by Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason

    An Overview
    The Age of the Vikings 
    The Settlement 
    The Commonwealth 
    Institutional Changes in the Commonwealth
    The Institution of the Church
    Concentration of Power and Wealth
    The End of the Commonwealth 
    Controversies: The Rise of the Commonwealth
    Controversies: The Decline of the Commonwealth


      Many men say that writing about the settlement is unnecessary. But it seems to me that we would be better able to answer foreigners who upbraid us for our descent from scoundrels or thralls if we knew our true origins for certain. Similarly, for those men who want to know old lore or to reckon genealogies, it is better to begin at the beginning rather than to jump right into the middle. And of course all wise peoples want to know about the beginnings of their settlement and their own families.
                  The Book of the Settlement1

    With few exceptions, most early societies did not record their history in writing. An exception is the history of the Athenians. Another, rivalled only by the former, is the history of the Icelanders. In the twelfth century a brilliant literary tradition arose in Iceland; the Icelanders not only produced poetry and prose, but also the famous Icelandic Sagas.2 There is general agreement that the Sagas can be used as historical sources and, particularly, as sources revealing the institutional workings of that society.3


    The settlement of Iceland began around 870, and the period from that time up till 930 is referred to as the Settlement period. Little is known about this period, except for what is known about the initial settlement process. The period from 930 to 1264 is referred to as the Icelandic Commonwealth period (Þjóðveldistímabilið).

    The Alþing is formed around 930, establishing the legal system and a judicial system. With the Alþing the Commonwealth begins. Up until 1030 some of the settlers, many of whom were Vikings, participated in piracy and other theft both abroad and within the Commonwealth.4 By 1030, the Viking expeditions, initiated by individuals and groups, had given way to "state" organized ones. Further, in Iceland, the Fifth Court had been established and, with this, all legal disputes might be settled. Despite there being a number of Vikings, the majority of the population was nonetheless peaceful and kept to the daily routine of such livelihood.

    From 1030 to 1118 the richest chieftains were allied with and controlled the churches, which only became a formal and an independent institution at the dawn of the 12th century. This alliance broke down in the first half of the 12th century with the rise of other wealthy chieftains and new leaders. A wealth and power struggle began at this time and gradually escalated, eventually leading Icelanders to accept the Norwegian king and his representatives as peacekeepers in Iceland.

    In this chapter I offer a short version of the historians' history5 of the Commonwealth.6   I describe the historical background of the settlement of Iceland, the age of the Vikings. I present the history of the settlement period and describe the institutional structure of the Commonwealth. This description is, for the most part, uncontroversial.

    I next summarize historical accounts of the rise of the institutional structure in place by 965. Then I turn to historical explanations of the decline of the Commonwealth. The explanations are by no means uncontroversial. Most historians, starting with Ari Þorgilsson in the 12th century, give a constructivist explanation of the formation of the order in Iceland. Only one historian (Líndal 1969) has disputed this account of the rise and instead implies that a more evolutionary and spontaneous explanation is fitting. I likewise argue that an evolutionary perspective is a much more convincing explanation than the alternative constructivist account.

    I classify historical theories of the decline of the Commonwealth into two groups. First, some historians claim that a downward trend in economic activity, an economic decline, is the major cause of the Commonwealth's institutional breakdown. This economic decline initiated a wealth and power struggle that eventually led to an agreement with the kingdom of Norway, to uphold the law and secure trade. This explanation has not only little factual support but, furthermore, if an economic decline did occur then it was an effect of the wealth and power struggle, not its cause.

    Finally I present the other type of explanation the historians offer of the decline of the Commonwealth. This latter approach stresses the wealth and power struggle as the major factor in causing the decline. Although, I accept the basic thrust of this theory, I argue that the historians have failed to clarify a logical chain of events that fits their story of the decline. I argue that these historians are on the right track but that their theories are incomplete. Instead, I use rent-seeking theory from the public choice literature to offer a more fruitful and logical account of the Commonwealth's decline.


    The settlement of Iceland began about 870 AD, and during the next sixty years around 30,000 people settled there.7  In describing the origin of the settlers, the Sagas seem to be biased. They mostly deal with the Norsemen (Scandinavians) and only rarely mention settlers of other origin. These rare references do provide hints, though. The Sagas refer to slaves, known to be of non-Norse origin, mostly Celtic. Similarly, the Landnámabók mentions that some of the settlers came from the British Isles and Ireland and these were both Norse and Irish by origin. Further, archaeological and linguistic studies show that some settlers were not of Norse origin. Remains in burial grounds in Iceland show that inhabitants differed in bone structure and height from those in Scandinavia (Eldjárn 1974).8  The names of the settlers also point to their origin; the famous Burnt-Njáls Saga suggests that the main figure, Njáll, was of Celtic origin (Niall in Celtic).9   The Landnámabók also mentions names of settlers, names that suggest that some settlers were Irish or Celtic. These would have been both Irish chieftains and slaves, as well as women that Norse settlers had married. Some historians have also suggested that many settlers were Danish, rather than Norwegian (Guðmundsson 1969).10  On the whole no claim can be made concerning the actual composition of the settling population. The Landnámabók tells us that some of the settlers came to Iceland from the British Isles, especially Ireland, but a definite ratio can not be inferred. Further, whether the mentioned settlers were in fact Irish or Norse by origin is not always easy to determine.11 Some of these are claimed to be of Irish origin and others are said to be Christian. We know, further, that both Irish chieftains and slaves had moved, or had been moved, to Norway before the settlement of Iceland and these might have some relation to the settlers of Iceland. Although most historians simply assume that the stock of the population was of Norse origin, it may well be that they were not. But whatever their origin, why would these peoples settle in Iceland and at this time? Some historical background is needed to explain this.

