ANARCHY, STATE, AND RENT-SEEKING: THE
ICELANDIC COMMONWEALTH, 930-1262
Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason
5. FROM A DECENTRALIZED
ORDER TO MINIMAL STATES
A Decentralized Order
The Minimal State
The Minimal State
and Tied Public Goods
The Evolution of
the Goði-Þingmann Relationship
The Heathendom Period
The Pre-Tithe Period
5. FROM A DECENTRALIZED ORDER TO MINIMAL STATES
Grágás provides a wealth of detail about Old Icelandic
society... Nevertheless, reliance on written law has its limitations. Although
Grágás gives much information about Icelandic governmental
and social institutions, it rarely specifies how these elements fit together.
It is one thing to know the proposed composition of a court or an assembly;
it is quite another to understand how bodies and gatherings actually worked
when they met in open fields in medieval Iceland. (Byock 1988:27)
Having explained the early evolution of the institutional structure of
the Commonwealth in the previous chapter, in this chapter I look at the
evolution of some of these institutions. Some of these, such as the chieftain-farmer
relationship, changed during the course of the Commonwealth period. These
institutional changes might explain the demise or end of the Commonwealth
But before explaining these changes in the institutions of the Commonwealth
it will prove useful to explain how, or rather why, the institutional structure
seems to have worked as well as it did, during the early Commonwealth period.
A DECENTRALIZED ORDER
"The political arena of the early Commonwealth can be seen as
a competitive market of thirty-nine firms of similar sizes. Each firm involved
contracts between the chieftain and his liegemen for the joint production
and protection of property rights. The power of a chieftain was constrained
in various ways. He could not tax his followers like a feudal lord, and
there was some flexibility: A farmer was free to cancel his contract with
a chieftain and take up association with another." (Eggertsson 1990:308)
As shown in the previous chapter, a decentralized system of law and legal
enforcement evolved in Iceland in the period 874-1006. The system was based
on two local institutions or local communities. On the one hand was the
Hreppur and on the other the local þing. The former
was an autonomous organization which controlled affairs of interest to
the local community as a whole. The latter was the lowest level of a hierarchial
yet decentralized order of law and law enforcement. The second level of
the hierarchy was the Fjórðungsþing, and after
965, the Fjórðungsdómar. In 1005 the Fimmtidómur
was established above of these second-level institutions. From that date
onwards the institutional structure of the Commonwealth was well established.
The evolution of the institutional structure itself suggests that there
were disputes and problems with violence early on. If only disputes of
insignificant scale had occurred then it would seem strange for legal and
court system on a national level to have arisen. It seems safe to assume
that there were frequent disputes, especially when settlers sought to claim
suitable land for farming. Immediately after the arrival of the first settlers,
Viking raids may have given rise to a need for local law enforcement.
This may explain why the institutional structure arose so quickly. As local
communities or chieftainships were organized the Vikings may have
responded by raiding different communities.1
Each community then responded by extending its protection to other groups
via reciprocity, thus creating the hierarchial institutional structure.
The establishment of the Fjórðungsdómar at the
Alþing to replace the short lived Fjórðungsþings
and, especially, the introduction of the Fimmtardómur suggests
that problems of law enforcement continued. The latter institution seems
to have been introduced because the previous system occasionally failed
to resolve cases brought before them. Since super-majorities of jurors
was required at lower level courts, a change to a simple majority requirement
seems to have been needed to overcome unresolved cases. But, for whatever
reason, there must have been significant numbers of unresolved disputes
or the introduction of the Fifth Court would not have been necessary.
The "unofficial" replacement of Fjórðungsþings
not only suggests a number of major disputes,3 but
that the system required different institutional arrangements to achieve
a balance of powers. This was in part achieved simply by moving these courts
to the Alþing site, so that cases could be resolved in a neutral
setting. At the same time, though, the boundaries of the quarters were
changed to correspond to geographical boundaries. A farmer living within
one quarter was required to choose one of nine chieftains living in the
same quarter (one of twelve in the North). Also at this time, a local þing
was added in the Norther Quarter. From the 960s onwards there were 13 local-þings
in the Commonwealth and 39 full chieftains presiding over them. To counter
resultant imbalances in the numbers of chieftains the Alþing,
nine "chieftainships" were created. These chieftains (chosen
each year by the others) only sat at the Law Council and did not preside
over local-þings. After these reforms, the 36 full chieftains
were in charge of appointing jurors at the Fjórðungsdómar
but, later, at the Fifth Court all 48 chieftains appointed the jurors.
