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Law & Order During The Viking Age

Talking about the law and the people known for their rudeness and aggression may seem unthinkable at first glance. However, the law and the "government" did exist in the Viking Age. And not only that, Viking law is one of the most important legacies from the dark Nordic era.

Vikings strictly respected the honor of an individual. Therefore, in order to protect themselves, their property, and their rights to their culture and religion, the Norse men developed their own legal system and passed laws.

These laws are similar to what we call family and even property laws today and were a Viking society at the time.

The primary concern of the Nordic people was the survival of their race.

 This required the development of principles and norms that would govern relations between members of the Viking community, as well as the interaction of Vikings and other nations.

Accordingly, the Vikings developed a complex code of honor by whose rules they lived. 

Let's dive a bit deeper.

What Made up the Viking Code of Honor?

A Viking man pointing a sword

The mentioned code of honor consisted of the so-called "Nine Noble Virtues" that every member of the Viking community had to adhere to.

1. Courage

The first of the nine qualities was courage

This is not so surprising considering the reputation that accompanies Viking warriors.

Courage in the Viking Age did not only mean facing fears, taking up weapons, and going to war. Instead, the Vikings were expected to show courage in every aspect of their lives and to fight for what they believed in at the cost of death.

2. Truth

After courage, the next trait in the code is truth

Lying, according to the Vikings, was one of the most severe offenses. Therefore, the Vikings expected every member of society always to tell the truth.

3. Honor

Given that the code of honor itself was created to protect the individual's reputation, it is clear that honor was a very important trait for the Vikings. In Viking times, being honorable meant being loyal to your beliefs.

4. Fidelity

It was also important for the Vikings to be loyal to their family and friends. Therefore, fidelity is another trait that has found its place in the Viking Code.

5. Discipline

Also, an individual was always expected to follow Viking beliefs, no matter how difficult it was at the time. Accordingly, discipline, that is, self-discipline, was one of the nine noble qualities.

6. Hospitality

Although the Vikings were often portrayed as savages, hospitality also made up the Viking Code. The Vikings believed that mistreatment of a guest could anger the gods. Therefore, they were obliged by the code to treat everyone with dignity and kindness.

7. Dedication

Also, the Vikings believed that everything that is valuable should be done with great dedication. So, another trait that has found its place in the code is diligence.

8. Self-Confidence

As the penultimate trait that was obligatory in the life of a Viking is self-confidence. Given the time in which the Vikings lived, it is clear that it took a great deal of self-confidence for an individual to fight for his place in the community.

9. Perseverance

And for the end, perseverance remains. Simply put, giving up was not an option for any Viking.

This system of beliefs the Vikings followed proves that they were much more than chaotic and violent warriors living without rules.

The legal actions of the Vikings are described in some sagas, however, it is true that the Norse men never bothered to document their laws. Laws were oral and were first recorded 1117-1118 after the Viking Age ended.

According to sagas and records created after the Viking era, the Vikings successfully enforced their laws, and here is how.

What Were the Viking laws in the Viking Age?

Gragas Viking law book

We need to emphasize that the laws and legal procedures were not the same in all Scandinavian countries. 

Also, during the Viking Age, the laws changed, evolved and adapted to the changes dictated by the time in which the Vikings lived.

There is most information about Viking laws in Iceland because there are the most records about it. The most famous manuscript on the law in Iceland is the book "Grágás." 

Although this book was written several centuries after the Viking Age, it is believed that some of the laws described in it are identical to those applied during the Viking rule.

In addition, there are numerous other Icelandic sagas in which the laws of the Norsemen are described in detail.

Thus, sources say that throughout the Nordic countries (mostly once a year), Government Assemblies, known as "Thing" (þing), met in the open. These meetings could be local, regional, or, in the case of Iceland, national (Alþing).

Alþing's first meeting in Iceland was in 930, and it is actually the oldest national assembly in Europe. 