    The Norse peoples probably began trading with the British Isles in the late seventh century AD or early eighth century. Since navigation techniques were primitive, bad weather could easily take ships off course. Some of these ships wound up in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Furthermore, in trading with the Irish, the Vikings acquired knowledge of a huge land to the North, where only a few monks or hermits lived in isolation.12

    Yet it is only in the middle of the ninth century that people began settling there. The most plausible reason for this is that the Vikings needed a new place to settle. Scandinavia probably began having overpopulation problems early in the eighth century, but the British Isles, Normandy, and Russia easily satisfied their need for land.13   By raiding and occupying these areas they solved their problem. But, in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the raids became chaotic. Most of the Vikings were probably young and therefore easily settled in the colonies and started new families there. Some intermarried with the inhabitants of the colonies and fought on the side of various English, Saxon, and Irish kings. But, from 870 to 930 most of these countries began fighting back against the Vikings successfully. In England, Ireland, and Scotland, native kings defeated the Vikings, and in Norway some local petty kings joined forces with King Harald Hárfagri, the "Fairhaired", to rid the country of Viking bases. To do so, King Harald also captured the Orkneys and surrounding islands. All this resulted in a new colony being sought out, and, since the Vikings knew of the Faroe Islands and Iceland, they settled there (Jones 1984). King Harald, besides fighting against the Vikings, began national taxation, and for that purpose chose local rulers. Former petty kings or chieftains not chosen by King Harald left Norway.


      Iceland was first settled from Norway in the days of Harold the Fairhaired, the son of Hálfdán the Swarthy, at the time - according to the opinion and estimation of Teitur my foster-father, the wisest man I have known, son of Bishop Isleifur; and of my father's brother, Þorkel Gellison who remembered far back; and of Þuríður daughter and Snorri Goði who was both learned in many things and trustworthy - when Ivar, son of Ragnar Woolbreeches, caused Edmund the Saint, King of the English, to be slain; and that was about 870 years after the birth of Christ....

      Learned men reported that Iceland was fully settled in sixty years, so there was no settlement afterwards.

                  The Book of the Icelanders14

    Since Iceland was uninhabited when the first settlers arrived, they could settle anywhere they pleased. According to the Landnámabók some of the earliest settlers claimed tracts of land so large that they could not cultivate it all. On each ship that arrived with settlers there were 10 to 20 freemen, and their families and slaves. The captains or owners of these ships usually had the first claim to appropriate land; the freemen were next in line. In some cases slaves were allowed to claim land, although they were not necessarily set free. Although around 30,000 people had settled in Iceland by 930, it is doubtful that all the land was cultivated by that time. Some areas may have been fully cultivated, but the land they settled may not all have been livable. People may have come to realize that the particular piece of land they occupied lacked drinking water, had too much snow, or had poor grass production.

    Therefore, a need to resettle arose, causing problems. According to the Landnámabók, conflicts arose concerning land claims. The book mentions four ways to claim land: by acquiring it as a gift, by buying it, by challenging a disputant to a duel, and by claiming a part of someone else's property. The first two means are unproblematic; the third was probably restricted to conflicting claims that later would be solved through the courts. The fourth is interesting and yet hard to believe. The Landnámbók claims that a rule was established, in consultation with King Harald, allowing the new settlers to claim only "so much" land; seemingly, they could claim it anywhere. If this mythical rule was in effect, presumably the first settlers had claimed too much land for themselves and were willing to give some away. Perhaps they traded for labour services, which were in short supply (Gelsinger 1981:26;Jóhannesson 1956). This seems likely, considering that the rule was supposedly established around 900, and it is unlikely that there was any shortage of land then. Possibly some form of tenancy arose, although the Sagas do not mention that during this period. Tenancies certainly arose later, especially when the institution of slavery was in decline.15

    The Sagas show that some local Þings, or courts, were formed early in the settlement period. Two are specifically named in the Sagas, the Kjalarnesþing and Þórsnesþing. The former, at Kjalarnes, was in the territory the first settler in Iceland had chosen to make his home. Whether Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler,16 or his descendants formed this þing is not known. The only thing that can be inferred from the sources is that these two above mentioned þings were established before 930, before the Alþing.17

    Some community organizations, the Hreppar, may have formed as early as these þings. In Landnámabók some settlers are referred to as having settled in this or that Hreppur.18 Later in the Commonwealth these Hreppar became more numerous, eventually spanning the whole island. According to Benediktsson (1974:185-6) the Hreppar formed to oversee social functions that the family or kingroup had previously provided for in the old countries. Family ties were looser in Iceland because family members had scattered all over the island, so a new method of providing for the poor was needed.

    Benediktsson states that the sources are unclear on the origin of these organizations, but he and Jóhannesson (1974) both claim that some Hreppar must have been formed early on and that most of them had been established in the 10th century. The Hreppur was a geographical unit, independently formed from either the local þings or parishes. The Hreppur was composed of, at least, 20 þing-farmers according to Grágás. The main function of the Hreppar was to provide for those poor people who did not have relatives to assist them. It should be emphasized though that Grágás also stated that families were obliged to provide for all their members, but the Hreppur would overtake this responsibility if the family either could not do this or if no family ties were there to provide. At first the committee of the Hreppur would assign the poor to farms in the community according to their wealth, but after the island had been Christianized the Hreppar were provided with revenue to give to the poor directly. The committee of the Hreppur was composed of five farmers elected by all farmers in the community. The committee also prosecuted those who had broken community by-laws or not fulfilled their obligations. Yet another function of the Hreppar, one that may explain their origin, was to organize the use of summer grazing lands.


