The story of Iceland in the 21st century is very much centered on the tourism boom it has experienced since the turn of the millennium. This land of fire and ice, windswept beaches, and epic waterfalls has nestled into any list of über-chic travel destinations.

One must remember, however, that despite all the modernity of downtown Reykjavik, human settlement did not occur on the island until the 9th century CE.

Whilst the first phase of the Viking expansion is associated with predatory raids throughout European coastal communities, this evolved into a new settlement phase from the mid-9th century onwards. 

The Great Heathen Army (which was, in fact, a series of several invading forces that were not strictly all pagan) swept across much of Anglo-Saxon England from 865 CE to establish a vast area where the laws of the Norse held sway. 

Another example of this outward push for settlement arose due to political differences in Norway during this period.

Following the bloody unification of Norway, said to have been "completed" by Harald Fairhair in 871 CE, there were plenty of malcontents in his new kingdom. 

According to later medieval Icelandic sagas, some of these malcontents – either licking their wounds after being on the losing side of Harald's wars of unification or chafing at Fairhair's new taxation policies – decided to start a new life by sailing west to Iceland. 

The island was known to a series of Irish monks seeking solitude, and Norse sailors had also discovered it, sailing west from the northern British Isles.

Building an island nation from scratch

Both tradition and the sagas claim that these brave Norse settlers embarked on their journey around 871 CE.

Here, two sagas are of interest (if not great historical detail): Íslendingabók (Saga of the Icelanders) and Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements). 

Though neither were contemporary accounts, written later in the 12th and 13th centuries, they both tend to point to a date between 870 – 874 CE as the first years of this new Norse outpost on the outermost periphery of the European world. 

Ingolfr Arnason is credited as the first person to sail to Iceland with the intent of settlement. 

Exactly who and why the settlers decided to cross the torrid North Sea is unknown, but population pressure, the internal politics of Norway post-unification, and the chance for more land and adventure are all believed to be factors.

The archaeological data shows that human settlement had spread throughout much of the island by the last two decades of the 9th century CE. 

Whilst many of the settlers may have come from Viking societies, many did not.

Recent genetic research has shown that there was a sizable population brought from the British Isles – often against their will. 

Slavery was an integral part of the Viking economy and milieu, and many people from coastal communities throughout what is now the United Kingdom and Ireland were taken as slaves.

These Icelandic settlers felt they needed forced labor and slavery to help build a nation from scratch. 

The population slowly grew throughout the first half-century of settlement as the island's economic foundation expanded.

Farms were established, and the island's natural resources were exploited, especially its walrus population with its precious ivory tusks. 

Economic links between Iceland and the Viking "homeland" in Scandinavia were forged. Greater wealth saw more people flock to the island, meaning a system of governance was required.

The former site of the Althingi parliament is a tangible link to Iceland's Gray Goose Laws, the bedrock of its early legal system. Photo: trabantos / Shutterstock

Governance and parliament

Slavery was not the only custom that Norse settlers in Iceland brought with them across the ocean. 

Whilst many settlers may have bristled under the collar at Harald Fairhair's supposed high taxation and regulation, there was a need for this new island nation to be governed by laws.

In 930 CE, following half a century of the island's establishment and foundation, an outdoor assembly comprised the island's most powerful, influential, and wealthy members. 

Initially, these members were known as Goðar. However, as time progressed, all free men were allowed to attend, though they might not necessarily influence the outcomes.

This would form the basis of a general assembly, the Althing, to which the modern Icelandic parliament traces its direct lineage. 

The establishment of the Althing in 930 CE is seen as the foundational moment of the "Icelandic Commonwealth," which would flourish as an independent nation until the mid-13th century CE.

Yet throughout much of this period, running concurrently with the matters settled at the Althing was the adoption of Norwegian law and custom.

One of the most contentious sets of laws believed to have been enforced during the Commonwealth period was the Grágás, also known as the Gray Goose Laws.

The Gray Goose Laws

The existence of one single set of laws that were written and enforced during the Icelandic Commonwealth period is nonexistent. 

The Gray Goose Laws (or in old Icelandic Grágás) is an unfortunate later medieval term for two series of small law books written in the late 13th century CE.

These two smaller sets of laws were said to be based upon many laws there prevailed throughout Western Norway during the late 9th century CE which the new Icelandic settlers brought with them. 

However, these two books were lumped together in the 16th century CE and given the famous moniker because both were believed to have been inscribed with a quill from a gray goose feather.

These laws were apparently written down for an elite, possibly someone with both money and an education.

Regardless of their name, these laws offer valuable insight into the legal and judicial workings of the Icelandic Commonwealth. 

They often worked hand in hand with the Althing to dispense justice throughout the island nation. 

Throughout the early years of the Althing, a law speaker was required to memorize and recite all the laws that had been passed.

An entry in the Grágás states that in 1117 CE, the laws would be written down. The entire legal and judicial framework of the Norse settlement of Iceland was then inscribed at a farm during that winter.

This appears to mark a turning point in Iceland's legal history. 

Before then, people in Viking societies, like the Icelandic Commonwealth, transmitted information mainly through an oral tradition. 

However, the decision by the Althing in 1117 CE marked Iceland's transition from the early medieval to the high medieval period.

The written word, thanks (in part) to the Christianization of Viking societies, would form the legal and judicial framework for Iceland hereafter.

From the Gray Goose Laws to contemporary legislation, the Althingi parliament has been at the forefront of Iceland's legal evolution for over a millennium. Photo: Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock

Later laws and the end of the Commonwealth

The Grágás laws would form the basis of the legal and judicial foundation that the Icelandic Commonwealth was built upon until well after the end of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1066 CE).

Towards the end of the 11th and into the 12th centuries CE, the Goðar only increased their wealth, power, and influence in the Commonwealth. 

By the start of the 13th century, internal fissures and divisions soon began to appear. Regional power bases were formed, and this resulted in the consolidation of power. 

Over a 4-decade period, a deadly civil war and ongoing violence pushed the Commonwealth further into the abyss of division and despair.

Due to the internal divisions across the island nation, the Kingdom of Norway, from which the original settlers had embarked four centuries earlier, began to exert its influence on the island.

In 1220 CE, the King of Norway began to commission Icelandic chieftains to do his bidding. 

Within four decades, the chieftains of Iceland had accepted the Norwegian King, Hakon IV, as their overlord, and the Icelandic Commonwealth was absorbed into the medieval Kingdom of Norway by 1262 CE. 

It would be almost seven centuries before the island nation was independent again.

With a new Norwegian overlord, the previous laws were kept but often superseded by new Norwegian imports.

This blending of old and newly imported laws formed the Járnsíða law code, which Magnus IV of Norway would compose for the rule of this island.

Yet to think that the laws later dubbed the Gray Goose Laws vanished into the tides of history with Norway's political absorption of the island is not entirely historically true. 

In a 2017 court case stemming from a drunken brawl between a man at his bachelor party and one of Iceland's top MMA fighters, this body of laws was cited, specifically a manuscript referencing risk in games and sports.

Though the initial ruling was in the MMA fighter's favor, the soon-to-be-hubby appealed to the High Court, which cited these laws and reversed the decision.

To think that a 21st-century court case is citing a Viking-era law boggles the mind but excites the Viking spirit!

For further details on the court case referencing the Gray Goose laws, you can read an article from Iceland Monitor here. Additionally, The Guardian has provided more insights into Celtic influences on the Icelandic language here.

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