Medieval Iceland: The Rise and Fall of the Commonwealth

AD 870-1264

by: Nicole Janice Wallace

Special Studies: Smith College, Spring 2001

© 2001-2003 Nicole Janice Wallace
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Quick Reference:
I. On the Validity of the Sources
II. Exodus from Norway
III. First Settlers and Settlements
IV. Government of the Icelandic Commonwealth AD 930-1264
V. Christianity and Its Influence on the Development of Icelandic Soceity and Government
VI. The Age of the Sturlungs and the End of the Icelandic Commonwealth AD 1030-1264
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Medieval Iceland was unique in that its people came from abroad to settle on a previously uninhabited island. They were able to develop their own society and government according to their own wishes. The Icelandic Commonwealth [AD 870/930-1262] lasted approximately four centuries. It developed slowly into a thriving political system that modern scholars classify as being the first democratic governmental system but eventually several serious unaccounted flaws in the system as well as environmental influences such as harshening winters took their toll. The Icelandic Commonwealth finally came to an end in the years 1262-1264 after a long period of civil wars known as the Age of the Sturlungs.

The Norwegians had left Norway for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the tyranny of the king of Norway at the time. They sailed to Iceland from AD 870-930 and created settlements. Once enough people had come to Iceland, it became evident that there was a need for a common law to rule the new inhabitants. Out of Norwegian law, they created their own systems of law courts, standards of justice, and a decentralized political system. Flaws within this governmental system allowed several prominent settlers to acquire a lot of wealth and power, leading to a civil war. In the end, Iceland was forced to submit to Norway and forfeit their independence.

I. On the Validity of the Sources

To understand the historical developments between AD 870 and 1264, it is imperative to understand the context and validity of the extant sources. Most of the sources for medieval Iceland were written down in the twelfth and thirteenth century towards the end of the history of the Commonwealth. During this period, there was a need for retrospection because the golden age of Iceland was quickly coming to an end. The days of the early settlements and their working justice system had been disrupted by years of civil war. Most of the saga literature tells of Iceland's golden age:

“the seed of the Icelandic saga writing was the Icelander's moving from the old country to the new. After that they might feel that they had two fatherlands or none, but the mind was forever detached from the present becoming a fertile ground for nostalgia and introspection.” 1

Etymologically the word saga is the same as the word "saw" in Old English. It means something that is told: a tale, story or narrative, usually in prose. The family sagas and fornaldr sögur or kings' sagas, are the oldest. However, the historical value of sagas has to be criticized and analyzed. Many Icelandic sagas were written centuries later by a descendant of the main character. The sagas tend to be biased towards the point that the relatives wish to make in portraying their genealogies and ancestors as people of honor and heroic virtue. Despite the potential for bias, excerpts from Biskup Thorlakssaga, Diplomatarum Islandicum, and Hakonarsaga Hakonarsonar will be used in their secondary source context. Njall's Saga, Sturlunga Saga and King Harald Haarfagre Sögur will be used as sources directly from English translations. Njall was a prominent arbitrator who lived at the time of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. His family saga gives a lot of insight into the workings of the governmental system of Iceland. Sturlunga Saga is about the end of the Commonwealth era and is a valuable source for how the internal flaws in the governmental system, such as the instability of the chieftaincies, played out. Snorri Sturluson, a prominent chieftain towards the end of the Commonwealth, wrote King Harald's Saga as part of the Heimskringla –a compilation of sagas about the kings of Norway. He undertook this project while he was in the favor of King Haakon Haakonsson who was king of Norway from AD 1223 to AD 1263.

Every source must be scrutinized for accuracy and authenticity. However, some sources are still more reliable than others are. These other sources fall into the categories of histories and genealogies, legal compilations, annals, diplomatic collections and church writings. They are primarily written in Old Norse, the shared language of Norway and Iceland, although a few exceptions are written in Latin.

The earliest historian of Iceland was Sæmundr Sigfusson inn Froði (AD 1056-1133). He founded a school at Oddi and wrote in Latin. 2 However, Ari þorgilsson inn Froði (the Learned) is considered by most scholars to be the father of Icelandic history. He wrote in his native tongue and thoroughly documented his work. However, because he was a Christian priest and goði (chieftain priest), his work tends to favor the Church and his writings take a position that would strengthen the position of Christianity in Iceland, if accepted by contemporaries.

Ari's major work is Islendingabók, The Book of the Icelanders. Islendingabók was probably written in AD 1122 and 1132. The first part is about the early history of Iceland, between AD 870 and 1120. The second part is Church history.

Landnámabók, The Book of the Settlements, is another major historical work in which Ari may have had a part. It is several hundred pages long in a modern edition. The earliest versions were lost. We know this because the surviving version contains numerous references to previous versions and their authors. The version that survived was written in the early decades of the twelfth century like most of our other medieval Icelandic sources. It is divided into three major parts: Hauksbók, Sturlabók, and Melabók, although Melabók survives only in a fragmented form on two vellum leaves. 3 The emphasis in Landnámabók is on genealogy. Landnámabók keeps a detailed account of the first four hundred settlers who came to Iceland, and also records parts of their sagas.

Another valuable source is Greylag or Grágás. This is the written law code of the Icelandic Commonwealth. 4 It is preserved in two manuscripts that are only partly similar which implies that more than one version of the code existed. The oldest manuscript fragments date to the middle of the twelfth century, but the first complete surviving manuscript is from c. 1260. According to Ari Froði, the codification of the laws, which eventually formed the Grágás, began in the winter of 1117-1118. These laws, which will be discussed in the section about the government, explain the function of the legislative and judicial branches in the context of the governmental system.

It is also important to understand some of the social concepts of the time. To begin with, in order to follow the people cited in this paper, it is important to know how they are named. In Iceland, even today, a man is named with a prename and then his father’s name followed by son. Therefore, the Snorri who was mentioned before was the son of Sturla, and therefore his name is Snorri Sturluson. Snorri’s son, Urökja would be Urökja Snorrason. For women, they are their father’s daughter (dóttir). So if Snorri had a daughter she would have a first name, for example Helga, followed by Snorridóttir. For this reason, when discussing the six major families of Iceland at the end of the Commonwealth, it is easier to trace the families to locality because none of them have the same last names and many families fostered children of other families.

Another important social phenomenon was foster-parenting. Usually, in a conflict, the loser would offer to foster the son of the winner in order to preserve his honor. The child would be brought up in the household of the foster-parent as if he was a blood relative. Through marriage and these foster relationships, kin groups were formed. Jon Loptsson at Oddi, for example, fostered Snorri Sturluson. Therefore, Snorri allied himself with the men at Oddi during the civil wars.

With these preliminaries explained, we can turn to the political situation in Norway from which medieval Icelandic history emerged.

II. Exodus from Norway

The eighth century marks a significant period in Nordic history. The invention of new seagoing vessels enabled the Scandinavians to travel and pillage other parts of the world. The so-called long ship has been considered the quintessential "Viking ship" yet it was unable to cross the ocean. A different vessel, the knorr, was used for longer and even transatlantic voyages. Its draft was deeper and therefore it was able to carry a heavier load, up to fifty tons.5 This type of ship allowed families and livestock to be transported for long distances and these knorr ships were used in the emigration to Iceland. They were also used in raiding the British Isles, which at times formed part of a Nordic Empire and were also gateways for the introduction of Christianity in the Scandinavian world.

With the help of these boats, Vikings swarmed out of Norway and Sweden and raided and pillaged. . Almost all young men were required to go on a Viking expedition. Plunder became part of their economy and a way for warriors to keep their honor. The first Viking attack was at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, England in AD 793 and the raids did not stop for several centuries. During these Viking expeditions, the Norsemen discovered Iceland by accident. On route to the British Isles, any Norseman who was blown off course could conceivably come into contact with this large island. Iceland was only a six-day sail north of the British Isles and a four-day sail west of Norway. However, no one paid much attention to the island until there became a need to escape Norway.

Landnámabók claims that the most common cause for emigration to Iceland and the surrounding islands was the aggression in Norway of King Harald the Finehair (b.851 d.931).6 Snorri Sturluson confirms the case for King Harald's tyranny. Regardless of the reasons, massive emigration made medieval Iceland one of the most populous Norse overseas colonies within several decades.7 King Harald’s Saga describes the situation thus: King Harald began as the ruler of a small kingdom within Norway. He wanted to marry a maiden named Gytha, daughter of King Eirik of Horthaland, whom he met on one of the campaigns to extend his boundaries. However, she would not consent to such a marriage unless he could prove himself to be a more than just a ruler of a small kingdom by conquering all of the surrounding kingdoms that then became modern day Norway, and by ruling them with supremacy. King Harald then vowed not to cut or comb his hair until all of Norway fell under his control. Because of this, he gained the nickname ‘King Harald Haarfagre or King Harald the Finehair’.8

Keeping in mind that King Harald’s Saga was written by one of his retainers in court, Snorri Sturluson, it is not entirely reliable. It is therefore important to consult other sources. Both primary and secondary sources agree that King Harald Haarfagre had united all of Norway after crushing the chieftain class in the battle of Hafrsfjord in AD 872. By claiming ancestral lands for himself, he robbed the people of their odel which was the arrangement that the ownership of land should stay in the family. The home estates would remain in possession of the eldest son. The eldest son was then responsible for purchasing the shares of the younger brothers at prices that all the brothers could agree upon. 9

Thosewho refused to pay allegiance to King Harald had to forfeit their lands and leave the country. However, some scholars believe that the emigration was caused by political and social unrest in Norway that had developed even before the Hafrsfjord battle. King Harald's campaigns had ravished the countryside leaving towns and farms in ruins. This destruction greatly affected the economy of Norway. These unfavorable economic conditions were most likely more responsible for the exodus.10 Either way, both of the political and economic factors contributed to the exodus. Once in Iceland, these displaced men made it a priority to create a government in which there was no king and they could maintain their power and social status without a threat to their power.