      And when Iceland had become settled in many places a Norwegian named Úlfljótur - so Teitur told us - brought for the first time to this country from Norway laws, and these were called Úlfljót's Laws... And these laws were chiefly patterned after the Gulaþing Laws of that time; but the advice of Þorleifur the Wise, son of Hörða-Kári, was followed in deletions, additions, and amendments...

      The Alþing was established upon the advice of Úlfljótur and his countrymen, where it now is. Earlier, however, there was a moot at Kjalarnes which Þorsteinn, the son of Ingólfur the settler, and the father of Þorkel Moon the lawspeaker held there and those chieftains who attended it.

                    The Book of the Icelanders19

     The Commonwealth itself is said to have been established about 930. About that time the Alþing is formed at Þingvellir and with it a common body of law and a judicial structure were established.

     Íslendingabók (quoted above), written by Ari Þorgilsson about 1118-1122, tells the story of the formation of the Alþing. According to that account local chieftains, the Goðar, decided to establish an assembly of all of the settlements. For this purpose they sent a man named Úlfljótr to Western Norway to learn or adapt the Gulaþing law. Others were dispatched to convince farmers and their leaders to attend the assembly and still others to locate a suitable place for the assembly.

    Ari claims that in 930 these people gathered at Þingvellir (The Þing Plain) and the Alþing was formed. According to Ari, Úlfljótr supposedly recited the laws he had learned and the chieftains selected from that recitation certain laws which became Vár Lög (Our Law). These laws supplied a complete legal code and a constitution for the Commonwealth. The Alþing also agreed on a Law Council, the Lögrétta, which was composed of 36 chieftains along with 2 advisors for each. The Law Council decided what the law was, what changes in the law were to be made, and what exceptions from the law were allowed. The Lögrétta also chose the only official of the Commonwealth, the Lawsayer, or Lögsögumaður. The Lawsayer was responsible for reciting the constitution every year and the legal code over his term of 3 years. Furthermore, he would advise anyone on matters of law, but it is not clear whether he himself could vote on what the law was.20  Besides the Lögsögumaður the 36 chieftains who owned Goðorð (chieftainships), the Goðar, had voting rights in the Law Council.21

    Interestingly enough, Úlfljótr was not chosen as the first Lawsayer. Íslendingabók names all the Lawsayers of the Alþing from 930-1120 and Úlfljót's name is not among them.22

    With the formation of the Alþing, the assembly/court system seems to have had the following structure: In the various localities there were local-þings, like those of Kjalarnesþing and Þórsnesþing. These were the Vorþing. Each Vorþing was a gathering of three chieftains and their followers. On top of those arose the Fjórðungsþings, or Quarter-þings, were nine chieftains with followers would gather. Overlapping all these various þings was the Alþing with its law council. From about 930 to 960 this was the "official" structure of the court system, or so Ari tells us in the Íslendingabók. In many respects it was highly decentralized, except that all subscribed to the same legal code, Our Law.


      In A.D. 964 the constitution was settled; the number of goðorð being fixed at three in each þing, and three þings in each of the other three quarters, but four in the north; thus the number of goðar came to be nominally thirty-nine, really thirty-six as the four in the north were reckoned out as three.
                  The Book of the Settlement23

    About 960 some constitutional changes were made. New courts at the Alþing were established and the number of chieftains was increased. The former change was made to handle out-of-district killings. The older procedural rules stipulated that the case be tried in the local assembly/court nearest to the killing. This was bound to cause problems, since a non-local person could hardly expect to have his rights upheld in the district of the accuser (Byock 1988:65-66;Ingvarsson 1970). Therefore the Alþing established the Fjórðungsdómar, Quarter-courts. In essence, these may have replaced the Quarter-þings, though we do not know if the latter were officially discontinued or abandoned by choice.24 The new Quarter-courts' juries were appointed by all chieftains at the Alþing, and not simply by those affiliated with that quarter.25

    The number of chieftains was increased in the Northern quarter. Their numbers were therefore increased from nine to twelve and the local þings from three to four. To counter this imbalance at the Alþing nine other "chieftainships" were established, but these had obligations only in the Law Council and had no local þings to preside over. As a result, the first 36 chieftainships are referred to as full and ancient chieftainships, full og forn Goðorð, while the latter three are called new chieftainships, or ný Goðorð. The nine additional "chieftains" were simply chosen by the "full" chieftains; each group, from the same Vorþing, of three chieftains would select a "fourth" to sit with them in the Lögrétta (Ingvarsson 1986).

    Another constitutional change was initiated in 1005. The Fimmtardómur, the Fifth court, at the Alþing, was established. This court handled unresolved cases from the other courts. The juries at lower level courts had 36 jurors, and to resolve a case no more than six could dissent.  This produced a number of unresolved cases and the Fifth Court would hear these and resolve them by simple majority vote.27  Each of the 48 chieftains at the Alþing appointed one juror to the Fifth Court. The defendant and plaintiff could then challenge six each, so that only 36 jurors would remain. In case of a tie vote of the jury a toss would be used to force a decision.28

    Most of the settlers were heathens at the time of settlement, although some had been introduced to Christianity in the Western Isles. These religious differences do not seem to have caused any conflicts, until missionaries were sent to the island late in the 10th century. These missionaries had some success in the Southern part of the island, at least, and in the years 998-1000 religious differences became an issue. At the Alþing in the year 1000 the two opposing groups came to an agreement. Christianity was accepted by law, and all were to be baptised. Being a compromise, this agreement did allow exceptions from the Papal code, for example, horsemeat could still be eaten, cursing was allowed in private, and infants could still be carried out to die (Líndal 1974b).

