1. From Lawspeaker to Lawbook

A Power Struggle between the Church and Secular Leaders? [1]

There can be little doubt that the rich and varied secular literary works that flowed from the pens of the writers of medieval Iceland in their vernacular tongue can only be explained against a background of a people with a stock of tales to tell about the ancient gods and the heroes of the Viking Age, the kings of northern Europe, and Icelandic chieftains of earlier centuries. We can also suppose that poets and others interested in poetry cultivated the art of reciting lays in the simple eddic meters about the Norse gods and Germanic heroes, and of memorizing the more complex court poetry—the drápur, flokkar, and occasional verses that the sagas tell us were composed by named skalds in earlier times and taught to their contemporaries for oral preservation (or even inscribed in runes), some of this verse going well back to the Viking Age. And beyond this, the oral tradition the saga writers were familiar with would have encompassed a wide and miscellaneous range of other learning, such as genealogical and legal lore.
So far so good. But here the consensus breaks down and the questions start to arise: How is it possible to investigate this oral tradition? And what is the relationship between this tradition and the written texts we find in manuscripts of the Middle Ages and later? The early history of writing in Icelandic can be established with a fair degree of certainty: we can assume that some Icelandic texts of relevance to the Church found their way onto parchment quite soon after the conversion; the written recording of the laws was instituted in the winter of 1117-8 at Breiðabólstaður in Vesturhóp in northern Iceland; Ari fróði (‘the Wise’) Þorgilsson wrote his short history of Iceland, Íslendingabók (‘Book of the Icelanders’), some time during the years 1122-33; possibly around the same time, work began on the collection of information on the settlement claims and genealogies of the original settlers of the country, work that was eventually to lead to the various versions of Landnámabók (‘Book of Settlements’) that we know from the 13th century and later; and some time in the period 1125-75 the so-called ‘First Grammarian’ produced his Fyrsta málfrœðiritgerðin (‘First Grammatical Treatise’) with the aim of adapting the Latin alphabet to the needs of the Norse language. To justify his work, the author pointed out that, with a standardized alphabet, it would be easier ‘at rita ok lesa, sem nú tíðisk ok á þessu landi, bæði lǫg ok áttvísi eða þýðingar helgar, eða svá þau in spakligu frœði er Ari Þorgilsson hefir á bœkr sett af skynsamligu viti’ (‘to write and read, as is now the custom in this country too, both laws and genealogies, or exegetical writings, as well as the erudite lore that Ari Þorgilsson has set down in books with reason and intelligence’) (cf. The First Grammatical Treatise, ed. Hreinn Benediktsson 1972:208).
This passage from the First Grammatical Treatise is our main source for the earliest days of literacy in Iceland in the 12th century and shows that, as might be expected, the first products were law books, genealogies, and vernacular religious writings, together with various other types of information held to be of special importance to society. We know that some time after this people started to record secular historical material and poetry, and it is clear from the burgeoning of the kings’ sagas late in the 12th century and beyond that the writers were able to tap into a rich reservoir of oral sources. Little by little, authors added to the sparse written records that already existed and, chiefly between 1190 and 1220, produced longer and longer sagas by expanding them with new material that does not appear to come from earlier written books. Theodore M. Andersson 1985:221) expressed it thus:
No matter what dimensions we choose to assign to Sæmundr and Ari, they cannot explain the emergence of novel-like biographies at the end of the century. And no matter how confidently we reject Beyschlag’s oral biographies as an explanation of the synoptics, we cannot elude the impression that the great sagas of the generation 1190–1220 show an enormous accretion of oral material that must have circulated earlier and was drawn on only very selectively by Sæmundr and Ari. By a rough estimate, Oddr’s Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, the Legendary Saga of St. Olaf, and Morkinskinna’s account of Magnús góði and Haraldr harðráði are forty to fifty times the length of the equivalent sections in Ágrip.
The oral tradition of poetry, stories, and ancient learning kept alive a fund of information about people and events that went all the way back to the settlement period, information that was held to be reliable regardless of whether preserved orally or in books, at least up until around 1300—as evidenced by the fact that even this late Haukr Erlendsson was still expanding his version of Landnámabók with new material for which we know of no written source (Jóhannesson 1941:52-3, 175-203). There can be no doubt that the edda poems and skaldic verse were also preserved by memory, however little is known of the actual conditions of their preservation and performance. The same may be said of the legal and genealogical lore and the Viking Age tales that could still be heard told at the time when the legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur) came to be written down. All this had churned about in popular memory over many centuries and undergone the whole range of modification, loss and accretion that inevitably accompanies such preservation.
As a general account of conditions, this is all fairly uncontroversial. There is, however, much less unanimity when it comes to individual works and their relationships with oral tradition. Differing ideas about the oral tradition behind the family sagas in the written form in which we know them were discussed in the Introduction, but the problem extends to many other written works. Snorri Sturluson, for example, could never have written his Edda if some kind of information on the ancient gods and the myths in which they appear had not still been current on people’s lips in the 13th century. On this everyone is agreed, though views differ fundamentally on the nature and form of this information: Did Snorri have only odd verses and unconnected fragments of poems preserved piecemeal to go on and use these as ‘sources’ to ‘create’ myths that conformed with the learned ideas he had acquired from books? Or did he have access to a coherent body of knowledge still preserved orally in an organized and structured form? And what can we say about the state of the oral poetic tradition in the middle years of the 13th century, after Snorri had compiled his Edda and Heimskringla and the saga of the poet, farmer, and viking Egill Skallagrímsson had first appeared in written form? On this last question scholars have had little to say beyond general comments on the decline of the skaldic art in the 13th century. But all these questions are highly pertinent and need to be faced if we are to provide a reasoned account of how much it is possible to say or know about an oral tradition that no one doubts lay somewhere behind the written works that have come down to us.
It is a major step in the history of any culture when written books take over from human memory as the main repository for essential information. This step was relatively drawn out in Iceland. The age of writing took about 200 years to establish itself fully, from around 1100 to around 1300, in the sense that writing came little by little to dominate all the areas of knowledge to which it might be applied. So far as we know, no secular books at all were written in Iceland in the first century of Christianity, after the year 1000; during these years writing seems to have remained the preserve of the Church. The situation changes early in the 12th century with the codification of the laws, and after this writing comes to extend its influence from one area to the next. But even 200 years on writing had not entrenched itself so firmly that people inevitably turned to books rather than oral tradition when searching for reliable information, not if we judge by lawman Haukr’s redaction of Landnámabók, compiled around 1300. In other words, even this late it was still felt possible to add to the information already to be found in books by tapping into information available only from oral sources. The only possible source for Haukr’s addenda is oral tradition (unless he made them up himself), which tells us that this tradition was still held to be a reliable source on an equal footing to the written word—though of course the fact that something is considered to be reliable says nothing about whether it actually is reliable. Eventually, inevitably, writing won out. But it is worth asking whether this shift in dominion over knowledge, from the memories of learned men to the written page, was accomplished entirely without friction or controversy.

