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THE LAWS OF THE EARLIER ENGLISH TRIBES

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 532-543

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Comprehensiveness of the codes of the Northmen—The earlier laws—The Icelandic laws—The Grágás law-book—Judgment rings—Power of the lawmen—Their office hereditary in early times—Their office elective in Iceland—Manner of election—Duty of the lawman—Ceremony at the close of his term of office—Length of the term of office—Norway divided into four law-districts—Law originally vested in the people—Members of the law-court—Mode of their election—Judicial decisions.


FOR clearness of language, comprehensiveness, and minutenuess of detail, we find nothing in Europe during the first ten centuries of the Christian era that can compare with the earlier laws of the Norsemen; we must go back to Rome to find such comprehensive and exhaustive codes. They give us a very clear insight into the life and civilisation of the North, which from these records seem to have been far above those of neighbouring countries at that period. Some of the laws given in the course of this work demonstrate the mode of life of the time. We can see from these that, above all, the Norsemen abhorred perjury, murder, seduction, adultery, and the violation of the sanctity of blood-relationship.
The earlier laws, as all laws in every country, were but a codification of the customs of the people, handed down in many cases from very ancient times.

The Icelandic laws were based upon those of the mother-country, just as those of the English colonies are to-day based on the old English laws, and those of other colonies on those of the countries that founded them.

“When Iceland was widely settled, an eastern (Norwegian) man called Ulfljót was the first who brought laws there; this Teit told us; they were called Ulfljót's laws; Ulfljót was the father of Gunnar, from whom the Djupdćlir in Eyjafjord are descended. The laws were mostly taken from the Gulathinglaws as they were then, or made according to the advice of

Thorleif the Wise, son of Hördakári, with regard to what should be added or taken away, or altered” (Islendingabók, c. 2).

One of the great authorities for our knowledge of the administration of justice among the Norwegians is the law-book, the Grágás. (1)
Sigvat Scald made a song wherein be says the king (Magnus) was too hard towards the bśndr.

“After this the king became milder; also many spoke to him about this. At last he had a talk with the wisest men, and they made laws. Then he had a law-book written which is still in Thrándheim, and is called Grágás (the grey goose). He became popular and was liked by all the people of the land, and therefore was called Magnus the Good” (Magnus the Good's Saga, Heimskringla, c. 17).

All over the Northern lands are yet seen numerous judgment rings, made of large stones, where justice was administered; some were used for religious ceremonies, some for duellings.

“The defender in a case can name six judges whom he does not want to judge in his case. They are to rise from the court (dóm), and sit inside the dómhring (sacred precincts) while the case is judged” (Grágás, i. p. 78).

The lawmen, or lögmenn, were the most influential and powerful men in the land; they were respected and loved by the people, and great faith was placed in their advice. Extensive knowledge of the earlier customs and ancient laws was absolutely necessary for this important office, in order to put before the Thing in a proper light the subjects under discussion. From the Sagas we see that their office in the earlier time was probably hereditary; but in Iceland, as the emigration broke the hereditary succession, the lawmen were chosen by election.

“Hákon was one of the most merry, eloquent, and modest of all men; he was very wise and especially fond of law-making. He enacted the Gulathing's law, with the advice of Thorleif the Wise; also the Frostathing's law, with the advice of Sigurd jarl and other Thrands who were very learned; but the Heidsćvi´s law (Eidsivia law) had been enacted by Halfdan the Black (father of Harald Fairhair)” (Fornmanna Sögur, i., p. 31).



**1. The old laws of Sweden were published during the years 1827-77 (the life-work of Schlyter), in Lund, in thirteen volumes; the thirteenth volume is a dictionary to the twelve volumes preceding it. 



“At this feast were Gunnar and many others of the best men. After the feast Njal asked if he might take home Thorkall, Asgrim's son, for fostering, and he was with Njal long after. He loved Njal more than his father. Njal taught him the laws, so that he became the greatest lawman in Ice land" (Njala, 27).

The lawman was the representative of law, though he had neither judicial nor legislative power; he was selected by the law-court, or Lögretta, on the first Friday of the Althing, before the cases which were to be tried at the Thing were made public on the law-hill. Then if the election was not unanimous, it was decided by throwing or lots which quarter should elect him ; the law-court men of the quarter could elect him from their own quarter or from another, but the majority decided the question. The lawman, followed by the members of the law-court, walked up to the law-hill and took the seat, intended for him. An election was good for three years, and the same man could be elected again; but he could forfeit his office through injustice or carelessness.

His duty was to expound the laws to the people, and therefore it was necessary for him to know them well; before the law was written he was looked upon as a living law-book for the people; any who were in difficulties on points of law went to him, not only to the Althing, but to his home.