The addition of three new Goðar in the Northern Quarter is puzzling.
Sometimes, this change is explained as having been made for geographical
reasons (Byock 1988:66). Because of the size of the Northern quarter and
distances, one additional local-þing was added in the quarter.
Although there may be something to this, other factors were more compelling.
If geography lay behind this change then it seems that local-þings
would also have been added in some of the other quarters. The Western Quarter,
is where travelling was the hardest and the Eastern quarter has the longest
distances. The growth of the population or the number of free-farmers in
the quarters probably had more to do with the addition of Goðar
in the Northern quarter.
Although no quarter-by-quarter population estimates are available for the
tenth or early eleventh centuries, the population counts of 1096 and 1311
are considered fairly accurate by most historians. The number of tax-paying
farmers in those years were the following:
Table 5.1. Number of Tax-Paying Farmers by Quarters.4
If these figures are reliable, they show that at the dawn of the eleventh
century the Northern Quarter would have been the most populous by far.
The increase in local-þings in the Northern Quarter is therefore
most likely due to growth in the population. If the number of tax-paying
farmers in 960 was equivalent to their number in 1095, then the number
of free-farmers per chieftain would have been the following:
Table 5.2. Tax-Paying Farmers pr. þing and Goði.
Although I have no way of explaining why these numbers were the required
ones for a balance, it seems that balancing of the power base was the cause
for the reform of the 960s. In the table above I averaged the numbers of
farmers per chieftains and þings, but in actuality there may
have been some imbalances between chieftains in a given local or quarter.
Balancing of numbers is the most plausible cause for the addition of the
new local-þing and the geographical restrictions of the quarters.6
The legal and judicial structure that evolved in the Commonwealth can therefore
be thought of as a balanced system. Each chieftain has approximately equal
number of þingmenn and each local-þing is attended
by approximately equal number of people. Hierarchically the system is also
numerically balanced, except at the Alþing, where some quarters
had larger representation of þingmenn than others.7
On the other hand, the power of the Northern chieftains at the Alþing
was exactly equal to that of chieftains from any other quarter. The chieftains,
whether nine or twelve, from each quarter could only control a quarter
of all institutions at the Alþing. It was not apparently too
problematic that the Northern Quarter had the most numerous delegation
of þingmenn at the Alþing. The Sagas nowhere
mention that disparities in the numbers from each quarter caused problems,
although numbers sometimes did matter when individual chieftains argued
Aside from the figures showing the numbers of tax-paying farmers in the
Iceland, in 1095 and 1311, it is hard to estimate the size of the population.
Historians estimate the size of the population in Iceland around 1100 at
40-80,000.8 Over time the population estimates are as
follows:9 In 930 around 20-30,000, in
960 around 40-50,000, in 1095 around 50-60,000, and in 1311 about the same.
These figures suggest that the largest population growth was in the thirty
years between 930 and 960, when the population doubled. This estimate reinforces
my claim that the institutional reforms of the 960s were mainly the result
of the increase in population.
THE MINIMAL STATE
The description given above of a balanced system is analogous to Robert
Nozick's (1974) description of the emergence of the minimal state. Essentially,
his argument is that an invisible-hand mechanism will give rise to a state
or a federation of states will emerge in any orderly stateless society.
Although Nozick's purpose in advancing his theory is different from mine,
his theoretical analysis is useful here.10
Nozick postulates that in the state-of-nature firms or organizations will
arise and offer protective services, which he calls Protective Associations
(PA's). Individuals in this state-of-nature are more or less peaceful,
but occasionally some individuals, either deliberately or by mistake, violate
other individuals' rights.11 Entrepreneurs,
observing these violations, offer to provide protection to victims and
innocent bystanders and, establishing the PA's. The PA's need not limit
their services to offering only protection, but may also offer comprehensive
legal and judicial services. At the outset, therefore, we may see many
competing PA's, offering differing forms of protection and judicial services.12
In this world of competing PA's it is likely that the PA's will require
its members to give up the private right of retaliation. If members did
not do so then private retaliation might confuse issues of policing and
judicial enforcement. Thus, an injured individual would immediately contact
his PA and the PA would try to apprehend the wrongdoer and bring him to
What happens when the wronged and the wrongdoer belong to competing PA's?