    Despite becoming Christianized the Icelandic peoples did not establish the Church as a formal and an independent institution until the turn of the next century. In 1000-1096 Christianity was represented by local churches which were the private property of the farmers whose land they were on. Leaders such as Goðar and wealthier farmers built churches on their lands and either became part-time priests themselves or hired learned ones. In heathendom local temples existed and were private property, like the churches. Owners of these temples may have charged users of them a temple-tax (or temple-fee) and this method of getting revenue may simply have continued under Christianity, except now it became a church-tax.29   These taxes may have reimbursed the church-owners but hardly provided a stream of any excess income or profits.30


      "And now it seems advisable to me," he said, "that we do not let those decide, who are most strongly opposed to one another, but so compromise that each side may win part of its case, and let us all have one law and one faith. It will come to pass that if we sunder the law we will also sunder the peace."

       After he concluded his speech the assembly agreed that all would keep the law which he would proclaim.

                  The Book of the Icelanders31

    In the first years following the acceptance of Christianity Iceland did not have any native bishops or educated priests. The first bishops in Iceland were Anglo-Saxon, but they did not establish the church as an institution nor were they able to secure a bishopric. Danish and Norwegian kings also had a hand in attempting to Christianize Iceland, but none of these were able to build up the Church as an institution. Gizur Hvíti, the "White", had been one of the leading advocates of Christianity at the Alþing in the year 1000. Later in the new century he continued his advocacy by sending his eldest son, Ísleifur, to Saxland for education and than to Rome for acceptance as the first Icelandic bishop. Ísleifur returned to Iceland in 1057 but even he was not able to secure the position of the Church as an independent institution. The best Ísleifur could do was to educate people and thereby provide future priests for the Church.

    Gizur Ísleifsson, Ísleif's son, became the second Icelandic bishop two years after his fathers death, in 1082. Gizur established the Church as an independent institution in Iceland (Þorsteinsson 1980:87-99). Two things he did made this possible: First, he gave some of his lands, Skálholt,32 to the Church. The Church thereby owned its own church building, lands, school, and could have some income from these. Secondly, Gizur advocated taxation as means to secure a permanent income stream to the Church. By getting the Tíund, the Tithe, accepted at the Alþing the means for the Church were established.

    The Tithe was a property tax on all farmers of certain wealth status, and accessed 1% of total wealth.33  After collection, which was the responsibility of the Hreppar, the Tithe was divided into four places: A fourth for the institution of the Church, a fourth for the local church, a fourth for the priest, and the last fourth for the poor relief.34

    Gizur also established another bishopric in Iceland in 1106. This new Bishop, Jón Ögmundsson, sat in the Northern quarter, at Hólar. Gizur, and later Jón, established schools in the bishopric and provided education for the richer chieftains' sons. With these two bishops in place the Church began Christianizing Icelandic society thoroughly. Daily masses began, remnants of heathendom were abolished, and many entertainment activities were banned.

     Although the Church never got full judicial power over its own conflicts during the period of the Commonwealth, as did the Church in most other countries, both bishops obtained seats on the Law Council at the Alþing. In 1118-1122 those two bishops got the Law Council to accept a Christian Section to the laws to regulate matters of the Church and proper Christian ways of life.

    After the acceptance of the Tithe and the establishment of the Church the story of the decline of the Commonwealth begins. The next 160-70 years, or roughly half the duration of the Commonwealth, are all grouped together under the period of decline. Most, if not all, historians claim that it is in the events at the beginning or during this period that the causes for the decline are to be found. As will become evident, though, there is little consensus among the historians on what the causes are.

    The population of Iceland in 1100 was about 60,000 and the economy was a fairly prosperous one (Þorsteinsson 1966; Gelsinger 1981).35   The fact of the acceptance of the Tithe supports the contention that Icelanders were rather prosperous, and nothing in the Sagas suggests otherwise. Immediately after the Church became established most church buildings were still in private hands. Despite the Canonical directives of Pope Gregory VII that the Church should control its own affairs and property there is little evidence of this in Iceland. Only in the 1160s and the early 1200s, when two of the bishops tried to gain more control of local church places and appointments of priests, did the Church make any real effort to attain such control.36


      Until the 12th century the authority of chieftains (goðar) appears to have been fairly stable. Occasionally conflicts arose between the chieftains over wealth, power, and prestige, but none of these men ever entertained the idea of imposing his authority upon large areas, much less upon the entire country...

      In the 12th century there are clear indications of a gradual take-over of chieftaincies, or parts of chieftaincies, by relatively few individuals or families. (Jóhannesson 1974:226-7)

    Also noticeable in the 12th and 13th centuries is the concentration of the chiefdoms in fewer hands. It had not been uncommon that chieftainships were co-owned by several people, and the laws, as seen in Grágás, discussed how to handle such situations. One person owning more than one Goðorð, though, had not been common and Grágás is silent on this matter.

    The first instance of concentration known was in the early 11th century. The Sagas describe Guðmundur Ríki, "The Wealthy," as owning two chieftainships and ruling in his areas like a warlord (Sigurðsson 1989:44). By 1220 almost all the chieftainships were in the ownership of five families, the Ásbirningar, the Sturlungar, the Haukdælir, the Oddverjar, and the Svínfellingar. This concentration started around 1120 in all quarters except the Western, where it started around 1200 (Sigurðsson 1989:140). In the South, the Haukdælir, and in the North, the Ásbirningar, began this process around 1120-30. This process was continued in the South by the Oddverjar in the latter half of the 12th century, while at the same time by the Svínfellingar in the East and Southeast. After 1200 the Sturlungar got involved in this power struggle and quickly acquired all the Western areas and part of the Northern ones also. By 1240 the only independent chieftain remaining was the Supreme Chieftain in the Southwest (Karlsson 1975).