The legislature of Alþing was the Council of Laws (lögretta), consisting of the heads of the administrative regions (goðar) and their advisers. At these meetings, the men present discussed current problems in their areas and resolved any individual complaints.

There were three legal functions in Alþing:

  1. Law speaker (lögsögumaður),
  2. Council of Law (lögretta),
  3. Four Quarter Courts (Fjórðungsdómur).

1. Law Speaker (lögsögumaður)

At a time when legal laws were not written down, it can be said that the speaker of the law would be an archive of legal knowledge. 

Although he did not rule the country, a law speaker was consulted on all disputed legal dilemmas. The mandate of the speaker of the law was for three years, and during that time, the speaker would utter aloud the entire Viking law at the meetings of the Government Assembly (one-third of the law each year). 

The speaker was also the only official who regularly received monetary compensation.

2. Council of Law (lögretta)

As we have said before, the Council of Law represented the legislature Alþing. Therefore, the members of the Law Council, goðar, had the power to pass new laws, change the existing ones and make a decision on exemption from the law.

3. Four Quarter Courts (Fjórðungsdómur)

These courts were composed of 36 judges who tried the defendants in Alþing. According to the manuscript we mentioned earlier (Grágás), all free men with permanent residence could run for a judge position. Also, to be a judge, men had to be able to take responsibility for everything they said since they were 12 years old.

What Were the Sentences for Convicts in the Viking Age?

Viking warrior

The courts at the time were not like today's courts. 

Public prosecutors did not exist, and almost all cases were private lawsuits. The decisions made by the judges had to be unanimous. Due to this, there were often delays in resolving disputes.

The problem was solved by introducing the Fifth Court (Court of Appeals), where judges' decisions did not have to be unanimous but the majority.

Also, the courts were regulated by strict rules, whose task was to ensure fair trial outcomes. In this regard, judges, witnesses, and defendants had to take an oath. 

Witnesses swore that during their testimony, they would speak exclusively about what they personally saw and heard.

Perjury was a great offense both by law and by Viking custom. Therefore, the punishment for this type of offense was severe.

In addition to the courts, dispute resolution could also be made by an arbitrator. 

This procedure was a more formal process and involved both parties involved in the dispute giving consent to a third party to investigate the case and reach a verdict. 

It also happened that the conflicts were resolved by a duel that ended in bloodshed, sometimes even death.

Penalties were often in the form of monetary compensation to the injured party. The amount of compensation depended on the amount of damage caused to the injured party and the property status of the persons involved in the court dispute.

But what was the most common punishment?

The most common punishment was outlawry. 

The defendant who was sentenced to apostasy was banished from society.

In this type of punishment, we distinguish between complete apostasy (skóggangur) and minor apostasy (fjörbaugsgarður). 

In the first case, the outlaw did not have the opportunity to return to society, his property was confiscated, and he could be legally killed without the right to protection.

So, when someone was declared a complete outlaw, it meant that he lost the right to live as a regular member of society for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, in the case of minor outlaws, the defendant was expelled for only three years, and his property was confiscated. This meant that after his sentence expired, the culprit could return to his original life. 

However, if a minor outlaw did not respect the punishment imposed by law, he would be banished forever.

Many scholars believe that total apostasy was the equivalent of the death penalty. Even if we exclude the physical dangers that lurked the outlaws, the psychological terror due to the sudden loneliness was certainly terrifying for the Norse men. 

For this reason, this type of punishment is often called "social death" among historians.

Viking Order & Laws: The Takeaway

Law and order definitely existed during the Viking age.

If we think a little and try to understand Scandinavian society, it will be clear that belonging to a family or a social group was of the utmost importance for the Norse men. 

Another obvious fact is that freedom was something completely different from what we consider today under the concept of "being free."

For the Vikings, the definition of freedom did not refer to individual freedom but to belonging to a community. Therefore, persecution from the family and the rest of society was the worst punishment for the Norse people.

Until our next meeting,

Skåll!

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