
slendingasgur and samtarsgur were concerned at least as often with
sexual behaviour, insults and threats to face as with resources and prop-
erty. It is the processes of vengeance revealed in the sequelae of homicide
which throw light on the drivers of social change leading up to the
thirteenth century. Seen through the lenses of their thirteenth-century
authors, slendingasgur portrays a society where the resolution following
homicide depended essentially on the perpetrators power base: bndi,
storbndi or goorsmar were each able to take proactive steps, prepare
for defence or take ight, dependent on their individual ability to muster
social as much as material support. William Miller and Theodore Ander-
sson correctly deduced from Heuslers analysis that the slendingasgur
suggest the dispute-processing mode of rst choice was violent self-help.
Andreas Heuslers ndings, although analysed differently, parallel those
of the present study: in slendingasgur just under oc% of disputes cul-
minated in an act of revenge.
:,
This absence of violent retribution to
nearly half all the slendingasgur homicides requires careful interpreta-
tion however. Millers analysis emphasizes retribution, within his model
of reciprocity, as the driver for social interaction in medieval Icelandic
society.
:,,
The nding that no lethal vengeance followed half the initial
homicides might be seen to support Wallace-Hadrills argument that in
early medieval societies accommodation was the common alternative to
vengeance because of the riskiness of the latter.
:c
But the lack of ven-
geance evident in slendingasgur was not generally because some settle-
ment was reached: only one initial homicide was resolved by successful
prosecution, and in only one instance did compensation alone achieve a
settlement. In most cases without vengeance, there was no accommoda-
tion or resolution: either a powerless perpetrator ed, or the killer
escaped justice in one way or another.
::
The outcome of conicts in samtarsgur presents a rather different
picture. Homicides in samtarsgur were far less likely to lead to further
death. The growing role and dominance of chieftains meant that even in
the districts sampled in this study (where rki had not yet been success-
fully established), feuds between farmers were virtually unknown.
::
Yet
:,
Heusler, Das Strafrecht der Islndersagas, pp. ,:; Andersson and Miller, Law and Literature in
Medieval Iceland, pp. ::o. Heusler also commented on the consistent differences between
slendingasgur and samtarsgur, including the greater frequency of mediation and arbitration
by an inuential goorsmar: Heusler, Zum islndischen Fehdewesen in der Sturlungzeit.
:,,
Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ::; see also Miller, Gift, Sale, Payment, Raid, pp. :,c.
:c
Wallace-Hadrill, The Bloodfeud of the Franks, at p. :;.
::
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. o,;,, :c,, :,, ::;:, :;; Brennu-Njls saga,
ed. Sveinsson, F ::, p. :c,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, p. ,,; IV, pp. ,,o;, ,:, cc,
,; V, p. :o,.
::
This point is made by Sigursson, but in relation to those districts where rki had already been
established: Chieftains and Power, p. ,,.
166 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
although samtarsgur did exhibit more accommodation in the form of
compensation, it was accommodation on the terms of the powerful. It
was the hfingjar (and at their request, sometimes the clergy) who
negotiated and awarded compensation. In the late twelfth century-
sample the families of ordinary men settled their own scores rarely. This
reects profound social change between the periods described, even in
those areas where rki had not yet been forged.
Retribution, parity and accommodation all imply relative equality
between parties. But as Ross Samson and Orri Vsteinsson have shown,
the relationships between the various hfingjar, householders, and their
kin, tenants, hired labourers and thralls were not at all equal, but
depended on their respective ability to call on the support or allegiance of
others. No two individuals were equal in this respect. The power of either
goorsmar or householder did not come from their legal status but
through the extent of their wealth and reputation, and latterly their
control of ministries, which enabled them to call in obligations and
favours, to bargain, to bribe, and to deliver carefully titrated threats and
coercion.
:,
Thus in the early eleventh century when Flosi defended
himself against prosecution for the burning of Njll, he relied on gifts to
buy the support of at least three, possibly seven, of the eight chieftains he
visited. When rr asked for his goorsmar Brodd-Helgis help in a
disagreement about grazing rights, Helgi demanded all rrs posses-
sions and his labour for life in exchange for any help.
:
This example
illustrates Samsons perception that violence (and) coercion is found
everywhere (a perception which has much in common with Stephen
Whites subtle analyses of the operation of Merovingian vengeance). Yet
this example of Helgi and rr also illustrates how incidents of homi-
cide themselves contributed to the progressive differentiation of wealth
and power in the society.
:,
In both slendingasgur and samtarsgur lethal vengeance was avoided
not, as Miller argued, because feud only took place between equals, but
because of the imbalance of power, which Miller himself recognized
when farmers had to lump it in dealings with powerful farmers and
goorsmenn.
:o
In the majority of instances in this study it was a balance
of personal, legal or political power in favour of goorsmenn against other
:,
Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland, pp. ::o,
;,:, :,o.
:
Brennu-Njls saga, ed. Sveinsson, F ::, pp. ,,,,; Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::,
p. ,; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, III, pp. :o,; IV, p. ,:c.
:,
Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?, at p. :;; S.D. White, Clothilds Revenge: Politics,
Kinship, and Ideology in the Merovingian Blood Feud, in White, Re-Thinking Kinship and
Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe, article III, pp. :c;,c.
:o
Andersson and Miller, Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland, pp. :,o; Miller, Bloodtaking,
p. :,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 167
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
farmers which prevented vengeance: the examples of homicide in both
slendingasgur and samtarsgur throw light on goorsmenn who were a
potential aristocracy in the making. Thus to say that feud was the
bedrock of Icelandic medieval culture is profoundly misleading.
:;
Ven-
geance might function to redress wrongs, but it might equally function to
impose authority. Retribution, accommodation, or lumping it were less
about parity than about the realities of political power and the possibility
for pragmatic deals for preserving honour. As Miller himself briey
acknowledged, retribution was only sometimes driven by the demands of
honour. In both slendingasgur and samtarsgur, aggressive and com-
petitive actions were rather legitimated through the language of offence
and repayment.
:
Icelandic farmers in slendingasgur who saw themselves as victims in
disputes often chose to turn to goorsmenn for assistance. In the