III. First Settlers and Settlements

Iceland, originally named Thule, was not discovered by the Norsemen but rather settled by them. Between 400 and 300BC, a Greek explorer by the name of Pytheas sailed north on the Atlantic and came to an island a six-day sail from Britain, which he called Thule.11 It is disputed whether or not the Island described by Pytheas was indeed Iceland but the description and location that Pytheas documents appears to accurately describe Iceland. After Pytheas, there is no record of Thule or Iceland until just before the eighth century. In the eighth century, Irish monks sailed to Iceland to settle and enjoy the ascetic monastic life as hermits. Upon the arrival of the Norsemen, these monks left the island because they did not wish to live with the heathens.12

The name of first Norseman to arrive in Iceland is commonly disputed because even the medieval sources cannot agree. Sturla Thordsson's version of Landnámabók, also known as Sturlabók, claims that Iceland was discovered by a Norwegian Viking by the name of Naddoddr. However, Hauk Erlendsson's version of Landnámabók, also known as Hauksbók, claims that Iceland was discovered by a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson who when en route to the Hebrides encountered a storm which blew him off course. Njall's Saga mentions Gardar Svavarsson, confirming the testimony of Hauksbók. Despite these discrepancies, both versions agree that a Norwegian named Flóki Vilgerdarsson from Rogland in western Norway 13 named the island 'Island' which translates into the modern name Iceland. Evidently Flóki had made a failed attempt to settle the island but had lost all of his livestock during a harsh winter. 14

Despite Flóki’s misfortunes in attempting to settle in Iceland, a successful settlement followed. Landnámabók records about 400 families who first settled in Iceland during the early period of settlement. 15 It has been estimated that this period of colonization occurred between 874 and 930 and left Iceland with a population of approximately 25,000 people including slaves, servants, and freedmen. 16

Islendingabók mentions the first successful settler of Iceland, Ingolf Arnarson. His descendants played a role in the government system that was created after the settlement period of AD 870 to 930. Ingolf and his foster brother Leif Hrodmarsson become the first landnámsmenn or permanent settlers of Iceland. According to the narrative, Ingolf and Leif left Dalsfjord in Norway and went on a Viking expedition. Atli Jarl's sons, Hallstein, Herstein and Holmstein accompanied them. At a feast after their return, Holmstein made a vow to marry Ingolf's sister Helga. Leif however, who loved Helga, was greatly offended. The enmity between the two escalated so that in the spring, the two foster brothers arranged an expedition against Atli's sons and Holmstein fell in battle at Hisargafl. The next winter, Herstein lost his life in another one of these skirmishes but through the mediation of some mutual friends, the feud came to an end. Leif then proceeded to marry Helga, after which the two foster brothers fitted out a ship and set out to Iceland. They spent the winter in a fjord on the east coast where they had made landfall. In the spring, they returned to Norway but Iceland had enthralled them and they vowed to go back and stay there. Leif had lost all of his property as a result of the feud with Atli's sons. In order to replenish his wealth, he joined a Viking expedition to Ireland. He returned with ten Irish slaves, treasure, and a sword that he had won in a duel. He had acquired the nickname Hjörleif, derived from the word hjör that means sword blade. By AD 874, Ingolf had sold his possessions and put his affairs in order so the two foster brothers were ready to immigrate to Iceland. They brought with them supplies and household goods that would be most necessary to start a new life on this island. They also brought with them slaves and a few free men who accompanied them as settlers. Ingolf sacrificed to the pagan gods before his departure, as was common before a sea voyage. Hjörleif would not, perhaps because he had been exposed to Christianity during his raids in the British Isles and Ireland, as was common during this period before the conversion. When the two brothers spotted the island, they sailed their separate ways to search for a place to land. Ingolf threw the pillars of his high seat into the sea and left fate to the gods. He claimed he would make his home wherever the pillars came to shore. Until then, however, he settled in Ingolfshofði on the southern coast. Hjörleif, on the other hand, landed farther west on the same coast at a place since known as Hjörleifshofði. At this place, he erected two large houses of eighteen and nineteen fathoms 17 in length respectively. 18

Hjörleif and Ingolf had very different experiences with this temporary settlement. Hjörleif lost his life at the hands of his slaves because he had maltreated them. Ingolf found his pillars when they had come to shore and made his homestead at what is now known as Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. By spending the winter and building their homesteads, Ingolf Arnarson and Hjörleif Hrodmarsson became the first landnámsmenn or permanent settlers in Iceland.

Many others followed them and towards the end of the early period of colonization, there arose the problem that families who had arrived earlier had already claimed all of the available useful land. Since the landnámsmenn did not recognize themselves as separate from other Norwegian subjects, they appealed to King Harald in Norway to resolve this problem. When Iceland's government failed to function properly in the mid-thirteenth century, the Icelanders also looked to the King of Norway as a solution to their problems. This dependency on the Norwegian king resulted in the Icelanders losing their ability to rule themselves independently in AD 1264. Towards the end of the early period of colonization, roughly AD 930, King Harald found it necessary to intervene. He ordered that "no one who arrived in command of a ship should take more land than he and his crew could carry fire around in one day." 19 However, the number of people leaving Norway for Iceland was rising rapidly so King Harald finally had to forbid further emigration because he feared that his realm would become depleted of its population. This order was finally repealed and modified to state that people could leave, but each person leaving the country should pay a tax of 5 aurar20 to the king. Aurar could be paid in gold, silver or linen/woolen cloth since those were the standard measures of value. A landaurar tax was then levied on all ships leaving Norway. The king recognized the Icelanders’ right to govern themselves but insisted upon a small tax so that the Icelanders could continue to be subjects of the Norwegian king if they returned to Norway. This tax would ensure that they would have "höldsrett, or the right of chieftains to own and inherit property and to belong to the King's hirð or court." 21 By the end of the settlement period, reconciliation was made between Iceland and Norway. The tyrannical conquest by King Harald the Finehair had come to an end and kinship ties and trade still linked many of the new settlers with their homeland of Norway.

The exact terms of the reconciliation were never specified thereby leaving the problem of the exact status of Iceland. Was it an independent state or a Norwegian dependency? This raises historical problems that we must address. It is particularly curious that King Harald did not extend his sphere of power and conquest to include establishing his overlordship of Iceland, especially if he felt that he was losing a lot of his Norwegian subjects and also while he was in the process of niting Norway. It could be that since there was interaction between Iceland and Norway, King Harald might have viewed Iceland as already being a Norwegian province. Nonetheless, it has yet to be explained as to why the Icelanders were allowed to rule themselves independently. It could be that his only motive for uniting Norway was in order to marry Gytha and once he obtained her as a wife, he may have lost interest in the conquest of other lands and instead focused upon keeping Norway united. Since Norwegians mainly inhabited the island, Iceland posed no threat to the newly united Norway other than the fact that it had withdrawn an extensive amount of the population out of Norway. Also, the early laws in Iceland were either existing Norwegian laws or moderately modified versions of pre-existing Norwegian law. If King Harald assumed that Iceland was a Norwegian colony or province, the taxes and terms that King Harald and the Icelanders had agreed upon might have sufficed and confirmed his belief that the Norwegian King still had power in Iceland. At first the Icelanders did not see themselves as a separate people and they continued to call upon the kings of Norway when intervention was needed with particular cases or problems that arose. Calling upon the assistance of the Norwegian kings would only solidify in the minds of the kings that the Icelanders were colonists and dependent on Norway. Nonetheless, the Icelanders sought to create a government that centered upon the power of thirty-nine chieftains instead of one king. The development of such a government could have evolved unbeknownst to the Norwegian King. The thirty-nine chieftains may have been looked up in the eyes of the king as merely dukes or governors over parts of the island. It wasn't until nearly one hundred years later before the Norwegian Kings realized that Iceland was a separate country with its own government. The Icelandic government evolved out of various needs of the settlers. Since they had just escaped the tyranny of King Harald the Finehair in Norway, they sought to avoid a similar reoccurrence of violence. Therefore, instead of a king, the Icelanders created a system of government that did not revolve around a central or single ruler. The governmental system of medieval Iceland was very complex. We shall study the evolution of the system and its components piece by piece and use examples to demonstrate the government's role in society and its function.

IV. Government of the Icelandic Commonwealth AD 930-1264

We may begin by reviewing the historical circumstances in which the Iceladic government system was created. Norwegians had left Norway to settle on a previously uninhabited island. On this island, they were free from the tyranny and destruction that King Harald the Finehair had forced upon his subjects. The landnámsmenn continued commerce and communication with the motherland of Norway. They had left family and friends behind. Kinship ties and trade kept the communication lines open. As far as the Icelanders were concerned, they were Norwegian subjects living outside the sphere of influence of the tyrannical king. The ocean and weather conditions did not facilitate communication with the Norwegian king. For urgent matters, Icelanders felt the need to create their own governmental system and judicial system that would be able to handle such matters. To avoid allowing all the power to be concentrated in one person, the settlers created a system based upon local prominence and kinship alliances in which thirty-nine men were given the title of goðar, meaning that they possessed a goðorð. A goðorð was an abstract possession that did not exist in material form but could be used, sold, given as a gift and traded as if it was property. The goðorð was the "basis of Iceland's hierarchic aristocratic social organization."22 Byock refers to it as "a marketable commodity whose availability helped to reinforce the social order by rewarding enterprising individuals within the system."23 This differs from the Norwegian system, which had distinctive social classes like most of medieval Europe. Anyone who held a goðorð was known as a goði (plural goðar). They were also secular leaders of religious ceremonies in pagan times.

In order that every part of Iceland was equally represented, there was a need to designate the sphere of influence of each of the goðar. In AD 965 Iceland was divided into four distinct districts, north, east, south and west. Each district, with the exception of the north, had three thing districts. In the north there were four.24 The total of the thirteen thing districts broke into three of the thirty-nine principle goðorðs per thing district.

The number of principal goðorðs was also fixed by this system of organization at thirty-nine, and their position as units in the framework of government was clearly defined. New goðorðs might indeed be established, but they could not be classed with the principal goðorðs, not could they gain recognition as a part of the true system of state organization. 25

Each of these districts had their own local assemblies known as things (þings). These assemblies functioned as law courts. All Icelandic things were "governed by established procedure and met at regular legally designed intervals at predetermined meeting places."26 The two longest lasting and most influential things were established by Thorolf Mostrarskegg, who established the Thornesthing and by Thorstein, son of Ingolf Arnarson, the first settler, who established the Kjalarnesthing. The várthing, a specific local assembly, was the most important. It met each spring in May and could last as long as a week. Three chieftains in a local area were responsible for the várthing and all of their thingmenn had to attend. This thing was mainly concerned with legal cases between local land-owning farmers called bændr, between local chieftains, or between chieftains and bændr. Each goði named 12 bændr to serve on a panel of judges.

