Sunday, December 22, 2013

Schoolwork (Vikings): Blood and Money - The Resolutons of Disputes in Njal's Saga

Hardwell rocks, but hearing Matthew Koma's very distinctive voice on the radio is what got me looking this up. I love Koma's work. I was introduced through his work with Alesso on Years, which is an awesome song by the way.

So I'm gonna try to get something up every day for a few days. Sorry about the radio silence the last couple weeks, especially this most recent week - it was finals and I've been super busy. It's all done now though! I'm still a bit worried about passing one class, but it's out of my hands now.
But let's not look at the class I'm worried about - that one doesn't have large writing assignments. My religion and history classes though? Those have been generating some writing. I've got like 10,000 words to share. But not all at once, let's space 'em out a bit.
I have three essays:
* One on the systems of compensation and dispute settlement present in Njal's Saga (one of the Icelandic Sagas).
* One on the debate between Martin Luther (the church reformer, not the civil rights leader) and Zwingli over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
* One on the intersection of the teaching of history and tabletop RPGs. Yup. Guess which essay actually excites me.
Well, all of them do - Vikings and theology and RPGs are all really cool to me.

Let's start today with the first of those three.

Let's look at the prompt first, since that's kind of important.
The topic of your second essay is the theme of settling serious disputes in Viking Age society. According to Njal’s Saga, how did medieval Icelanders attempt to settle conflicts, and what roles did the Althing and the payment of compensation play in the settlement of disputes? Why were violent disputes such a problem in Iceland and other Viking Age societies? As you write your essay, be sure to comment as well on another possibility at work in the saga—the resort to violence as a method of resolving conflicts and seeking revenge.
That's a pretty extensive topic.
Let's disclaim!
As usual, this is my essay, made available so I can potentially receive feedback and to help others learn what I'm learning myself. I'm no expert, so seriously, none of the would-be paper thieves out there should use or even cite this. Still, I think I learned a lot to be able to write the essay, and hopefully you learn something too!
And if you know something about the subject, let me know if I got something right/wrong, or if you have interesting insights or thoughts about it! Same with folks who know things about writing essays! And I do love hearing when just other regular folks get some education out of my work.