    With this concentration of chieftainships in fewer hands a civil war broke out on a limited scale. After 1220 violence becomes a problem, although some battles took place in the 12th century. This violent period is called the Age of the Sturlungs. Some have suggested that this civil war is the cause of the fall of the Commonwealth. With the chieftains engaged in infighting, wealthier farmers took over many of the supposed functions of the chieftains in their localities.37   Later when the Norwegian Kings had begun their attempts to gain foothold in Iceland, some Icelanders may have accepted the idea of having the King as ruler of Iceland to end the civil war.


      In the covenant the Icelanders yielded up their country to the king, pledging their allegiance as his subjects. This meant that they accepted the King of Norway as their sovereign, whose subjects they had become, and that the Icelandic Commonwealth had ceased to exist. This is the very core of the agreement. (Jóhannesson 1974:283)

    Iceland had already become partly "Norwegian" before 1262. The Church of Iceland fell under the archbishop of Western Norway, in Niðarós, in the 12th century. Icelandic trade was carried through Norway and organized by Norwegian merchants. The Norwegian King and the Norwegian Church therefore may have had some control over Icelandic trade. After 1230 the bishops in Iceland were Norwegian, since the archbishop refused to appoint Icelanders. By 1250, the Norwegian King had shrewdly gained some chieftainships and put his representatives, some of the Icelandic chieftains who had joined the Royal Circle, in control of them. Thus Icelanders were prepared to accept the fact that Iceland had become a part of the Norwegian Kingdom.

    At the Alþing in 1262 the farmers in the South and the North confirmed an agreement, Old Covenant 1262-64 or Gamli Sáttmáli 1262-64 (also called Gizur's Covenant or Gizurar Sáttmáli), making the Norwegian King the king of Iceland.38   By 1264 farmers from the other quarters had also confirmed this agreement and with that King Hákon became king of Iceland. The agreement stipulated that the king would guarantee peace in the island through his representatives and in turn the Icelanders would pay taxes to him. The agreement further insured that the Icelanders would have their own laws and the Alþing would continue to be in charge of legal and judicial matters. In addition the king promised that trade between the countries would not be disrupted by economic downturns in Norway, by guaranteeing that a certain number of ships would sail to Iceland each year. Most important, though, a clause in the agreement provided for its termination, although despite broken promises it was never used.

    The Old Covenant 1262-64 marks the end of the Commonwealth. Although some or even most institutions remained after its "fall", there was one institutional addition that made the Commonwealth rather different. This institution was that of the executive: The sovereign with its police powers.


    In the above, I have skipped any discussion of how modern day historians explain the rise and decline of the Commonwealth's institutional structure. These explanations are, in contrast to the description above, highly controversial.

    There are basically two theories of how the institutional structure arose. The first one builds on the account given by Ari Þorgilsson in Íslendingabók. That book claims that the Alþing was formed at Þingvellir (around) 930.39 It further claims, that the leaders of Kjalarnesþing initiated the establishment of the Alþing. They, according to the Íslendingabók, sent a man named Úlfljótur to Norway to adapt the West Norwegian law of Gulaþing. Upon his return to Iceland, local leaders gathered at Þingvellir and agreed on a law code, that Úlfljótur and another man named Þorleifur hinn spaki (the wise), proposed. At this first gathering of the Alþing a lawspeaker was elected to recite the laws each year, since writing had not yet begun. Interestingly enough, Úlfljótur is not named as a lawspeaker, according to the list of lawspeakers found in the Íslendingabók, and this fact makes the story as told in the book less credible.

    While Jóhannesson (1956), Þorsteinsson (1953), and most other historians simply repeat the account given in Íslendingabók, trying to show the logic of this account, Líndal (1969) disputes this account.40   Líndal states that the medieval legal tradition, the customary law tradition, would not have allowed such a constructivist creation. He claims that if Úlfljótr was actually sent to Norway, then it was only to compare some Icelandic laws to those of the Western regions of Norway but not to copy or learn them (1969: 6-10). Líndal further claims that there are great differences between the oldest Icelandic laws and the oldest Gulaþing laws, so much that the latter could not have been the model for the former (1969:9).41   Líndal does not deny that the Alþing may have been formed through an organized effort on the part of some chieftains, but suggests that the Alþing could only have arisen as a logical continuation of an existing tradition and structure.

    In the study here, I join in Líndal's criticism of the standard account of the rise of the institutional structure, but take his alternative a step further. It is my contention that in rejecting the mainstay of the constructivist explanation, which leaves us without actual factual account of how the Alþing actually emerged, I must use conjectural history. The conjectural history cannot, of course, escape establishing some connection to what we know of early medieval Iceland. The conjectural history is founded in Líndal's work (1969;1984) and supplies a basis for an evolutionary model of Icelandic institutions.


    The fall of the Commonwealth is also a source of controversy. There are more historical accounts of the decline of these institutions than their initial formation. Almost all ask the same question: Why the struggle to accumulate chieftainships? Historians offer various explanations, ranging from efficiency arguments to dreams of kingship.42   Although these theories are numerous we may classify these theories into two groups. The first type may be referred to as a wealth and power struggle theory, while the second may be referred to as an economic decline theory. The facts that the two agree on are presented in the sections above, but each theory supplies additional "facts" that are not the subject of such consensus.