Thing districts were then combined into court districts. Four quarter courts, fjorðungsðomr, were created in order to hear cases that would have normally fallen under the auspices of the local courts. There was one court for each of the four quarters of Iceland, North, South, East, and West. These courts had thirty-six judges chosen by the nine goðar of each quarter respectively choosing four judges with the exception of the northern quarter that had twelve goðar who each chose 3 judges. The verdict of the fjorðungsðomr was regarded as unanimous, even if the judges differed in opinions, provided that there were no more than six dissenting votes. If the number of differing opinions exceeded six then a véfang arose. A véfang is similar to a hung jury but as is not the case with a hung jury, there was usually not another trial. Instead, those who did not agree with the majority would divide into two groups and try to persuade the members of the opposing side. If the number of dissenting votes continued to exceed six then each group would render its own decision making the other decision void. Both groups would then take the véfang oath claiming that they had decided upon what they considered to be lawful and just.

Since the power was now divided across the island among the goðar, it became necessary to create a common meeting place where all chieftains could collectively meet and discuss cases and problems that had arisen in their districts. The collective meeting was called the Althing. The Alþing (Althing) was established by the initiative of a large and powerful kin group that traced it ancestry to an early ninth-century Norwegian named Bjorn buna. 27 According to Islendingabók, the Althing was established in AD 930. The Althing formed a bond between the local thing districts into which Iceland was divided. The same three chieftains who supervised the várthing were responsible for holding the leið, a fall assembly which served the purpose of reporting the issues brought to the Althing. 28

The Althing became the national law court and bonding force of all the local thing districts thereby fostering a national spirit. Because there was no overlord, the national spirit became unusually important. Every man, especially those holding a goðorð, was required to collectively act to shape political actions and make decisions that affected the whole community. The Althing could not raise a military and Iceland did not have a police force. Once a verdict was given, it was up to the bćndr and chieftains involved to execute the decision. This made the government slightly ineffective, because a decision could only be enforced if there was a collective will to enforce it.29

To ensure the collectivity of the decisions, all goðar were required to go to the Althing unless lawfully prevented. Any goði who failed to attend or arrived late, after sunset Thursday, would have to forfeit his goðorð. Aside from the goðar, anyone could go but those who were sent as representatives from the goðorð received free room, board and transportation to and from the Althing. They were also exempt from paying the Thingfarakaup, a tax of ten alnar vaðmal or homespun woolen cloth, assessed by a goði and imposed on the thingmenn who did not attend the Althing. Any man who owned land and belonged to a thing district was considered a thingmann. The Althing also became a social event where marriages were arranged, foreign expeditions were planned and invitations to great feasts were bestowed.

There was a need to modify the Norwegian laws that had been brought with the settlers and to codify these laws once the primary governmental system had been established. Ulfjolt from Hordaland in Norway, who had settled in the south of Iceland, was chosen in AD 927 to prepare a code of laws. He spent three years in Norway studying the Gulathingslög, a code of laws governing the southwestern district of the Norwegian kingdom. He then created Iceland's code of laws known as Ulfljot's Law. 30 According to Ari Froði, this code was adopted in Iceland in AD 930. The government then evolved to create separate legislative and judicial powers. At the head of the judicial powers was the alþingisdómr or high court of justices consisting of 36 members.31

The central institution of the Althing was the legislative branch. The law council was known as the lögretta. The lögretta would hold four meetings during the session of the thing: one each Sunday, one on the first Friday and one at closing. The lögretta consisted of one hundred and forty-four members in addition to the two bishops after the adoption of Christianity and the lögsögumaðr who was elected for a term of three years with indefinite re-elections. These members were divided into three groups, which sat on different benches. The first group consisted of the thirty-nine original goðar and nine additional members, three from each quarter of the island. They were the only members who could cast a vote. Each member on this bench could choose two assistants, ninety-six assistants in all, who occupied the front and rear benches. They had no vote but could act as counselors.

To gain a fuller understanding of how these law courts and proceedings played out, it is important to use an example. In Njall's Saga there are many instances when cases were brought before the Althing. The best example of these proceedings was a case between Geir the Priest and Gunnar in regards to numerous manslaughter charges against Gunnar.32 The men were in the middle of a blood feud and many murders and slayings had been taking place. Eventually these cases were brought before the Althing.

The Althing started on the Thursday that fell between the eighteenth and twenty-third of June, and lasted for two weeks. It would start with a thingskööp or plan of procedure that was announced by the lögsögumaðr (law reciter) on the Law Rock, Lögberg.33 Also, at the opening of the session, the thingstead was ceremoniously consecrated by the alsherjargoði who was a descendent of the first settler, Ingolf Arnarson. On Friday the goðar would appoint judges and cases were presented to the assembly on Friday, Saturday or Monday.

At the Law Rock, Geir the Priest gave his notice of manslaughter actions against Gunnar. Gunnar was charged in killing Otkel, Hallbjorn the White, Audolf and Skamkel. He also announced a manslaughter action against Kolskegg for the killing of Hallkel. At noon on Saturday, the members of the thing marched in procession to the Mount of Laws just outside Thingvellir, "a lava bed of prehistoric origin sloping toward Lake Thingvalla." 34 The Mount of Laws was located on the west side of the river Oxara, which crossed and flowed through the Thingvalla plain and into the lake. The Althing continued from this new locale.

Geir the Priest then summoned Gunnar to hear his oath and stated the charges against him. Nine neighbors were present. These nine men made up the kviðr. The kviðr were chosen by a gođi, in this case Geir the Priest, to testify on his behalf. The buakviðr, or neighbor kviðr, was the most commonly used, and is demonstrated in the case with Geir the Priest. It consisted of approximately nine members but could have as few as five members in smaller cases. However, alliance seemed to win over evidence in these juries. The members of the kviðr were not required to know the facts of the case nor did they have to have witnessed the incident. They only had to declare under oath what they considered to be the crucial facts and the circumstances surrounding them.35 In the presence of the kviðr, Geir invited the defense to challenge these men and then be called upon to state their findings.

The nine men who made up the kviðr for this case came before the court. They named witnesses. They also claimed that they were not in a position to state anything about the action concerning Audolf because the lawful plaintiff was in Norway. Since the plaintiff was absent, the kviðr found themselves without jurisdiction in the action against Audolf. After stating this technicality, they announced their findings concerning Otkel. They found that these charges against Gunnar had been lawfully made. Geir the Priest then called upon Gunnar to make his defense. Witnesses were named at each stage of the prosecution case.

Gunnar called upon Geir the Priest in reply in order to hear Geir's oath. After the oaths had been made, Gunnar presented his defense. He claimed that he had previously declared Otkel an outlaw for the blood wound that had been inflicted upon him by a spur. He was able to make this claim because he had declared Otkel an outlaw in the presence of witnesses. The witnesses and kviðr played an important role in making the cases legitimate even though they had no decision making power and did not need to know all the facts.

Gunnar usually had a habit of challenging his opponent to single combat or a duel. Geir asked if this would in fact be the case or if Gunnar was going to solve the case lawfully. Homgangr, commonly known as dueling was a common method of conflict resolution at the beginning of Iceland's history. The end of dueling is significant because problems that had previously been solved by combat and violence were now being solved through mediators and diplomacy. The last duel at the Althing was between the scalds Gunnlaug Ormstunga and Hrafn Onundsson in 1006. Gunnar chose to use mediators and the law to solve his case in this particular proceeding.

The reason why Gunnar opted to use the law was because the law would be on his side. He counter sued Geir the Priest because he had called a kviðr and witnesses at Law Rock to find an action on a case outside of their jurisdiction. Therefore, by Geir's mistake in calling an action for the killing of Audolf, Gunnar was able to charge him. Gunnar demanded a sentence of three-year outlawry. Three-year outlawry was one of three things that he could demand as compensation.

Verdicts usually had one of three outcomes: compromise and boetre or compensation, fjörbaugsgarðr, or skóggangr. The priority was to establish peace even if the verdict did not secure justice. 36 In a peaceful settlement, a compromise would be reached and compensation or wergild would be paid out to the indebted parties. A small fine for minor offenses known as útlegðarsakir, usually three merks or less could also be charged at that time. Fjörbaugsgarðr was outlawry for a term of three years. The accused would usually be sent into exile. However, if he paid the goði a fine known as fjörbaugr, he would be granted three places of safety until the outlaw could find passage abroad. If the outlaw failed to pay this fine, his sentence then changed to complete banishment or skóggangr. An outlaw was in particular danger because anyone could kill him at any time and no compensation would be offered. Since there was no executive branch to execute the killing, every man in Iceland could kill the outlaw without any repercussions. It was therefore in the best interest of the outlaw to leave the country. If an outlaw killed three other outlaws, only then would his sentence be lifted. The only executive intervention was by the férándsdómr or court of execution that would assemble at the outlaw's house two weeks after the sentence was given. At this point his property would be confiscated and the term of full outlawry would be declared.

In our example of the court case between Geir the Priest and Gunnar, Geir the Priest did not receive a sentence of three year outlawry. Other chieftains intervened and assessed the case immediately. It was decided that compensation should be paid for the death of Skamkel. Compensation varied in amount according to the class of the man killed. Prices varied but in general it cost most for a landowner, less for a freedman and sometimes nothing or the exchange of a slave if a bondsman or servant or slave was killed. The court also rendered the decision that Gunnar's wound would cancel out the charge against Gunnar for the killing of Otkel. The other killings were then assessed according to how much each man was worth in terms of monial compensation as explained above. Gunnar's kinsmen contributed enough money to him so that he could pay all of the compensation at the Althing. Gunnar and Geir the Priest then exchanged their pledges of peace thus resolving the issue.37

V. Christianity and Its Influence on the Development of Icelandic Soceity and Government

The example of Gunnar and Geir showed how the Althing functioned from AD 930 to AD 1000. At the Althing in AD 1000, the Icelanders voted to convert to Christianity, which would effect the development of the institution itself. The story of the conversion is also found in Njall's Saga.38 The conversion to Christianity upset the existing governmental system. Many changes needed to be made but the Icelanders were slow to make them.

The Icelanders held on to tradition and custom so tightly that they were unable to embrace new political and social ideas. Their limited contact with other nations and their isolation also contributed to making Iceland socially unprogressive.