Max / Ego            Word Count: 2672     
Blood and Money: The Resolutions of Disputes in Njal’s Saga
            The society of the medieval Icelanders is at once both more and less available for modern study than that of other Scandinavian nations from the same time. The Book of Settlements maintained by those in Iceland provides a sweeping and informative overview of the state of Icelandic civilization, and in the 1200s many old stories were recorded by individuals such as Snorri Sturluson, the whole of which are now referred to as the Sagas of the Icelanders. These Sagas were the stories that had been passed down through many years, long before their recorders lived. For this reason, the Sagas cannot be understood as a recording of things as they happened (as with the Book of Settlements or the annals of other nations), but only as stories, created with purpose. They are filled with historical truth as well, much more so than most stories, with extensive geneologies and place references to connect the readers (or listeners, as was more likely) to the stories personally, and most of the characters and deeds are considered to be the way things happened. At the same time, however, the light in which certain actions are portrayed can reveal much about the lessons the authors wanted to convey. One saga, considered by many to be the greatest, or at least most popular, of the sagas is Njal’s Saga, which takes place in the years flanking the Christianization of Iceland in the year 1000. One of the core themes of Njal’s Saga was the resolution of disputes both within and outside the law. Its title character, Njal, was an extraordinary lawyer, possessed of foresight and wisdom, and his efforts to create peaceful settlements and mitigate the violent methods through which many sought vengeance; Njal often tried to prevent the use of even those violent means that were legally allowable. In the Iceland seen in Njal’s Saga, medieval Icelanders often used violence to settle their conflicts but it was usually through peaceful settlement, often at the Althing, that disputes were finally put to rest.
            Settlement by blood was easily the most common means of revenge in Njal’s Saga. There exist many examples of its use, in many different contexts. The first context to understand it in, and perhaps the easiest to understand, is in conflict with those not from Iceland or those who have been declared outlaws. Outlawry was a state one could be put into as punishment for other crimes that meant one was completely banished from civilized society. The most relevant part of the consequences of outlawry was that “he could be killed without legal redress.”[1] In these cases of violence against foreigners or outlaws, the legal system may as well not have existed, as it wasn’t treated with any relevance. However, in one specific case in Njal’s Saga, the case of Gunnar Hamundarson’s death (a character who had been the focus of the Saga for a while and was obviously intended as a primarily heroic figure), the usual rules of outlawry were ignored. Gunnar had been declared an outlaw after breaking a settlement in which he had agreed to leave Iceland for three years.[2] After Mord, Thorgeir, Starkin, and others killed Gunnar, Skarphedin (the eldest of Njal’s sons) took vengeance on many of the killers before threatening Mord into allowing Hogni (the more good-natured of Gunnar’s two sons) to self-arbitrate the case, meaning that Hogni would be allowed to set the price of compensation for the crimes against Gunnar[3]. This is unusual, as Gunnar was an outlaw, and should not have been compensated at all, but intimidation allowed for Gunnar’s death to be payed for, equal to the slaying of two free men.[4] This method of using intimidation within the legal process was not uncommon, and can be seen numerous times. Occasionally it would take place in the way seen between Skarphedin and Mord, with one simply threatening to murder the other, but this was in fact much less common the alternative form of legal violence: dueling. Any individual had the ability to put a legal dispute into the form of a duel, with the victor (declared according to standard dueling rules, which didn’t necessarily end in death) winning the legal matter as well. Refusing to duel when a challenge has been made is akin to forfeiting the legal matter, and in this way the legal system seemed heavily biased toward those who could fight best. This could be seen when Hrut challenged Mord Gigja to a duel when Mord was attempting to reclaim his daughter’s property after her divorce from Hrut. Mord, as an old man at that point in time, would not have survived, and so declined, sacrificing his daughter Unn’s property.[5] Much later, after Unn had wasted away both her money and her father’s, she went to Gunnar (who was a distant relative) and asked him to restart the case to reclaim her property. After a great deal of trickery on Gunnar’s part, guided by Njal’s crafty hand, Gunnar reopened the case and challenged Hrut to a duel just as he had to Mord. Gunnar, the finest warrior in all the land, was too much of an opponent for Hrut to face and so he denied the challenge, returning the property.[6] The threat of a duel most often came about when there was a great disparity between the skill of the two participants, and for this reason there are no accepted duel challenges throughout the whole of Njal’s Saga. It is important to note what Hrut said after backing down, that “[This threat of force] will be avenged against him…but the vengeance and the credit for it will not be ours.”[7] Hrut’s prophecy here illustrates an understanding that violence in Iceland is never the end of a dispute. And while these two duel challenges are the only ones officially made in the Saga, even the threat that a challenge would be issued was enough to scare people into submission, as was the case when Geir the Godi and Gizur the White were forced to offer Gunnar self-judgment or be faced with duel challenges[8] or when Gunnar threatened Ulf that he should back down when he was going to have a case closed on account of a mistake in court procedure on the prosecutor’s part.[9] These duels, as cases of legal violence, all would have happened right there at the Althing, the meeting of chieftains that occurred regularly in the southwest of Iceland where all legal disputes were managed. However, duels and the slaying of outlaws are not the most prominent cases of violent settlement in Njal’s Saga. No, the most common form exists outside of the legal system, because this form is simply for those close to a killed man to kill the one responsible, leading to extensive blood feuds. A long chain of killings can be seen between Gunnar’s family and Njal’s. Hallgerd, Gunnar’s wicked wife, had her servant Kol kill Njal’s servant Svart[10] over a small insult from Bergthora[11], Njal’s wife. In response, Bergthora has Atli kill Kol.[12] Atli was then killed by Brynjolf,[13] who was then killed by Thord,[14] who was then killed by Sigmund and Skjold,[15] who were killed by the Njalssons.[16] After each killing, Gunnar and Njal met to settle the compensation, maintaining the peace of the situation through the legal system, but the two women were never satisfied with this.  After the final instance, Gunnar does not even request any compensation for Sigmund and Skjold.[17] In another instance, Kari avenges Njal and his sons by slaying a large number of the individuals responsible for the burning, until finally he makes peace with Flosi (the leader of the burners) and the conflict is ended, along with the Saga.[18]
            The other primary means through which disputes were resolved was through payment of ‘money.’ While the Icelanders had no firm concept of a standardized currency as we use today, they traded in two forms of goods: ounces of silver and ells of homespun cloth, and payments for deaths were usually numbered in ounces of silver (interestingly, unlike in other European societies land was not a great commodity, as Unn was considered impoverished when all she had was “land and personal items”[19]). Before exploring examples from the Saga, there are a couple notes regarding the payment of compensation to understand. First, offering self-judgment in arbitration was an honorable act that put great trust in the offended party when there was an established amount that could be won if a full dispute was argued in court, but it was of great benefit to one’s honor to set a fair price if given self-judgment. For this reason, there are no cases in Njal’s Saga where one is willingly given self-judgment and uses this to take advantage and demand excessive amounts. Second, the ordinary payment for the slaying of a free man is generally two hundred ounces of silver in Njal’s Saga (though, because they used the Old Germanic ‘long hundred,’ this was closer to 240 ounces). This is important to understand as context for the amounts paid out through the Saga. Third, compensation could be set to be paid “all at once” at the Thing, which was a greater burden upon the guilty party as they would have would not be able to pay it out over time to maintain a degree of prosperity even as they paid compensation. Fourth, there was a difference between a case going uncompensated and a case being determined to be worth no compensation. The former was treachery, and a sign of poor character, as was implied in the description of Thjostolf.[20] The latter was fair and just as the case had come to legal disputation and been arbitrated. Lastly, compensation was always sought for the death of an Icelander (meaning one who was not an outlaw), even if the killed were also the aggressors. This was taken into consideration, as was the case of Amundi after the just slaying of Lyting, reducing the cost in that case,[21] but to not seek any payment and leave a matter uncompensated was to do wrongly and dishonorably by the dead.
            In the Saga, compensation has two outcomes: the satisfaction of all or the satisfaction of some. In the cases where all are satisfied, matters are finally put to rest, and this is the most peaceable solution. This can be seen when Osvif seeks compensation from Hoskuld when Hallgerd (Hoskuld’s daughter) had her husband Thorvald (Osvif’s son) killed by Thjostolf, a friend of hers. In this case, Hoskuld pays the standard 200 ounces of silver for the harm his daughter wrought, and Osvif ceases to be a participant in the story, the matter completely settled.[22] This case is very similar to that of Glum’s, where Thjostolf killed Glum (Hallgerd’s new husband) without the consent of Hallgerd, and Hrut killed him for it. When Glum’s brother Thorarin arrived to request compensation, despite no harm being done by them (and in fact having avenged Glum) Hoskuld and Hrut give gifts to completely settle the matter.[23] Other cases of complete settlement included Earl Hakon’s payment to the Njalssons,[24] the settlement with Ketil of Mork over Thrain’s death, [25]and even Kari and Flosi “made a full reconciliation” (though the lack of objecting parties is twisted slightly by the fact that Kari had already killed more than a dozen of the other burners).[26] Much more common than complete reconciliation, however, is partial settlement, where one or more people are not satisfied with the results (often the individuals forced to pay). A highly notable instance of this was in the chain of murders orchestrated by Hallgerd and Bergthora against each other’s families. After each instance, Njal or Gunnar paid the other (depending on who was killed) for the deaths, starting with twelve ounces of silver for the servants leading up to a full two hundred ounces for Thord. Even following the complete payments and the peaceful settlement of the cases, as well as direct commands not to break the settlements,[27] Hallgerd and Bergthora were not satisfied with the resolution of the conflict, and so continued. It wasn’t until the final case, where compensation was not pursued, that Hallgerd and Bergthora’s bloodlust seemed sated. Another large case of dissatisfaction with compensation was in the case of Thorgeir, who attacked Gunnar during a horse fight and was struck down by Gunnar. Thorgeir repeatedly sought recompense, first through blood,[28] and then legally attempts to sue Gunnar for those he killed when Thorgeir attacked,[29] and when still unhappy with the price payed he plotted to attack Gunnar again.[30] Though Njal foils this attempt[31] and tries Thorgeir for a lot of money,[32] Thorgeir tries again, and in this case Thorgeir Otkelson (a different Thorgeir) was killed, leading to Gunnar paying an extravagant amount and being exiled for three years. When he stays at his farm, Thorgeir, along with a large entourage led by Mord, leads an attack in which Gunnar is slain.[33] In this matter, monetary compensation was completely ineffective, and even the aftermath was unresolved, with the villainous Mord being the only survivor and his anger coming back to haunt the Njalssons when he masterminds their burning. Some other cases where payment did not mark the end of the struggle were when Lyting paid the Njalssons over an attack,[34] or when Njalssons killed the Godi of Hvitanes (payment in this case was never even formally accepted, ruined by an insult from Skarphedin).[35]
            The Icelanders were capable of being violent in their conflict resolution only due to a significant difference from other societies. In most societies, there is a central functioning body or government that has the sole control of force. Violence was forbidden to average citizens, reserved for an external military or for police action by the government in the enforcement of rules. Iceland had no central governing force, with responsibility for enforcement of the laws falling on individuals. This led to the dominance of the physically strong over others, allowing Gunnar and Hrut’s intimidation tactics to push others around (and though Gunnar only does so when the cause is just, the fact that it can be done is more significant overall). The Saga is quite clear, however, that it is through carefully-mediated peaceful resolution that can finally end conflicts. Violence leads to more violence, without question, until peaceful resolution is attempted. The Althing was important and prominent for its ability to control and mediate the rash and violent reactions of victims, but ultimately without an island-wide ability to enforce the settlements, the power of peaceful settlements only persisted so long as the danger to one’s honor from breaking one was greater than the benefit of violence. In summary, the medieval Icelanders portrayed in Njal’s Saga often resorted to violence to resolve their disputes, but it was only through peaceful compensation that things were settled with any true finality.