In "clear cut" cases the PA of the wrongdoer would allow the
wrongdoer to be brought to justice, for otherwise, its reputation of fairness
would be harmed. In "hard" cases, on the other hand, what happens
is not so obvious. Nozick poses three possibilities: First, the agencies
fight and one always wins, thereby gaining membership and driving the other
out of the market. Second, the PA's fight, but because they are geographically
concentrated each tends to win battles closer to their geographical center.
The result is "states" with borders, since individuals prefer
to shop at the PA in their locality.13 Lastly,
The PA's fight, but are equally successful and, therefore, a cooperative
solution emerges. They could, for example, establish a 'supreme court'
to decide 'hard' cases (Nozick 1974:16-17).
All three solutions result in the formation of a Dominant Protective Association
(DPA). As Nozick says: "Out of anarchy, pressed by spontaneous groupings,
mutual-protection associations, division of labour, market pressures, economies
of scale, and rational self-interest there arises something very much resembling
a minimal state or a group of geographically distinct minimal states"
(16-17). It should also be noted that Nozick's description of the outcome
resembles my description of the institutional structure of the Icelandic
THE MINIMAL STATE AND TIED SALES OF PUBLIC GOODS
Nozick claims that the DPA is a natural monopoly, but this is not obvious.
It does appear that if a PA has gained a territorial advantage in membership
then it would be harder for other PA's to compete with it in price. There
are some economies of scale in the provision of protective services. On
the demand side, it appears that the larger the PA, or DPA, the more valuable
it's services are. A DPA may therefore have a comparative advantage over
competing PA's, although this does not exclude several DPA's in different
areas within a given territory.
However, a problem for the DPA may emerge. As a DPA in a given area or
territory grows larger, there emerges an optimum point at which non-joining
individuals may find it more beneficial to remain non-aligned than paying
fees to the DPA. Even though Nozick postulates that the DPA would offer
services to these individuals free-of-charge, it seems that such behaviour
would result in no profits. In fact it has been argued that the profit-maximizing
solution of the DPA would be inefficient because of this free-rider problem
This inefficiency could be removed if the DPA offered other services to
their clients. Mumy (1987) suggests that if the DPA offers tied goods to
its clients an efficient outcome could emerge. However, this solution is
available only on a qualified basis. First, the tied good must complement
the private/public good offered in the first place (Klein 1987). The public
good must complement rather than be a substitute for the protective services
offered. Secondly, the public good offered must be a non-rival good, and
yet excludable to non-members. The members would consume the public good
together and non-members would not consume it. Thirdly, the two goods must
be offered together, i.e. be tied. An individual wanting to buy protective
services also has to buy the public good, and vice versa. As I will show
in the following sections such tie-ins were a feature of the Goði-þingmann
Why would individuals buy the tied goods? It is assumed that the public
good to be tied is in great demand. The DPA can offer this public good
at the same costs as others could, i.e. the DPA is competitive. Since the
DPA has a cost advantage in providing protective services the DPA can tie
in the public good such that individuals buying both goods together pay
less than they would pay if the goods were bought seperatly. At the same
time it is more profitable for the DPA to offer both goods together, since
it thereby overcomes the free-rider problem and therefore extracts rents
from its members (Klein 1987;Mumy 1987;Cowen and Kavka 1990).
I should note here that although Nozick's theory is analogous to my explanation
of the emergence of the minimal 'state,' this is a mere analogy, not an
identity. Nozick begins his analysis in a Lockeian state-of-nature with
no or hardly any institutional structures, and his solution emerges from
that state. In the Icelandic "state-of-nature" some institutional
structures already exist. In Iceland after 930 a shared monopoly already
existed in the law, whereas no such legal monopolies are a part of Nozick's
process. It is therefore easier for minimal 'states' to emerge in the analysis
here than in Nozick's and it should be easier to maintain them. Nozick
assumes that DPA's are natural monopolies or have cost advantages. In my
analysis this assumption is not necessary because of the legal restriction
on the number of chieftains.