The part of the law relating to the regulations of the Thing was recited every summer on the first Friday of the assembly, and this was the lawman's first duty ; all the remaining parts of the law had to be recited by him during the course of his three years of office.

At the dissolution of the Thing he made public from the law-hill the timereckoning, a kind of almanack for the coming year. Supposing that he was doubtful on any point he was allowed to take counsel with five or more men, wise in law, and their advice was considered sacred.
If the lawman had not arrived on the first Friday before the people went to the law-hill he had to pay a fine of three marks, and they could elect another man in his place. The yearly pay for this office was 248 ells (1) of vadmal from the property of the law-court, besides the half of all the fines.

The closing ceremony at the term of office was for the lawman to recite the regulations of the Thing. This ceremony took place on the first day of the fourth summons, after which he was free. When the lawman died, a man was taken from his quarter to recite the regulations, and his successor was at once elected.

A lawman, when at home, could be a godi as well as a lawman, but at the Thing he was obliged to have a representative of his godiship.

“It is a law that there shall always be a man in our country whose duty it is to tell people the law, and he is called lawman (lögsögu-man = law-telling man). If the lawman dies, a man shall be taken the next summer from the quarter of the country in which he dwelt last, to recite the regulations of the Thing. Then the lawman is to be elected on the Friday before the cases are proclaimed. It is also good if all agree about one man. If one of the law-court men is against that which most want, it shall be decided with lots from which quarter the lawman is to be elected. The men of the quarter who win the lot shall choose the lawman, if he is willing to undertake the office, whether he is from their own quarter or from some other. If they do not agree, the majority shall rule ; but if those who disagree about the lawman and sit in the law-court are equal in numbers, the bishop of the quarter shall decide From the law-court where the electing takes place the men shall go to the law-hill. The lawman shall go thither and sit in his seat, and seat those whom he wishes on the law-hill, and then the cases are to be brought forward. It is also law that it is the lawman's duty to recite all parts of the law in three summers, and the Thing-regulations every summer. The lawman has to recite all declarations of innocence (e.g. of outlawry), if possible, when the greater part of the people are present; also be shall recite the reckoning of seasons; and if people shall come to the Aithing before ten weeks of the summer have passed and inquire about keeping the ember-days and the beginning of fasts, he shall make known all this at the dissolution of the Thing If he is not wise enough, he shall take counsel with five or more law-skilled men. Every intruder is fined three marks, and the lawman has to prosecute him. The lawman shall receive every summer 400 feet of vadmal from the law-court property for his work; also half of all the fines. When the lawman has had the law-telling for three summers, he shall recite the Thing-regulations for the first Friday of the fourth summer; then he can give up office if he likes. If he wishes to keep office, the greater part of the law-court men can again decide. The lawman is to be fined three marks if he does not come to the Althing on the Friday before people go to the law-hill, no necessity hindering, and another lawman is to be elected if the people wish” (Grágás, i.)

 

**1. The Danish ell is a trifle more than two English feet.



The following table shows how long the elected lawmen usually remained in office, and how great was the order and stability of government in those days, the lawman having to stand for election once a year :—
        Rafn (Lawman).............930—950 (20 years)
        Thórarin ........................950—970 (20 ,, )
        Thorkel...........................970—985 (15 ,, )
        Thorgeir.........................985—1002 (17 ,, )

The whole of Norway was divided into four law districts, but not before the time of Hakon the Good, who codified the laws: [1]Frostathing's Law district, [2] Gulathing's Law district, [3]Eidsifjathing's, [4] Borgarthing's; but we find that the Gulathing existed, and had probably existed long, before Harald Fairhair. (1)

In the course of time changes and additions were made. In regard to how these new laws were to be made, the laws themselves contain no provision; but that they were made by the co-operation of king and people is evident, and their adoption depended, no doubt, on the standing, wisdom, and influence of him who proposed them.

When Harald Fairhair became king of all Norway his idea seems to have been that the royal power established by him should be exalted far above existing laws, and from it every change in these laws ought to emanate for the future.


**1. Gulathing, so called from Gula or Guley (an island), where the Thing took place. Frostathinq, from some local name. Our knowledge of the earlier laws of the Northmen is derived from the earlier Gulathing's Law, almost completely preserved in writing from the latter half of the 12th century. The earlier Frostathing's Law is almost completely preserved in a writing from the earlier part of the 13th century. Of the earlier Eidsifjathing's Law, the earlier Borgarthing's Law, and the earlier Bjarkeyjar Law, or town-law, there are only fragments left. Most of the Icelandic laws are comprised in the Grágás, which is completely preserved in writing not later than the year 1200.