Power and Prestige in Oral Society

Before the arrival of the Church, Iceland was an oral society. People learned stories and poems one from another and practiced their religion and governed themselves with laws and legal judgments without the aid of writing. To be sure, there were people who were familiar with runes and runes form a living part of the reality described in skaldic verse (see Harris 1996), but it is unlikely that they played any significant part in administration or the perpetuation of knowledge—at least, there is nothing to suggest this in any surviving runic inscriptions. It has been suggested that runes were used to record the law at an early date, [2] but the arguments for this are based on the preconceptions of modern scholars who know nothing other than literacy and assume that oral preservation is a serious inconvenience to any society that relies on it. With Christianity came books, and people would soon have realized that writing could also be applied to areas that had previously been entirely oral. Iceland became part of the greater world of Christian culture, and the unifying symbol of this world was a book—the Bible. [3] In Iceland, the writing of Íslendingabók and Landnámabók doubtless promoted a kind of community of spirit among the inhabitants and opened up previously unknown ways of uniting the people and their origins in a single place—recorded for perpetuity in a book.
The power of the Church was built upon faith in the written word, and to start with written culture extended only to matters of the spirit. The general system of education and the secular forms of government remained untouched by the technological innovation of book culture. Children and young people would have continued to assimilate the learning and ethical values of society from stories and poems handed down orally from earlier times, and the lawspeakers continued to act as keepers of the law as they always had, to recite it aloud at the Alþingi, and to adjudicate on points of dispute without reference to written books.
Helgi Skúli Kjartansson (1986) has argued that the clause in Grágás, the legal code of the Icelandic Commonwealth, that it was the function of the lawspeaker to recite the law, was first introduced only in the 12th century. It is quite true, as Kjartansson says, that Grágás can be treated as unequivocal evidence only for the time of the extant manuscripts, that is, the 13th century. However, it is hardly open to doubt that the lawspeaker was in some way responsible for pronouncing on the letter of the law, whether this was done formally, by reciting all the laws over a three-year period at the Alþingi, or by making judgments in individual disputes. Men with legal learning needed to keep their knowledge fresh and this could only be done by training new people to maintain the tradition (see Miller 1990:226-7) and passing knowledge on to them by the only means available, public recitation. Formal confirmation of a legal ruling or agreement could only take place ‘í heyranda hljóði’ (‘in the hearing of all’) when there were no books to refer to. Sigurður Líndal has, for instance, drawn attention to the confirmation value of the recitation of the law even after the text was put into writing, [4] and to the convenience of flexibility that oral laws offered over written ones. [5]
Goody (1986:127-70) provides a general discussion of the kinds of changes that occur when oral laws are given written form, with particular reference to the experience of the British colonial rulers in Nigeria when recording the genealogies and origin tales used by the locals when settling disputes. The British attitude was that it might be useful to have this information set down incontrovertibly in writing. But when this attitude was put to the test forty years on, the locals vehemently refused to accept that the written records were correct, saying that they themselves were the better judges of how things stood. The experience was similar in Ghana. In both cases the changes in the oral tradition reflected events in the ‘pasts’ of the local peoples, social changes that had occurred since the first written recording of the information (Goody and Watt 1968:32-3). Contemporary social groups can in a similar fashion express their conflicting interests with contradictory and inconsistent myths (Leach 1967:264-278).
We can assume that the position of lawspeaker conferred power and prestige on its holder. But this power and prestige was based not on a book, as happened within the Church, but on knowledge that the lawspeaker had had to acquire from the lips of other wise men. It should not be forgotten that a working knowledge of the law was essential to every chieftain who engaged in litigation (see Meulengracht Sørensen 1993:110). We should also never underestimate the importance of rhetoric and eloquence in a society that lacked writing and, out of political and social necessity, used stories and poetry as a kind of knowledge bank. In such circumstances, power and influence generally go hand in hand with linguistic ability, as shown by Eric Havelock (1963:115-30). Havelock subjected the functions of the Homeric poems in Greek society to close scrutiny, particularly Plato’s attitude to ‘poetry’ in The Republic. Havelock came to the conclusion that Plato’s animosity toward poetry was only explicable by assuming that Plato was here referring to the function of traditional poetry as the central medium for the propagation of knowledge and ethical values. In Iceland we have examples from the Sturlungar clan in the 13th century of men who acted as lawspeakers but were also prominent as secular authors and poets, i.e. men who managed, with conspicuous success, to combine familiarity with traditional oral lore (laws, poems, genealogies, and stories) with accomplishments in the field of writing.
The training of legal experts was still entirely oral as late as the early years of the 12th century. This is clear from Ari’s account in Íslendingabók of events at the Alþingi in the summer of 1118. The lawspeaker Bergþórr Hrafnsson had spent the previous winter at Breiðabólstaður with the chieftain Hafliði Másson, assisting in the creation of a written record of the Vígslóði (the section of the law dealing with manslaughter) ‘ok margt annat í lǫgum’ (‘and much else in the law’) which was then ‘sagt upp í lǫgréttu af kennimǫnnum of sumarit eptir’ (‘declaimed at the Lǫgrétta [the central legislative court at the Alþingi] by clerics the following summer’) (ÍF I.1: 24). Bergþórr stood by and listened, taking no part in the reading of the text that he had helped to create—to read, you had to have priests. Perhaps it is not fanciful to imagine a look of bewilderment on Bergþórr’s face and to ask ourselves what he might have thought of this technological innovation, and whether it occurred to him that summer day on the plains of Þingvellir that sooner or later all his oral skills would be redundant—and with them him himself. What role was there left for a lawspeaker once he had given away his knowledge to a book and thereby provided priests with ready access to it—priests who now read the written law? We have no reason to suppose that Bergþórr ever learned to read or write, and there is no evidence to suggest that from this point on the position of lawspeaker included with it a right to possession of a law book (see Jóhannesson 1956a:67). Grágás (463) even contains a provision to the effect that, in the case of any discrepancy between law books, precedence should be given to the book kept at Skálholt, i.e. by the bishop. Previously, to judge from the Lǫgsǫgumannsþáttr (the section of Grágás dealing with the functions of the lawspeaker), this power had been invested in the lawspeaker himself:
Þat er ok at lǫgsǫgumaðr skal svo gerla þáttu alla upp segja at engi viti einna miklugi gerr. En ef honum vinnst eigi fróðleikr til þess, þá skal hann eiga stefnu við fimm lǫgmenn in næstu dœgr áðr eða fleiri, þá er hann má helst geta af, áðr hann segi hvern þátt upp, ok verðr hverr maðr útlagr þrem mǫrkum er ólofat gengr á mál þeira, ok á lǫgsǫgumaðr sǫk þá. (460) [6]
If this provision was indeed in force before the age of writing, it gives an idea of the power this lack of a book to consult on points of dispute put into the hands of a small group of legal experts who were able to decide among themselves on what was law and what was not. In light of what is said later about Hafliði Másson’s connections with the episcopal sees of Skálholt and Hólar, the writing up of the law at Breiðabólstaður in the winter of 1117-8 maybe viewed as the first step in a movement led by the allies of the Church to encroach upon the secular domain of the lawspeakers, a domain in which the Church was later to exercise considerable influence.
There has been a general tendency to assume that the power and influence of the lawspeakers must have declined in the 12th century once the law started to be put into writing. Sigurður Líndal (1984:131), for instance, notes that the lay chieftains had no command of literacy and that this might have given rise to certain tensions, without being specific as to what form these tensions might have taken. But it is also worth considering whether perhaps the lawspeakers may simply have preferred to preserve the law orally—an idea that may seem farfetched to us but which receives some backing from what we have learned from other oral societies. It is by no means certain that the lawspeakers would have been very taken by the new technology of writing, since their power and status within society was based on a knowledge that they alone possessed and had acquired orally. As Grágás tells us, these men could gather around them a group of legal experts to adjudicate on disputes concerning the letter of the law, and no one was permitted to listen in on their deliberations or challenge their decisions. By fixing the law in a book and ruling that when copies differed it was the bishop’s book at Skálholt that should decide, this power was removed from the orally trained lawspeaker and orally practiced lawmen and invested in the book and the bishop. There is thus good reason to question whether the lawspeaker—a learned layman elected to his position for three years and holder of the only secular office in the country—would necessarily have welcomed the introduction of writing with open arms. All the evidence suggests that this office was held in high regard; for instance, Ari’s chronology in Íslendingabók for the history of Iceland from earliest times is based on the years in office of particular lawspeakers, very much as historians elsewhere used the regnal years of kings. [7] It remains unclear, however, how deep of an impact Ari’s chronology had on popular historical consciousness; there are few signs of other writers adopting his system of dating events by the official years of the lawspeakers. But clear evidence of the high status that the office conferred on its incumbent, long after the laws were put into writing, appears in the fact that all the lawspeakers of the 13th century came from the two most powerful families in Icelandic society, the Haukdœlir and the Sturlungar (see below). This would hardly have been the case if these families had reckoned there was nothing to be gained from having the office in the pocket of one of their own number.
We have no way of knowing whether the lawspeakers found it a burden to preserve the law in their memories before the advent of writing, as assumed by Einar Arnórsson (1937:108): ‘Eftir að lögin voru skráð, varð starf lögsögumanns stórum auðveldara’ (‘Once the law was recorded the job of the lawspeaker became considerably easier’). It is in fact unlikely that people felt hampered by the lack of something they did not know existed—the ability to write down an article of law for later reference, or to send off a directive on a piece of vellum. People were not conscious of learning things ‘off by heart,’ because this was the way it was always done and there was no alternative. [8] Nor would they necessarily have found it a great relief to their overtaxed memories to have the law fixed in writing—as modern scholars seem to assume when they express astonishment that the law was not put into writing earlier. Thus Sverrir Tómasson (1992:266-7) claims that it is highly unlikely that no laws were written before the winter of 1117-8, mentioning (quite properly) the tithe laws; but he then goes on to say that it is inherently probable that some other parts of the law would also have been written down earlier, since it must have been in the interests of both the secular and spiritual leaders to have their authority validated by reference to written lawbooks. In general, the belief that the creation of a written record of the law was welcomed wholeheartedly by the lawspeakers and secular leaders appears to have been accepted uncritically by almost all commentators—without a shred of evidence to support it. [9]
In light of what has been said above, there is in fact no compelling reason to suppose that it came as a relief to the lawspeakers to have the law in written form. On the contrary, they may well have been proud of their knowledge and looked upon the oral exercise and learning of the law as an essential part in the training of young lawmen. The tithe laws may be considered a special case here: these were established in 1096-7 during the lawspeakership of Markús Skeggjason and were in all probability written from the very outset since the initiative behind their introduction came from the Church itself. Other procedures would thus probably have applied to the tithe laws than to the traditional laws.