THE GOÐI-ÞINGMANN RELATION
Among the institutional changes that occurred during the course of the
Commonwealth was a change in the chieftain-farmer relationship. The two
following sections I present the historical development of this relationship
through my theoretical spectacles. The first section shows the institutional
relations at the beginning of the Commonwealth era and the changes in this
relationship that took place before the introduction of Christianity. The
latter section analyses changes that occurred in the period 1000-1096,
the beginning of taxation.
The Heathendom Period
The Sagas do not detail the early development of the institution
of the chieftainship. A chieftain in the pre-Alþing period
was rather wealthy, well respected, and owned a temple. The term for the
chieftainship, the Goði, suggests that the chieftain may originally
have been the community's religious leader.15
The Sagas also suggest that these chieftains were those people that
originally began the þing tradition in Iceland. Early on,
therefore, there was a leadership role for these chieftains, they represented
With the establishment of the Alþing and Vár Lög
the Goði-þingmann relationship is incorporated into the
institutional structure. The law required that all free-farmers align themselves
with a chieftain; implicitly the law required that all other people on
the island be so aligned through this association with certain farmers.
According to the Grágás the free-farmer had a right to follow
the chieftain of his choice. Once a year the farmer could switch his allegiance
from one chieftain to another.17 Why would
a farmer need this choice?
First, his current chieftain might be doing a poor job of keeping the peace
in his þingmenn "area." There were several potential
reasons for ineffective peacekeeping: The chieftain may have been a colourless
leader, such that his threats or enforcement were unconvincing, or he might
be poor, unable to reimburse his followers for their participation in the
enforcement of judgements. Secondly, the farmer might need such a choice
if his current chieftain was a poor representative for any of the above
mentioned reasons. Third, there might be a conflict of interest between
the chieftain and the farmer. For example, they might sue each other. Finally,
the chieftain may have been weak either in wealth or following as compared
to surrounding chieftains.
But why would the chieftain care whether he lost followers or not? Surely
the right to sit in the Lögrétta did not depend on whether
the chieftain had any followers or not. Did the chieftain's rights at the
local-þings or quarter-þings depend on this?
Although the chieftains, even those without followers, could use their
voting rights, they needed followers from which to appoint jurors. A chieftain
without followers could not appoint members to the jury, unless he could
happily rely on followers of other chieftains. In many, or even most, cases
this may not have been of any consequence to the chieftain. But if he himself
was involved in a lawsuit he would surely prefer some of his own followers
to be on that jury, rather than only the followers of other chieftains.
Furthermore, if the chieftain had any followers at all he would have preferred
to have more of them rather than less, since the more numerous his þingmenn,
the better his ability to enforce judgements.18 Under
the institutional structure of the Commonwealth, and described in the laws
of Grágás, the chieftains and farmers mutually needed each
Although the number of a chieftain's þingmenn may have been
determined by the revenue/cost ratio and the extent to which the level
of personal connection could be retained, the scope of the chiefdom was
determined differently. The scope of the chiefdom was determined by the
size of the area in which most, if not all, of the chieftain's followers
lived. This was determined in turn to some extent by the ease or difficulty
of travelling to the chieftain. The Sagas provide another clue to
how such scope became determined in the pre-Christian era. The Goðar
were owners of temples and people in the surrounding area would seek to
carry on their religious activities in these temples. There may have been
a connection between which chieftain a farmer chose and the temple he chose
to attend. The chieftains may not have been the only ones to have kept
temples, since it is unlikely that 36 temples would satisfy the religious
needs of a population in excess of 30,000. But even if some of the wealthier
farmers also built temples, these farmers in turn were aligned to chieftains
of their choice. As Jóhannesson (1974:227) says:
During the heathen era the people attending a temple were also the
followers of the priest-chieftain (goði) in charge of it, as everyone
would normally want to attend the temple nearest to him. As a result, there
was little danger that the chieftaincies would extend over large areas
or that the chieftains would have liegemen in remote districts. It appears
most likely that in this early period, chieftaincies as well as assembly
jurisdictions were more or less strictly localized, although in theory
individuals were free to declare their allegiance to whatever chieftain
they decided to support. Accordingly, the temple may be said to have imposed
limitations upon the following of a chieftain.