 

The hisotrical Sagas often show the effect of the laws in real life and how the latter were interpreted by the people.

King Hákon yielded up to the country the proprietary right which his father had usurped. New legal relations were then entered into between king and people; these seem to have been called landsrétt (law of the land), which could not be changed without the consent of both king and people.

The lög, or law proper, dealing with the relations existing between man and man, was regarded as having originated from the people alone, and therefore was their private property. But royalty being acknowledged as a necessary part of the state, and as such amenable to the lög, was on that account given a voice in its changes or revisions.

In the first place, the legislative power of the country was transferred from the Fylkisthings to the Lawthings, and was placed in the, hands of representative men (nefndarmenn) (1) instead of in the hands of all the bśndr of the fylki. Thus the Lawthings became the only legislative power in the country, each one legislating for its separate district. Then the various earlier laws were consolidated into one law for every district.

By this important change royalty appears in a highly influential aspect; however, as is clearly shown, only in con-sequence of a special power given it for the time being, and not as a right established for all time.

The highest power was not in the Althing, but in the Lögretta (law-court), composed of two kinds of members— those who were self-named, or godis by right (they were thirty-nine), and those who were elected (twelve for the northern quarter, and nine for each of the others); but these godis took three men from each quarter which had only nine godis, and so the number was increased to forty-eight, to which number was added the lögmadr (lawman). The number of judges or godis of the Lögrétta at the Gulathing seems to have been thirty-six.. The elected members were appointed thus. Every one ofthe forty-eight' chose two of his Thingmen and a third man as advisers; thus the law-court men consisted of 144 members (besides the lawman, who made the number 145).


**1. Nefnd also = a body of men or arbitrators to give judgment in a case. In the old Swedish law it was composed of twelve members (see Schlyter). It is not found in the Icelandic laws, but the Görd is its equivalent.


The Lögthing (law-thing) did not appear before the time of Hákon the Good, when the country was divided into four districts.

The law-court had a certain place on the Thing-plain, and was part of the Thing. There were three benches, one behind the other; on the middle bench sat the forty-eight self-elected law-court men and the lawman; on the front and the last bench were seated the elected members. The judicial power rested with those on the middle bench, for the law-court men on the two other benches could only give advice.

When a decision had a majority for it from the middle bench, all the law-court men assented, and it was made public from the law-hill by the lawman.

The court was to come together on both Sundays and on the closing day, and the lawman could call the members together when he wanted, but only if the majority of the Thingmen wished.

Less important matters could be decided though the full number were not present, provided there were not less than forty-eight; and the lawman could take men from the two other benches to fill the empty seats on the middle bench. No man but a member was allowed a seat on the law-court benches. The Thingmen sat round, and only the one who had something to say to the law-court was allowed to rise.'

“We shall also have a law- court every summer at the Althing, and it shall always sit on the place where it has long been. There shall be three benches round the law-court, so long that forty-eight men may sit on each of them easily, namely twelve men from each quarter who have the right to sit in the law-court, and the lawman besides; these rule laws and licenses, and they, and also our bishops, shall sit on the middle bench. From the northern quarter those twelve men shall sit in the law-court who have the twelve godiships which were there when they had four districts with three godis in each. From all the other quarters those nine shall sit in the law-court who have the full and old godiships, which were
three in every Spring-thing, when three Thing-districts were in each of the three quarters, and they shall each of them take one man from each of the old Thing-districts, so that twelve men sit in the law-court from each quarter.


**1. Grágás, 211-217.


“Each man who sits in the law-court has to have two men to give him advice, one in front of himself; and the other behind him and his Thingmen; then the benches are fully occupied, with forty-eight men on each bench. No man shall sit inside the benches on the space of the law-court except those who have cases; but at other times they can sit there, and the lawman has to dispose of the seats. The people shall sit outside the benches. Only those who have cases...... . . have the right to rise in the law-court when laws or licenses are considered. He who rises (without the right to do so) is to be fined three marks, and whoever likes can prosecute him. People who crowd so much to the Lögrétta purposely, or make so much noise or tumult that cases are disturbed, are liable to lesser outlawry, as in the case of every disturbance at the Thing. If men come to the law-court who have to sit there and others have sat in their seats, they shall ask for their seats, and the men are not punished if they go away; but if they tarry when the seat is asked for, they are fined three marks. Then the man shall ask for his seat with witnesses, and if the other does not rise he is liable to lesser outlawry. .