    The "economic decline" explanation claims that a decline in economic activity, caused by less favourable trade terms and colder weather, initiated a wealth and power struggle. As wealth dwindled the wealth and power struggle intensified. This resulted not only in a concentration in wealth and power, but also in the agreement with Norway, mainly to facilitate trade.
    But the theory of an economic decline is hard to support. Production of the main export goods increased during the Commonwealth period, but, of course, market changes did occur resulting in production changes. For example, the market for certain wool products, called varafeldir, disappeared around 1200, and this could support a theory of economic decline. But at the same time other export markets were opening or expanding. For example, the export of falcons, horses, and sulphur, began in the 12th century (Þorsteinsson 1966).
    Þorsteinsson (1953;1966) strongly denies the theory of economic decline.43   He claims that economic conditions were better at the end of the Commonwealth. Furthermore, Icelanders would have known from experience that any economic decline would be temporary. The Sagas are full of examples of hard times and natural disasters, and the barbarian responses to them. During periods of hardship in the 10th century old people, sick people, weak people, and small children were killed off. By the end of the 12th century such killings were exceptional in Iceland. It has sometimes been suggested that the Icelanders stopped such killings for religious reasons, because they became Christian instead of heathen. There may be some truth to this claim, but there is evidence from other countries that economic progress was what really mattered. The establishment of taxation, tíundargjald, in 1096 and the ever increasing "welfare system" give evidence of economic progress.44

    The second type of explanation for the decline of the Commonwealth argues that the chieftains were struggling to gain more power and wealth, irrespective of whether wealth itself was increasing or declining. After the Tithe was introduced in 1096 local churches became sources of real revenues for their owners.45   The chieftains therefore began to compete for ownership of churches; the more chieftainships held by a chieftain, the better his chances. This accumulation of churches explains why secular authorities were never willing to give up these properties to the Church.

    The main differences between the theories lie in the emphasis each theory places on certain facts. For the "economic decline" explanation the ultimate or first cause of the Commonwealth's decline is the downward trend in the terms of trade, the lack of ships, and the colder weather. For the "wealth and power" theory, the first cause is the introduction of the Tithe. I accept the main thrust of the latter theory. However, I contend that the "wealth and power" theory needs to be made much more explicit and provide a more logical story. For example, I find that the claim that the introduction of the Tithe was the ultimate cause of the fall begs an important question: Why did the Icelanders accept the Tithe in the first place? An answer to this question has to be found or the whole explanation is left incomplete.


    This study will accept the uncontroversial facts of the Commonwealth history. This history describes the Commonwealth's institutional structure and how this structure changed over time. The causes of the rise and decline of the structure are more controversial. I will provide an alternative account of the rise of the Commonwealth's institutional structure, an evolutionary explanation that is founded in the work of Professor Líndal. As for the decline of the Commonwealth's institutions, I follow the majority of historians in claiming that the Tithe was one of the causes of the fall of the Commonwealth. However, such an explanation as articulated by these historians is incoherent and incomplete. I use rent-seeking theory to build an explicit and logical account of how and why the Commonwealth declined and eventually came to an end.

