The Political and Legal System in Iceland and Greenland

Iceland was ruled by many independent chieftains whose power depended on how many followers they could attract and who could support them against other chieftains. Coalitions were formed between chieftains and there was a constant competition between such coalitions. It made the power structure of the country unstable and led to frequent battles between individual chiefs or coalitions.

From about 930 Iceland was governed by 36 chieftains, but their number was later increased to 48. The term for chieftain was goši (plural gošar) and his region of influence was a gošord. The country was divided into one national and four regional assemblies called things, in Old Norse žingir (singular žing). The regional things met in the spring and lasted about a week. The national assembly, the alžingi met only once a year, in the summer, at Thingvellir (about 50 km east of present-day Reykjavik) and lasted for two weeks. The Chairman of the alžthingi was the Law Speaker, who always was a member of the most prominent families in the land. As Law Speaker it was his duty to memorize the entire law and rules of legal procedure and recite it at the opening of the thing.

All the assemblies took place out of doors. During the things, the participants lived in their own ‘booths,’ bśšir (singular bśš), placed close together over a large area. A bśš was a temporary dwelling with permanent walls of turf and roofs of tent cloth which were up only when the booth was in use.

The things served to settle legal disputes and to make common decisions. The legal system was Norwegian with some Icelandic modifications. Most Scandinavian laws were similar. The laws had been preserved as oral traditions, until, in the alžingi of 1117 a law was passed stipulating that they be recorded in writing. Although the original document itself has disappeared, much of it probably is included in the Grįgįs[Grey Goose] manuscript, written thirty years later.

The laws advocated retribution according to the principle of ‘an eye for an eye.’ However, punishment could also be settled with fines. Severe crimes were punished with exile. The exile could be for life, or for a limited period of time.

The law court was composed of an assembly of chieftains who put cases to a general vote. Only free men with a certain amount of wealth could vote. The poor and slaves had no voice in the matter, nor did women.

One problem with the Norse legal system was that although the thing could establish what it felt was justice, there was no agency to oversee that justice was done. In the end, the strongest person with the most supporters could do what he wished.

The Greenland political and legal systems must have been patterned on those of Iceland, but the information is scanty so we do not know if it changed with time.


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