Thus temple associations may have aligned certain farmers with particular
Owners of temples may have received revenues, a temple-fee, from the farmers
that attended their temples.19 The fee may have
been there mainly to reimburse the owner for building and service expenditures.
The amount of this fee may also have determined the size of the temple's
following. Thus, the fee, if it ever was in fact collected, may have affected
the farmer's choice of both a chieftain and a temple.
All this, of course, does not exclude the possibility that a farmer could
choose a chieftain whose temple he did not attend. Occasionally a farmer
may even have chosen a chieftain living quite far away. Other factors may
have entered into these decisions, such as previous residence, family ties
and intermarriage links.20
This connection between the temple attendance and chiefdom membership may
have influenced the zeal with which a chieftain would represent his farmers.
If a particular farmer chose chieftain A but continued to attend chieftain's
B temple and thereby pay temple-fees to B, A may have had less of an incentive
to represent this farmer to the best of his ability than he would have
if the farmer paid him fees. Thus, the chieftains may have seen an advantage
in offering tied goods. The chieftain could have claimed a share of the
farmers award of damages or in his property,21
if award was won as a condition of representation, but, furthermore the
chieftain could have insisted that the farmer belong to the chieftains
temple in order for the chieftain to take the case. This would be especially
true of chieftains who had already built their reputation and following.
New chieftains, who had newly acquired a chieftainship through inheritance,
sale or gift, might find the tie-in worked to their disadvantage. The new
chieftains often needed to establish a reputation to keeping "inherited"
þingmenn and to attract new ones. They may therefore have
had to offer their services at lower costs, i.e. without tie-ins.
In 960-5 the Alþing restricted chiefdoms within certain geographical
boundaries. This divided the island into quarters, and required that farmers
within each quarter choose a chieftain within their quarter. This restriction,
it seems, was ignored, especially later in the Commonwealth.22
The Pre-Tithe Period
By the year 1000, when Christianity was accepted, the institutional structure
in place was founded on the reciprocical relationship between the chieftains
and their þingmenn. Until 1096 no institutional changes greatly
altered this relationship, but there were some changes in this relationship
In 1000, when Christianity was accepted as the "national" religion,23
heathen worship was not outlawed, but temples and other public forms of
heathen worship were outlawed.24 Instead of temples,
churches were built. It may be that some temples were converted into churches.
The owners of churches must have insisted on charging a fee to reimburse
them for church related costs.25 The tie-in
sales of the chieftain services, if they began in the heathendom period,
would therefore continue after the acceptance of Christianity.
The churches that were built were all local churches. No official or independent
Church was established at this time. The local churches were privately
built and privately operated, and in many respects their owners ran them
as their private service firms. In heathendom the Goðar had
been the masters of the temples, and in Christianity many Goðar
became priests in their own churches. Some wealthy farmers, as in heathendom,
also built private churches and many became their own priests. Not all
of the Goðar and wealthy farmers became priests, and sometimes
these community leaders owned more than one church each. In these cases
their sons, freed-slaves, or labourers were educated to become priests
at these churches. Some even hired foreign bishops to sing masses at their
churches. All in all, the church that emerged in Iceland was a private
and decentralized church.
In 1056 the Alþing selected an Icelandic bishop for all of
Iceland. Ísleifur Gizurarson had been sent abroad by his father,
Gizur Hvíti (the White), for studies. Upon his return he was selected
as bishop and given a seat in the Lögrétta, the Law
Ísleifur, although elected the bishop, was not provided with a church
or any means of income by the Alþing. As bishop of Iceland
Ísleifur had some authority on religious matters, but had to provide
his own church and means of income. He therefore settled at his family
estate at Skálholt, and built a church there from which he
sung masses. Ísleifur also started a school at his church, as did
some other chieftains.
Although the Alþing accepted Christianity and elected a bishop,
the Alþing granted only limited authority to the bishop. For
example, Canon Law was not accepted in Iceland until after the Commonwealth
period, although the Alþing gradually adopted individual legal
provisions conforming to Canon Law.