With a highly developed jurisprudence and a well-organized system of courts, they nevertheless failed to maintain social order and administer justice with efficient impartiality. In the public mind, law lacked majesty and authority... Civic life was not regulated according to the principles of law but continued to be controlled by custom.39

In terms of the Church, instead of making the Church its own institution, the Icelanders just incorporated it into the system they already had. After the decision at the Althing, two bishoprics were created in Iceland. The first one was at Skálholt and was looked after by Bishop Gizur Isleifsson [1082-1118]. He first introduced the tithe. A second bishopric, with a cathedral school, was established in Hólar by Bishop Jon Ögmundarson [1106-1121]40. Soon Skálholt and Hólar became centers of government to which even chieftains submitted some of their power. However, chieftains tended to stay allied and close with the Church because they recognized its power. The chieftains elected Bishops at the Althing. The Church became strongly national but not strong in spiritual leadership. The priesthood was regarded as an office very low in rank and priests were kept in a strange state of dependence verging on serfdom. 41

Jesse Byock hypothesizes that the Icelanders accepted Christianity because they feared social upheaval more than they disliked religious change. 42 The Norsemen were also fatalists. To them, whatever happened was unavoidable and run by fate. They did not try to fight or avoid it. Therefore they did not feel inclined to fight on behalf of their old deities. 43

Whether for wealth or status, many Icelanders usually accepted baptism and Christianity, not for its religious value, but for some other motive. Several Icelanders were held hostage in Norway and were not permitted to return to Iceland until they converted to Christianity. Others converted as a political move, mainly to be on the good side of the popular and powerful Christian King Olaf Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) in Norway. The decision at the Althing in AD 1000 was primarily influenced by Norway and the opportunity to acquire more wealth. The conversion was also acceptable because it did not disrupt the power of the chieftains.

Since chieftains also had a priestly role in pagan times, they did not want the conversion to Christianity to take away any of their power. Therefore, many built churches on their land so they could appear to be promoting the country's religion.

In order to keep the church functioning on their land, the chieftain then had to hire a priest. There were several kinds. One kind of priest entered into a contractual agreement with a chieftain. The chieftain would pay for his education and books on the condition that the priest would remain at the owner's church for the duration of the priest's lifetime. These priests were known as kirkjuprestr and they acquired very little respect. Another kind of priest was called a thingaprestr, which is similar to a private chaplain. These priests were freemen who chose the priesthood as employment. They would work at churches for a small fee that included room and board. 44 The wealth would come from the tithe. The tithe was divided into four parts: biskupstíund, for the bishop, preststíund, for the priest's service, kirkjutíund, for the upkeep of the Church, and fátækratíund or thurfamannatíund for the poor. If a chieftain owned a Church and employed a family member or kirkjuprestr as a priest, he was entitled to collect half of the tithe: the preststíund and the kirkjutíund.45 The only limitations would be that the church owner had to maintain the Church building and property and it could not be sold. He was also required to keep a máldagi or list of all of the church property. Another benefit of owning a Church was that the church owner could also collect dues called tollar and skyldir from those families who attended the Church. They were used for simple purposes such as ljóstollr or lýsitollr, a candle tax. The chieftains had suceeded in using the conversion to their advantage.

Nowhere but in Iceland… was there a class like the ordained gođar, who combined secular aristocratic status and the cultivation of national traditions with clerical learning. They preserved the old culture and their traditional freedom, pride, and solicitude for family and society, and practiced a moderate and lenient form of Christianity. 46

However, in AD 1190, a Norwegian archbishop by the name of Eírikr Ivarsson prohibited the ordination of gođar as priests. By doing so, he was lessening the control of secular leaders over the Church and also making a distinction between the two political powers of Church and state.47 There had been several other attempts to limit the chieftains' power over the Church but these attempts were rather unsucessful until Norway intervened.

Like the Icelanders, the kings of Norway had an ulterior motive for forcing the Christianization of Iceland. The kings used Christianity as a method of exerting their control over some instutionalized branch in Iceland. Since the Church played a role in Icelandic government, Norway saw it as a valuable asset to their plan of conquest. There were several missionary expeditions to Iceland, all of which were rather unsuccessful. Finally, Christianity was accepted at the Althing in AD 1000 in order to avoid further conflict. King Olaf Haraldson, who later became Olaf the Saint, appealed to Skapti Thorodsson, a Christian lögsögumaðr. King Olaf requested that the Icelanders purge all offensive heathen practices from their law books. Therefore, the last legal recognition of pagan customs was abolished.48 While this appears to be a remarkable step towards establishing a Christian social order, it was actually a political move towards establishing Norwegian supremacy.

In AD 1152, Iceland was incorporated into the archdiocese of Nidaros in Norway. The Icelandic Church now served as a channel of Norwegian control. At the same time, the Church and state became more divided. The archbishop Eystein Erlendsson [1157-1188] enforced Church reform. He was highly opposed by the chieftains who wanted to retain their rights. Eystein blamed chieftains for permitting immorality. He forbade anyone who had slain another man to conduct a religious service. He also forbade priests to assume management of suits in court unless the suits were on the behalf of poor relatives, orphans or defenseless women. The priest could not manage these suits for profit. He also sought to abolish the private ownership of churches. 49 His reforms soon became a power struggle between chieftains and the Church. In AD 1238, the archbishop of Nidaros refused to consecrate the Icelandic elected bishops and two Norwegian bishops were installed at Skalholt and Holar.

The interruption in the normal procession of government and law in Iceland led to the creation of a Fifth Court in AD 1005. 50 The fimtardómr or Fifth court was established during "a turbulent period of ineffective constitutional reform and growing lawlessness." 51 The fimtardómr could exercise greater authority than the older quarter courts. The thirty-nine goðar of the principal goðorðs were to each choose one judge for the fimtardómr, with the exception of the northern quarter who chose twelve, making the number thirty-six judges chosen from the thirty-nine original goðorðs.

The Fifth court was in essence created to reconstruct the former governmental system to include the nine goðar who had been previously excluded from the thing organization because their acceptance of Christianity. Now that the Althing had accepted Christianity, the organization had to be reconstructed in order to include these goðar. These nine goðar were to also choose twelve judges making the total number of judges for the fimtardómr forty-eight. Only thirty-six judges could give the verdict. The plaintiff was allowed to reject any six judges and the defendant could reject another six making the number of remaining judges thirty-six and weeding out any potentially biased judges. 52

The changes in governmental organization and the growing influence of Norway substantially changed the balance of power in Iceland.The move towards the Christianization of Iceland will make more sense once we establish the greater picture. It is then that we will be able to see how the introduction and influence of Christianity precipitated the downfall of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

VI. The Age of the Sturlungs and the End of the Icelandic Commonwealth AD 1030-1264

The period between AD 1030 and 1118 was a time of peace known as Friðaröld. 53 During this time, the Church became firmly established and incorporated into the social structure of Iceland and the workings of the government continued on with little disruption, despite the recent reorganization. However, this superficial time of peace only covered the brewing discontent. The Friðaröld might have been the time in which Iceland formed a strong organized state but the peace did not continue. There were not enough stabilizing influences for it to do so. The lack of a central government, as well as other flaws inherent in the social system, created an atmosphere of discord. These unstable influences emerged suddenly from this period of peace and created a violent clash that broke down all social and religious restraints and finally concluded by destroying the people’s national independence. 54

One of the unstablizing forces was the lack of concrete control of the goðorð. Power was not distributed evenly because of the fluid nature of the goðorð. Since the thingmenn did not have to adhere to only one goði, they were allowed to transfer their support from one goðar to the next. The goðorð was also a private possession and was treated much like property, to be donated, inherited, and divided. Also there was no limit to the number of goðorð that one chieftain could hold at any one time. Towards the end of the Commonwealth, six chief families possessed all the power, and then went to war against each other in order to secure more power. These six families were the Haukdćælier, Sturlungar (Sturlungs), Öddaverjar, Svínfellingar, Ásbirningar, and Vatnsfirdingar.55

It is easier to understand the consolidation of power among these chieftains by mapping out which chieftains belonged to which districts. In the southern districts, Jon Loptsson of Oddi, who had been Snorri Sturluson’s foster-father, was one of the most prominent chieftains. Also in his district was the influential Gizur Hallson who was the most learned man in Iceland at this time. Once the Sturlungs rose to power, the eldest brother, Thord, who lived at Stad in Snæfellsnes, also emerged as a powerful chieftain in the south. In the western districts, power was divided among Thorgils Oddsson of Stadarhol and his son Einar. In the eastern districts, Sigurd Ormsson of Svínafell held most of the power. In the northern districts, the power was divided between Tumi Kolbeinsson in Skagafjord and Önund Thorkellsson in Eyjafjord, as well as Kolbein Tumasson. Rising among the ranks were the three sons of the Sturlung family, Sighvat, Snorri and Thord. 56

One of the most successful families, the Sturlungs, were not even original holders of a goðorð. Sturla Thordsson, also known as Hvamm-Sturla, owned property at Hvamm. He then secured Stad at Snæfellsnes along with half of the Thornesinga goðorð. He later received the other half as a present from the priest Thorgils Snorrason. 57 His son Sighvat (1170-1238) bought half of the estate of Stadarhol after the death of Einar Thorgilsson, the previous owner in AD 1185. Along with this property, he also secured the possession of Einar’s goðorð.58 By the same tactic, he also obtained both the Saurbæinga and Reyknesinga goðorðs that had belonged to Einar’s father. Hvamm Sturla’s youngest son, Snorri [1178-1241] received half of the Lundarmanna goðorð from his uncle and the Avellinga goðorð from Thorstein Ivarsson in northern Iceland.

