The Law Rock

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 godiProfessor 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.



About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
This entry was posted in History, Law, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Law Rock

  1. dearieme says:

    We still have “thing” place names scattered about in Britain e.g.


  2. Sounds almost like my ideal society. Can I get that with clean running water and wi-fi, please?


    • Anarcho-capitalists like David Friedman (son of Milton) frequently point to medieval Iceland as one of their models.

      They carved out a nice little society for themselves for quite a while. Living below the Arctic Circle and dealing with the constant threat of starvation musta been a drag, though.


  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    My fave bit from Snorri’s “Prose Edda”:

    Each one singly is called man;
    ‘t is twain if they are two;
    three are a thorp;
    four are a group;
    a band is five men;
    if there are six, it is a squad;
    seven complete a crew;
    eight men make a panel;
    nine are ‘good fellows;’
    ten are a gang;
    eleven form an embassy;
    it is a dozen if twelve go together;
    thirteen are a crowd;
    fourteen are an expedition;
    it is a gathering, when fifteen meet;
    sixteen make a garrison;
    seventeen are a congregation;
    to him who meets eighteen, they seem enemies enough.
    He who has nineteen men has a company;
    twenty men are a posse;
    thirty are a squadron;
    forty, a community;
    fifty are a shire;
    sixty are an assembly;
    seventy are a line;
    eighty are a people;
    one hundred is a host.


    • Awesome. From now on, I’m making this my default classification system.


      • dearieme says:

        In Dark Ages England, fewer than five were “robbers”, 5-30 a “band” and >30 an “army”.
        Living by a road was a bad idea because robbers, bands and armies would come by. In Roman times living by a road was a good idea because trade came by.


  4. Pingback: To Him Who Meets Eighteen, They Seem Enemies Enough | Uncouth Reflections

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