Icelandic Commonwealth

Icelandic Commonwealth
Þjóðveldið Ísland
c. 930–1262

Coat of arms

Map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius (c. 1590)
Capital Þingvellir
Languages Old Norse (later old Icelandic)
Political structure Federation under religious democracy
Important chieftains (goðar)
   1199-1238 Sturla Sighvatsson
  1208-1245 Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson
  ????-1256 Þórður kakali Sighvatsson
  1208-1268 Gissur Þorvaldsson
  1214-1284 Sturla Þórðarson
  985-1001 Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði
  1004-1030 Skapti Þóroddsson
  1031-1033 Steinn Þorgestsson
  1034-1053 Þorkell Tjörvason
  1054-1062/1072-1074 Gellir Bolverksson
  1063-1065/1075 Gunnar Þorgrímsson the Wise
Legislature Lögrétta of Alþingi
Historical era High Middle Ages
   Alþingi established c. 930
   Norwegian kingship 1262
   950 103,000 km² (39,769 sq mi)
   950 est. 50,000 
     Density 0.5 /km²  (1.3 /sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Settlement of Iceland
Norwegian Empire
Today part of  Iceland

The Icelandic Commonwealth, Icelandic Free State, or Republic of Iceland[1] (Icelandic: þjóðveldið or, less commonly, goðaveldið) was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Alþingi (Althing) in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king with the Old Covenant in 1262. With the probable exception of Papar, Iceland was an uninhabited island until around 870.

Goðorð system

The medieval Icelandic state had a unique judicial structure. The first settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government. They wanted to avoid the strong centralized authority of Harald Fairhair from which some of them had fled, but they also wanted to replicate the Norwegian tradition of laws and district legal assemblies (Þing). This created a unique structure.[2]

The most powerful and elite leaders in Iceland were the chieftains (sing. goði, pl. goðar). The office of the goði was called the goðorð. The goðorð was not delimited by strict geographical boundaries. Thus, a free man could choose to support any of the goðar of his district. The supporters of the goðar were called Þingmenn ("assembly people"). In exchange for the goði protecting his interests, the Þingmaðr would provide armed support to his goði during feuds or conflicts. The Þingmenn were also required to attend regional and national assemblies.[3]

On a regional level, the goðar of the thirteen district assemblies convened meetings every spring to settle local disputes. The goðar also served as the leaders of the Alþingi, the national assembly of Iceland. Today, the Alþingi is the oldest parliamentary institution in existence. It began with the regional assembly at Kjalarness established by Þorsteinn Ingólfsson, son of the first settler. The leaders of the Kjalarnessþing appointed a man named Úlfljótr to study the laws in Norway. He spent three years in Norway and returned with the foundation of Úlfljótr’s Law, which would form the basis for Iceland's national assembly. Sections of his law code are preserved in the Landnámabók, ("Book of Settlements"). The first Alþingi assembly convened around the year 930 at Þingvellir, ("Assembly Plains"). The Alþingi served as a public gathering at which people from all over the country met for two weeks every June. The Alþingi revolved around the Lögrétta, the legislative council of the assembly, which was responsible for reviewing and amending the nation's laws. The Lögrétta comprised the 39 goðar and their advisors. They also appointed a Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) once every three years. The Lawspeaker recited and clarified laws at Lögberg ("Law Rock"), located at the center of Þingvellir.[4] The descendants of Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, held the ceremonial position of allsherjargoði and had the role of sanctifying the Alþingi each year.

Court system

Iceland was divided into four administrative regions called fjörðungar (farthings). Each of these was ruled by nine goðar. The Alþingi was made up of the four Quarter Courts (fjórðungsdómur). This judicial body of Iceland consisted of 36 judges, each appointed by one of the goðar. These courts tried individual cases and served as a higher judicial authority to the regional courts. The rulings of the quarter judges had to be virtually unanimous. If only six of the judges disagreed, then the case was deadlocked and dismissed. In 1005, this problem was solved by the creation of a Fifth Court, an appeals court based on a simple majority. Once a court decided a party was guilty, however, it had no executive authority to carry out a sentence. Instead, enforcement of a verdict became the responsibility of the injured party or his family.

Penalties often included financial compensation or outlawry. However, these were considered by some to be insufficient penalties and the Alþingi was only moderately successful at stopping feuds.[5] According to Magnus Magnusson, the courts were "an uneasy substitute for vengeance." The most severe punishments were outlawry and three years' exile. Outlaws lost all property rights and could be killed without any punishment for the killers. Exiles who failed to leave Iceland became outlaws.[6]

Historian Birgir Solvason states that Icelandic society was "more peaceful and cooperative than its contemporaries". In England and Norway, by contrast, "the period from about 800 to 1200 is a period of continuous struggle; high in both violence and killings". Historian Jón Viðar Sigurðsson argues that the introduction of Christianity to Iceland illustrates how effective and significant arbitration was in Iceland.[7] At the Christianisation of Iceland in 1000, the Alþingi outlawed public celebration of pagan rituals and decreed that in order to prevent an invasion, all Icelanders must be baptized. Roderick Long writes: "Byock contrasts the prolonged and violent civil strife which attended Christianization in Norway with its relatively swift and peaceful Icelandic analogue. Icelanders treated the conflict between pagans and Christians as a feud, to be resolved like any other feud – by arbitration. The arbitrator decided in favor of Christianity, and that was that."[8]

In 1117 the law code of the Icelandic Commonwealth was put into writing, becoming known as the Gray Goose Laws.