As seen in the examples above, nearly seven of the thirty-nine original goðorðs had come into the hands of a single family. This accumulation of power was occurring throughout Iceland among other wealthy chieftains such as those of Gudmund Dyrí Thorvaldsson, and Kolbein Tumasson. Because of this consolidation of power, the thing districts were disrupted because there were no longer three goðorðs in a district who would work together to call a thing. It also created immense changes in thing districts, since it was possible to change the place where the thing assembled. Some unsatisfied chieftains even suceeded from original thing districts and started their own. 59

But whether a single chieftain held possession of several gođorđs within the district, or divided it to suit his own convenience, the courts would be unable to render impartial justice and would be so manifestly viewed with general contempt. Respect for the law was destroyed in the same degree that the courts were deprived of their ability to act as impartial judicial tribunals, and arrogant chieftains gained such power that they could defy the courts and commit lawless acts with impunity. 60

The disruption of the thing districts in addition to growing tension, caused the period of peace to end upon the death of Bishop Gizur of Skálholt in AD 1118. A serious conflict arose between two chieftains, Haflidi Marsson of Hunafjord in northern Iceland and Thorgils Oddsson from Breidafjord in the western districts. A violent relative of Haflidi named Mar had killed many of Thorgils’ men. Thorgils finally brought Mar before the thing. Haflidi attended in order to defend Mar but was only able to obtain a compromise verdict that ordered Mar to pay a heavy fine. However, the feud was not resolved there. Adherents of both chieftains continued to antagonize each other. The feud escalated until it was brought before the Althing in 1120. Both chieftains arrived at the Althing with large bands of armed followers. A skirmish ensued and Thorgils was outlawed for shedding blood on consecrated ground. However, Thorgils had become so powerful that he did not feel that these common laws applied to him. He took no heed of his sentence of outlawry and instead went back home to gather a large group of armed followers. These followers deferred the advances of Haflidi and his men who sought to kill Thorgils in accordance with the Althing's sentence of outlawry. The next summer, Thorgils went back to the Althing with eight hundred armed men. Haflidi arrived with a band of fourteen hundred men. It appeared that a pitched battle was going to take place but Bishop Thorlak of Skálholt, Sæmund Froði and other influential men were able to avert such a skirmish. Bishop Thorlak used his ecclesiastical power to threaten Haflidi with the ban of excommunication if he did not desist. A compromise was then reached and order was restored.61 These skirmishes at the Althing began to become more common and 1163 was known as the “Stone Throwing Summer” because an armed conflict was waged in the very lögretta of the Althing. 62

There was a growing tension that went beyond the borders of the island. Norway and Iceland were also on the verge of war. In AD 1173, Thorkel Thorhallsson of Thykabær (1178-1193) was elected archbishop but he was not allowed to go abroad to Nidaros to be consecrated because of the growing tension between Iceland and Norway incited by some murders and robberies.63 In Norway, the old aristocracy under the leadership of Erling Skakke had gained control with the support of the nobles and the Church. A child king named Magnus was placed on the throne. The child king proved to be a pliant tool in the hands of Erling who acted as the king’s guardian. Erling would also use this opportunity to attempt to gain control of Iceland by using the Church as his tool since:

The policy of placing Iceland under the crown of Norway would be in full harmony with the views of the pope and the Roman hierarchy, who regarded monarchy with a king anointed by the Church as the only legitimate government.64

Between the reforms and the gateway that the Church created for the intervention in governmental affairs by Norway, a clash occurred. The chieftains became so bitter about the Church’s impositions upon their power that they seized the bishop’s residence at Hólar and deprived him of nearly all of his power.65 The bishop at that time, Gudmund Arason, was then summoned to Norway to answer for his conduct. He remained abroad for several years. In 1218, he returned to Iceland only to continue his power struggle with the chieftains until they drove him out again. When he fled from Hólar, Tumi Sighvatsson took his seat. Gudmund then returned and slew Tumi. Tumi’s father drove Gudmund out until he fled to Norway again. His case was brought to the attention of the Pope who urged him to resign. Gudmund refused to do so and in 1226 he returned to Iceland and continued to antagonize the chieftains. The chieftains then disbanded Gudmund’s followers and held him prisoner at Hólar for two years.66 In 1233, Gudmund made a pilgrimage to Rome. The Pope issued an order for his suspension from office but Gudmund died old and blind four years later and before the order could be executed.

However, a Bishop’s intervention in civil affairs was not always as negative as it was in the case with Bishop Gudmund. In a quarrel between Kolbein Tumasson and a thingmann under the auspices of the chieftain Thord Sturlasson, another skirmish occurred at the Althing, in which one man was killed. A more bloody conflict was avoided through the efforts of Bishop Paul Skálholt, who arranged a temporary settlement in AD 1196. Unfortunately, the settlement did not hold. The following year, Gudmund Dyn and Kolbein Tumasson collected a large band of followers and burned the house of one of their opponents, Önund Thorkellsson of Langahlid. The following summer, another battle was predicted between these two parties but it was averted by the intervention of the influential Jon Loptsson.

Returning to the Sturlung family, the period of 1200 until 1265 is known as the Sturlung Period. It is during this period that the Sturlungs came to power. Snorri, who was the youngest as well as a scholar, married the only daughter of the rich priest Bersi Vemundsson of Borg. He received Hvamm as a wedding present from his mother. Through his marriage, he gained possession of Egil Skallagrimsson’s famous seat. In AD 1206 Snorri bought the estate of Reykholt and acquired half of the Lundarmanna goðorð with the rank and title of goði as was mentioned above. Snorri was very involved in political life. He served with distinction of lögsögumaðr for several years from AD 1215-1218.

In political life he was not only a prominent leader but a far sighted patriot, who loved peaceful development and social order, and he must have viewed with serious misgivings the growing spirit of strife and lawlessness which more and more endangered the existence of the state. 67

Despite all this, in AD 1218 he visited Norway where he spent two years enjoying the highest favors of Skule Jarl and King Haakon Haakonsson. Meanwhile the Norwegian control that had extended its influence into Icelandic affairs made the chieftains apprehensive of their own independence and more importantly, their individual power.

King Harald Haarfagre had always regarded Iceland as a Norwegian dependency and that may be why he never bothered to include it in his united Norway. The political problems that were arising on the island only brought to the Norwegian king’s attention to the fact that Iceland was incapable of ruling itself. When intervention was met with resistance, it became apparent that Iceland was not a Norwegian dependency but an independent state. Norway then used the precarious political situation in Iceland to move in and gain control of the entire island.

King Haakon Haakonson (r.1223-1263) sent Uni Oborni, the son of the Swedish discoverer, Gardar, to Iceland. His mission was to bring Iceland under Norwegian domination. In return, he would receive the title and prestige of Jarl, similar to an English earl. 68 The plan ultimately failed but the Icelanders did agree to pay a landaurar tax in order to enjoy unrestricted intercourse and trade with Norway.

Even earlier, King Olaf Haraldson had tried to subject the Icelanders to Norwegian rule. In AD 1022, with the consent of the chieftains, he drew up an agreement known as The Institutions and Laws Which King Olaf Gave the Icelanders.69 This agreement allowed Icelanders to enjoy the same rights as Norwegian citizens in the case of personal injury during their stay in Norway. They also had the right to inherit property in Norway. They would not have to pay taxes except a small contribution to the watchmen in the cities and the landaurar tax, which had previously been established. In return, Icelanders had to grant the king’s men the same rights as an Icelander during their stay in Iceland and their suits should be brought to the courts without previous notice. If Norway was at war, those Icelanders residing in Norway at the time owed the king military service and were not allowed to leave the country. Two out of every three Icelanders residing in Norway should then join the royal standards and could be called upon to serve in certain wars, specifically defensive wars within the borders of the kingdom. 70

King Olaf, however, was not satisfied with this agreement. In AD 1024 he submitted a formal proposal to the Althing asking the Icelanders to recognize him as ruler. He also requested that Norwegian laws be adopted and that the Icelanders should pay a head tax of one penning per person. On a side note, he demanded the cession of the little island of Grimsey in Eyjafjord. It seems illogical to ask a democratic body to vote in favor of losing its freedom to a monarch, and therefore the plan was refused. King Olaf then tried another tactic. In AD 1026 he invited some prominent chieftains to Norway. He then sent Gellir Thorkellsson back to Iceland with another request asking for the acceptance of Norwegian power. Meanwhile, King Olaf held the Icelandic chieftains hostage in Norway. Eventually, King Olaf had to abandon his idea of conquering Iceland because he became preoccupied with a war with King Knut of Denmark. He had to flee his kingdom and met his death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. King Harald Haardraade had also had similar ideas of conquering Iceland but was also diverted by a war in England and his death at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 prevented any execution of his ideas. 71

Olaf Kyrre, who had devoted himself solely to the pursuit of peace, succeeded King Harald Haardraade. Civil wars had raged from AD 1130 until the reign of King Haakon Haakonsson. Therefore no attention could be paid to Norwegian colonial policy.72 It was thus not until AD 1152, when Norway and Iceland were joined in ecclesiastical affairs, that the idea of Norwegian domination was resumed. The archbishop of Nidaros would summon prominent Icelanders to Norway where they would either be held hostage or just kept out of the way. Snorri Sturluson was summoned but refused patriotically. 73

The unceasing strife in Iceland prevented the formation of a united patriotic sentiment and allowed an ideal opportunity for Norway to meddle in Icelandic affairs.

Chieftains who through defeat or otherwise had lost their power and influence would be inclined to welcome the supremacy of the Norwegian King rather than submit to the whims of their successful rivals. 74

At the same time, tension was rising between Norway and Iceland. The tension was exacerbated by the death of Paul, son of the chieftain Sæmund Jonsson of Oddi. Paul was accidentally drowned in Norway. Upon hearing the news, Sæmund grew furious and blamed the people of Bergen for it. 75 He seized some Bergen merchants who were at Eyrar in Iceland and demanded a financial compensation whose price he should fix. By such an action, he was violating the laws established between King Olaf Haraldson and the Icelanders. Sæmund’s brother Orm attempted to persuade Sæmund to modify his unreasonably large demand but was unsuccessful. The innocent merchants had to pay nine hundred marks of silver, a tremendous sum at that time. Later, some Norwegian traders arrived in Iceland after having gone to Greenland. They were also forced to contribute money to Sæmund. In revenge, they slew Orm, which only further exacerbated the problem. 76 In Norway, the people demanded redress for the arrogant actions of Sæmund Jonsson. In Iceland, the people demanded a payment of indemnity for the death of Orm Jonsson. The quarrel became so great that Skule Jarl, now Duke Skule, began to plan a military expedition to Iceland in order to settle this affair of indemnities but also to take advantage of the opportunity to subjugate the island. 77

King Haakon had made Snorri Sturluson, who was in Norway at the time, Skutilsveinn, a title of honor. Snorri used this title to persuade Skule not to attack. Instead, he suggested that by befriending the Icelandic leaders, Skule’s case for the conquest was more likely to be considered. Skule Jarl did not go to Iceland and, in return for that favor, Snorri undertook the guarantee that Norwegian merchants would be safe in Iceland. Snorri also entered into a secret agreement in which he promised to use his influence to subjugate Iceland in a peaceful way. He then sends his son Jon Mutin to Skule Jarl to be kept as a hostage until the promise was carried out. The king then bestowed the title of lendermaðr on Snorri. It was an honor that had not been bestowed upon an Icelander since the days of King Olaf Haraldson. 78

When Snorri returned to Iceland in AD 1220, his attention was diverted by the strife that had broken out among rival leaders. Soon a civil war broke out involving nearly all parts of the island. Even the Sturlung brothers became divided. Snorri allied himself with the Öddaverjar family of Oddi in southern Iceland since he had been fostered at Oddi. His brother Sighvat had become related to Kolbein Tumasson of Northern Iceland through a marriage with Kolbein’s sister Halldora. Kolbein Tumasson and Sigurd Ormsson of Svínafell, along with Sighvat Sturluson, formed a strong confederacy that covered both the north and east. The eldest Sturlung brother, Thord tried to maintain peace as the leading man in the southwestern districts. Even though the Sturlungs' power was now divided among the brothers, their alliances kept the power and chieftaincies within the same six families who by this point had acquired most of the wealth and power in Iceland.