[1] Njal’s Saga, translated and edited by Robert Cook (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 364
[2] Ibid., Ch. 75, p. 124
[3] Ibid., Ch. 79, p. 132
[4] Ibid., Ch. 80, p. 132
[5] Ibid., Ch. 8, p. 17
[6] Ibid., Ch. 21-24, p. 36-42
[7] Ibid., Ch. 24, p. 43
[8] Ibid., Ch. 51, p. 88
[9] Ibid., Ch. 60, p. 102
[10] Ibid., Ch. 36, p. 59
[11] Ibid., Ch. 36, p. 57
[12] Ibid., Ch. 37, p. 62
[13] Ibid., Ch. 38, p. 65
[14] Ibid., Ch. 39, p. 67
[15] Ibid., Ch. 42, p. 71
[16] Ibid., Ch. 45, p. 77
[17] Ibid., Ch. 45, p. 78
[18] Ibid., Ch. 159, p. 310
[19] Ibid., Ch. 18, p. 34
[20] Ibid., Ch. 9, p. 18
[21] Ibid., Ch. 106, p. 183
[22] Ibid., Ch. 12, p. 25-26
[23] Ibid., Ch. 17, p. 34
[24] Ibid., Ch. 89, p. 152
[25] Ibid., Ch. 93, p. 161
[26] Ibid., Ch. 159, p. 310
[27] Ibid., Ch. 62, p. 63
[28] Ibid., Ch. 61-63, p. 103-107
[29] Ibid., Ch. 66, p. 111
[30] Ibid., Ch. 67, p. 113
[31] Ibid., Ch. 69, p. 116
[32] Ibid., Ch. 70, p. 117
[33] Ibid., Ch. 75-77, p. 124-128
[34] Ibid., Ch. 99, p. 172
[35] Ibid., Ch. 123, p. 210

