They Also Brought the Rule of Law

Article excerpt

We all assume that rule-of-law is a good thing, but we need to remind ourselves that law is only a medium, never an end in itself. After all, rule-of-law can support the best or worst of government, including Nazi Germany. And what are alternatives to rule-of-law? Rule-of-religious-faith? Rule-of-economics/corporate-power? Rule-of-executive/royal-will? Rule-of-militia-or-maiosa? Many regimes combine all of these.

One such regime existed in Iceland one millennium ago. That huge mound of volcanic lava in the North Atlantic, known since earlier medieval times as Iceland, offers rich historical examples for all such varieties of rules and rulers.

Read any of their two-dozen-plus sagas, where the action begins in the ninth century. Their texts burst with stories of family loyalties and feuds, violent body mutilations and court awarded compensations, bargains and bullyings, inheritances and takings: all claiming rule-of-law for authority.

Then read any of the thousands of collected laws (the Grágás) from the 12th century. (An edited and translated version was published by the University of Manitoba Press). It is full of rules governing marriage, commerce, landholding, debt, homicide, theft, gossip, incest, piracy, even farming and livestock.

How could it be that this medieval European outpost had such an advanced rule-of-law system? Its legislature, the Althing, dates from 934, more than two centuries before similar parliaments in England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy. Its laws combined transplants from Norway with local landlord legislation; but the amazing thing was that this land of Norse farmers had any rule-of-law at all, and the law courts to enforce it.

The Vikings began as warrior thugs and pirate retinues who routinely terrorized the coasts of Ireland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Hebrides, Shetlands, Isle of Man and south into the Mediterranean. The Normans who conquered England (1066) were direct descendants of Viking sea-raiders (and French maidens) who had sacked Lindisfarne (793), Ireland (795), Rouen and Paris (845), arriving in Iceland before 874.

For all the rule-of-violence that the Icelanders recorded in their sagas, they also retained an instinctual rule-of-law and law-making. They created local councils and courts run by landlords and clan chieftains. Their rule-of-law, however, was never based on the sources and institutions that other European relied on.

An 11th-century chronicler, Adam of Bremen, wrote that Icelanders uniquely " ...Have no king except the law." By the year 1000 there were over 10,000 Icelanders but no monarchy or royal family. And unlike the rest of Europe, there were no churches, no faith-based cult of priests, no central government and executive bureaucracies, no cities, no merchant class, and no professional lawyers. …