samtarsgur examples, we have a sense that they less often had a choice:
they were obliged to do so.
:,
As Stephen White has argued in relation to
Merovingian practice, retributive action was more than an exchange
between two independent parties: it was a move in several games with
multiple simultaneous players; at times punishment, deterrent, coercion
or aggrandisement; part of a process of competitive behaviour in several
modalities (honour, valour, wealth, women, followers).
:,c
In late twelfth-
century Iceland, from the evidence in these examples, it was a game
played increasingly only by hfingjar, rather than by the families of the
victims themselves.
Conclusions
This study has employed a quantitative approach to develop an exami-
nation of homicide as described in medieval Icelandic sources. The results
of this exercise suggest important conclusions in three areas. The rst of
these, although clearly dependent on potentially controversial assump-
tions, is the possibility that the incidence of homicide in late twelfth-
century Iceland may have been not dissimilar to rates prevalent in
near-contemporaneous rural European medieval communities. Indeed
these homicide rates may even have been somewhat lower than in many
:;
J.L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley, :,:), p. ,o (my emphasis).
:
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,;; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, pp. :,,:;
Austringa sgur, ed. Jhannesson, F ::, pp. :c,, ::;:; Complete Sagas, ed. Hreinsson, IV,
p. ,:; V, pp. :o,. Miller, Bloodtaking, p. :c,. Compare Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation,
pp. ,::.
:,
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. ::c, ::o, ::; Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, ed.
Helgadttir, pp. :, ,c:; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :c,, :::, ::.
:,c
White, Clothilds Revenge, at p. :,c. Miller acknowledged the unfolding of simultaneous
games: Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ,;.
168 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
medieval European cities. Even allowing for the extreme difculty in
attempting estimates such as these, and the possibility of underestima-
tion, it appears that medieval Iceland was perhaps not as violent a society
as a qualitative reading of the sagas might imply.
Secondly, there are clear differences in the patterns of homicide and
vengeance between the two sets of sources, which are at least consistent
with the kinds of changes in the social structure of Icelandic society
during the early medieval period (in particular the growing power of
fewer chieftains, and their political alliances) explored by recent scholars
such as Jn Viar Sigursson and Orri Vsteinsson.
:,:
Thirdly, the present analysis also lends support to more recent inter-
pretations of medieval Iceland as a highly divided, unequal society with
a large class of . . . politically powerless householders forming the base of
each chieftains power.
:,:
Although the legitimating models of exchange
may have been notions of honour and reciprocity, this analysis has shown
that in these lethal exchanges, balance and reciprocity were rarely
achieved, even temporarily. In both slendingasgur and samtarsgur,
wealth and inuence were frequently sought through aggressive and
competitive action as well as through the honour and payments deriving
from the resolution of others disputes. No wonder then, since these sagas
are above all accounts of powerful families lives, slendingasgur were
acutely concerned . . . with the way in which law and order was main-
tained, with dispute, with lethal conicts. No wonder also that they gloss
over the periods when for a long time nothing happened to disturb the
day-to-day lives of powerful individuals.
:,,
Evolutionary game theorists have shown that retaliation in kind is the
most reliable strategy in competition with rivals.
:,
This is consonant with
the importance attached by Miller to a medieval Icelandic model of
balance and reciprocity, but it is insufcient in explaining either the
variety of individual behaviour, or changing patterns of dispute and
violence.
:,,
The lower frequency of reciprocal vengeance in the late
twelfth-century sample, if not an artefact of sampling error, or the dis-
tortions of thirteenth-century authors, is not explicable by a model of
reciprocity alone: it is only explicable when other dimensions of power,
choice and survival are taken into account. Independent vengeance by
farmers was reduced by the necessities of allegiance; independent ven-
:,:
Sigursson, Chieftains and Power; Vsteinsson, Christianization of Iceland.
:,:
Vsteinsson, A Divided Society, at p. :,;.
:,,
Samson, Goar: Democrats or Despots?, pp. :o;, :;:. See also Miller, Bloodtaking, pp. ,c,.
:,
Game theory experiments demonstrate that tit for tat (cooperate rst time, then match
opponents last move) strategies are stable within a group: Daly and Wilson, Homicide, p. :,,;
R. Axelrod and W.D. Hamilton, The Evolution of Cooperation, Science ::: (:,:), pp. :,,co.
:,,
See Boehm, Blood Revenge, pp. :,,, ::,o; Boehm, Ambivalence and Compromise,
pp. ,::,,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 169
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
geance by goorsmenn was reduced by the necessities of survival. Both
were conscious decisions made by individuals weighing their options in
the light of unknown risks.
:,o
Miller emphasized how honour could be
acquired as much by forbearance and magnanimity as by retribution. The
inuence of the church became palpable during the twelfth century in
this respect.
:,;
Yet both hostile and magnanimous exchanges may be best
understood not as attempts to achieve balance and reciprocity, but as
competitive exchanges, whose object . . . was to undo the basis for equal-
ity and reassert superiority relative to the other. These were Millers own
words in the course of his discussion of parity in exchange.
:,
Yet he did
not draw the appropriate conclusion: that all of these acts, whether gift,
sale, payment, raid, or coercion, settlement, vengeance or accommoda-
tion, were individual choices in a competitive process whose objective was
enhanced status, power and resources relative to possible rivals.
:,,
University of Newcastle
:,o
Compare the decisions made by nundr orkelsson and Gumundr dri with those described
by Boehm, Blood Revenge, pp. ,::c,, :,,o: Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :;,,;
Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, II, pp. :o,c.
:,;
Sturlunga saga, ed. Jhannesson, I, pp. :,; Sturlunga saga, ed. McGrew, I, p. ::;; Vsteinsson,
Christianization of Iceland, pp. :oo.
:,
Miller, Bloodtaking, p. ,c:, my emphasis.
:,,
Nineteenth-century Maori society provides a striking similarity, with honour (mana) gained
equally by gift-giving, or theft through raiding and war: J. Belich, Making Peoples (Auckland,
:,,o), pp. :,, :,o:.
170 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Appendix
Table : Comparative homicide rates, per annum per :cc ccc total population
Poiuiariox Dari Hoxicioi Raris Souici
Iceland :,c;, c.;: Gudjonsson & Petursson
:
Canada :,;, :.; Daly & Wilson
:
Busoga (Uganda) :,,:, .c Fallers & Fallers
,
Samoa :,;; ,., Freeman