Other institutional changes in the 11th century included the introduction
of the Fifth Court at the Alþing and a treaty with the king
of Norway.27 The former, as described in
chapters 2 and 4, was a form of a high-court to force a solution to unresolved
cases. The latter was an agreement between the people of Our Law and the
people of the Kingdom of Norway. The treatise concerned the legal status
or rights of the two peoples in each other territories. The treatise stipulated
that Icelanders had to pay a landing-tax, landaurar, when arriving
in Norway.28 This agreement was made with
King Ólaf Helga, the Saint, but had to be renewed by each
new king. On the Icelandic side, two chieftains from each quarter had to
swear to the treaty (Líndal 1964:28).
The first major change in the institutional structure came in 1096, when
taxation was established. The Tithe, or Tíund, was initiated
by Gizur Ísleifsson, then bishop of Iceland. This change initiated
a form of rent-seeking that lead to the "decline" of the Commonwealth
and eventually brought the Commonwealth to an end.29
The implications of the historical sketch above are as follows: First,
the institutional apparatus of the Commonwealth was based on a reciprocical
relation between the Goði and his þingmenn. The
farmers were not only required by law to align themselves with a chieftain
but, further, it was necessary for the farmers to align themselves with
a chieftain in order to have a voice and representation in legal and judicial
matters. The chieftains had a strong incentive to represent as many farmers
as possible, for otherwise his chieftainship was almost useless and the
chieftain's own status weak. We also saw in chapter 4 how the whole institutional
structure emerged as a hierarchial structure of reciprocical relationships.
The Commonwealth was built on reciprocity, and, therefore the explanation
for its decline and fall will be found in the deteriorations of reciprocal
We have seen in this chapter how a tendency contrary to reciprocity may
have been inherent in the chieftain-farmer relation from the start. Although
the farmer was supposed to enter into this relationship voluntarily, in
reality the farmer's choice was restricted. Because of the position of
the chieftain as an owner of a church the chieftains may have been able
to limit the farmers' range of choice of allegiance. Furthermore, the chieftain's
position was slowly but firmly becoming strong enough for him to extract
rents from the farmer by selling tied goods. The chieftains may also have
demanded a large proportion of the damages awarded to farmers and portions
of the farmer's property in return for representing the farmers in law-suits
and in the enforcement of judgements.30
A question still remains, though, as to why competition between chieftains
did not erode the constraints chieftains imposed on the farmer's range
of choice of representative. Two co-determinant factors were significant
in the 10th and 11th centuries. First, at the outset the chiefdoms and
chieftain's delegations were probably of almost equal size. Secondly, because
of their sale of tied goods the chieftains may have been able to gain a
local monopoly status.
Thus, the chieftain's advantage would be hard to overcome. Farmers switching
their allegiance probably had little or no effect on the local monopolies.
Seemingly, the only way to overcome the chieftain's advantage would be
an organized effort on the part of the farmers, with the cooperation of
at least one chieftain.31 Such conspiracies apparently
did not materialize.32
Instead, other factors affecting the wealth status of the chieftains eventually
overcome this dilemma. Aside from acquiring income and wealth from the
farmers, the chieftains themselves engaged in farming and in trade. Although
the chieftains differential success in farming and trade produced some
inequality among them, the share each received of taxes lead to more inequality.33
The Tithe, established in 1096, became the greatest "investment"
opportunity for the chieftains in the 12th century, and it eventually broke
down the reciprocical relation between chieftains and farmers.
1 In effect, the Vikings by doing so could be considered
to have realized the advantage of random interactions. As explained in
chapter two, a cooperative group can only grow so large and then the problem
of large-numbers imposes itself, unless reciprocity is practiced.
2 The whole issue concerning the Fjórðungsþings and the
Fjórðungsdómar is unclear in the sources. The first ambiguity
cencerns the dates of these formations. Most historians suggest that both
of them were established at about the same time (see Lárusson 1932:29;Jóhannesson
1956:68-70;Benediktson 1974:178-9). According to these both institutions
would have been established in the period 955-970. The Fjórðungsþings,
according to this view, were formed one for each geographical quarter,
but almost immediatly became abandoned or ignored in favor of the Fjórðungsdómar
at the Alþing. It seems to me that this explanation is unconvincing
and too constructivist and that a more evolutionary explanation is in order.