Literacy and the Key to Power

So what were people’s attitudes to written culture as it started to make its influence felt throughout Icelandic society? [10] Was everyone equally convinced of its merits? Was everyone equally quick to adopt it? And did the acquisition of literacy become a significant factor in the political developments of the 12th century? Once we admit that data provided by research into oral cultures in modern times raises doubts as to whether the ancient lawspeakers necessarily viewed the new technology in a positive light as a powerful tool for the preservation of knowledge, we need to look at our sources afresh and ask whether they contain anything that might point to a power struggle between the secular lawspeakers and the representatives of the increasingly powerful Church. Regrettably, though unsurprisingly, our written sources contain no direct references to the views expressed by lawspeakers in the 12th century, good or bad—history, after all, was not written by them. The earliest surviving texts were written either by clerics in the 12th and 13th centuries or by learned laymen in the 13th century. Most of the laymen who are known to have cultivated writing came from the same well-established family, the Sturlungar, or were closely associated with it. The first person from this family that the sources tell us must have had access to the book learning of the Church was Snorri Sturluson, who as a boy late in the 12th century was fostered by one of the most powerful families with strong ecclesiastical connections, the Oddaverjar, as a part of a peace settlement between two local chieftains in the west of Iceland. Snorri grew up to become one of the best known writers of the Middle Ages, producing books packed with traditional poetry, myths, and secular narratives, works that have no parallel elsewhere in the European Latin Middle Ages. When Snorri came of age, he and his relatives became leading figures in a struggle for power and influence in Iceland, and for the whole of the 13th century this Sturlungar family and its men shared the post of lawspeaker with representatives of another powerful clan, the Haukdœlir. This development was first noted by Jón Sigurðsson (1886:36), the leader of the movement for Icelandic independence in the 19th century, and the table below is based on Sigurðsson’s idea. It is assumed that Jón Einarsson should be counted with the Haukdœlir and Styrmir fróði (‘the Wise’) with the Sturlungar:
Table 1-1: Lawspeakers of the Haukdœlir and Sturlungar clans, from the first Haukdœlir lawspeaker, Gizurr Hallson, to the abrogation of the laws of the Icelandic Commonwealth and the institution of the office of royally appointed lawman.
Haukdœlir Sturlungar
1181–1202 Gizurr Hallsson  
1203–1209 Hallr Gizurarson  
  1210–1214 Styrmir the Wise; member of Snorri Sturluson’s circle but of unknown family background
  1215–1218 Snorri Sturluson
1219–1221 Teitr Þorvaldsson, nephew of Hallr and brother of (Earl) Gizurr Þorvaldsson  
  1222–1231 Snorri Sturluson
  1232–1235 Styrmir the Wise
1236–1247 Teitr Þorvaldsson  
  1248–1250 Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson, nephew of Snorri
  1251 Sturla Þórðarson, brother of Óláfr
  1252 Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson
1253–1258 Teitr Einarsson, appointed through the offices of Gizurr and possibly his nephew  
1259–1262 Ketill Þorlákssona, husband of Halldóra Þorvaldsdóttir and brother-in-law of Gizurr  
1263–1265 Þorleifr hreimr Ketilsson, son of Ketill and Halldóra  
1266 Sigurðr Þorvaldsson  
1267 Jón Einarsson, possibly Gizurr’s nephew and brother of Teitr  
1271 Þorleifr hreimr Ketilsson  
  [1272–1276 Sturla Þórðarson, lawman]
a. The patronymic also appears in the sources in the related form ‘Þorleiksson.’
The power of the Haukdœlir had increased gradually, hand in hand with the increasing influence of the Church. The family had provided land for the first episcopal see at Skálholt in 1056 and the first bishops had come from its ranks. But it was not until the 12th century, when the Church had become genuinely powerful—as witness the huge cathedral consecrated at Skálholt shortly after the middle of the century (see Ágústsson 1990:287-96)—that a priestly member of the family, Gizurr Hallsson, was appointed to the secular office of lawspeaker. For the next hundred years two power groups competed for supremacy: the Sturlungar, whose influence within the Church was negligible but whose secular learning in the form of stories and poems ran all the deeper, and the Haukdœlir, whose power had grown with and was inextricably linked to that of the Church. Illustrative of the literary supremacy wielded by the Sturlungar is an incident from the middle years of the 13th century: Þórðr kakali of the Sturlungar and Gizurr Þorvaldsson of the Haukdœlir go to Norway to lay their petitions before King Hákon; Þórðr has a written account of his side of the dispute to refer to, but not so Gizurr:
Hákon konungr lagði stefnu til mála þeira Þórðar og Gizurar.
Ok á stefnunni lét Þórðr lesa upp rollu langa er hann hafði látit rita um skipti þeira Haukdœla ok Sturlunga. Birtist þar á margr skaði er Þórðr hafði fengið í mannalátum.
Þá mælti konungrinn: ‘Hvat flytr þú hér í mót Gizurr?’
Hann svarar: ‘Ekki hefi ek skrásett sagnir mínar en þó kann ek hér nǫkkuru í móti at svara. En þó kalla ek hér einarðliga frá sagt várum skiptum.’ [11]
(Sturlunga saga 545)
The importance of book learning for political and social advancement in the years after 1200 is perhaps reflected in the rise of the Sturlungar. The Sturlungar do not become a prominent force in disputes among local chieftains until late in the 12th century, immediately after Snorri’s time spent among the Oddaverjar at Oddi. It is quite probable that it was here that Snorri learned to read and write, or at least how to use books and appreciate their importance, whether as a personal accomplishment or through access to specialists trained in reading and writing. [12]
Sturla Þórðarson’s history of the period, Íslendinga saga (Sturlunga saga 183-90), describes the rise of the three Sturlusons, Þórðr, Sighvatr, and Snorri, following the death of their father in 1183. At the point where they are introduced into the saga they are already grown men. The rise is portrayed as having occurred largely through enthusiastic involvement in litigation. The two older brothers are well set financially to begin with and strengthen their positions through prudent marriages. They then adopt a policy of intervention in minor disputes among their client farmers whose legal ramifications bring them face to face with other chieftains. Þórðr, for instance, is incensed at his failure to hang a thief while on a trip to the baths in Sælingsdalur, and then prosecutes a case for damages incurred in local disputes arising from the collection of brushwood and a scandalous case of womanizing in Reykjardalur in Borgarfjörður. Sighvatr comes to prominence by preparing a case for manslaughter at the Alþingi against a descendant of the lawspeaker Markús Skeggjason; the chieftains take the view that this is a man of no significance and decide to sacrifice him in the interests of expediency rather than incur the enmity of Sighvatr. Meanwhile, Snorri, the third and youngest, returns from Oddi without a penny to his name and has to marry for money. By the time he is twenty he has become embroiled in a major dispute between powerful chieftains, the Oddaverjar on the one hand and Sigurðr Ormsson on the other. The scenario as depicted in Íslendinga saga elevates Snorri to the national arena, drawing a distinction between him and his brothers. Snorri avoids getting involved in litigation on behalf of his clients independently and without support, in the manner of petty local chieftains like his brothers; instead he builds up a web of alliances in Borgarfjörður among the followers of the great chieftain Jón Loftsson, enabling him to stand up against the powerful Svínfellingar and their allies the Ásbirningar (as well as his own brother Sighvatr).
Snorri’s part in these disputes can hardly be explained other than in the light of his fosterage at Oddi and the links he forged there with Jón Loftsson and his son Sæmundr. But Snorri enjoyed a further advantage over his brothers—his book learning, which was to prove extremely valuable to the entire family, in particular to his brothers, whose political careers were at this time taking off in earnest, even if they did not always see eye to eye. Sighvatr’s rise in Eyjafjörður in the north of Iceland, for instance, coincides with the lawspeakership of Styrmir, one of Snorri’s circle, and Snorri’s nephews (Sturla Sighvatsson, and Sturla and Óláfr Þórðarson) all spent time with Snorri at Reykjaholt and clearly benefited from the education they received there at his hands.
After the chapters in Íslendinga saga dealing with the rise of the Sturlusons comes a section known as ‘Haukdœlaþáttr.’ As mentioned above, between the conversion and the 13th century the Haukdœlir had acquired considerable influence through their connections with the bishopric of Skálholt. Their power appears to have grown hand in hand with that of the Church. Here, too, the development suggests an increasing role for book culture in national politics, epitomized by the lawbook now kept at Skálholt and used in place of the lawspeaker’s memory as final arbiter in disputes of law.
It thus appears that the families who wielded most power in the later years of the 12th century and on into the 13th were connected with the Church and book culture in different ways. The Haukdœlir had been closely associated with the see of Skálholt since its inception and had allies in the north in the Húnrǫðlingar, the family of Hafliði Másson. Well on into the 13th century many of the incumbents of both bishoprics, Skálholt in the south and Hólar in Eyjafjörður in the north, were either members of the Haukdœlir clan or had close links with it. The Sturlungar, on the other hand, were little associated with the Church, if we leave aside Þórðr and Snorri’s support for Bishop Guðmundr Arason throughout his interminable disputes. It is hard to judge how devout and orthodox the Sturlungar were in an ecclesiastical sense, but they were undeniably considerably more bookish than the general run, at least once Snorri had returned home from Oddi to Borgarfjörður bringing his literacy and learning with him.
Of the other powerful clans, the Ásbirningar in the north had a short period of ascendancy but never succeeded in gaining a command of book learning, nor control over the ee of Hólar, despite their hand in the election of Guðmundr Arason. The same may be said initially of the Svínfellingar in the south, though towards the middle of the 13th century they produced the imposing figure of Brandr Jónsson, priest, abbot, writer, and eventually bishop of Hólar. The Oddaverjar from Oddi in the south prospered as a result of their control of Church lands and their central position in the communications system (Þorláksson 1989). They acquired a reputation for learning, and had powerful influence both at Hólar, where Brandr Sæmundsson was bishop 1163-1201, and at Skálholt, for instance through the elections of Þorlákr Þórhallson in 1174 and Páll Jónsson in 1195. [13]
Our information on the power groupings of the late 12th and 13th centuries is thus good. But what of the 11th and early 12th centuries? Who were the most powerful families on the political scene in this earlier period? And what means do we have to find out?
The position of the highest secular officer of preliterate times, the lawspeaker, remained unchanged even after the Church and bishops replaced the allsherjargoði (chief priest) as the spiritual leaders of Icelandic society. The word of God was read from a book, but a considerable time passed before people saw any reason to apply the same approach to the recitation of the law and produce a lawbook to adjudicate on matters that had previously been the province of the lawspeaker. As we have seen, it is by no means certain that the lawbook was immediately accorded precedence over ‘learned men,’ and additions continued to be made to the legal codices long after the original writing of ‘Hafliðaskrá’ in 1117-8. [14] We may suppose that at all periods the choice of lawspeaker was largely determined by the standing and success of particular families in national politics, just as we know happened in the 13th century when representatives of the Sturlungar and Haukdœlir alternated in office. The section in Grágás dealing with the functions and duties of the lawspeaker, the ‘Lǫgsǫgumannsþáttr’ (459), contains detailed provisions for settling disputes over the election of lawspeakers, but there are no direct records of any such disputes in earlier times—other perhaps than at the conversion, when, according to Ari in Íslendingabók, the Christian party at the Alþingi asked Hallr of Síða to declaim a version of the law suitable for those who wished to follow the new religion, since the existing lawspeaker, Þorgeirr, was then still heathen. The problem is thus to find some approach that might perhaps reveal patterns suggestive of different groupings and interests around the choice of lawspeaker before the position became the monopoly of the leading families of the Sturlung Age (for which we have copious written records).
As is well attested, from the very beginnings of Christianity in the country the Icelandic chieftains exerted great influence over the Church. The Church thus enjoyed the patronage of the most powerful people in the country (as opposed to, at this early stage, there being any question of influence being acquired through connections to the Church). The now-Christianized traditional priests (goði, pl. goðar) had churches built on their lands and took undisputed charge of them up until the second half of the 12th century, when Bishop Þorlákr Þórhallson asserted the Church’s claim over their jurisdiction (thereby incurring the enmity of the powerful Oddaverjar led by Jón Loftsson). People endowed their local churches with lands in return for retaining use of the land itself, control of tenancy rights, and agreement that control over the church and its revenues remained in the family (Stefánsson 1975:89, 2000:206-16). The first bishop of Skálholt, Ísleifr Gizurarson, was the nephew of Skafti Þóroddsson, lawspeaker 1004-30, and Ísleifr’s descendants and relations included a number of highly regarded figures in Icelandic society: his son Gizurr Ísleifsson succeeded him as bishop of Skálholt; Hafliði Másson, the leading light behind the move to make a written record of the law, was the son-in-law of Ísleifr’s son Teitr; and the first 12th-century lawspeaker we know about in any detail, Gizurr Hallsson (lawspeaker 1181-1200), was Ísleifr’s great-grandson and a leading representative of the Haukdœlir. Hafliði Másson also had connections with the northern bishopric of Hólar, since the priest Illugi Bjarnason, having endowed the see with his patrimony, moved to Hafliði at Breiðabólstaður and ‘hvílir hans líkami þar’ (‘his body rests there’), as it says in Laurentius saga (3).
Figure 1-1: Family connections linking lawspeakers Grímr Svertingsson and Skafti Þóroddsson, the first bishops, Hafliði Másson, and lawspeaker Gizurr Hallson
One way to look for signs of any power struggle surrounding the lawspeakers is to examine what the written records have to say about them, not so much for what we can find out about their lives [15] as for how they are presented, described, and distinguished. We may suppose there would have been a certain cachet in being able to trace one’s lineage back to lawspeakers. It seems intrinsically likely that those who controlled the pen in the 12th and 13th centuries would have taken pains, if at all possible, to trace their own lines or those of their powerful contemporaries back to such distinguished ancestors. If this does not occur, the reason might lie in a genuine lack of genealogical information (though this is perhaps unlikely in the case of lawspeakers); but it might also be because the writers and patrons of writers in the 12th and 13th centuries (who were simultaneously the most active figures in the politics and religious affairs of their times) simply did not have any family relations with lawspeakers of earlier times and thus had only limited interest in recording their histories.
We might perhaps expect some kind of disruption in social stratification accompanying the introduction and spread of writing. Many parallel cases can be cited from various parts of the world. For instance, in the former British colonies in West Africa, literacy provided a means of accessing positions of authority that had formerly been the monopoly of certain families; this resulted in a period of rapid social mobility until new class boundaries became established (Goody 1986:113-9). Something very similar happened in Iceland during the mass migration to Reykjavík after the Second World War; general public education, social changes and the new geographic environment provided opportunities for children from the impoverished families of farmers and fishermen to advance themselves in ways that had previously been inconceivable.
The question then arises of why some of the most powerful and highly regarded men of the 11th and 12th centuries came to be held of such little note when we reach the 13th that their names are conspicuously absent from the genealogies found in books reflecting the outlook of the dominant families of this later period. We know that two leading families alternated in the post of lawspeaker throughout most of the 13th century; we know nothing about any such families or interest groups behind the lawspeakers of earlier times. By examining what the records have to say about these earlier lawspeakers, how they are introduced and how their genealogies are presented, we can perhaps extract some indirect evidence of groupings that competed for power at the time when the new technique of writing was taking over functions that had previously been the province of oral practitioners. At the same time it is also worth seeing whether there is anything in the sources that might allow us to classify the lawspeakers according to whether or not they are likely to have embraced the new technology, or perhaps show any particular allegiance to the traditional ways.