United States :,c :c.; Daly & Wilson


England (rural) ::cc;o ,:, Given
,
Norwich ::cc;o :o Given
Bedfordshire (rural) ::cc;o :cc Hair
o
Iceland (Eyjafjrur) ::8:io ii Present study
Oxford borough :::o: ,, Given
London :,cc ,o,: Hanawalt
;
Oxford borough :,: oc::c Hammer

Florence :,,:, o:,: Becker


,
Corsica :ccs :;c Gould
:c
!Kung (Kalahari) :,:c,, :., Lee
::
Miami :,c ,,., Daly & Wilson
Philadelphia Black males :,,: ,o., Wolfgang
::
Detroit :,;: ,.o Daly & Wilson
Colombia c.:,,c ,., Pereira & Davis
:,
Cleveland Black males :,o,; ::.: Rose
:
Yanomamo :,;c; :o,., Melancon
:,
Mexican mestizo village :,o:o, :,:.: Nash
:o
Murngin (Australia) :,co:o ,,c.c Warner
:;
Tauade (New Guinea) :,o:,o ,,,.c Hallpike
:
Gebusi (New Guinea) :,o,: :,.c Knauft
:,
Gebusi (New Guinea) :,co, o,.c Knauft
:
Gudjonsson and Petursson, Some Aspects of Homicide in Iceland, at p. ,:.
:
Daly and Wilson, Homicide, pp. ::,, ::,.
,
L.A. Fallers and M.C. Fallers, Homicide and Suicide in Busoga, in P. Bohanan (ed.), African Homicide and Suicide (New
Jersey, :,oc), pp. o,,,, at p. ;:.