Snorri Sturluson was able to channel more power and wealth to himself by taking advantage of others misfortunes. In a quarrel over inheritance, Bjorn Thorvaldsson was killed by his brother-in-laws, the sons of Sæmund Jonsson. The brothers were banished and in AD 1222 Sæmund himself died. This turn of events disrupted the power of the Oddi chieftains. Snorri and Thorvald Gizzursson, Bjorn’s father, remained as leaders in southern Iceland. Thorvald finally retired peacefully in a monastery in Videy.79 More alliances were formed with Snorri thereby directing more power towards his estate. Snorri married Hallveig, the widow of Bjorn Thorvaldsson and gained great wealth because Hallveig was the richest heiress in Iceland at that time. Snorri’s daughter Thordis was married off to Thorvald of Vatsfjord 80 and his other daughter Ingibjorg was married to Gizur, the son of Thorvald Gizzursson. Then in AD 1222 Snorri was elected lögsögumaðr again and was even reelected for a third time in AD 1231. 81 By his marriage and his new found wealth, Snorri increased the power and influence of the Sturlungs. However, more divisions within the family were bound to lead to more strife.

The acquisition of power and wealth among the Sturlung family continued but also drove the family apart. The Snorrunga goðorð, which had become a Sturlung family possession, was not passed down to the eldest brother Thord, but to the next eldest, Sighvat. Sighvat had given the goðorð to his son Sturla. Snorri took this case to the Althing and demanded his share of the goðorð. In the end, he seized the goðorð by force and summoned the thingmenn to swear allegiance to him. A series of unrelated killings incited a brutal attack on Sturla’s home but also allowed a more cordial relationship between Snorri and Sturla until a better settlement could be reached. 82

A complete settlement was reached in 1230. Peace was also made with Sighvat, therefore creating a small period of peace throughout Iceland. Sturla offered a settlement for the brutal attack on his home. Peace was then broken because Thord mocked Sturla for the settlement thereby making Sturla break his agreement by slaying Thord. Sturla then had to leave the country and went on a pilgrimage to Rome in AD 1232. Meanwhile, Snorri’s illegitimate son Urökja took possession of the Vatsfjord goðorð and began to wreak havoc.83 On his return from Rome, Sturla visited Norway. Upon hearing about Urökja’s violence, he promised King Haakon that he would fight for the subjugation of Iceland in return for the title Jarl. His motives were selfish because his main goal was to win out over his rivals, notably Urökja.84 The terms of the promise were to include no violence and any leaders that Sturla wished to get rid of were to be sent to Norway. Sturla agreed but never obeyed. His treason led to more violence and civil war. 85

In AD 1235, Sturla returned to Iceland. With the help of his uncle Sighvat, he gathered a military force against Snorri “of whom they demanded full reparation for the damages done by his son Urökja.”86 Urökja gathered a force of seven hundred and twenty men to aid Snorri. However, it was too close to Easter and Snorri did not wish to wage war against his own family. Therefore, Urökja’s force had to be disbanded. Nonetheless, skirmishes occurred and the violence continued while drawing in more and more chieftains. To end the conflict, King Haakon summoned all the goðorðsmenn of Iceland to Norway. 87

Sturla Sighvatsson had now almost made himself lord of all Iceland. Snorri Sturluson had fled. Thord Sturluson died. Most of the remaining leading chieftains had left the land or been reduced to a state of dependency. 88 Sturla then marched on the remaining estates. It was becoming apparent to the remaining chieftains that they would share the same fate if they offered any resistance. The only way they could save themselves would be to unite amongst themselves, and inevitably, finally with Norway. 89 For fear of being the next victims, Hjalti Magnusson, son of the Bishop of Skálholt, along with Kolbein Ungi and Gizur Thorvaldsson, emerged as leaders and gathered a force of one thousand, six hundred, and eighty men. On August 21, 1238 at Orlygsstadir, they won a small victory. Sighvat fell in battle and Sturla and his brothers Kolbein and Thord were taken as prisoners and executed. However, despite all this, peace was not secured. Kolbein Ungi and Gizur Thorvaldsson then seized the collective goðorðs that had previously been owned by Sturla and Sighvat and lorded it over their neighbors. 90

The news of the deaths of Sturla and Sighvat reached Norway. King Haakon issued an order that all Icelanders must remain in Norway “until the nature of their errand could be ascertained,”91 but this order went against the old agreement created by King Olaf Haraldson. During this time, Duke Skule was plotting to raise a revolt against the king in order to obtain the crown for himself. He made a deal with Snorri Sturluson, who then became a fölgsnajarl, or secret jarl, and who would become his representative ruling over Iceland if Skule got the crown. Duke Skule was able to thwart the king by allowing the Icelanders to sail despite the order of the king. Snorri sailed among the Icelanders sailing back to Iceland. When the king heard of his departure, he sent forces after him for his destruction. 92 The king's basis was that Snorri had been a traitor to the crown by going against the king's order that all Icelanders must remain in Norway until further notice.

Upon his return in Iceland, Snorri summoned the thingmenn of Sighvat and Sturla to meet him at Dal. Urökja, Thorleif of Gardar and other exiles returning from Norway accompanied Snorri. At this conference, it was agreed that the punishment to be imposed should be decided by Snorri himself who demanded fines to be imposed on those who had assisted in robbing his estate and despoiling his friends. 93

King Haakon needed another method of getting control Iceland. He allied himself with the Roman Church and the archbishop of Nidaros who instated a new policy that would further link Iceland and the mother country. In 1237, Bishop Gudmund of Hólar and Bishop Magnus Gizursson of Skálholt died. Magnus Gudmundson was then elected Bishop of Skálholt and Bjorn Kygribjorn Hjaltason was elected as Bishop of Hólar. They both went to Norway in AD 1236 to be consecrated by the archbishop of Nidaros. However, as part of his plan, the archbishop refused to consecrate them because he did not sanction their election. Bjorn then went to Rome to present his case to the Pope but he died on the way home. Magnus returned home in AD 1239 but drowned a year later. The archbishop of Nidaros then declared that the cathedral chapter of Nidaros should choose all bishops in Iceland. 94 In AD 1238 two Norwegians became bishops of Iceland. Sigvard Tittmarsson, former abbot of Selja became the Bishop of Skálholt. Botolf, former cannon of Helgeseter, became Bishop of Hólar. They were allowed to take possession of their diocese without opposition. Now Norway had a channel in which to interfere in Icelandic affairs unopposed. 95 Norway had used the same strategy that Henry II of England had attempted to use by installing Thomas Beckett as the archbishop of Canterbury. While Beckett failed to ally himself with the king and do his bidding, the bishops of Norway suceeded in aiding the king in his conquest unbeknownst to their contemporaries, the chieftains.

Gizur Thorvaldsson used the new bishops to his advantage. He allied himself with Bishop Sigvard of Skálholt during a plot to overthrow his father-in-law Snorri. Gizur’s goal was to gain full control of the island. King Haakon made Gizur his representative because he saw that Gizur might be the answer to the king’s problems. Gizur had already been granted the title skutílsveinn on a visit to Norway in AD 1229.

Duke Skule revolted and his retainers proclaimed him king. However, he met his death after a short struggle soon after. Snorri therefore lost his Norwegian support. Upon discovering Snorri’s treason, King Haakon gave Gizur the order to send Snorri to Norway or to slay him as a traitor. Gizur executed this order. 96 Snorri Sturluson was killed in his home in Reykholt at the age of sixty-three on September 22, 1241.97 Gizur then gave Snorri’s estates to Snorri’s stepson Klćng Bjarnarson even though Snorri’s illegitimate son Urökja was the nearest male heir. Urökja sought revenge and killed Klæng. He continued on to pursue Gizur until peace was finally concluded at Skálholt, making Reykholt Urökja’s possession. Gizur however, refused to accept this agreement and later he gathered forces against Urökja under the claim that there had been no negotiation pertaining to Klæng’s death. New negotiations then opened, conducted by Gizur’s ally Kolbein Ungi who was also Urökja’s brother-in-law. The conference took place at the river Hvíta.98 These negotiations were not altogether successful. Gizur imprisoned Urökja and both Urökja and Sturla Thordsson were forced to pledge under oath to leave Iceland. In the end, Urökja was sent to Norway and Sturla was allowed to stay at home. By this time, the Althing had been rendered powerless and anarchy was ruling the land.

The settlers who had hitherto been independent freeholders enjoying their ancient rights under the old laws were becoming oppressed victims of lawless magnates who seized at will all the estates of the island and imposed on the people their arbitrary demands at the point of the sword.99

People needed peace even if it had to come from a foreign authority. Even Gizur and Urökja brought their cases before King Haakon. King Haakon appeared to be replacing the high court of the Althing further proving that the Althing had been rendered powerless.

Both Gizur and Urökja were summoned to Norway. Gizur returned to Iceland two years later and Urökja died in AD 1245. With Snorri dead and Urökja banished until his death in 1245, the Sturlung influence had disappeared. Gizur Thorvaldsson then became the sole leader in southern Iceland. He belonged to the Haukdælir family, which could trace its lineage back to Isleif, the first bishop of Skálholt. Kolbein Ungi held power in the western and northern districts. He had seized Sighvat’s estates and had redistributed them to other leading men, rendering Sighvat’s heirs powerless. 100

The Sturlungs had not, however, disappeared entirely with the death of Snorri and the loss of Sighvat's estates. Thord Kakali, the eldest son of Sighvat’s two living sons, had been in Norway enjoying the friendly custody of King Haakon. In AD 1242 he was allowed to return to Iceland. Kolbein viewed Thord as a threat and plotted to seize him. Thord failed to gain support once he returned to Iceland because everyone had become too afraid of Kolbein’s power. 101 However, Thord persisted and gathered a force of thirty men with the help of his brother Tumi. Many chieftains pledged their support but would not go out to join him until there was a break in Kolbein’s power. The only exceptions were Sturla and the chieftains of Eyran. 102

Kolbein had seven hundred men and the support of the Bishop of Skálholt. Thord Kakali had only a force of two hundred and forty men but he nonetheless marched on to Skálholt where some of Kolbein’s forces claimed a settlement should be made since Thord had been cheated out of his inheritance. They recognized that Thord had a just grievance and moved to appease this small grievance only to get Thord out of the way with little resistance. The bishop and Steinvor were chosen as arbitrators. Thord received a large indemnity on the condition that the peace was kept until Gizur returned from Norway. 103

Kolbein, however, was still intent upon capturing Thord. He tried to cut Thord off by crossing Tvidoegra Heath but he lost many men to the cold instead. Thord heard of Kolbein’s failed attempt and for his own safety, he fled. In the summer, Kolbein went to the Althing to have Thord outlawed. Thord fled to some islands where he gathered a force of thirty ships. 104 Kolbein decided that the next best move would be to avoid the ships and to instead go after Sturla Thordsson instead, whom he killed.