Ari’s Records of the Earliest Lawspeakers

Ari fróði Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók is our oldest and best source of information on the lawspeakers from the earliest days up to the time of its composition in the third decade of the 12th century. From what Ari says about them we can attempt to build up an idea of whether he links any of them together or associates them with particular power interests, such as particular families, the Church, or even regions of the country.
Table 1-2: Lawspeakers of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries
927–929 Úlfljótr í Lóni 1075 Gunnarr spaki Þorgrímsson
930–949 Hrafn Ketilsson hœngs 1076–83 Sighvatr Surtsson
950–969 Þórarinn Ragabróðir Óleifsson 1084–1107 Markús Skeggjason
970–984 Þorkell máni Þorsteinsson 1108–16 Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson
985–1001 Þorgeirr Þorkelsson of Ljósavatn 1117–22 Bergþórr Hrafnsson
1002–03 Grímr Svertingsson 1123–34 Guðmundr Þorgeirsson
1004–30 Skafti Þóroddsson 1135–38 Hrafn Úlfheðinsson
1031–33 Steinn Þorgestsson 1139–45 Finnr Hallsson
1034–53 Þorkell Tjǫrvason 1146–55 Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson
1054–62 Gellir Bǫlverksson 1156–70 Snorri Húnbogason
1063–65 Gunnarr spaki Þorgrímsson 1171–80 Styrkárr Oddason
1066–71 Kolbeinn Flosason 1181–1200 Gizurr Hallsson
1072–74 Gellir Bǫlverksson    

Pre-conversion lawspeakers by geographical region

The respect accorded to the office of lawspeaker is apparent in Ari’s use of it as a basis for his chronology—similar to the use made by historians elsewhere of the regnal years of kings. Ari names the closest relatives of some of the very early lawspeakers but otherwise does not provide genealogies. He does, however, say where in the country they were from, and there is reason to think that the selection of lawspeaker was in part based on regional considerations: see the provision in Grágás (459) that the deputy shall come from the same quarter as the lawspeaker himself. [16] On the first five lawspeakers, Ari provides the following information:
  1. Úlfljótr (927–929) comes to Iceland from Norway armed with his knowledge of law; he is first said to be ‘austrœnn’ (‘eastern,’ but also ‘from continental Scandinavia, Norwegian’), before he settles ‘austr í Lóni’ (‘at Lón in the east’).
  2. Hrafn, son of Ketill hœngr (930–949) is ‘ýr Rangárhverfi,’ i.e. from the Rangá district in the south.
  3. Þórarinn Ragabróðir (950–969) is ‘borgfirzkr,’ i.e. from Borgarfjörður in the west. [17]
  4. Þorkell máni (970–984) is simply designated ‘Þorsteinssonr Ingólfssonar’ (‘son of Þorsteinn, son of Ingólfr’). Ari presumably considered Ingólfr Arnarson, traditionally the first settler of Iceland, and his land claim at Reykjavík to be too well known to need further specification.
  5. Þorgeirr Þorkelsson (985–1001) is said to be ‘at Ljósavatni,’ i.e. from Ljósavatn in the north.
Ari also specifies the regional origins of some of the leading chieftains at the time of the conversion: Hallr ‘á Síðu’ (from Síða in the extreme south); Hjalti Skeggjason ‘ýr Þjórsárdali’ (from Þjórsárdalur in the southern lowlands); and Gizurr inn hvíti (‘the White’) son of Teitr son of Ketilbjǫrn ‘frá Mosfelli’ (from Mosfell in Grímsnes in the southern lowlands). The apparent emphasis on where people came from indicates that their region of origin was considered important (just as in modern Iceland), though it is difficult from such limited material to draw broader conclusions about any legally sanctioned distribution of power between regions.

Lawspeakers after the conversion: increased emphasis on family connections

The first lawspeaker after the conversion, Grímr Svertingsson (1002-1003), is said to be ‘at Mosfelli’ (from Mosfell in Mosfellssveit near Reykjavík); Ari does not make it clear that this is a different Mosfell from the one settled by Ketilbjǫrn (see above), though we know this from other sources. Grímr held the post for two summers ‘en þá fekk hann lof til þess, at Skafti Þóroddsson hefði, systurson hans, af því at hann vas hásmæltr sjalfr’ (‘but then he got permission for Skafti Þóroddsson (1004-1030), his sister’s son, to have [the post] because he had lost his voice’) (ÍF I.1:19). [18]
Skafti Þóroddsson and his successors. Skafti Þóroddsson is the first lawspeaker who is identified not by place of origin but by his relationship to his predecessors. Ari also has more to say about his actions in office than he has about any other lawspeaker, notably his severity in the matter of punishments and fines imposed on chieftains, something that is not mentioned in other sources.
Ari provides no information on the families or origins of the subsequent lawspeakers: Steinn Þorgestsson, three summers (1031-1033); Þorkell Tjǫrvason, twenty summers (1034-1053); and Gellir Bǫlverksson, nine summers (1054-1062). These bare details are followed by an account of the first bishops, Ísleifr and Gizurr, in the course of which Ari gives the names and terms of the lawspeakers during the relevant period: Gunnarr inn spaki (‘the Wise’) for three summers (1063-1065); Kolbeinn Flosason, six summers (1066-1071); then Gellir for a second term, three summers (1072-1074); then Gunnarr for a second term, one summer (1075); then Sighvatr Surtsson, ‘systurson Kolbeins’ (‘the son of Kolbeinn’s sister’), eight summers (1076-1083).
Sighvatr Surtsson is the second case of the nephew, specifically the son of a sister, of a previous lawspeaker acceding to the office. [19]
Markús Skeggjason. Ari cites Markús Skeggjason, lawspeaker (1084–1107), as one of his main sources of information: ‘At hans sǫgu es skrifuð ævi allra lǫgsǫgumanna á bók þessi, þeira es váru fyrir várt minni, en hónum sagði Þórarinn bróðir hans ok Skeggi faðir þeira ok fleiri spakir menn til þeira ævi, es fyrir hans minni váru, at því es Bjarni enn spaki hafði sagt, fǫðurfaðir þeira, es munði Þórarin lǫgsǫgumann ok sex aðra síðan’ (‘It is from his testimony that I have written in this book the lives of all the lawspeakers there were before I can remember; and he got the information about the lives of those who came before he could remember from his brother Þórarinn and his father Skeggi and other wise men, just as Bjarni the Wise, their father’s father, had told it to them, and he could remember lawspeaker Þórarinn [Ragabróðir] and six others since’) (ÍF I.1:22).
Even though Markús is not said to have been closely related to other lawspeakers, the genealogical emphasis in this passage describing how Markús acquired his information from his brother, father, and grandfather suggests that the cultivation of ancient learning tended to go in families, and it is not improbable that expertise in the law went hand in hand with a more general familiarity with historical learning (see Meulengracht Sørensen 1993:113-116). Also of great interest is the close cooperation between Markús and Bishop Gizurr Ísleifsson; Ari devotes a long passage to the tithe laws, which he says were introduced after consultation with Markús and on the initiative of Gizurr and the priest and historian Sæmundr Sigfússon (Sæmundr fróði, ‘Sæmundr the Learned’). From this it seems that Markús had closer connections with the Church than his predecessors among the ranks of lawspeakers; his poems on the Christian kings of Denmark and Sweden may perhaps point in the same direction.
Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson. Markús’s successor, Úlfheðinn (1108-1116), is said to be the son of a former lawspeaker, Gunnarr the Wise. Earlier in Íslendingabók Ari refers to Úlfheðinn twice as his source for particular pieces of information: on the finding of a body in Kolsgjá in connection with the establishment of the Alþingi site at Þingvellir; and on the division of the country into quarters in 965 following a dispute between the chieftains Þórðr gellir and Tungu-Oddr (see p. 321 below). Other than this, Ari has nothing to say about Úlfheðinn.
Bergþórr Hrafnsson. Bergþórr Hrafnsson (1117–1122) is the last lawspeaker named in Íslendingabók. [20] Ari gives a detailed account of his part in the writing of the law, a project initiated ‘at sǫgu ok umbráði þeira Bergþórs ok annarra spakra manna’ (‘on the word of and in consultation with Bergþórr [and Hafliði Másson] and other wise men’) (ÍF I.1:23).
The significance of ecclesiastical connections in Ari’s accounts. The post-conversion lawspeakers listed in Íslendingabók fall into two groups according to what and how much Ari has to say about them (see table).
Table 1-3: Lawspeakers in Ari’s Íslendingabók by how much is said of them
Lawspeakers about whom Ari says more than just their names Lawspeakers merely named by Ari (with some genealogical details)
Grímr Svertingsson Steinn Þorgestsson
Skafti Þóroddsson (son of Grímr’s sister) Þorkell Tjǫrvason
Markús Skeggjason Gellir Bǫlverksson
Bergþórr Hrafnsson Gunnarr Þorgrímsson
  Kolbeinn Flosason
  Sighvatr Surtsson (son of Kolbeinn’s sister)
  Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson
What stands out is that it is the lawspeakers who had particular links to the Church about whom Ari has more to say than just their names and immediate lineage: Grímr was the brother of Skafti’s mother, and Skafti was, as noted above, closely related to Bishop Ísleifr; Markús collaborated with Bishop Gizurr in the establishment of the tithe laws, and Skafti and Markús were associated in the genealogies (and later distinguished from Steinn, Gellir, and Sighvatr by being traced back to well-known descendants of Bjǫrn buna); and Bergþórr assisted in the writing of the law alongside Hafliði Másson, the son-in-law of Bishop Ísleifr’s son Teitr. [21] It is thus fairly clear that these four had closer connections to the Church than the other lawspeakers, and even perhaps a rather greater familiarity with ecclesiastical learning. In other words, Ari seems keener to talk about the lawspeakers who it is known were closer to the Church than those who do not appear to have had such connections. This provides indirect evidence that such connections were considered important, and perhaps that the men of the Church formed a kind of party in opposition to the more secular chieftains at the other side of the political divide from the priest and historian Ari Þorgilsson—assuming that interest groups were competing for power at this time in anything like the way we know they did in the 13th century.