Life within the system

Knowledge of the system of government in medieval Iceland stems mainly from two main primary sources: the written law code, and Íslendingabók,[9] or the Book of the Icelanders by Ari the Learned. The impact of the legislative and judicial systems on Icelandic settlers is a common theme in many of the other Icelandic sagas. Works such as Njáls saga and the Laxdæla saga give many details, but their accuracy has been disputed. Eyrbyggja saga details the transition from paganism to Christianity within Icelandic settlement under the direction of Snorri Goði, or "Snorri the Priest." The emphasis on justice and the conviction in their system of governance is reflected within the saga: "They say we shall suffer setbacks in court; we must plead for support from powerful chieftains: but Arnkel will argue an eloquent case, he will sway judge and jury - I have faith in justice."[10]

According to historian Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, "a chieftain based his power on his personal qualities, his wealth, friends, assembly men, kinsmen and in-laws. The cleverest, the most helpful, the wealthiest and the most generous became the most powerful ones."[11] Historian Árni Daniel Júliusson further notes that the food production of the peasantry was the "basis of political and military power".[12]

Peasant rebellions, traditionally defined, never occurred in Iceland, even though peasant unrest was fairly common.[12]


The followers of the goðar owed them military service. They were organized into platoons or companies based on their social status and equipment, and these formed expeditionary armies or leiðangrs. Icelandic military tradition of the time closely followed developments in Norway. No organized cavalry formations or formations of troops equipped with projectile weapons are recorded: instead the bulk of the forces were formed in units of light, medium and heavy infantry, with bowmen or slingers distributed among the infantry units operating as light support skirmishers. Before the end of the Commonwealth at least 21 fortresses and castles had been built in Iceland.[13] During the Age of the Sturlungs the average battle involved fewer than 1000 men, with an average casualty rate of only 15%. This low casualty rate has been attributed to the blood-feud mentality that permeated Icelandic society, which meant that the defeated army could not be slaughtered honourably to a man.[14]

Decline and fall

In the early 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs, the Commonwealth began to suffer from chaos and division resulting from internal disputes. Originally, the goðar functioned more than a contractual relationship than a fixed geographic chieftaincy. However, by 1220 this form of communal leadership was replaced by dominant regional individuals who battled with one another for more control. One historian argues the chaos and violence of this period stem from an imbalance of power and changes in the nature of Icelandic warfare. The separation of secular and ecclesiastical power led some families and regional networks to become stronger at the expense of others, leading to an imbalance of power.[15] The introduction of pitched battles and harassment of farmers on a regional basis raised the stakes and dangers.[15]

The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals to bring the country under his rule. The King's role in Icelandic affairs started in 1220, and had become strong by 1240 (Icelanders were starting to accept the King's choice of chieftains).[16] Over the period 1240-1260, the King consolidated power in Iceland.[16] A combination of discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the King of Norway led the Icelandic chieftains to accept Norway's Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") in 1262. By 1264, all Icelandic chieftains had sworn allegiance to the King of Norway.[17] This effectively brought the Icelandic Commonwealth to an end.

See also


  1. commons:File:Public Schools Historical Atlas - Europe 1135.jpg - "(Republic) Iceland"
  2. Jon A. Hjaltalin. "the Civilisation of the First Icelandic Colonists, with a short account of some of their manners and customs". JSTOR 3014256.
  3. Short, William Rhuel. Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010. Print.
  4. Guðmundur, Hálfdanarson. Historical Dictionary of Iceland. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. Print.
  5. Karlsson, Gunnar. The History of Iceland. Minneapolis Minn.: Univ. of Minneapolis, 2000. Print.
  6. Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar (1999). Chieftains and Power in the Icelandic Commonwealth. p. 168.
  7. Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar (1999). Chieftains and Power in the Icelandic Commonwealth. p. 170.
  8. "Privatization, Viking Style"
  10. Palsson, Herman, and Paul Edwards. Eyrbyggja Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989. Print.
  11. Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar (1999). Chieftains and Power in the Icelandic Commonwealth. p. 211.
  12. 1 2 Júliusson, Árni Daniel. "Peasant Unrest in Iceland". Retrieved 2016-02-12.
  13. Birgir Loftsson (2006), Hernaðarsaga Íslands : 1170-1581, Pjaxi. Reykjavík; pg. 76
  14. Birgir Loftsson op.cit.
  15. 1 2 Jakobsson, Sverrir (2001). "The Process of State-Formation in Medieval Iceland". Retrieved 2016-01-18.
  16. 1 2 Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar (1999). Chieftains and Power in the Icelandic Commonwealth. pp. 208–216.
  17. Karlsson, Gunnar (2000). The History of Iceland. pp. 82–83.

Coordinates: 65°N 18°W / 65°N 18°W / 65; -18

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