Blowhard, Esq. writes:
From 930 until 1262, medieval Icelanders lived in a society with no national government — no king, no army, no taxes. Hell, there wasn’t much local government either. The basic unit of organization was the family farmstead. There were no cities or towns. It was a harsh frontier society with population topping out at about 70,000 around the year 1000.
The land was divided into quarters, each with its own thing, a local assembly to mediate disputes and conduct business. The thing was presided over by a godi. Professor Kenneth Harl writes that the godi was:
a district leader who, by his reputation, his knowledge of the law, and his generosity to family and neighbors, was known as a figure to whom others could appeal to settle disputes, mediate blood feuds, and so on.
The godi knew customary law and attended the things and the Althing. The position of godi could be shared simultaneously among several men and was not hereditary. If a godi performed inadequately, he could lose his dependents and thingmenn. Hence, he had to be vigilant in imposing the law equitably and maintaining order in the society.
Each local thing sent representatives to the national Althing. There was no formal structure to the meetings. At the Althing was the Law Rock where the law speaker, who was elected to a three-year term, recited the law from memory, a third each year. Other godi listened carefully to make sure the speaker didn’t make any mistakes.
Anyone could speak at the Law Rock. It was the site of any major announcements and also served as the court of last resort where people would bring prosecutions against others for various criminal and civil matters. Mediation would then ensue according to customary law. Medieval Icelandic society was remarkably self-regulating and fiercely proud of its independence such that “the Icelanders saw no real need to set up anything like an army or a fleet,” Harl says.
The site of the Althing is now a national park. Due to changes in the geography over the last millenium, no one is quite such where the Law Rock was located.
- Snorri Sturluson, author of The Prose Edda, was twice elected law speaker of the Althing.
- This society also produced what the Guardian called “the most important European work of the past thousand years.”