Other records of the lawspeakers of whom Ari gives only names and family details

What then of the post-conversion lawspeakers who seem to have had no connections with the Church? Ari may not have much to say about them, but is this true of other sources? And do we find any evidence in these sources of these men being associated in other ways that might allow us to categorize them into particular family or political groupings?
Steinn Þorgestsson. Steinn Þorgestsson’s genealogy is given in Landnámabók (S 88, H 76). [22] His paternal great-grandfather was Steinn mjǫksiglandi (‘the Much-Sailing’), who settled at Skógarströnd in western Iceland, and his mother was Arnóra, the daughter of Þórðr gellir. No details are given of any descendants. Steinn is also mentioned in Grettis saga (ÍF VII:244, 269), where his ancestry is traced as in Landnámabók and where he is said to have been ‘vitr maðr’ (‘a wise man’—on the grounds that he ruled against Ǫngull getting the bounty offered for the killing of Grettir because he had used magic to do so).
Þorkell Tjǫrvason. Despite his having been lawspeaker for twenty years (1034-53), Þorkell Tjǫrvason is a shadowy figure indeed. Other than Íslendingabók, no ancient source applies the title of lawspeaker to any man of the relevant period bearing the name Þorkell. Ari’s lawspeaker has often been identified with the grandson of the 10th-century lawspeaker Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði (‘Priest of the House of Ljósavatn’); this man is mentioned once in Ljósvetninga saga: ‘Hrólfr hét sonr Þorkels Tjǫrvasonar Þorgeirssonar frá Ljósavatni’ (‘There was a man called Hrólfr, son of Þorkell, son of Tjǫrvi, son of Þorgeirr of Ljósavatn’) (ÍF X:101). Speaking against this identification, it is highly surprising, if this Þorkell really had held the distinguished position of lawspeaker, that Ljósvetninga saga should make no mention of this fact. However, cultivation of the law seems to have run in families, and the grandfather of this Þorkell Tjǫrvason had been the lawspeaker Þorgeirr of Ljósavatn, and this may be taken as evidence in favor of the conjectured identification.
In his history of the lawspeakers, Jón Sigurðsson (1886:18) mentions a suggestion put forward by Bogi Benediktsson that lawspeaker Þorkell might be identified with Þorkell, the son of Torfi Valbrandsson from the island of Skáney in Borgarfjörður, mentioned in Landnámabók; this conjecture has generally been rejected, in part on the grounds that this man is nowhere mentioned as having been a lawspeaker, and in part because it is hard to reconcile a confusion between the names ‘Torfi’ and ‘Tjǫrvi’ on the part of the author or copyist of Landnámabók.
Gellir Bǫlverksson. The genealogy of Gellir Bǫlverksson is given in Landnámabók (S 129, H 101). His paternal grandfather was Eyjólfr grái (‘the Gray’) and his mother was Ísgerðr, daughter of Þorsteinn, son of Oddleifr, the father of Gestr inn spaki (‘the Wise’), to whom Haukr Erlendsson traces his own descent at this point in Hauksbók. Landnámabók gives no line of descent from Gellir, but his mother’s sister was Véný, the mother of Þórðr krákunef (‘Crow-Nose’), ‘þaðan eru Krákneflingar komnir’ (‘from whom the Krákneflingar are descended’) (S 129). The line from Þórðr krákunef to his grandson, Þorvaldr of Vatnsfjörður, is given in Sturlunga saga.
Gellir’s half-brother Eyjólfr figures in Njáls saga, where he is described as ‘virðingamaðr mikill ok allra manna lǫgkœnastr, svá at hann var inn þriði mestr lǫgmaðr á Íslandi […] Hann var fégjarn sem aðrir frændr hans’ (‘a man of great distinction and as astute as they come in matters of law, so that he was the third greatest lawman in Iceland […] He was avaricious, like other members of his family’) (ÍF XII:363). Eyjólfr pleads Flosi’s case at the Alþingi and almost succeeds in having the prosecution for the burning of Njáll thrown out of court, but is discovered to have breached legal procedures and is killed in the ensuing battle, ‘lagiðr ógildr fyrir ójǫfnuð ok rangyndi’ (‘his life deemed forfeit for his injustice and misdeeds’) (ÍF XII:413). Bǫlverkr, the father of Eyjólfr and Gellir, was the brother of Ari fróði’s great-grandfather, and so it would have been only natural if Ari had tried to make something of Gellir, if only for reasons of family pride. But in view of Njáls saga’s comments on his brother Eyjólfr, and Hungrvaka’s scathing remarks about a certain lawman of the time (which could well be Gellir), [23] it may be that this was a member of the family that the priest in Ari was happier to gloss over.
Gunnarr spaki (‘the Wise’) Þorgrímsson. The sources tell us little about Gunnarr the Wise, although both his sons and probably two of his grandsons followed him in the post of lawspeaker. He is mentioned in various genealogies, but without any strong connections to well known chieftains, and he is unique among all the lawspeakers in that his ancestry is unknown. Jón Sigurðsson (1886:19) suggested that Gunnarr’s ancestry went back to Víðimýri in Skagafjörður in northern Iceland, but produced no particular evidence and there is no way of confirming this. [24]
The genealogies in Sturlunga saga trace a line of descent from Gunnarr to Ketill Þorleiksson, priest and lawspeaker in the final years of the Commonwealth (1259-1262). This Ketill was the son of Þorleikr/Þorlákr and Guðlaug, who was descended on her father’s side from Guðmundr ríki (‘the Powerful’) and whose mother was Sigríðr, daughter of Hallr, ‘Hrafnssonar lǫgmanns Úlfheðinssonar lǫgmanns Gunnarssonar lǫgmanns’ (‘son of Hrafn the lawspeaker, son of Úlfheðinn the lawspeaker, son of Gunnarr the lawspeaker’) (Sturlunga saga, 51)—but this is as far back as it goes. The genealogy is apparently intended to relate Ketill to Gunnarr and other lawspeakers, though Ketill’s power and position undoubtedly owed more to his maternal connections with the Haukdœlir (he himself was married to Halldóra Þorvaldsdóttir, the sister of Earl Gizurr) than to any descent from previous lawspeakers.
Figure 1-2: Genealogy of lawspeaker Gunnarr the Wise and his probable connections to Hafliði Másson and Finnr Hallsson
Kolbeinn Flosason. The lawspeaker Kolbeinn Flosason (1066-71) has been identified by different scholars with two different men known to have borne this name in the mid-11th century: Kolbeinn son of Flosi, the son of Valla-Brandr; and Kolbeinn the son of Flosi Þórðarson, the leader of the burners of Njáll in Njáls saga. Jakob Benediktsson (1968:364-365) in the Íslenzk fornrit edition of Landnámabók favors the latter. The name appears in the sources in the following contexts:
  • Landnámabók (S 270, H 232) traces the genealogy of the Vápnfirðingar clan from Ǫlvir hvíti (‘the White’), father of Þorsteinn hvíti, father of Þorgils, father of Brodd-Helgi, father of Víga-Bjarni, father of Skegg-Broddi, father of Þórir, father of Guðrún ‘er átti Flosi, son Kolbeins’ (‘the wife of Flosi son of Kolbeinn’), this Kolbeinn being the son of Flosi Vallabrandsson. Later (S 359, H 315) a line of descent is given from the settler Flosi Þorbjarnarson, who moved to Iceland after killing three of King Haraldr hárfagri’s local governors; this includes the information that his daughter Ásný was the mother-in-law of Valla-Brandr, father of Flosi, father of Kolbeinn, ‘fǫður Guðrúnar, er Sæmundr fróði átti’ (‘father of Guðrún, the wife of [the historian] Sæmundr fróði’). In the Hauksbók redaction, Haukr Erlendsson extends this line down to himself and adds that Flosi married Guðrún, the daughter of Þórir, son of Skegg-Broddi: ‘þeira synir váru þeir Kolbeinn, er fyrr var nefndr, ok Bjarni, faðir Bjarna, fǫður Flosa, fǫður Valgerðar, móður herra Erlends, fǫður Hauks’ (‘their sons were Kolbeinn, mentioned previously, and Bjarni, father of Bjarni, father of Flosi, father of Valgerðr, mother of Squire Erlendr, father of Haukr [i.e. himself]’). We may suppose that Haukr would have noted that his ancestor Kolbeinn Flosason had held the title of lawspeaker if he had felt justified in doing so.
  • The very last person mentioned in Njáls saga is Kolbeinn, the son of Flosi, the son of Kári and Hildigunnr, ‘er ágætastr maðr hefir verið einn hverr í þeiri ætt’ (‘one of the finest men to have come from that family’) (ÍF XII:463-4).
  • In an uncontextualized genealogy at the end of the Sǫrla þáttr episode in Ljósvetninga saga, Kolbeinn Flosason is named as the father-in-law of the historian Sæmundr fróði: ‘Dœtr þrjár áttu Kolbeinn ok Guðríðr. Eina dóttur, Guðrúnu, átti Sæmundr inn fróði, ok tvær dœtr hans áttu tveir brœðr Sæmundar. Kolbeinn Flosason var grafinn í Fljótshverfi, en hon fœrði hann til Rauðalœkjar’ (‘Kolbeinn and Guðríðr had three daughters. One of these daughters, Guðrún, married Sæmundr fróði, and two of his [i.e. Kolbeinn’s] daughters married two of Sæmundr’s brothers. Kolbeinn Flosason was buried in Fljótshverfi but she had his body removed to Rauðalækur’ (ÍF X:112).
  • Toward the end of Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar there is a lacuna, after which the text picks up with a series of genealogies. Among these there is a mention of Álǫf, the sister of Hallr of Síða, who is said to have been ‘móðir Kolbeins Flosasonar, Þórðar sonar Freysgoði at Svínafelli’ (‘the mother of Kolbeinn, son of Flosi, son of Þórðar Freyr’s-Priest of Svínafell’) (ÍF XI:319). Other notable people traced back to Hallr of Síða at this point include Bishop Jóhann the Holy; Gróa, the wife of Teitr, son of Gizurr the White (‘Their son was Hallr, father of Gizurr, father of Bishop Magnús and of Þorvaldr, father of [Earl] Gizurr’ (ibid.)); his son-in-law Eyjólfr, the son of Guðmundr ríki of Möðruvellir (‘Their daughter was Þórey, the mother of Sæmundr fróði, father of Loftr, father of Jón, father of Sæmundr of Oddi’ (ibid.)); and his grand-daughter Þórdís, who was mother of Jórunn, wife of Teitr Ísleifsson. In view of the obvious interest here in family connections to important personages it is surprising that Kolbeinn Flosason is neither named as lawspeaker nor said to be Sæmundr’s father-in-law—if this is one and the same man. Such distinction as accrues to this Kolbeinn comes from his blood connections to Flosi and Þórðr of Svínafell rather than from any official position he may have held.
  • Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs traces the family of Bjarni of Hof. One of Bjarni’s daughters is said to be Halla, the mother of Guðríðr ‘er Kolbeinn lǫgsǫgumaðr átti’ (‘wife of lawspeaker Kolbeinn’) (ÍF XI:78); Kolbeinn’s father is not named, nor any relationship through marriage to Sæmundr fróði. One of Bjarni’s sons-in-law is said to have been Þorsteinn, the son of Hallr of Síða and the ancestor of Bishop Magnús Einarsson. Other notable figures listed here among Bjarni’s descendants include Þóra, the wife of Þorvaldr Gizurarson; Ormr of Svínafell; Guðný Bǫðvarsdóttir and the Sturlusons; Arnfríðr, the wife of Digr-Helgi; Finnr the priest (possibly the same man as lawspeaker Finnr Hallson); and ‘many men of noble lineage.’
  • Kolbeinn Flosason is named in the genealogies in Sturlunga saga (37:46), where it is said that Sæmundr fróði married his daughter Guðrún.
The sources thus tell us that a man called Kolbeinn Flosason (the son of Valla-Brandr) was the father-in-law of the historian Sæmundr fróði: see Landnámabók, Ljósvetninga saga (no father specified) and Sturlunga saga (no father specified). A man of the same name appears as the son of Flosi Kárason in Njáls saga and of Flosi of Svínafell in Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar, and as a lawspeaker in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, though here without details of his paternity or son-in-law. Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs agrees with Ljósvetninga saga in giving the name of Kolbeinn Flosason’s wife as Guðríðr.
Whoever lawspeaker Kolbeinn Flosason really was, the compilers of the written sources do not appear to have shown much interest in tracing connections between him and the chieftainly clans of Iceland, except perhaps Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, which mentions him in the same breath as Bishop Magnús, Þorvaldr Gizurarson, and the Sturlusons—though without giving clear details of his own background and family connections.
Sighvatr Surtsson. Sighvatr Surtsson appears more widely in the sources specified as a lawspeaker than his maternal uncle Kolbeinn, generally in contexts that link him either with the Church or with descendants of the legendary Norwegian/Hebridean progenitor of noble families, Ketill flatnefr (‘Flatnose’). Landnámabók (S 129, no corresponding passage in H) says that Þórdís, the daughter of Helgi skarfr, was married to Þorsteinn Ásbjarnarson from Kirkjubær; [25] ‘þeira son var Surtr, faðir Sighvats lǫgsǫgumanns’ (‘their son was Surtr, the father of Sighvatr the lawspeaker’). In the same place there is the added nformation that Þorsteinn Oddleifsson, the nephew of Helgi skarfr, was the father of Ísgerðr, the mother of lawspeaker Gellir. Sighvatr’s genealogy is given again later in the context of the land claim of Ketill fíflski (‘the Foolish’), the grandson of Ketill flatnefr: ‘Ketill bjó í Kirkjubœ; þar hǫfðu áðr setit papar, ok eigi máttu þar heiðnir menn búa. Ketill var faðir Ásbjarnar, fǫður Þorsteins, fǫður Surts, fǫður Sighvats lǫgsǫgumanns, fǫður Kolbeins’ (‘Ketill lived at Kirkjubær; there had previously been papar [i.e. Irish Christian monks] settled there and it was impossible for heathen men to live there. Ketill was the father of Ásbjǫrn, father of Þorsteinn, father of Surtr, father of lawspeaker Sighvatr, father of Kolbeinn’) (S 320). Hauksbók (H 280) continues the line on from Kolbeinn by adding some otherwise unknown descendants: a daughter Guðrún, the mother of Narfi and Loðmundr Skeggjason. Laxdœla saga includes a genealogy starting from Jórunn manvitsbrekka, the daughter of Ketill flatnefr, sister of Auðr djúpúðga and mother ‘Ketils hins fiskna, er nam land í Kirkjubœ; hans sonr var Ásbjǫrn, faðir Þorsteins, fǫður Surts, fǫður Sighvats lǫgsǫgumanns’ (‘of Ketill fiskni [sic.], who settled at Kirkjubær. He was the father of Ásbjǫrn, father of Þorsteinn, father of Surtr, father of Sighvatr the lawspeaker’) (ÍF V:3).
However, Njáls saga does not mention Sighvatr in its account of the travels round Iceland of the missionary Þangbrandr in the company of Hallr of Síða preaching the new religion. At Svínafell, Flosi is given the prima signatio (provisional baptism), and from there they go on to Kirkjubær: ‘Þar bjó Surtr Ásbjarnarson, Þorsteinssonar, Ketils sonar ins fíflska; þeir hǫfðu allir langfeðgar verit kristnir’ (‘There lived Surtr, son of Ásbjǫrn, son of Þorsteinn, son of Ketill fíflski. Their ancestors had all been Christians’) (ÍF XII: 259). [26] Related passages in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar in mesta (‘Greatest saga of Óláfr Tryggvason’ in Flateyjarbók, 216:156) and Kristni saga (‘Conversion saga,’ 21) give the same account of Surtr’s lineage, except that the name of Þorsteinn is missing in Kristni saga. The Þórðarbók redaction of Landnámabók (using material from Melabók) adds a brother of Sighvatr called Þórðr and traces a line of descent from him to Hallbera, the wife of Markús Þórðarson of Melar (ÍF I.2:325 n. 5).
Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson. Outside Íslendingabók, the only non-genealogical source to mention Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson is the lawbook Grágás (431), where he is cited as having promulgated the law on giving succor to outlaws. He is named in genealogies alongside his father Gunnarr (see above, p. 73) and appears in an addendum to the Þórðarbók/Melabók redaction of Landnámabók detailing the genealogy of Hafliði Másson: ‘Halldóra hét dóttir Húnrøðar, móðir Vigdísar, móður Úlfheðins, fǫður Hrafns, fǫður Hallberu, móður Valdísar, móður Snorra, fǫður Hallberu, er átti Markús Þórðarson á Melum’ (‘Halldóra was the daughter of Húnrøðr; she was the mother of Vigdís, mother of Úlfheðinn, father of Hrafn, father of Hallbera, mother of Valdís, mother of Snorri, father of Hallbera, wife of Markús Þórðarson of Melar’) (ÍF I.2: 226 n. 4). Here, as elsewhere in Melabók (see Rafnsson 1974:181-8), lines of descent are traced to Hallbera, the wife of Markús Þórðarson of Melar (head of the family which probably had a hand in compiling the Melabók around 1300), without any apparent interest in the official status of three generations of lawspeakers on the way, from Gunnarr, through Úlfheðinn, to Hrafn. According to this version, Gunnarr the Wise’s wife was a cousin of Hafliði Másson; this connection appears in no other source, and no special emphasis is placed on it.
Figure 1-3: Family relationships of lawspeakers Kolbeinn Flosason and Sighvatr Surtsson, showing their connections to lawspeakers Gellir Bǫlverksson, Steinn Þorgestsson, and Þórarinn Ragabróðir
Contrasting records: ancestry or descendants. It is possible to divide the lawspeakers about whom Ari says nothing beyond their names and brief genealogical details into three groups, according to what is known about them from other sources.
Table 1-4: Lawspeakers named by Ari without further details
Identity unclear Ancestry known, descendants unnamed or obscure Ancestry unknown, descendants specified
Þorkell Tjǫrvason Steinn Þorgestsson Gunnarr Þorgrímsson
Kolbeinn Flosason Gellir Bǫlverksson Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson
  Sighvatr Surtsson  
Two of the post-conversion lawspeakers whom Ari merely names without offering further information are so obscure that there is no unambiguous record in any source of even their immediate family relations: Þorkell Tjǫrvason and Kolbeinn Flosason.
About the others we have some information, either concerning their ancestry or descendants (or both). Þórðr gellir is named as the grandfather of Steinn Þorgestsson and the great-grandfather of Gellir Bǫlverksson, but nothing at all is known about the descendants of these two lawspeakers. Sighvatr Surtsson is the son of Kolbeinn’s sister; on his father’s side, Sighvatr is descended from Christian settlers and from Ketill flatnefr and he shares with Gellir a common great-great-grandfather (Geirleifr, the father of Helgi skarfr and Oddleifr). Of Sighvatr’s descendants, all we have are empty names, so in his case we may say that his ancestry is better known than his descendants.
The ancestry of Gunnarr the Wise Þorgrímsson is not recorded but we know that there were lawspeakers in the next two generations of his family, his son Úlfheðinn, and Hrafn and Gunnarr (both probably the sons of Úlfheðinn). Other than this, little renown seems to attach to the family of Gunnarr the Wise; some of his descendants are mentioned in the genealogies in Melabók, but even here nothing is made of the fact that their families included a number of lawspeakers of previous generations.
Conclusions. The genealogical information we have on the lawspeakers in the first century after the conversion indicates that the writers of books in the 12th and 13th centuries did not go out of their way to trace their own families or those of influential people of their times back to the 11th-century lawspeakers Steinn, Gellir, and Sighvatr. These men, however, were all of excellent stock and were themselves mutually related by blood or marriage according to those who recorded their histories. One possible explanation is, of course, that there really were no family connections between these lawspeakers and the leading families of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is perhaps more likely, however, that the writers chose not to associate themselves with these people—it is a truism of most genealogy that, if a particular figure is attractive enough, there are generally ways of finding some kind of family connection to him, however tenuous.
Around the year 1100, on the other hand, the star of Gunnarr the Wise and his son Úlfheðinn was clearly in the ascendant, and as we get on into the century two members of the third generation from Gunnarr were to follow in the family footsteps as lawspeakers. These men clearly form a distinct kinship group that stands apart from the other lawspeakers, unconnected with them through family relations, marriage or shared interests. Descendants of Gunnarr the Wise held the post of lawspeaker both before and after the writing of the laws at Breiðabólstaður in 1117-8, and so it is worth considering whether it is possible to deduce anything about their reactions to the introduction of the new technology. This of course would go hand in hand with their connections to the Church; book learning probably grew in importance as the century progressed, all the more so in this case if it is correct that efforts to make written records of the law came from within the Church and gathered strength as the power of the Church increased. Perhaps it is possible to see in the waning political influence of the family of Gunnarr the Wise a reluctance to accept and adopt the new technology of writing. It is thus worth taking a closer look at the lawspeakers who came after Bergþórr, up to the time of Gizurr Hallson in the late 12th century (after whom we can safely assume that all lawspeakers would have been literate and book trained), to see if there are any indications of the extent of their book knowledge and their attitudes toward it.