(the prof noted that I went a little overboard on the citations, but better than under-citing)
My score? A! I feel good about it, especially since shot three pages over the standard range. I wouldn't call it comprehensive - I stopped myself due to time and length, but there was more I could have wrote on. In particular, I wanted to discuss alternative dispute solutions in the Saga (personally-enacted punishments such as Gunnhild's curse of Hrut, and both local banishments and national exile aka outlawry) and the way that women interact with the system; basically, they don't. Women don't exist to the legal system, leaving them to their own devices. They interact with it through their control of men, but face little legal consequence directly; even if they were to directly transgress the law, though they wouldn't due to the intense social taboo over breaking gender roles, the man would usually be responsible for the legal compensation.
Gender roles are complicated in Iceland in the Viking age. I talk more on that in, of all places, the History & RPGs paper. Anyway those are some things I'd add if I did This Essay v2.0. Also I would make the conclusion more than just a summary.

So where am I going in the next little while? I've got some time off for the holidays, and January brings with it my J-Term. J-Term is a thing my school does where we take a single full-credit course and slam it in a month. Mine is, um, Beginning Golf. I have no interest, but I have PE credits to fill and it was the only thing really open. At least it's a very light load for me to handle.
Well, first I'm going to burn through my remaining schoolwork posts. Also gonna continue Sunday Songs of course. Oh, speaking of Sunday Songs, last week was my 52nd Sunday Songs post! A year's worth. That basically means I missed about 6 weeks of 'em since starting at the beginning of November last year. Makes sense given some early absence while I was in Morocco and then some downtime.
Beyond the usual Sunday Songs, I'm going to push myself to get Avatar World v1.3 out there, and hopefully get Mass Effect Hack v1.0 out in the wild soon. I want to start on really doing art for Avatar World, which will mean picking a style and sticking to it unfortunately. Also coming up with poses and ideas and then actually figuring out if I have the skill to execute what I imagine. And that is a giant "if".

I have quiet rumblings in my mind to do a month-long event for January of some kind, but I don't know what.

Anyway, later folks. Enjoy the essay!
End Recording,

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