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Coercion, vengeance, feud and accommodation: homicide in medieval Iceland

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  • The idea for this study came from a remark by William Ian Miller, that homicide rates ‘are not recoverable in medieval Iceland, since we know neither the number of homicides nor the number of people’ (Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago, 1990), p. 303). In addressing this challenge, I am very appreciative of the supervision and support provided by Dr Scott Ashley in the conduct of the study and the preparation of this paper. I am also grateful to Dr Chris Callow, and two anonymous reviewers, for their critical comments on earlier drafts, who have encouraged me to tighten the study and clarify a number of points of interpretation. Correspondence to hfirth@blueyonder.co.uk or 17 Lindisfarne Road, Newcastle on Tyne, NE2 2HE, UK.

Abstract

Quantitative methods were employed to situate medieval Icelandic homicide in comparative context. Estimates of homicide rates were derived from samtíðarsögur, and found comparable with European rural medieval homicide estimates: late twelfth-century Iceland was probably not as violent as a qualitative reading of the sagas might suggest. There were significant differences in patterns of vengeance between íslendingasögur and samtíðarsögur. In íslendingasögur, farmers committing homicide faced flight, outlawry or death; chieftains who initiated homicide might escape justice, although most became embroiled in feud. In samtíðarsögur, lethal vengeance following ordinary homicide was less common, and not a source of feud. These results generate a critique of previous notions of reciprocity in Icelandic vengeance, and support more recent interpretations of early medieval Icelandic society as a highly unequal, divided society. Both sources suggest that, although vengeance may have been legitimated in the language of ‘repayment’, vengeance is best understood within a cross-cultural context as competitive behaviour designed to achieve superiority rather than parity.

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