Lawspeakers after the Earliest Writing of the Laws

Guðmundr Þorgeirsson

Guðmundr Þorgeirsson (1123–1134) is not mentioned in Landnámabók. In Þorgils saga ok Hafliða there is a man of this name who is said to be Þorgils Oddason’s brother-in-law and who joins Þorgils’s party when he rides to the Alþingi to confront Hafliði Másson in the summer of 1121. Sturlu saga describes the support given by Hvamm-Sturla Þórðarson (father of Snorri) to Bǫðvarr Þórðarson in the ‘Deildartungumál’ dispute; his opponent, Páll Sǫlvason, is supported by the chieftain Guðmundr dýri and his half-brother Jón Þórarinsson, who the saga says share the same mother, Þuríðr, the daughter of Guðmundr the lawspeaker, but beyond this passing reference the saga has nothing to say about him.
Jón Sigurðsson (1886) notes that there is no mention of Guðmundr (or any other secular leaders) at the time of the enactment of the first religious laws, which were introduced at the instigation of bishops Þorlákr and Ketill during Guðmundr’s first year as lawspeaker. Sigurðsson conjectures that Guðmundr was from the north of Iceland, the father of a priest called Þorgeirr whose name occurs in a list of northern priests dating from 1143. The Codex Regius text of Grágás mentions two rulings made by Guðmundr on the legality of particular aspects of the law: on poor relief (101) and on homicide (regarding the summoning of jurors from the scene of the crime and from the litigants’ home districts) (259)—which suggests that the lawspeaker’s oral ruling was taken to complement the existing written version of the law. If it is correct that lawspeaker Guðmundr was the brother-in-law of Þorgils Oddason, it is interesting that Þorgils should have managed to get him elected as lawspeaker in 1123, only two years after the settlement of his bitter dispute with Hafliði Másson; it is quite possible that this may have been part of the settlement, in return for Hafliði having his own man, Ketill Þorsteinsson, appointed bishop of Hólar in 1122 (see Þorsteinsson 1991:81).

Hrafn Úlfheðinsson

The name of Hrafn Úlfheðinsson (1135–1138) appears three times in the Þórðarbók version of Landnámabók (from Melabók) in genealogies tracing the ancestry of Hallbera, the wife of Markús Þórðarson of Melar: first in connection with the pedigree of Úlfheðinn’s mother, and then twice in genealogies from his own mother: see the discussion of his grandfather, Gunnarr the Wise, p. 72 above. Other than the genealogical reference in Sturlunga saga mentioned previously (see p. 73 above), nothing more is known of this man.