The public opinion declared that the decision at the Althing had been made under pressure from Kolbein without any real basis. The public sentiment then moved to Thord’s side, especially in the districts that had been raided by Kolbein. 105 This allowed Thord and Sturla to gather a force of 1,430 men.

Kolbein, who was ill from an accident, sent two messengers to make peace with Thord. They promised him the whole northern quarter and that Kolbein would leave Iceland. Thord accepted this offer and therefore disbanded his forces. Kolbein had devised this scheme as a plot to destroy Thord. He claimed that he had never granted permission to the messengers to make such an offer. Tumi Sighvatsson, Thord’s brother, was taken prisoner and beheaded. Sturla Thordsson’s home was plundered, people were killed, and property was destroyed throughout the district. 106

Thord, in revenge, gathered a force of fifteen ships and two hundred and twenty men in order to attack. Kolbein caught word of it and met him with an even larger force in the bay of Hunafloi. Thord was defeated. Soon after, Gizur returned to Iceland. He sought reconciliation with Jon, the son of Sturla Sighvatsson. King Haakon was called upon for arbitration regarding the proper indemnity for the slaying of Sturla after the battle of Orlygsstadir. King Haakon’s role as arbitrator was a clear indication that Gizur acknowledged the king as the overlord of Iceland. 107Kolbein, who was still ill, and Thord Kakali both went to Norway to settle this matter by submitting it to the king. No negotiation was reached because Kolbein became confined to his bed. Kolbein summoned Gizur and offered to transfer all of his goðorðs to Gizur and Brand Kolbeinsson. Gizur did not feel that he was in the position to accept the offer. 108

Thord was then called and a peace agreement was made. Thord regained his inheritance, especially the estates in the Eyjafjord district. Brand Kolbeinsson would hold the districts of Skagafjord, Hunafjord, Midfjord and Hrutafjord. Brand and Gizur also agreed to support each other. Kolbein died on July 22, 1245. 109

Thord had now become the wealthiest and most popular chieftain in Iceland and now that many of his competitors had been defeated, he strove to acquire all of Iceland for himself. He began to quarrel with Brand. Thord marched into the Skagafjord district with a force of six hundred men. Brand had seven hundred and twenty men from Haugnes but he was outmaneuvered and thus defeated after a bloody conflict on April 19, 1246. Brand was captured and put to death. Thord seized the north for himself. 110

Gizur arrived with a force of four hundred and eighty men at Stad, Brand’s home estate. It was decided that they should submit their quarrel to King Haakon and they both sailed to Norway in the fall of 1246. They met the king in Bergen and accompanied him to Trondhjem where he would spend the winter. The king called a special meeting, probably of his hird or special court, to hear the case. In the spring, King Haakon returned to Bergen where he was to be crowned by Cardinal William of Sabina. He had wished to use this occasion as a formal way to establish his overlordship of Iceland. The pope through his personal representative, the cardinal, would be there to sanction it.111 The cardinal supported the king’s plan because it was in harmony with the views of the Roman Church regarding legitimate government. The cardinal issued an address to the people of Iceland. He commanded that they submit to King Haakon, declaring that it was improper not to be ruled by a king as other nations were.112 In AD 1246, Bishop Botolf of Hílar died and a Norwegian ecclesiastic named Heinrik Kárason was chosen as a replacement. Thord gathered the new bishop’s support causing the cardinal to advise Haakon to send Thord to Iceland as governor of the island. Gizur was to remain in Norway in order to avoid any new conflicts.113

Thord and Bishop Heinrik were sent to Iceland with a letter from the cardinal to the Icelanders, in place of Gizur. In the letter there was the formal request from the king saying that they should submit to his authority and pay him taxes. 114 Several prominent Icelanders were held as hostages in Norway during this time.

Thord Kakali gained control over a large part of Iceland. The Sturlungs submitted and recognized him as their leader. In AD 1248, Hrafn Oddsson and Einar Thorvaldsson came from the Vatsfjord district in northern Iceland to follow suit and pledge their allegiance. Sæmund Ormsson also followed suit. The southern districts that tried to remain the adherents of Gizur were made to submit and pay a fine. Most opposition was averted due to the bishop’s support of Thord as the king’s representative. In this way, Thord had become lord over all Iceland. The Norwegian king's strategic planning: placing Norwegians in the bishoprics, and bribing the chieftains with wealth and titles, had finally suceeded. While Thord found himself in great favor of the Norwegian king, he was in essence a traitor to his fellow men in Iceland, as was the sentiment of most of Icelanders at that time. The people resented the fact that they had to trade their liberty in order to obtain peace.

While King Haakon had established his overlordship in Iceland, it was not fully recognized. Reforms in the judicial and legislative systems of Iceland demonstrated the influence of the council of Bergen and the cardinal. In Iceland, there was a regulation made that “anyone who encroached on other people’s rights or property should be punished by excommunication.” 115

Thord’s ambition brought him into conflict with Bishop Heinrik. In AD 1249, Bishop Heinrik went to Norway and Thord does not accompany him. In the following year, Thord, because he was the king’s sworn hirðmaðr, finally obeyed and sailed to Norway with Bishop Sigvard of Skálholt. Neither was allowed to return to Iceland. Haakon took his chances with Gizur Thorvaldsson and sent him instead. Gizur had made a pilgrimage to Rome to ask absolution for his sins and therefore appeared worthy of trust. Gizur went to Iceland accompanied by Bishop Heinrik. Also, those who had shown an inclination to promote allegiance to the crown, such as Thorgils Skardi and Finnbjorn Helgason, were allowed to return to Iceland. They were given large grants of land in return for their support. 116 The people however did not approve of the distribution of districts among royal favorites, which included those lands that had been previously owned by Snorri Sturluson. 117 Because Snorri had died as a traitor, the king also claimed all of Snorri’s chieftaincies. Many of the other chieftains had given their chieftaincies to the king in hope of getting them back as fiefs. Therefore, well before 1262, King Haakon Haakonsson of Norway was actually the largest goði in all of Iceland.118

Thorgils Skardi had trouble getting the other chieftains to adhere to the king’s letter and submit. Opposition under Sturla Thordsson and Hrafn Oddsson gathered forces. They took Thorgils prisoner at Stafaholt where he was visiting Olaf Hvítaskald. Thorgils saved his life only by promising to join in the attack against Gizur. In order to keep the king’s oath, Thorgils broke his oath with Sturla and Hrafn and fled to Bishop Heinrik at Hólar. The bishop tried to mediate but no agreement could be reached because Thorgils demanded the land the king had granted him but the chieftains refused to recognize his claim to the land, while also refusing the right on the king’s part to exercise dominion over Icelandic territory.

Gizur formed an alliance with Thorgils’ opponents. In AD 1253, after the Althing, which had continued to meet despite it's inability to be effective, Gizur met Hrafn Oddsson and Sturla Thordsson at Breidaboldstad in the district of Hrutafjord where an alliance was entered into. Gizur gave up his allegiance to the king. Hrafn and Sturla abandoned Thord Kakali. Together, all three formed a strong anti-royal confederacy.119 Thorgils Skardi, Bishop Heinrik of Hólar, and Abbott Brand Jonsson who was now vicar for Bishop Sigvard at Skálholt opposed them.Thorgils met Sturla on an island in the Faxafjord and entered into a secret agreement promising support and friendship. They were kinsmen by family ties and did not wish to interfere with family affairs.

Eyjolf Thorsteinsson with a group of conspirators, who were sworn enemies of Gizur, plotted to attack Gizur while he attended his son’s wedding. Hrafn knew of the plan but said nothing. They set fire to Gizur’s house. Twenty-five people died but Gizur did not. He escaped and hid in a vat of whey in his provision house. Bishop Heinrik absolved the conspirators but Gizur sought them out and killed them. Eyjolf and the remaining fifteen associates were outlawed at the Althing. Bishop Heinrik put Gizur under the ban of the Church which forced him to move out of the district of Hólar and into the south of Iceland. Gizur was then summoned to Norway by the king. The king then sent Ivar Englason to promote his interests in Iceland. The attack on the conspirators did not end. Odd Thorarinsson, a friend of Gizur, continued pursuing the conspirators until Eyjolf and Hrafn captured him and put him to death.120

Odd’s brother Thorvard Thorarinsson appealed to Thorgils Skardi regarding the matter of avenging Odd’s death. Thorgils conceded on the condition that the district of Skagafjord should be ceded to him. Sturla and Brand joined Thorgils and the three chieftains defeated Hrafn and Eyjolf at Thvera in Litla. Hrafn fled and Eyjolf was killed. At first Bishop Heinrik’s sentiments had fallen upon Eyjolf and Hrafn but once Thorgils had finally succeeded in the king’s cause and held the district undisputed, the bishop changed his mind.

Also at the Althing in AD 1253, a new law was passed which only further demonstrated the growing control of Norway over Iceland’s political affairs.

It was legally assented and completely confirmed in Iceland that in case of discrepancy between God’s law and the law of the nation, the law of God should obtain. This it was decided 1253 winters after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. 121

By this legislative act, the national law was suspended and forced to give way to God’s law, which, through the archbishopric of Nidaros, happened to be controlled by Norway. Not all the chieftains were at the assembly to vote. Some were aware of the consequences of such legislation and abstained from voting.

In the spring of 1256, Ivar, who had been sent to Iceland during the dispute regarding the conspirators, held a thing in the Skagafjord district and asked for the people’s pledge to the crown and taxes. The whole northern quarter granted the request. 122 Thorgils was appointed governor of the northern quarter. Thord Kakali and Gizur Thorvaldsson remained in Norway where they were made sýslumenn or governors of administrative districts.123 Thord died on October 11, 1256 and Thorvard Thorarinsson killed Thorgils on January 22, 1258 thereby leaving on Gizur to remain as the only surviving chieftain of the original six families.

