Most of us have heard about the Viking assemblies called “Things” (Old Norse, Old English and Icelandic: þing, the governing assembly of free people). These were gathering places that made political decisions, made laws and sentenced crimes, a common problem then as it is now.
But what was considered criminal in an age when burning monasteries and pillaging other countries was just another day at the office?
The importance of honor
For a Viking, the most humiliating attitude was not taking responsibility for their own actions. If a viking did something wrong, he had to tell the community and clan about it. It was the only honorable thing to do.
Murders as responses to simple offenses were normal - and expected - for a Viking. If the murder took place in daylight and the murderer didn’t try to hide his act, the punishment for the crime could be merely the payment of some fines.
Theft was a particularly terrible crime for a Viking, much worse than killing, since not telling is the whole point of stealing - else it would be hard to keep the loot.
An example of theft is given to us by the Icelandic Grettis Saga. In this saga Gretti is a convicted outlaw in Iceland and must manage for 20 years in the wilderness. Driven by hunger, he ends up stealing sheep from farmers, who eventually find him and were ready to - legally - hang him on the spot.
Death by hanging was a particularly shameful way to be executed, reserved only for those deemed dishonored, the “non-people”, while decapitation was considered correct method of execution of the ones with honor. To be executed by hanging was a sure way to be barred from Valhalla.
A viking could, and routinely would get away with murder, as long as he was honest about it - and could afford the blood geld (fines for the family of the deceased).
Today we distinguish between deliberate, intentional and negligent murder. The Vikings did not have the same distinction. For a Viking the time of death is marked since birth by the Nornes, so the only distinction the viking world had, was if the deed honorable or not.
For example, arson or killing someone at night was considered extremely despicable and therefore classified as murder, for the perpetrator did not give people the opportunity to defend themselves.
A Viking could kill someone in public without having any serious consequences, as long as he was open about it and gave the dead the opportunity to defend himself. The killer had to take responsibility for the murder that was done, not run away and not excuse himself from the payment of the fines imposed on him. This was applied both to a killing in response to an insult or to a structured duel, called Holmgang.
As long as the Viking was honest about it and announced what had happened, it was not considered murder.
A Viking was expected to take the case into his own hands if someone had wronged him. If he was not able to take revenge, he would loose the opportunity to get financial compensation. It was expected that a Viking took revenge. By the law.
The Old Gulating Act, Norway's oldest collection of laws, written down around the IX or X century was clear about that. If someone did a Viking some injustice, such as violence or insults, he could ask for financial compensation. If the viking had not avenged himself in the meantime, the compensation was limited to only the last three offenses.
Revenge could and usually came immediately with a few insults being especially fatal. A famous example from Iceland in the 980s was described in the Icelandic Landena Book. According to the book, the German missionary Friederich traveled to Iceland with Thorvald Konradsson, an early Icelandic Christian. On the trip, they met two men who gave Thorvald a bloody insult:
“The bishop (Friederich) has had nine children, Thorvald was the father of all.”
Thorvald kills both men on the spot. He was banished from Iceland because of this, since he did not have enough to pay for the blood geld.
And this was not even the worst insult, which would be about cowardice or oath-breaking.
In my defense your honor, I did promise to kill him...
Holmgang or duels
Anyone offended could challenge the other party to a holmgang (duel) regardless of their differences in social status (in theory). This could be a matter of honor, ownership or property, demand of restitution or debt, legal disagreement or intention to help a wife or relative or avenge a friend.
Holmgangs were fought 3–7 days after the challenge. If the person challenged did not turn up for the holmgang, the other man was considered just in his challenge. If the offended party does not turn up for the holmgang, they were deemed “niðingr” (dishonored), and could have been sentenced to outlawry. In effect, if they were unwilling or unable to defend their claim, they had no honor.
If trial by combat seemed unfair by pitting a 2 meter tall muscled veteran warrior against an inexperienced skinny teenager weighting less than a sack of potatoes, it is important to remember that the rules allowed for a capable warrior to fight in the place of a clearly outclassed friend.
The Swedish Hednalagen, or Pagan law, a fragment from a 13th-century document from Västergötland, Sweden, stipulates the conditions for a holmgang:
“If someone speaks insults to another man, they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he's been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.
If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry "Niðingr!" three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.
Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.”
Contracts and Oaths
Since it was so important to declare what you had done, a great deal of emphasis was placed on honesty. The judicial system depended on people being honest when asserting their innocence in the matter or in other contexts.
It was very important to swear to show that you spoke true or that you would honor a deal. These oaths were often sworn to objects, such as ships, swords, axes or special rings dedicated to the God Ullr.
Oaths were used to seal peace agreements or just come to an agreement on one thing or another, a custom that still exists today in American courtrooms, were people swear over a Bible to tell the truth.
The oaths were a way of showing people and Gods that they have given their word. To make an oath, the Gods were called upon and their wrath was invoked to fall on the head of the oath-breaker. On the subject, breaking an oath was considered extremely dishonorable and was one of offenses that might justify killing.
Unfortunately, most of the knowledge regarding Viking law lacks a certain clarity, as the vikings did not write down their laws themselves. Most of it comes from early medieval laws that were written down after the Viking era, such as the Gulating Act.
Many of the laws and regulations that we know today were found in the Eddas, a collection of poems written down in the late 13th century, after being been told from person to person for several centuries before that. These poems were probably something that the entire population knew by heart, with stories that were well-known, loved and full of legal episodes such as Gods swearing oaths and calling for Things.