From the gures given by D. Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth
(Cambridge, MA, :,,), p. :o,.
,
Given, Society and Homicide, pp. ,o, ,, :;,. The ranges here are based on Givens own population estimates.
o
Hair, Deaths from Violence, p. :.
;
Hanawalt, Violent Death, pp. ,c::.

Hammer, Patterns of Homicide, pp. :::,.


,
Becker, Changing Patterns of Violence, p. :;.
:c
R. Gould, Collective Violence and Group Solidarity: Evidence from a Feuding Society, American Sociological Review o
(:,,,), pp. ,,oc.
::
Lee, The !Kung San, pp. ,,;cc.
::
Wolfgang, Patterns in Criminal Homicide, p. oo.
:,
A. Pereira and D. Davis, New Patterns of Violence and Coercion in the Latin Americas, Latin American Perspectives :;
(:ccc), pp. ,:;.
:
Rose, Lethal Aspects of Urban Violence, pp. , :.
:,
Quoted by Knauft, Reconsidering Violence, p. o.
:o
Nash, Death as a Way of Life.
:;
W.L. Warner, A Black Civilisation: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe (New York, :,,;), at pp. :o;.
:
Hallpike, Bloodshed and Vengeance, p. ::c.
:,
Knauft, Reconsidering Violence, pp. o:. Before European inuence (:,co,) the rate was o,; from :,o,: the
rate was :,.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 171
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Table : Estimation of homicide rates, EyjafjrurReykjadalur, ::::c
Homicides initiated by goorsmenn ;
Deaths consequential on these homicides
Estimate of homicides committed by goorsmenn not related in the sources
Estimate of total homicides by goorsmenn with consequential deaths :,
Homicides initiated by farmers, farmhands, servants, others, in sources
Deaths consequential on these homicides :
Total homicides by farmers & others, & consequential deaths, in sources ,
Estimate of total homicides by farmers & others, & consequential deaths, for
population of Eyjafjrur (see text and note ;: above)
,o
Total homicide estimate for Eyjafjrur ::::c ,,
Total homicide estimate for Iceland per annum (see note ,)
a) Assuming Eyjafjrur to have had :o% of Icelandic population :;.:
b) Assuming Eyjafjrur to have had ::% of Icelandic population :,.c
Estimated homicide rates per :oo ooo population per annum
using estimates a) and b) above
:) Assuming population of Iceland ;c ccc a) i.
b) ,.;
:) Assuming population of Iceland ,c ccc a) .
b) ,o.o
,) Assuming population of Iceland c ccc a) .o
b) i.,
172 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Table , Perpetrators possible motives for initial homicide
:
Initial homicides: slendingasgur sample:
Hoxicioi
ioi
Ouriicur
Tuiir
Disiuri
ovii
Laxo,
Axixais,
Pioiiir\
oi Dinr
Aicuxixr oi
Ririinuriox
ovii Nox-
Sixuai
Ixsuir oi
Ix;ui\
Sixuai
Jiaious\,
Ririinuriox
ioi Sioucriox
oi Sixuai
Ixsuir
Pioacrivi
Acriox
Acaixsr
Rivai,
Exix\
oi Ouriaw
Siii-
Diiixci
Uxciiraix
Morivi Torai
Homicides led
or committed
by goorsmenn
or immediate
kin
:
: , : : : ,
Homicides led
and committed
by others
: : o :,
Uncertain
perpetrator
:
,
: ,
All initial
homicides
: , , : : :c :,
Initial homicides: Samtarsgur sample: Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur ::8:io (:o initial deaths), and Arnarfjr
and Drafjr :io:i: ( initial deaths)
Hoxicioi
ioi Ouriicur
Tuiir
Disiuri ovii
Laxo, Axixais,
Pioiiir\ oi
Dinr
Aicuxixr oi
Ririinuriox
ovii Nox-
Sixuai
Ixsuir oi
Ix;ui\
Sixuai
Jiaious\,
Ririinuriox
ioi Sioucriox
oi Sixuai
Ixsuir
Pioacrivi
Acriox
Acaixsr
Rivai,
Exix\ oi
Ouriaw Torai
Homicides committed
by goorsmenn

: : ,
Homicides committed
by others
, , :c
All initial homicides , , , : :,
:
Initial homicides are analysed for the :, separate sequences in the slendingasgur sample; :, sequences in the samtarsgur
sample. Where multiple motives were evident, homicides are tabulated under the motive which apparently triggered the
homicide.
:
Goorsmenn, or their rst-degree relatives by blood (father, son or brother).
,
The mor of Hrafn in Vpnringa saga was probably instigated by a goorsmar but has been included here.