“The law-court shall sit both Sundays (Drottnisdag) of the Thing and the last day of the Thing, and always between those days when the lawman or the greater part of the people wish. . . . There their laws shall be changed and new laws be made if people want them; there all innocence (e.g. of outlawry) shall be asked for. As soon as the godis get into their seats each of them shall place a man on the bench before him and another on the bench at his back for advice. Then the men who have cases shall tell what they disagree upon; then they shall think on the case until they are decided in their mind on it and ask all law-court men who sit on the middle bench to tell what each of them wants in this case according to law. Thereupon each godi shall tell what the laws say and with whom he will go in this case, and the majority shall rule. If an equal number of law-court men on both sides say that two different decisions are lawful then the decision of those with whom the lawman sides shall rule. If the others are more they shall rule, and both shall, take véfangseid (oath of division) to this that they think what they decide in this case is lawful and follow it up because it is law. . . . It is the lawman's duty to tell all those who ask him what is law, both at the Thing and at home, but not to give advice in a suit.... If the lawman commits something which the greater part of the Thingmen would call Thing-breach then he is liable to lesser outlawry” (Grágás, i. 4).

“We shall go to the law-hill in the morning, and lead the courts forward for challenging not later than when the sun is to be seen on the western rock of the chasm seen from the seat of the law-man on the law-hill. The law-man shall go out first if he is in good health, then the godis with their judges if they are not hindered; otherwise every one of them shall get a man. in his place” (Grágás, i. 26).

“If one or more judges retire, then the prosecutor has the right to invite to lot-drawing at the court all those who have cases before it, and decide the place where they shall draw lots about proffering the case. Every man who has a case before the court shall put one lot in a cloak skirt, though be has more than one case. Every man shall mark out his lot, and they shall all be put into a skirt, and four shall be taken out in one” (Grágás, 37).

“The first summer that Bergthór (Hrafnsson) recited laws a new law was made that our laws should be written in a book the next winter in the house of Haflidi Másson, after the dictation and ruling of Bergthór and other wise men chosen for it. They were to make new laws wherever they thought them better than the old ones. These were to be recited the following summer in the Lögrétta (law-court), and all those were to be kept against which the greater part of the people did not vote. Vigslódi (part of the laws treating about man-slayings) and many other laws were written and recited in the Lögretta by priests the following summer All liked them well, and none were against them” (Islendingabók, c. 10).

From the following account we can see what great power tlěe lawman had over the people, and how well the latter understood that the price of freedom was constant watchfulness.

King Olaf of Sweden and St. Olaf of Norway constantly quarrelled about the frontiers of their countries. The bśndr in the Vikin got St. Olaf to send men to the King of Sweden to make peace. Rögnvald jarl of Vestr Gautland, who was friendly to Norway, helped the men sent, whose leader was Björn Stallari (marshal). The following account tells bow they succeeded, with the help of Thorgnýr, lawman:

“At this time there was in Tíundaland a lawman named Thorgnýr, the son of Thorgnýr Thorgnýsson, whose family had for many reigns been lawmen in Tíundaland. Thorgnýr was old, and kept a numerous bodyguard around him. He was said to be the wisest man in Sviaveldi, and was the kinsman and foster-father of Rögnvald jarl of Vestr Gautland.

