Sunday, July 18, 2004

The absence of a central government in Iceland

"Now I ask thee, Hall of the Side, and thee Runolf of the Dale,and thee Hjallti Skeggi's son, and thee Einar of Thvera, and thee Hafr the Wise, that I may be allowed to make an atonement for theslaying of Hauskuld on my son's behalf; and I wish that those menwho are best fitted to do so shall utter the award." - Njáll Þorgeirsson.
Thingvellir

A long time ago bunch of outcasts from Norway settled in Iceland. The society in Iceland did not have an executive branch of government, the courts were private and there was no such thing as a government property as Thomas Whiston explains:

"Iceland did not have an executive branch of government. Instead of a king they had local chieftains. One permanent official in their system was the "logsogumadr" or law-speaker. His duties included the memorization of laws, the provision of advice on legislative issues, and the recitation of all legislative acts one time while in office. Instead of a judicial branch of government there were private courts that were the responsibility of the godar. To solve disputes, members of this court system were chosen after the crime happened. The defendant and plaintiff each had the right to pick half the arbitrators. There was another level of courts called the Varthing. This was a Thing court in which the judges were chosen by the godar of the Thing. David Friedman has found that these courts were rarely used and not much is known about them. [1] Then there was the National Assembly or the Althing. Each quarter was represented by their own Althing. If a dispute was not settled by the private courts, the dispute would go up the ladder to the next highest court until the dispute was resolved. There was no public property during the era of the Vikings in Iceland, all property was privately owned."

This system was in place for nearly 300 years and apparently functioned sufficiently well. The documentation comes from the Icelandic Sagas that were written after that era and there is no way of ascertaining how well the system brought justice to the inhabitants of Iceland. But here is a well documented case of a society that functioned well without a central government with well developed and sophisticated legal system.

The Icelandic Sagas in Icelandic and English.




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