I postulate, instead, that the Fjórðungsþings were informally
established sometime before the 960s, but then after some experience with
them the change to Fjórðungsdómar was initiated about
960-5. I contend therefore that it is only with the Fjórðungsdómar
that both institutions became formal and the quarters strictly geographical.
3 On the disputes, see Jóhannesson (1956:68-9).
4 Reproduced from figures in Gelsinger (1981:7-8). See also Jóhannesson
(1956) and Sigurðsson (1990).
6 The unequal number of Goðar in the quarters after 960-5 also supports
the contention that the Fjórðungsþings had been informal
or irregular gatherings before that time. It is only when the formalization
is attempted and when the Fjórðungsdómar formed that
disputes arise concerning the balance of power. From this it seems that
the Fjórðungsþings may have become somewhat more or better
accepted in all areas except the North. But, see also Jóhannesson
7 Historians, Ingvarsson (1986:132) for example, claim that a chieftain
would ask that every ninth of his þingmenn accompany him to the Alþing.
8 Although the number of tax-paying farmers is known, it
is hard to estimate how many people lived on their farms. Historians have
used the numbers 6 to 17 as representing a typical household. Further,
finding out about the relative number of tenant farmers is almost impossible.
Most estimates therefore rely on using 14th-18th century figures to estimate
backwards. Population estimates vary in the secondary literature. The Sagas
are not clear on this, since they only mention the number of tax-paying
farmers. On this see Gelsinger (1981:7-10), Byock (1988:2 and 82), and
Jóhannesson (1956:46-49). Gelsinger (1981:8) estimates the population
at 30-35,000 in 930, around 80,000 in 1095, and around 67,000 in 1311.
9 What I accept from the estimates of the historians.
10 Nozick's aim is to show how a minimal state can arise
from a state-of-nature without violating libertarian constraints or natural
rights. In doing so he first shows how the minimal state arises and then
why the constraints have not been violated. Since my aim is like his first
task, of explaining, and unlike the his second task, of justifying, I focus
only on the first two chapters of his book. For criticism of Nozick's explanation
and justification of the minimal state, see Murray N. Rothbard, editor,
The Journal of Libertarian Studies; An Interdisciplinary Review, vol. 1,
no. 1, Winter 1977, (articles by Rothbard, Randy E. Barnett, Roy A. Childs
and John T. Sanders).
11 Although Nozick's uses the term 'right' we need not interpret these
rights as natural rights. Instead they can be thought of as violating property
or person, such as stealing or physical assault.
12 For an interesting and imaginative vision and arguments of such competition,
see Friedman (1989).
13 These 'states' are analogous to nation states and the conflicts analogous
to conflicts between nation states.
14 Gissurarson (1990:16) also argues for this analogy:
"The competitive chieftainships in the Icelandic Commonwealth shared
some features with the competitive protective associations described by
Robert Nozick in his much-discussed Anarchy, State, and Utopia."
15 That the Goði may have been a religious leader to begin with is,
as mentioned, disputed. See, for example, Lárusson (1932:13-14)
and Jóhannesson (1956:72) in support of the religion interpretation
and Benediktsson (1974:172-3) who opposes it.
16 On the early development of the chieftainship, its religious role and
its origin, see Benediktsson (1974).
17 The farmer in aligning himself with a chieftain became the chieftain's
Þingmaður (or Þingmann). In becoming a þingmaður
the farmer was obliged to attend þings with his chieftain, if requested,
and contribute to payments of the þingfararkaup. Þingfararkaup
was paid to those þingmenn who the chieftain had chosen to attend
the Alþing with him. The revenue for the þingfararkaup was
raised by having the other, non-attending, þingmenn pay a þingmann-fee.
18 This is not to say that there may not have been some
optimal number of followers, after which any increase in their number had
decreasing or even negative returns. Such factors as the level of personal
connection and wealth may have bound the optimal number.