    bibliography       chapter 3


    1 Quoted from Byock (1988:14).
    2 Aside from poetry and prose, whole arrays of Sagas were written in the 12th through 14th centuries. These Sagas are usually referred to as the Sagas, the Icelandic Sagas, and sometimes incorrectly as the Old Norse Sagas. The stories in the Sagas take place almost exclusively in the tenth century and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Only a few stories from the eleventh century are found in the Sagas and this has traditionally been interpreted as if this century was rather uneventual. Other works written in this period include: Landnámbók (The Book of the Settlement), Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders), and Grágás (The Early Laws of Iceland). These were written in the early 12th century, but only 13th and 14th century rewritten editions survive though. Because the original editions of these books have not survived there is always a possibility that the rewritten editions may not be wholly truthful, assuming the originals were. These are available in Icelandic in the bookseries Íslensk Fornrit. These are also available wholly or in part in English translations. A good guide and bibliography on the sources, and also on secondary works, is in Byock (1988). Jóhannesson (1956, 1974 in English) is an excellent source on the Icelandic Commonwealth. On the Vikings see Jones (1984). On the Sagas see Kristjánsson (1988). For those interested in reading further on the Commonwealth should consult the above mentioned works. In addition it should be mentioned here that the Fiske Icelandic Library, at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., has copies of all the works on the Icelandic Commonwealth and the Vikings used here. For clarification it should be mentioned at the outset that I will in general refer to the Sagas on points generally agreed upon by the historians. This is done mainly for the purpose of freeing the study of extensive citations and footnotes on commonly agreed upon points. On occasion I may also refer to other original sources for the same purpose. In cases where there is less agreement, although most scholars on the Commonwealth may actually agree on it, I will cite the author whose work I am relying on for the particular claim.
    3 On the value and use of these sources for historical work, see Þorláksson (1987), Kristjánsson (1974), and Byock (1988:ch. 2). All historians do not agree on this. Karlsson, for example, states: "[T]he chief sources...are laws and the Sagas of Icelanders. Both are unreliable as historical sources" (1979:55). See also the discussion in Miller (1990). The Landnámabók is written in the early 12th century, as mentioned, but only 13th and 14th rewritten editions survive. The book describes the settlement of Iceland, roughly the period 870-930. The Íslendingabók is the other major source, but it too has survived only in rewritten editions and deals with roughly the same period. Although many of the Sagas deal with the 10th century it is hard to rely on them for chronological details, because they were only written in the 13th and 14th centuries, at least the editions that survive. The events of the period before 1100 are therefore not to be expected to show consistency in chronology and to some extent conjecture is needed.
    4 The early Sagas tell many stories of Vikings and their expeditions, but it is not easy to determine the truthfullness of these. It may be that they are stereotyping persons and thereby making them more interesting to the readers. If the settlers were Vikings, as the sources tell us, then it would seem reasonable to assume that some of the first and maybe second generations were so. By the third generation, though, going into viking would have become uncommon or exceptional. (On the Vikings and how peaceful or warring they were, see Wilson and Foote 1970). It is also interesting to read Chadwick's verdict on the effect of the Vikings on Irish society: "We have to bear constantly in mind that our literary evidence for the Vikings in Ireland comes to us almost exclusively from the monastries which were the chief objects of Norse depredation, and therefore their biggest accusers. They were, in fact, the only people able to give us a written report. .... Taking a longer view, however, Ireland gained from the Vikings in her position in the modern world. .... All her terminology of shipbuilding and trade, weights and measures, was Norse, and the first coinage struck in Ireland was that of the Vikings of Dublin, which soon afterwards found its way across the Irish Sea, as in the hoard discovered at Bangor in Caernarvonshire. The Vikings introduced commerce to Ireland" (1971:107) Bröndsted's (1987:261) discussion on the Vikings in England is also interesting: "The Danish Viking came to England sword in hand, but he came to stay and to wield the plough and till the ground. He doubtless dispossessed some of the native population, but there is no evidence that he sought to exterminate it. He brought his language with him, his laws, and ways of life, and their effect was felt far into the Middle Ages; it was a long time before the Viking laws and customs became assimilated into the feudal system."
    5 My account here is selective restatement of the histories presented by Byock (1988), Gelsinger (1981), Hastrup (1984), Jóhannesson (1974), Jones (1984), Líndal (1974;1964;1969), Olgeirsson (1954), Sigurðsson (1989), and Þorsteinsson (1953;1966;1980). Occasionally I point to other sources, on those see bibliography.
    6 I have chosen to refer to "Íslenska Þjóðveldið" as the Icelandic Commonwealth. I derive this mainly from Jóhannesson's (1974) use: The Old Icelandic Commonwealth. Others prefer to refer to it as the Free State or as the Old Icelandic Free State (Byock 1988).
    7 To get some idea of the variation in population estimates among historians, we suggest the following: Lárusson (1944:34-36) claims that 50,000 would have been a high. Þorsteinsson (1966:51) uses the number 60,000. Jóhannesson (1956:46-49) and Hastrup (1984:169) use a high of 70,000, while Sigurðsson (1989:129) claims the high was 40,000. The most precise estimate, although by no means accepted, is by Björn M. Olsen who estimates a high of 77,520 (see Jóhannesson 1956:49). Some are less precise; Karlsson (1975:7) estimates the population at 40-60,000 at its height. Gelsinger (1988:7) points to estimates of other historians of a low of 50,000 to a high of 100,000, and himself accepts a high of 80,000.
    8 An alternative explanation is found in Eldjárn (1984:5): "The archaelogical material tells us that people who took possession of this big island which they named Iceland were of Norwegian stock but kept some contacts with the Scottish-Irish area and probably to a certain extent with the baltic." Eljárn therefore seems to have changed his opinion on the archaelogical material found in Iceland.
    9 Some consider Burnt-Njáls Saga to be unreliable and even to have been written as fiction (See Kristjánsson 1975).
    10 On the whole matter of the origin of the settlers, see Eldjárn (1974), Benediktsson (1974:159-160), Jóhannesson (1956:27-38), Benediktsson (1968a:CXXIV-CXXXV), and Jones (1984:279).
    11 Chadwick emphasizes the point on intermarriage: "The Norse and the Irish had lived together in a small country for two centuries; intermarriage was frequent; and conversion of many Norsemen to Christianity had tended to induce a mutual understanding. The leading bards of the Irish and the Norse were fraternizing" (1971:105).
    12 On the monks, or Papar, see Eldjárn (1974) and Byock (1988:2 and 55).
    13 On the causes for the Viking movements and the Vikings in general, see Jones (1984:182-204).
    14 Quoted from the translation in Ruth (1965:19-20, 22).
    15 On the property rule, see Benediktsson (1968a:CXX1V-CXXXV) and (1968b:337-338). Also Byock (1988:55-58) and Jóhannesson (1956:43-46). On the rise of King Harald, there are various references in Benediktsson (1968a;1968b). See also Benediktsson (1974), Jóhannesson (1956), Byock (1988), and Jones (1984). On the economics of the period, see Gelsinger (1981: especially ch. 2) and Karlsson (1974). On the slavery, see Gelsinger (1981), Foote (1977), and Agnarsdóttir and Árnason (1983).