These include instances when a goorsmar told a follower to carry out a killing under the direct instruction of the
goorsmar.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 173
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Table Sequences of homicide and vengeance: the consequences of initial
homicides
:
Sequences of homicide: slendingasgur sample:
Ixiriai Hoxicioi ix Siquixci
Coxxirrio oi Lio n\: GO DOR DSMENN
:
Faixiis
axo Oruiis
MOR D:
Coxciaiio
Piiiiriaroi Torai
Consequences:
No further deaths: 8
Escaped justice (failed prosecution,
victim outlawed, or no consequence)
, : :
,
Perpetrator ed/outlawed
(with/without compensation also)
:
Compensation only :
Further deaths: ::
Single vengeance attack or attempt : ,
Cycle of vengeance (feud) , :
Consequence not ascertainable :
Total number of homicide sequences : i,
Sequences of homicide: Samtarsgur sample: Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur ::8:io, and
Arnarfjrur and Drafjrur :io:i:
Ixiriai Hoxicioi Coxxirrio
oi Lio n\: GO DOR DSMENN

Faixiis
axo Oruiis
MOR D:
Coxciaiio
Piiiiriaroi Torai
Consequences:
No further deaths:
Escaped justice (failed prosecution,
victim outlawed, or no consequence)
:
Perpetrator ed/outlawed
(with/without compensation also)
,
Compensation only ,
Further deaths:
Single vengeance attack or attempt : :
Cycle of vengeance (feud) :
Total number of homicide sequences :o :
:
These deaths comprise :, separate sequences (:c, deaths) in the slendingasgur sample; :, sequences
(,c deaths) in the samtarsgur sample. Some homicide sequences commence with multiple initial
deaths.
:
References to goorsmenn include homicides by their rst-degree blood relatives. Publicly
acknowledged homicides (vg) where the perpetrator could not be identied from the sources are included
amongst those committed by others. Mor refers to concealed or unacknowledged homicide.
,
The mor of Hrafn in Vpnringa saga was probably instigated by a goorsmar but has been
included here.

These include instances when a goorsmar told a follower to carry out a killing under the direct
instruction of the goorsmar.
174 Hugh Firth
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Table , Initial and consequential deaths: total number of deaths in each category
in the sample
:
Numbers of deaths: slendingasgur sample:
Ixiriai Hoxicioi
Coxxirrio n\: GO DOR DSMENN
:
Faixiis,
Siivaxrs
& Oruiis
Torai
Diarus
Initial deaths i
Initial deaths with no
deaths in consequence
(or not ascertainable)
, :o
Initial deaths followed
by other deaths
:o ,
Consequential deaths
Committed or led by: Goorsmenn Farmers,
servants
& others
Goorsmenn Farmers,
servants
& others
Consequential deaths ,c :;
Total initial &
consequential homicides
,, o
Total of all homicides :o,
Numbers of deaths: Samtarsgur sample: Eyjafjrur and Reykjadalur ::8:io (i deaths), and
Arnarfjrur and Drafjrur :io:i: ( deaths)
Ixiriai Hoxicioi
Coxxirrio n\: GO DOR DSMENN
,
Faixiis,
Siivaxrs
& Oruiis
Torai
Diarus
Initial deaths :8
Initial deaths with no
deaths in consequence
c ,
Initial deaths followed
by other deaths
:
Consequential deaths
Committed or led by: Goorsmenn Farmers,
servants
& others
Goorsmenn Farmers,
servants
& others
Consequential deaths , c : :i
Total initial &
consequential homicides
:, ::
Total of all homicides o
:
These deaths comprise :, separate sequences (:c, deaths) in the slendingasgur sample; :, sequences (,c
deaths) in the samtarsgur sample. Some homicide sequences commence with multiple initial deaths.
:
References to goorsmenn include homicides by their rst-degree blood relatives, typically brothers or sons.
Homicides where the perpetrator could not be identied are included amongst those committed by others.
,
These include instances when a goorsmar told a follower to carry out a killing under the direct instruction
of the goorsmar.
Homicide in medieval Iceland 175
Early Medieval Europe :c:: io (:)
:c:: Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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