“Rögnvald jarl came one night to the bśr of Thorgnýr the lawman. . . . There were many outside, who received him well, and took charge of his horses and harness. The jarl went into the hall, which was full of men. In the high-seat there sat an old man. Björn (King Olaf's marshal) and the others had never seen a man so tall or so stout before; his beard was so long that it lay on his knees and covered his whole breast; he was handsome, and looked like a high-born man. The jarl walked up and saluted him. Thorgnýr welcomed him, and told him to go to the seat where he was used to sit; and the jarl sat down opposite Thorgnýr. It was some nights before the jarl told his errand; he asked Thorgnýr to go with him into the speech-room, and Björn and his men followed him there. The jarl began by relating how Olaf Norway's king had sent men in order to make peace; he spoke long of what troubles the war with Norway caused to the Vestgautar, and how he had promised to follow these envoys to the King of Sweden, who disliked the matter so strongly that no one dare broach it. 'Now, foster-father,' said the jarl, 'I do not trust myself alone in this matter; therefore I come to thee, and expect thy good advice and help.' When the jarl had ended his speech Thorgnýr was silent for a while, and then answered: 'You behave strangely; you like to have the high name of jarl, and yet you know no expedient when you get into some difficulty. Why didst thou not remember, before promising this journey, that thou hast not power to speak against King Olaf. It seems to me more worthy to be reckoned among bśndr and be free in one's speech, though the king be present. I will go to the Upsala Thing, and give thee such help that thou shalt say without fear before the king what thou likest.' The jarl thanked him for this promise, and remained with Thorgnýr and rode with him to the Thing. A great crowd was with King Olaf, who was with his bodyguard. The first day, when the Thing began, King Olaf sat on a chair, and around him stood his bodyguard. In another place sat Rögnvald jarl and Thorgnýr, and in front of them the jarl's guard and Thorgnýr's troop of húskarlar (house earls); behind the chair stood a crowd of bśndr in a circle. Some even went up on the hills and mounds to listen. When the king had made his customary speech at the Thing, Björn Stallari rose near the jarl's seat and said aloud: 'King Olaf sent me hither to say that he offers the King of Sweden reconciliation, and the division of laud which of old existed between Norway and Sweden.' He spoke so loudly that the King of Sweden heard it distinctly. At first, when the King of Sweden heard King Olaf of Norway named, he thought he came on some errand of his own; but when he heard of reconciliation and division of land between Sweden and Norway he started up and shouted loudly that this man should be silent; so Björn sat down. When he could get a hearing, the jarl arose and spoke of King Olaf the Stout's message and offer of reconciliation to Olaf, King of Sweden. He said that the Vestr Gautar asked that reconciliation should be made with Norway's king; he enumerated every difficulty which the Vestr Gautar had on hand because they missed all those things from Norway which they needed in order to live well, and on the other hand were exposed to attacks and plundering if the Norway king should gather a host and make war on them. He added that Olaf, Norway's king, had sent men thither to ask for the king's daughter Ingigerd. After the jarl had finished speaking, Olaf, King of Sweden rose and answered that he highly disliked the reconciliation; he reproached the jarl very greatly for his boldness, as he had made truce and peace with the stout man (King Olaf) and made friends with him. He added that he had proved traitor to him, and he would deserve to be driven from the realm, and that all this was caused by the urging of his wife Ingibjörg, and that it had been most unwise to marry such a woman for love: he spoke a long time and severely, and again turned his reproach against Olaf the Stout and sat down, and there was silence for some time. Then rose Thorgnýr, and when he stood up all the bśndr, who before had been sitting, rose, and all the rest pressed forward, wanting to listen to what he said. At first there was great tumult and clashing of weapons in the crowd, but when a hearing was got, Thorgnýr said: 'The temper of the King of Sweden is not what it has been. Thorgnýr, my grandfather, remembered Eirik Emund's son, Uppsala-king, and said of him, that while he was at his most active age he had a levy every summer and went to various lands, and subjected Finnland and Kirjálaland, Eistland and Kúrland, and a great part of the eastern lands, where still may be seen the earth-forts and other great works that he made; yet he was not so proud that he would not listen to men if they wished to speak to him. My father, Thorgnýr, was with King Björn a long time, and knew his habits. During his time his realm stood with great strength and with no abatement; and he was easy to deal with by his friends. I can remember King Eirik the Victorious, and was with him on many war-journeys; he increased the Swedish realm, and defended it manfully, and it was easy for us to give him advice. But this king now allows no man to be so bold as to talk to him except only what he wants, and uses he thereto all his power, and permits his tributaries to fall away from him from lack of strength and courage. He would hold Norway's realm subject to himself, though no King of Sweden has before desired this, and thereby causes trouble to many a man. Now this is the will of us bśndr, that thou, King Olaf, should make reconciliation with Olaf the Stout, and marry thy daughter Ingigerd to him. If thou wilt win back to thyself those realms in the east which thy kinsmen and forefathers once owned, we will all follow thee thither. But if thou wilt not do what we tell thee, we will attack and slay thee, and not endure from thee trouble and lawlessness: our forefathers have done the same, they threw five kings down into a well, at the Múla-Thing, who befňre had been as full of overbearing as thou hast been with us. Tell us now quickly which choice thou wilt make.' Then the multitude clashed their weapons. The king arose, and said that he wanted everything to be as the bśndr wished, for thus had all Kings of Sweden acted. At this the grumblings of the bśndr ceased. The chiefs, the king, the jarl and Thorgnýr talked together, and then made peace and reconciliation on behalf of the King of Sweden, according to the proposal of Norway's king. It was resolved at that Thing that Olaf's daughter Ingigerd should be married to Olaf Haraldsson, and the king delivered into the jarl's hands the power to betroth her, and gave to him the charge of the marriage" (1) (St. Olaf's Saga, c. 79—81).


**1. In the same Saga, c. 96, there is another account of the powers of the lawman. In ch. 81, the king (of Sweden), the jarl of Vestr Gautland, and the lawman Thorgnýr are all three called höfdingjar. = chiefs.

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 532-543

   

 
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