19 All historians do not agree on whether there was a temple-tax or not.
Benediktsson (1974:172-3) is one who doubts it. But whether there was a
temple-tax or not, one thing seems clear and that is that owners of temples
would have requested the attending farmers to contribute to the temple
somehow. Whether they did so through a tax or through voluntary contributions
has no major significance for my argument. It is obvious that the tax would
be a required payment, but it could also be contended that the contributions
were voluntary in name only. The chieftains, if they in fact owned some
of the temples, would have been in a advantageous position to require "voluntary"
contributions, or else would not represent their non-contributing followers
equally. My argument, or explanation, for the decline of the Commonwealth
does not depend on the existence of this temple-fee, although it does depend
on on revenue-seeking by the chieftains. As will become clearer later in
this chapter and in chapter 6, my argument relies on the establishment
of taxation in 1096.
20 Both Hastrup (1984) and Byock (1988) present examples
of chieftains and farmers living far apart.
21 See Byock (1988) on chieftains demanding, and getting, shares of damages
and properties of the farmers.
22 A partial explanation is found in the authority of the Lögrétta
to issue exceptions from this geographical requirement, i.e. the Lögrétta
could agree to let a farmer choose a chieftain from outside their quarter.
23 "National" only in the sense that Christianity became the
official religion of the people of Our Law. The islanders of this time
had little sense of a seperate Icelandic nationality, although they did
distinguish between people living in Iceland and those living elsewhere
("foreign residents") (Líndal 1974:214).
24 Many of the heathendom practices were outlawed in 1006, 1030, and especially
in the 12th century. See Hastrup (1984) on these single laws.
25 As mentioned, the existence of a temple-tax is somewhat
disputed and some, like Benediktsson (1974:172-3), claim that it is fictional.
Benediktsson claims that the temple-tax story is inferred from the later
acceptance of the Tithe-tax and wrongfully so. I contend that whether there
was a temple-tax or not some form of revenue was needed for the church
owners. Whether this revenue was gained through a formal tax or through
contributions is really not of major concern here. If revenue was gathered
by temple owners in the heathendom period then this must have been continued
in the Christiandom period, before the Tithe, since otherwise why would
the heathen temple owners have accepted the new religion? Jóhannesson
(1974:169) supports this view: The introduction of a new religious system
is not, in itself, likely to have caused chieftains to relinquish their
claims to temle tolls. As the new religion took hold in the country, the
chieftains no longer had to maintain the old temples; instead, these men
were placed in charge of Christian churches. It would have been quite logical
for them to use the temple tolls under a different name for the maintenance
of churches. This form of taxation must have ceased when the Tither Law
was introduced, or, as is more probable, the tolls continued to be levied
under some new name.
26 Ísleifur's father Gizur had been a Goði
and as such was one of those advocating the acceptance of Christianity
at the Alþing in the year 1000. Ísleifur would of course have
inherited his fathers Goðorð at his death as well as most of his
property. It seems though that Ísleifur's seat in the Law Council
was not that of his fathers but rather a special seat created by the Lögrétta.
27 On the establishment of the Fifth Court see chapter 4.
28 Some historians have used this as supporting Iceland's dependence on
Norway in trade matters. I have already alluded to this in chapter 2 and
will offer further discussion in chapter 6.
29 I provide a theoretical explanation of rent-seeking and analyze the
acceptance of the Tithe and its results in chapter 6.
30 See Byock (1988) on some case studies of the Goði-þinmann
relationship. Byock argues that this may have been a determinant factor
in wealth accumulation by chieftains.
31 Another factor concerning the workability is the matter
of distances. Iceland is about 40,000 miles2 in size and, therefore, each
of the 39 chieftains had about 1,000 sq. miles in territory. More important
though, is the fact that the farmers were scattered around most of this
area and therefore any organized effert against the chieftains would have
been even harder to establish.
32 The discussion here should not be interpreted as if we are condemning
the advantages of the chieftains in their relations with the farmers. Rather
we are simply trying to explain the structure as it was. Further, it well
may be that the smooth working of the Commonwealth's institutional structure
depended on this advantage, or rather on the equality of the chieftains.
I will analyze these more fully in chapter 6 and offer some conclusions
there and in chapter 7.
33 Ther is some dispute as to the timing of when the Goðar became wealthier.
Jóhannesson (1956:82) claims that the Goðar were financially
disteressed in the 11th and early 12 century, but admits that the introduction
of taxation later provided them with revenues. Karlsson (1975:36-38) emphasizes
that the introduction of taxation provided certain families with wealth
and power advantages immediatly.
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