Icelandic Commonwealth

Icelandic Commonwealth
Icelandic Commonwealth
Þjóðveldið Ísland


Coat of arms

Capital Þingvellir
Language(s) Old Icelandic
Political structure Federation
Important chieftains (goðar)
 - 1199-1238 Sturla Sighvatsson
 - 1208-1245 Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson
 - ????-1256 Þórður kakali Sighvatsson
 - 1208-1268 Gissur Þorvaldsson
 - 1214-1284 Sturla Þórðarson
 - 985-1001 Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði
 - 1004-1030 Skapti Þóroddsson
 - 1031-1033 Steinn Þorgestsson
 - 1034-1053 Þorkell Tjörvason
 - 1054-1062/1072-1074 Gellir Bolverksson
 - 1063-1065/1075 Gunnar Þorgrímsson the Wise
Legislature Lögrétta of Alþingi
Historical era High Middle Ages
 - Alþingi established 930
 - Norwegian kingship 1262
 - 950 103,000 km2 (39,769 sq mi)
 - 950 est. 50,000 
     Density 0.5 /km2  (1.3 /sq mi)
Today part of  Iceland

The Icelandic Commonwealth, Icelandic Free State, or Republic of Iceland[1] (Icelandic: Þjóðveldið) was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Althing in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king in 1262. It was initially established by a public consisting largely of recent immigrants from Norway who had fled the unification of that country under King Harald Fairhair.


Goðorð system

The medieval Icelandic state had an unusual structure. At the national level, the Althing was both court and legislature; there was no king or other central executive power. Iceland was divided into numerous goðorð (plural same as singular), which were essentially clans or alliances run by chieftains called goðar (singular goði). The chieftains provided for defense and appointed judges to resolve disputes between goðorð members. The goðorð were not strictly geographical districts. Instead, membership in a goðorð was an individual's decision, and one could, at least theoretically, change goðorð at will. However, no group of lesser men could elect or declare someone a goði. The position was the property of the goði; and could be bought, sold, borrowed, and inherited.

The descendants of Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, held the ceremonial position allsherjargoði and were to sanctify the Althing as it met every year.

Court system

If a person wanted to appeal a decision made by his goðorð court or if a dispute arose between members of different goðorð, the case would be referred to a system of higher-level courts, leading up to the four regional courts which made up the Althing, which consisted of the goðar of the Four Quarters of Iceland. The Althing eventually created a national "fifth court", as the highest court of all, and more goðar to be its members.

The Althing was only moderately successful at stopping feuds; Magnus Magnusson calls it "an uneasy substitute for vengeance". Nevertheless, it could act very sweepingly. At the Conversion of Iceland in 1000, the Althing decreed in order to prevent an invasion, that all Icelanders must be baptized, and forbade the public celebration of pagan rituals. Private celebration was forbidden a few years later.

In 1117 the laws were put into writing, and this written code was later referred to as the Gray Goose Laws.

Life within the system

The actual operation of this system is a common subject matter in some of the Icelandic sagas. Works like Njál’s Saga and the Laxdæla Saga give many details, but their accuracy has been disputed. These and other sagas are available in modern English translations. Njál’s Saga includes the Christianisation of Iceland within the framework of the story.


The followers of the goðar owed them military service. They were organized into platoons or companies based on their social status and equipment, which formed expeditionary armies or leiðangrs. Icelandic military tradition of the time followed closely developments in Norway. No organized cavalry formations or formations of troops equipped with projectile weapons are recorded: instead the bulk of the forces were formed in units of light, medium and heavy infantry, with bowmen or slingers distributed among the infantry units operating as light support skirmishers.

Before the end of the Commonwealth at least 21 fortresses and castles had been built in Iceland.[2]

During the Age of the Sturlungs the average battle consisted of fewer than 1000 men with the average casualty rate of only 15%. This low casualty rate has been attributed to the blood-feud mentality that permeated Icelandic society which meant that the defeated army could not be slaughtered honourably to a man. -- Birgir Loftsson op.cit.

Decline and fall

In the early 13th century, the Sturlung era, the Commonwealth began to suffer from serious internal strife. The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals that they bring the country under his rule. A combination of discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the King of Norway led the Icelandic chieftains to accept Norway's Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") in 1262. This effectively brought the Commonwealth to an end.


Interest among anarchist writers

Anarchist historians and philosophers have looked to the Icelandic Commonwealth with interest since the 19th century. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin first noted in his book Mutual Aid that Norse society, from which the settlers in Iceland came, had various "mutual aid" institutions, including communal land ownership (based around what he called "the village community") and a form of social self-administration, the "Thing" -- both local and Iceland-wide -- which can be considered a "primitive" form of the anarchist communal assembly. Anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus also noted that in Iceland they "succeeded completely in maintaining their dignity as free man, without kings, feudal principles, hierarchy or any military establishment." They governed themselves through a process in which "the common interest was discussed in the open air by all inhabitants, who were dressed in armor, the symbol of the absolute right of personal self-defense belonging to each individual."[3]

More recently, some anarcho-capitalists have claimed it to be a possible model anarcho-capitalist society, where police and justice were guaranteed through a free market. Author Jared Diamond has written

Medieval Iceland had no bureaucrats, no taxes, no police, and no army. … Of the normal functions of governments elsewhere, some did not exist in Iceland, and others were privatized, including fire-fighting, criminal prosecutions and executions, and care of the poor.[4]

Prominent anarcho-capitalist writer David D. Friedman featured classical Iceland in his book The Machinery of Freedom, and has written other papers about it.

Medieval Icelandic institutions have several peculiar and interesting characteristics; they might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions. Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a "parliament," seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary, output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.[5]

This "Thing system" survived for several centuries. It was eventually destroyed by the Christian church, which bought up all the godards (defense agencies) creating a state monopoly[citation needed]. For market anarchist scholar Roderick Long, this illustrates a flaw in the thing system which differentiates it from pure anarcho-capitalism - new "startup" mutual defense units were not allowed.[6][7]

The social anarchist authors of An Anarchist FAQ took issue with Friedman's portrayal of the period, arguing that the Icelandic system was pre-capitalist in nature with numerous communal institutions.[8] Friedman accused them of misconstruing his position and not caring whether what they published was true.[9] The authors of the FAQ admitted to making mistakes, but rejected the notion that they were uninterested in the truth, and maintained their analysis that Iceland was a communal system. [10]

See also

External links


  1. ^ commons:File:Public Schools Historical Atlas - Europe 1135.jpg - "(Republic) Iceland"
  2. ^ Birgir Loftsson (2006), Hernaðarsaga Íslands : 1170-1581, Pjaxi. Reykjavík; pg. 76
  3. ^ John P Clark and Camille Martin Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 70]
  4. ^ Diamond, Jared (2002-05-23). "Living on the Moon". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  5. ^ Friedman, David D. (March 1979). "Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case". Journal of Legal Studies. Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  6. ^ Long, Roderick T. (2002-06-06). "Privatization, Viking Style: Model or Misfortune?". Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  7. ^ Klassen, Robert (2002-03-18). "Iceland: A Libertarian Model?". Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  8. ^ An Anarchist FAQ. "9 Is Medieval Iceland an example of "anarcho"-capitalism working in practice?". Retrieved 2008-11-11. 
  9. ^ Friedman, David D. "Iceland Anarch FAQ2 reply". Retrieved 2007-08-12. 
  10. ^ An Anarchist FAQ. "AFAQ and Medieval Iceland". Retrieved 2008-11-25. 

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