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Society, Sagas, and Power
by Jessie L. Byock
Reviewed by Alfta Svanni Lothursdottir
This book is one that is indispensable for anyone wanting to get a better understanding of how law worked in medieval Iceland as well as anyone interested in Northern Law in general. Byock's contention is that the sagas are a mostly untapped source for examination of the social norms of Northern Europe and more specifically those of Iceland during and around the time of the Christian conversion. This is an area of study that few scholars have attempted up to this time. One can be glad that Byock has written this book.
Byock describes in detail the way that the Icelandic law system came about and how it eventually came to be used as a means for powerful men to gain more power. Though the Icelandic law system started out being the law of the freeman it soon evolved and came to be used for profit, both politically and monetarily.
What one finds is that the Icelandic system, though having its roots in continental Scandinavian law, was very different in some major and important ways. One quickly finds that justice was not the most important factor in the system of law in Iceland. Other factors overshadowed justice such as the maintaining of one's power base and the prevention of open warfare.
In an interesting parallel to the situation many find themselves in, in today's modern society, we see that the wronged freeman had little hope of getting justice unless he were able to make a deal with a powerful goði. Though some of these goðar were willing to take on a case out of the desire to do justice, other times they would not do so unless there was something in it for them. A farmer might be forced to choose between justice not being done or giving up the rights to his land, to a goði in order to persuade him to take on his case, a choice of which was sure to make the freeman pay out the nose one way or the other.
It is interesting that Iceland, which the sagas tell us was a state founded by men who fled the tyranny of Harald Finehair, eventually evolved into a state where the tyrant was not a king but was instead the law itself, used by men whose only desire was the greed of wealth and power.
Byock details the methods of power brokering used in Icelandic sagas and gives us a fascinating look into the legal and social world of Medieval Iceland. He details the positive and negative aspects of a system of government that was unique and that lasted over 300 years. After reading this book, the sagas will take on a whole new aspect that you perhaps never considered before. You will not be sorry you gave this book a try.
This book can be purchased at Amazon.com. - Hardback - Paperback
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