Finnr Hallsson from Hofteigur

The sources have rather more to say on Hrafn’s successor, Finnr Hallson from Hofteigur (1139-45). He appears at the head of a register of ten priests from the east of Iceland compiled in 1143. His ancestry in the east is traced in Landnámabók (S 282, H 243), where it is stated that Kolskeggr fróði (cited in Landnámabók as the main informant on the settlement of the East) was the brother of Finnr’s paternal grandmother. The Hauksbók redaction (H 351) traces Finnr’s mother’s pedigree back to the settler Eyvindr of Kvíguvágar (Sturlubók goes back only as far as Finnr’s grandfather), and continues the line forward through Finnr’s sister Freygerðr two generations to Guðlaugr the Smith. [27] A little earlier (H 346), Hauksbók includes an account of how Hrolleifr, lawspeaker Grímr Svertingsson’s paternal great-grand-father, challenged Eyvindr to a duel and drove him off his lands. Finnr also figures in an incident from 1120 described in Þorgils saga ok Hafliða: Grímr Snorrason has killed a groom of Þorgils Oddason’s and sought the protection of his kinsman Hafliði Másson; Hafliði sends him ‘austr í fjǫrðu í Hofsteig til Finns Hallsonar lǫgsǫgumanns. Hann hafði átt Halldísi dóttur Bergþórs Mássonar bróður Hafliða. Ok kømr Finnr honum útan’ (‘to the eastern fjords, to lawspeaker Finnr Hallson at Hofteigur [n.b. Finnr did not actually become lawspeaker until 1139]. He had been married to Halldís, the daughter of Hafliði’s brother, Bergþórr Másson. Finnr got him out of the country’) (25). In the end, things turned out badly for Grímr: he returned to Iceland and settled in the east, ‘þótti vera mannhafnarmaðr ok var veginn af húskarli sínum’ (‘was considered a fine figure of a man and was killed by one of his domestic servants’) (25). [28]
Finnr Hallson is the first lawspeaker to be an ordained priest, and thus probably the first to have a knowledge of books. His relationship through his wife to Hafliði Másson strongly suggests that he was in on the first writing of the laws in the winter of 1117-8, making him the first lawspeaker to represent the views of the reformers: of his predecessors, Guðmundr Þorgeirsson was probably the brother-in-law of Þorgils Oddason, Hafliði’s archenemy, and Hrafn came from an established line of lawspeakers going back to before the writing of the laws. Finnr is also unique in that he does not appear to be linked with any other lawspeakers anywhere in his genealogy. He may thus represent an example of a new group within society with influence that derived not from dynastic connections but from command of the new technology that only he and other clerically educated men possessed, writing.

Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson and his probable bloodline

Finnr Hallson was succeeded by Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson (1146–1155). He is entirely unknown from the sources, though, as Jón Sigurðsson (1886:25) suggested, it seems eminently likely on the basis of his patronymic that he was the brother of lawspeaker Hrafn Úlfheðinsson; if this is so, it makes Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson the last of the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise to fill the post, for the time being at least.
However, as is clear from Guðmundar saga dýra in the Sturlunga saga compilation, the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise were by no means entirely without influence in the second half of the 12th century. The saga includes an account of a group of rich and well-born farmers from Reykjardalur in Þingeyjarsýsla in the north some time around 1180: ‘Þar var þá gott bóndaval í dalnum. Þá bjó í Fellsmúla Sigurðr Styrkársson lǫgsǫgumanns en á Grenjaðarstað Eyjólfr son Halls Hrafnssonar lǫgmanns Úlfheðinssonar lǫgmanns Gunnarssonar lǫgmanns’ (‘There were many fine farmers in the valley at the time. Sigurðr, son of lawspeaker Styrkárr [Oddsson], lived at Fellsmúli, and at Grenjaðarstaður lived Eyjólfr, son of Hallr, son of lawman Hrafn, son of lawman Úlfheðinn, son of lawman Gunnarr [the Wise]’) (123). This is followed by a recapitulation of the line given elsewhere in the genealogies down to the mid-13th-century priest (and lawspeaker) Ketill Þorleiksson (see p. 73), with the added note that Ketill was the grandfather of the Narfasons’ mother. The noble pedigrees of the farmers of Reykjardalur are significant. When Teitr Guðmundsson of Helgastaðir in Reykjardalur asks for the hand of Otkatla, the daughter of Þórólfr of Möðrufell (who is said to be the grandson of Hafliði Másson), the prospective couple are compared, with one of them being adjudged richer and the other of greater lineage (though it is not made clear which is which). Teitr left the country in 1185 and died while abroad. This led to disputes as to who should inherit his share in his and Otkatla’s property, viz. Teitr’s father Guðmundr Eyjólfsson, who had retired to the monastery of Þverá where Hallr Hrafnsson was abbot, or the brothers of Teitr’s father, who claimed that as a monk their brother was debarred from inheriting or controlling property. The dispute turned largely on disputed points of the law and broadened to involve Sigurðr of Fellsmúli and Eyjólfr of Grenjaðarstaður. Thus the relations of these men to lawspeakers past and present mentioned in the saga become a significant theme and imply that the reader can expect an expert knowledge of the law on the part of the disputants, whether it may also have been in Eyjólfr’s personal interests to take on the case or not. For instance, Eyjólfr uses his position to purchase the inheritance at half its value from Guðmundr, who is now a monk in his (i.e. Eyjólfr’s) father’s monastery. Eyjólfr’s wife Guðrún is Otkatla’s cousin (their mothers being sisters), making him a relation by marriage to the descendants of Hafliði Másson. The disputes between Eyjólfr and Ǫnundr Þorkelsson of Lönguhlíð, the local titular chieftain (goði), become increasingly bitter and the local magnate, Guðmundr dýri Þorvaldsson, steps in and wins great prestige from the whole affair (129). After Ǫnundr is burned to death in 1197, Guðmundr gains control of the titular chieftaincies (goðorð) of both Ǫnundr and the men of Grenjaðarstaður, but then retires to the monastery of Þingeyrar, where he dies in 1212. Eyjólfr’s power is thus destroyed and his titular chieftaincy later falls under the sway of Sighvatr Sturluson during the lawspeakership of Styrmir fróði (see above; see also Sigurðsson, J. V. 1989:58-9).
On the evidence of their successes in elections to the lawspeakership, the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise remained ambitious and influential well on into the middle of the 12th century. It is worth noting that both Hallr Hrafnsson and his son Eyjólfr appear to have become abbots in their later years. Hallr was already abbot of the Benedictine priory at Þverá in 1184, the point at which Guðmundar saga dýra opens—the third abbot of Þverá according to the lists of abbots in AM 415 4to and the Stockholm manuscript, both dating from the 14th century (see Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, vol. 3, letters 12 and 114). According to the annals and Prestssaga Guðmundar Arasonar, Abbot Hallr died in 1190. However, the Prestssaga makes no mention of Hallr being consecrated at the time he is visited at Grenjaðarstaður in the autumn of 1173 by Guðmundr Arason and his kinsman Ingimundr the Priest, though the saga otherwise contains several references to consecrations, e.g. that of Guðmundr himself as an acolyte at Grenjaðarstaður by Bishop Brandr the following spring. The same applies to the genealogical lists in Sturlunga saga, where both father and son Hallr and Eyjólfr appear without clerical titles among other people specifically designated as priests, lawspeakers, or lawmen.
Formally, it was a precondition of monastic abbots in the 12th century that they should have received consecration, together with the requisite book learning. However, flouting of the Church’s rules and ethical demands was by no means uncommon at the time and it is quite conceivable that a secular chieftain of Hallr’s standing might have chosen to spend his twilight years in a position of high esteem within the walls of a cloister, without this having much to say about his level of learning or religious fervor. This at least seems to have been the case with his son Eyjólfr, if he is indeed the same Eyjólfr that the annals say was consecrated abbot of the Augustinians of Saurbær in 1206 and died in 1212. (The only source to name him ‘Hallsson’ is Høyer’s Annal, written in Norway around 1600 from an Icelandic exemplar; see Storm 1888:x.) In the list of abbots in AM 415 4to Eyjólfr Hallsson appears as the second abbot of Saurbær, while in the Stockholm Manuscript he is said to have been the first abbot of the monastery on the island of Flatey in Breiðafjörður. In Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn it is suggested that there may be an error in the Stockholm Manuscript, and it is noted without comment that this entry in fact refers to Eyjólfr Hallson, abbot of Saurbær (Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, vol. 3, p. 154), presumably on the assumption that the copyist read over a line or lines from his exemplar, resulting in a conflation of the abbots of Saurbær and Flatey. According to the 14th-century a text of Guðmundar saga biskups (chapter 97, p. 126), Guðmundr Arason (later to become bishop himself) asked Eyjólfr ‘prest’ (‘the priest’) Hallsson to accept the episcopacy. However, Eyjólfr is not called a priest in our oldest source, Prestssaga in Sturlunga saga, even though other characters in the saga are regularly accompanied by their clerical titles: Guðmundr himself and Halldórr of Hof (to whom Guðmundr offered the episcopacy before Eyjólfr) are, for instance, said to be priests, while Guðmundr’s two attendants are specified as deacons. Since Eyjólfr is described in Guðmundar saga dýra as an avaricious chieftain ready to take advantage of legal loopholes to line his own pockets, and then later as a conciliator in the dispute, without once being designated with the title of priest, there is good reason to doubt the authenticity of Guðmundr’s offer to make him a bishop. The only thing remotely Christian about his behavior as portrayed in the saga is that he asks Jón Loftsson ‘fyrir guðs sakir’ (‘for God’s sake’) (Sturlunga saga, 154) to go to court to try and arrange a settlement after the burning of Ǫnundr. Even if the Eyjólfr Hallson of Guðmundar saga dýra is the same Eyjólfr as was consecrated abbot of Saurbær in 1206, it is at least clear that he can hardly have devoted himself to the study of Christian writings while still a young man. So we may conclude that even if Hallr Hrafnsson was the abbot of Þverá and that his son Eyjólfr conceivably followed in his father’s footsteps at Saurbær, neither of them appears in Sturlunga saga as a devout and dedicated man of the cloth while still living at home on the church farm at Grenjaðarstaður. [29] In other words, Sturlunga saga gives us no strong reason to believe that they ever played a significant role as men of the Church, or that they were particularly literate, or that their family had any close ties with the ecclesiastical authorities.
Eyjólfr is the last in an unbroken line of influential descendants of Gunnarr the Wise and the family does not come to the fore again until the time of Ketill the Priest Þorleiksson (see p. 73). In the Þórðarbók (Melabók) redaction of Landnámabók, the lines of descent from the mothers of Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson and Hrafn Úlfheðinsson are continued down to lawman Snorri Markússon (d. 1313) and at this point reconverge when Snorri marries Helga, the daughter of Ketill, the priest and lawspeaker. [30] The Þórðarbók genealogies make no mention of the fact that Hrafn and Úlfheðinn had been lawspeakers.