By 1261, most of Iceland was under Norwegian control. During the years of 1262 until 1264, Icelandic representatives went to Iceland to gather signatures for the Gamli sattamlai,124 or Old Covenant. It has also been named Gizurarsattmali125 or Gizur’s treaty after his contribution to the Norwegian crown in establishing its overlordship. The terms of the treaty are translated as follows:

This is what the bændr of the North- and South- lands agree upon:

1. They, under sworn oath, grant to the Lord King Haakon and King Magnus permanent tax and rights in land and subjects [þegna], 20 alnir from each man due to pay þingfararkaup [Thingfarakaup]. This payment [fé] is the be collected by the community leaders [hrepp-stiorar] and taken by them to the [King’s] ships and handed over to the King’s representative [umbodzmanni], after which their responsibility for that ceases. 2. In return, the King shall grant us peace and Icelandic law [friði og islendskum lögum]. 3. Six ships are to sail from Norway to Iceland in the first two summers; after that as many [ships] as the King and the best among the yeomen of this country consider most beneficial for the country. 4. The Icelanders shall receive their inheritance in Norway, if true heirs or their legal representatives (umbodzmenn) come forward, no matter how much time shall have elapsed. 5. Landaurar are to be discontinued. 6. The rights of Icelanders in Norway shall in no way be inferior to those they had previously. You yourself [i.e. the King] have, in your letter, offered to maintain peace over us, as God provides you with the strength. 7. We want the Earl [Gizurr] to rule over us as long as he keeps faith with you and peace with us. 8. We and our heirs will remain faithful to you as long as you and your heirs keep this treaty [sattargjörd]. We shall be released from it [lausir] if the best men consider it to have been broken [on your part]. 126

There still remains the question as to why the Icelanders would democratically sign a treaty that ended their democracy. There are several theories with which to answer this question but it is unlikely that any one conclusion can be reached.

During the end of the Commonwealth numerous factors affected the Icelanders. The weather was becoming increasingly cold. In 1187 and 1219, no ships sailed to Iceland because of ice and lack of supplies on the continent.127 In 1192, 2,400 people starved to death. Some winters were so bad that they acquired their own nicknames such as the Great Glacier Winter of 1233. The severe cold and harsh winters made some of the less fertile farms barren. Overgrazing and erosion had taken their toll on the landscape and had severely reduced the usable land available. The destruction of the forests for fuel also created a huge shortage of the timber that would have been used to make ships. 128

With increasingly cold winters and a shortage of supplies, many of the farmers turned to their local chieftains for support. Those chieftains who had to most wealth to share usually gained the most supporters. The imposition of the tithe had allowed some chieftains to accumulate wealth rapidly thus changing the social structure and balance of power. The lack of an executive branch to keep these newly growing powers in check was absent. The interference of the international Church and the Norwegian kings in Icelandic affairs just compounded the stress that the Icelanders already felt from the unpromising economic conditions. Trade was necessary to get certain basic supplies but trade also created alliances and kinship groups among Norwegians and Icelanders. These alliances blurred the distinction between the two countries. The farmers who had lost their farms due to the weather were now unemployed. For their basic needs, they would adhere to the wealthy chieftains. This sudden increase of man power led to warring bands of men that were able to fight for a chieftain in hopes of gaining some workable land back in return.129

The civil wars had taken a toll on most of the Icelanders. The Norwegian treaty promised peace, since it was the king’s obligation. Since Iceland would remain a separate legal district with a defined method of taxation, the precise significance of signing such a treaty would not have been apparent to the Icelanders who signed it. Only in retrospect can we as historians see that this act ended the era of Iceland’s golden age and had a permanent impact upon the development of Iceland as a nation throughout history.130 Iceland did not regain independence until 1944.


Byock, Jesse. Medieval Iceland: Soceity, Sagas and Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Einarsson, Stefan. A History of Icelandic Literature . New York: The John Hopkins Press, 1957.

Gjerset, Knut. History of Iceland . New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925.

Gordon, E.V. An Introduction to Old Norse . Oxford: Claredon Press, 1956.

Hastrup, Kirsten. Culture and History in Medieval Iceland. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1985.

Hollander, Lee M. (trans.) Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. University of Texas Press, 1964.

Karlsson, Gunnar. The History of Iceland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Lacy, Terry G. Ring of Seasons: Iceland, It's Culture and History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Magnusson, Magnus (trans.) and Palsson, Hermann (trans.) Njal's Saga . Penguin Books, 1960.


1. Einarsson, Stefan, A History of Icelandic Literature (NY, 1957), 124.
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2. Einarsson, 106.
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3. Byock, Jesse, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power (Berkeley, 1988), 17-18.
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4. Karlson, Gunnar The History of Iceland (Minneapolis, 2000), 21.
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5. Karlsson, 14.
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6.Karlsson, 15.
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7. Gjerset, Knut, History of Iceland (NY, 1925), 12-13.
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8.Sturluson, Snorri, Heimskringla, Hollander, Lee M. (trans.) History of the Kings of Norway (Texas, 1964).
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9. Gjerset, 13.
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10. Gjerset, 13.
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11.Karlsson, 9.
Lacy, Terry, Ring of Seasons: Iceland - Its Culture and History (Ann Arbor, 1998), 76.
There is a discrepancy in the date of Pytheas. Karlsson claims it is 400 BC and Lacy claims it is 300 BC.

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12. Karlsson, 10. From Islendingabók. BR> Return to document
13. Gjerset, 9. Lacy, 76.
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14. Karlsson, 11. From Landnmabók, and Lacy, 76.
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15. Gjerset, 18.
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16. Gjerset, 19.
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17. A fatho is a quantity of wood measuring 6 square feet. Therefore, these halls were 108 square feet and 114 square feet respectively.
18.Landnámabók ch.3ff. As translated and paraphrased in Gjerset, 10-12.
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19. Gjerset, 19.
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20. Plural for Eyrir: an ounce of silver, or one-eighth of a mork. [From Latin aureum, aura.] Definition from: Gordon, E.V., An Introduction to Old Norse , (Oxford), Glossary 342.
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21. Gjerset, 20.
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22. Gjerset, 32.
23. Byock, 115-117.
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24. Gjerset, 36.
25. Gjerset, 37. <
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26. Byock, 58-59.
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27. Byock, 57.
28. Byock, 60.
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29. Gjerset, 35.
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30. Gjerset, 33.
31. Gjerset, 34.
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Njall's Saga pg. 137-139. The specifics of the case are not necessary to understanding the example. For the specifics of the case, see the aove pages.
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33. Karlsson, 23.
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Gjerset, 43.
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35. Gjerset, 40.
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36. Karlsson, 23.
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37. Njall's Saga pgs.137-139
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38. Njall's Saga ch.100-105
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39. Gjerset, 46.
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40. Karlsson, 38-39.
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41. Gjerset, 66.
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42. Byock, 143.
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43. Gjerset, 49.
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44. Byock, 144
45. Byock, 192
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46. Karlsson, 40 from an excerpt by Sigurur Nordal
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47. Byock, 150.
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48. Gjerset, 64.
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49. Gjerset, 158-160.
50. Also found in Njall's Saga
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51. Gjerset, 38-39.
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52. Gjerset, 39.
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53. Gjerset, 132.
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54. Gjerset, 150.
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55. Lacy, 140.
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56. Gjerset, 155-156.
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57. Gjerset, 151-152 taken from Sturlunga Saga vii. Ch 41 p.198
58. Gjerset, 152 taken from Sturlunga Saga iii. Ch 39 p. 114, ch 41 p. 197
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59. Gjerset, 152-153.
60. Gjerset, 153.
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61. Gjerset, 153-154, taken from Sturlunga Saga I chs.5-27; supplement to Landnámabók 1 from Skarsarbók
62. Gjerset, 15.
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63. Gjerset, 161. taken from Biskup Thorlakssaga ch. 10
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64. Gjerset, 161.
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65. Gjerset, 163.
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66. Gjerset, 164.
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67. Gjerset, 167.
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68. Gjerset, 168 taken from Landnámabók iv. P. 176 and Njall's Saga ch 19
69. Gjerset, 169 taken from Diplomatarium Islandicum vol. I no. 16 pg. 54; no.21 pg. 64ff.
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70. Gjerset, 169.
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71. Gjerset, 169.
72. Gjerset, 170.
73. Gjerset, 170.
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74. Gjerset, 170.
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75. Gjerset, 171, taken from Sturlunga saga vol. I p. 329
76. Gjerset, 171, taken from P.A. Munch, Norges Konge Sagaer vol. ii 278.
77. Gjerset, 171.
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78. Gjerset, 172; Karlsson, 80.
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79. Gjerset, 174.
80. Gjerset, 175.
81. Gjerset, 176.
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82. Gjerset, 175.
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83. Gjerset, 176.
84. Gjerset, 177.
85. Gjerset, 177; Karlsson, 80.
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86. Gjerset, 177.
87. Gjerset, 178.
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88. Gjerset, 178.
89. Gjerset, 180.
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90. Gjerset, 180; Karlsson, 80-81.
91. Gjerset, 182.
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92. Gjerset, 182; Karlsson, 81.
93. Gjerset, 182.
94. Gjerset, 183.
95. Gjerset, 184.
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96. Gjerset, 184; Karlsson, 81; Lacy, 147.
97. Gjerset, 185.
98. Gjerset, 185.
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99. Gjerset, 186.
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100. Gjerset, 186-187.
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101. Gjerset, 187.
102. Gjerset, 188.
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103. Gjerset, 189.
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104. Gjerset, 189.
105. Gjerset, 190.
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106. Gjerset, 190-191.
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107. Gjerset, 191.
108. Gjerset, 192; Karlsson, 81.
109. Gjerset, 192.
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110. Gjerset, 192.
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111. Gjerset, 193.
112. Gjerset, 193, taken from Hakonarasaga Hakonarsonar ch 257.
113. Gjerset, 193.
114. Gjerset, 193-194.
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115. Gjerset, 194.
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116. Gjerset, 195, taken from: Hakonarsaga Hakonarsonar ch 272 ff; and Sturlunga Saga ch vii p. 132 ff.
117. Gjerset, 195.
118. Karlsson, 84.
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119. Gjerset, 196-197.
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120. Gjerset, 197-201.
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121. Hastrup, Kirsten, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford, 1985), 221 from Diplomatarium Islandicum II:1
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122. Gjerset, 201.
123. Gjerset, 202.
124. Karlsson, 83.
125. Hastrup, 232.
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126. Karlsson, 83. and Hastrup, 233: Icelandic words inserted in the text taken from the manuscript printed in Diplomaticum Islandicum I:620.
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127. Hastrup, 227.
128. Lacy, 139-140.
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129. Lacy, 139-140.
130. Karlsson, 84.
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