    16 The Landnámabók claims that Ingólfur was the first settler in Iceland. Historians have generally accepted this claim, except Líndal (1969) who questions the story of Ingólf in the Landnámabók.
    17 There is some ambiguity as to who owned the Þingvellir area before the Alþing was formed there. The area lies at the outskirts of Ingólf's lands and may have belonged to him originally. On the other hand there is reference in one of the Sagas to the area having been confiscated from an outlaw. See Benediktsson (1974, 168-171). Aside from this, it should be mentioned that the position of Allsherjargoði, or Supreme Chieftain, was reserved for the descendants of Ingólfur. Whether this implies that they had given the land or whether they were awarded this simply because they were the first settlers (and may have established the first local þing) is not known. The position of Supreme Chieftain was strictly ceremonial in that he only opened the Alþing each year. See Byock (1988:64-65).
    18 It should be stated here at the outset and kept in mind throughout, that the precise timing of the formation of the Hreppar is simply not known, except that they were in place by 1096. Whether the first of them were formed in the 9th, 10th, or the 11th centuries is impossible to determine factually. Historians, though, have assumed that the first of these formed in the 10th century and some even claim an earlier date (see Benediktsson 1974).
    19 Quoted from Ruth (1965:21-22).
    20 At one place in the Grágás it seems that the Lögsögumaður had voting rights. The particular clause deals with a tie vote in the Lögrétta, in which case the side wins which the Lögsögumaður is on (the law seems to indicate that it was common for the lawsayer to be a chieftain also). On this, see Líndal (1984:137).
    21 Throughout this thesis I will refer to the number of chieftains as being 36, before 960-5, and 39 chieftains after 965. In actuality it is not all that clear what the number of chieftains was before 960-5. The sources claim that they were 36 and most historians have accepted that number. On the other hand though, for anyone to accept that number he has to accept also that the legal and judicial structure had become formal before that time, such as in 930. In this thesis I will follow Líndal's hint that the structure only became fully formalized about 960-5 and therefore the number of chieftains before that time becomes indeterminate. It is only to keep with tradition that I find it necessary to adopt the 36 figure. Following Líndal in claiming that the structure only became formalized about 960-5 and the number of chieftains being fixed at 39 after that, it should still be kept in mind that the number of voting seats in the Lögrétta was 48 after 960-5.
    22 Neither is Njál's name, i.e. Njál from the famous Burnt-Njáls Saga, and this supports the claim that this Saga is fictional.
    23 Quoted from the English version by Ellwood (1898:27).
    24 Lárusson (1932:17) is seemingly the only historian that puts forth the view, which I accept, that Fjórðungsþings had benn formed some time before the 960's. But, see also Byock (1988:66-7).
    25 There is some disagreement on the number of jurors in a court and on the required numerical for judgement. The description given here is conventionally accepted by most historians and legal historians (see Jóhannesson 1974:66;Byock 1988:66-68).
    26 But see previous footnote.
    27 In Burnt-Njáls Saga this constitutional change is attributed to Njál, but since Íslendingabók does not support that contention, i.e. according to Íslendingabók Njál never was a Lawsayer, the change is conventionally ascribed to Skafti Þóroddsson, who was the Lawsayer in 1004-1030.
    28 The judicial structure was to some extent more complicated than described here. But I only want to offer a short outline of the history here and therefore any more relevant details will have to await our theoretical analyses in chapter 4.
    29 Benediktsson (1974:172)) discusses the issue of the temple-fee and cites a passage from the original sources, where the use of temple-fees is claimed. Benediktsson, though, claims the whole story of the temple-fee is fictional and like so many other stories simply invented in the 12th and 13th centuries to justify current practices, ie. taxation. Benediktsson does not exclude, though, that the islanders may have occasionally offered contributions to the owners of the temples.
    30 I will discuss further the temple-fee and the profit potential it provides in chapters 5 and 6.
    31 Ari is here referring the speach by Þorgeir the lawspeaker. Quoted from Ruth (1965:27).
    32 Skálholt, with the establishment of the church and the Tithe, became the "Capital" of Iceland and would remain so until Reykjavík replaced it in the 19th century (Þorsteinsson 1980:89). Þingvellir, where the Alþing was held, was in a way also the "Capital" of Iceland, but only for two weeks a year.
    33 Actually the Tithe was a tenth of the accepted interest rate, 10%, i.e. 1% of property. See Stefánsson (1975:60-62).
    34 I will discuss the Tithe in more detail in chapters 5 and 6, and also offer some suggestions as to why it was accepted and the consequences of that acceptance. For further details on the Tithe, see Þorsteinsson (1980:92-93).
    35 The estimates of the population size are actually a highly controversial issue. Estimates for the year 1100 vary from a low of 40,000 to a high of 100,000, but 60,000 seems to be the average high for most historians. I deal more fully with this aspect in chapter 5.
    36 On the role of the Church in the 12th and 13th centuries, see Þorláksson (1982a), Grímsdóttir (1982), and Stefánsson (1975).
    37 There is some debate on how independent wealthier farmers were during the Commonwealth period. Karlsson (1972) claims they only became independent, i.e. the equals of the chieftains, in the 13th century. Þorláksson (1982) claims they became so much sooner. Karlsson assumes that there was continous violance through out the whole period. The farmers were dependent on the chieftains all the way up til the middle of the 13th century. Only then, when the numbers of chieftains had decreased, did the wealthier farmers take over the functions of the chieftains. Þorláksson, on the other hand, assumes that the society was more peaceful and that the farmers, especially the wealthier ones, were always quite independent, except in the late 12th and early 13th century. He, therefore, claims that the "freedom" of these farmers in the middle of the 13th century was not new.
    38 The Old Covenant 1262-64 is to be sharply distinguished from the Old Covenant of 1302.
    39 The book actually does not say which year the Alþing was formed. But from other things the book mentions, historians have estimated that this would have been around 930.
    40 Although Líndal (1969) suggests that the whole story about the formation of the Alþing may be fictional, he himself does give the book the benefit of the doubt and claims instead that the story is at least incorrect: "Hér verður því ekki haldið fram, að frásögurnar af landnámi Ingólfs og sendiför Úlfljóts séu tilbúningur frá rótum, enda þótt ekki sé unnt að útiloka, að svo kunni að vera." (Líndal 1969:15) Historians have also wondered about what the purpose of writing the Íslendingabók and the Landnámabók was. Benediktsson (1968a:preface), in particular, has suggested that the whole writing of the former book may have been influenced by the Church and even initiated its writing. This Christian influence may explain the constructivist type of explanation offered for the formation of the Alþing (see also Líndal 1969:19-24).
    41 See also Byock (1988:57-60).
    42 Fairly good summaries on the reasons offered by historians are in Karlsson (1975) and Sigurðsson (1989).
    43 Líndal (1964) also rejects this explanation for the fall. He claims that even if an economic decline did occur, it by itself would not have caused the fall of the institutional structure.
    44 For a good summary and assessment of the various arguments for the fall of the Commonwealth, see Líndal (1964). I deal more fully with the economic explanation in chapter 6.
    45 This is basically the explanation that I favor and I will build on in chapter 6 to explain the fall of the Commonwealth.

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