Snorri Húnbogason

Landnámabók gives no direct genealogical information on the next lawspeaker, Snorri Húnbogason (1156-70). However, his mother-in-law Halla appears among the descendants of Steinólfr inn lági (‘the Short’) (S 116, H 88), to which Sturlubók adds information not found in Hauksbók and apparently intended to bring the line on to Snorri: ‘þeira dóttir Halla, er átti Atli Tannason, þeira dóttir Yngvildr, er átti Snorri Húnbogason’ (‘their [sc. Jódís Snartardóttir and Eyjólfr Hallbjarnarson’s] daughter [was] Halla, who was married to Atli Tannason; their daughter [was] Yngvildr, the wife of Snorri Húnbogason’). It is interesting that Snorri’s family connections are given in rather greater detail in the short saga Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns, where the line is continued on to Skarð-Snorri, the son of Snorri’s son Narfi and his wife Yngvildr. The þáttr also traces the line from Steinólfr the Short to Snorri’s wife, Yngvildr; then another branch from Ingólfr Arnarson, the settler of Reykjavík, to the family of Snorri’s mother; then the line from the settler Hrollaugr, son of Rǫgnvaldr, earl of Møre in Norway, to the family of Snorri’s father; and finally from his mother’s family back to the semi-legendary Ketill flatnefr. [31]
At the start of Þorgils saga ok Hafliða the two protagonists are introduced in conventional fashion: Hafliði Másson of Breiðabólstaður in Vesturhóp and Þorgils Oddason of Staðarhóll in Saurbær. (According to Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns, Þorgils was descended from Steinólfr the Short.) Þorgils’s neighbors are then listed, among whom is Húnbogi ‘faðir Snorra lǫgsǫgumanns’ (‘the father of Snorri the lawspeaker’) (Sturlunga saga, 8). This is interesting in that it follows Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns in deliberately bringing out a connection, however tenuous, between Þorgils Oddason and Snorri the lawspeaker—in the þáttr, Þorgils is of the sixth generation from Steinólfr the Short, Snorri’s wife Yngvildr of the eighth. In a list of farmers of good standing living in the area around Þorgils, next after Húnbogi comes a priest called Már Þormóðsson of Sælingsdalstunga: ‘Hann var frændi náinn Hafliða Mássonar. Halldóra hét móðir hans, dóttir Védísar Másdóttur, en Védís var systir Hafliða Mássonar’ (‘He [sc. Már] was a close relative of Hafliði Másson. His mother was called Halldóra, daughter of Védís Másdóttir, who was the sister of Hafliði Másson’) (Sturlunga saga 8). In 1120, Húnbogi leads a party of two hundred ‘worthy’ men to try to ease tensions between the chieftains when Hafliði comes south with almost a hundred men and stays with Már the priest at Sælingsdalstunga the night before the court of confiscation where Hafliði intends to press charges against Þorgils (Sturlunga saga, 31-2). Thus, Már is on the side of Hafliði because of their close family relations, while Húnbogi tries to arbitrate, possibly because of his connections with the other party in the dispute.
On his introduction into Sturlu saga, Snorri the lawspeaker is supplied with an even nobler ancestry than in Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns. Here, his mother’s line is traced back to Þorbjǫrg, the daughter of Óláfr Hǫskuldsson (the hero of the first part of Laxdœla saga), and thence to Óláfr the White Ingjaldsson and the legendary progenitor, Sigurðr Snake-Eye (Sturlunga saga, 52). Later in the saga, Snorri’s sons, Narfi and Þorgils, lend their support to Þorleikr Birningsson and Snorri sveinn from Heinaberg, who in 1185 had attacked Einarr Þorgilsson after Einarr had attempted to force the issue in his simmering dispute with Hvamm-Sturla over Birningr Steinarsson’s property. By this time Sturla was already dead, but by their action Snorri Húnbogason’s sons threw in their lot with the Sturlungar (Sturlunga saga, 181-2)—as comes out again a little later in the saga when Þorgils hands over to Þórðr Sturluson a half share in the Þórsnes goðorð (i.e. the titular chieftaincy of the Þórsnes district) (Sturlunga saga, 187). It is interesting to note that the Konungsannáll (‘Royal Annals’) says that ‘Snorri Húnbogason, priest and lawman’ died in 1170; there is nothing in Sturlunga saga to say that Snorri was a priest, but if he was he would certainly, like Finnr Hallsson before him, have known how to read and write.
From all this emerges a picture of Snorri Húnbogason as a person of fairly humble background in the older versions of Landnámabók, but who is then given a rather more elevated profile by Sturla Þórðarson when he includes him in his version, and by the compilers of Sturlunga saga, who link him through his wife to a number of great figures of the past. Snorri was a priest and his father Húnbogi is mentioned as a farmer of good standing from the neighborhood around Þorgils Oddason (along with Már, the priest at Sælingsdalstunga and kinsman of Hafliði Másson, even if they stood on opposite sides in the feud that forms the central subject matter of Þorgils saga ok Hafliða). Later, Snorri’s sons throw in their lot with Hvamm-Sturla and thus associate themselves with the most powerful family of the next decades, the Sturlungar. It may well be, then, that this enhancement of the reputation of Snorri the lawspeaker that we find in the later sources came about as a result of his sons’ connections with the Sturlungar.

Styrkárr Oddason

The final lawspeaker before Gizurr Hallsson is Styrkárr Oddason (1171–1180). He is not mentioned in Landnámabók but a list of names in Prestssaga Guðmundar Arasonar includes the information that he became lawspeaker in 1174 and died in the plague winter of 1180-1. Nothing more is known about him directly, but his son Sigurðr appears in Guðmundar saga dýra as a supporter of Eyjólfr Hallsson (see above, p. 81). In the same source, Ingiríðr, the wife of the priest Kleppjárn Klœngsson, is said to be Sigurðr’s sister, which would make her Styrkárr’s daughter assuming they were full siblings, though the relationship between them is never specified per se. These people all came out on the losing side in a series of disputes in 1187 (after Gizurr Hallsson had assumed the lawspeakership), disputes from which Guðmundr dýri emerged with his reputation much enhanced. According to Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendingasaga (Sturlunga saga, 228-9), in 1212 Sighvatr Sturluson offered his support to Kálfr Guttormsson after the killing of Hallr Kleppjárnsson. These sparse snippets of information enable us to infer a connection between Styrkárr and the lawspeaker dynasty of Gunnarr the Wise, since Styrkárr’s son Sigurðr supports Eyjólfr Hallsson in the disputes described in the early chapters of Guðmundar saga dýra (see p. 81). Thus, through his son, Styrkárr is indirectly allied to the party that appears to be on the back foot in the power struggle described in the saga, and his descendants finish up in the opposing camp to the Sturlungar. There are no suggestions in any of the sources of Styrkárr himself being associated in any way with the priesthood or book learning.


The men who filled the post of lawspeaker from the time of the first writing of the laws up until Gizurr Hallsson can be divided broadly into two groups, according to whether or not the sources link them in any way with the priesthood, and therefore with book learning:
Table 1-5: Lawspeakers according to literacy
Priests, literate men Not priests, no indications of literacy
Finnr Hallsson Guðmundr Þorgeirsson
Snorri Húnbogason Hrafn Úlfheðinsson
  Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson
  Styrkárr Oddason
One of the two literate lawspeakers, Finnr Hallsson, is related to Hafliði Másson through his wife. Snorri Húnbogason’s father also has connections to Hafliði Másson through his neighbor Már the priest, but his reputation appears to derive more from other factors: Snorri stands alone among these 12th-century lawspeakers in being at the center of the clan politics described in Sturlunga saga by virtue of his sons’ close association with the rising family of the next century, the Sturlungar.
Of the remaining lawspeakers, there is no indication that any of them ever assimilated book culture or had connections with the episcopal sees: Guðmundr Þorgeirsson appears to come from the circle around Þorgils Oddason after his reconciliation with Hafliði Másson; Hrafn and Gunnarr are probably both descendents of Gunnarr the Wise; and Styrkárr is also linked to this family through his son Sigurðr’s support for Eyjólfr Hallsson. There might be an indication here that these four men held faith with the traditional, oral preservation of their knowledge despite the moves to record the laws in writing. The sources exhibit little interest in tracing family links to these lawspeakers who may have continued to follow the oral tradition, and there is no mention of Hrafn or Úlfheðinn as being men of any particular distinction at the few places where their names do turn up in the genealogical lists in Þórðarbók/ Melabók. Their status as lawspeakers is, however, mentioned in the genealogies in Sturlunga saga when the writer traces the forebears of the mid-13th century priest and lawspeaker, Ketill Þorleiksson, and in Guðmundar saga dýra when Eyjólfr Hallsson is introduced into the story and related to this same Ketill.
The descendants of Gunnarr the Wise, who were evidently influential enough in their time to exercise a powerful grip over the position of lawspeaker from the 11th century to the middle years of the 12th, finished up on the losing side in the political game of chess described in Guðmundar saga dýra; but their influence (and/or wealth?) was enough to ensure that their relatives Hallr, son of lawspeaker Hrafn, and his son Eyjólfr, were able to gain positions as abbots of Þverá and Saurbær in their old age. However, both these men entered their monasteries in their last years and died only a few years later; their monastic lives cannot therefore be taken as evidence of any competence in writing before, or indeed after, this point in their lives. Sturlunga saga does mention the family as having some connection with men of the Church, since Ingimundr the Priest and Guðmundr Arason stayed with Hallr at Grenjaðarstaður, and it was also at Grenjaðarstaður that Guðmundr was himself consecrated by Bishop Brandr. Later, when Guðmundr is elected bishop, he asks Eyjólfr to take over the appointment for him, despite the fact that nowhere in Sturlunga saga is Eyjólfr ever mentioned with any clerical title appended to his name. Whatever we make of this, by the time the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise are finally seen in such close association with the Church that they appear as abbots of monasteries, several decades have passed since one of their number last occupied the position of lawspeaker.

Three Main Groups of Lawspeakers in the 11th and 12th Centuries

It appears that the lawspeakers of the 11th and 12th centuries can be classified broadly into three main groups according to how they are treated in the sources, either through the genealogies or through the positions they are described as having taken in particular disputes. These groups are: 1) those who are related to bishops, work within the Church, or are trained priests; 2) those descended from well-established and well-known families going back to Bjǫrn buna, Þórðr gellir and Ketill flatnefr; and 3) the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise and their supporters.
Table 1-6: The three main groups of lawspeakers of the 11th and 12th centuries, according to their genealogies and stances in political disputes
Lawspeakers with Church connections Lawspeakers from well-known families descended from Bjǫrn buna Gunnarr the Wise and his family and associates
1002–03 Grímr Svertingsson    
1004–30 Skafti Þóroddsson    
  1031–33 Steinn Þorgestsson  
  1034–53 Þorkell Tjǫrvasona 1034–53 Þorkell Tjǫrvasona
  1054–62 Gellir Bǫlverksson  
    1063–65 Gunnarr the Wise Þorgrímsson
  1066–71 Kolbeinn Flosason  
  1072–74 Gellir Bǫlverksson  
    1075 Gunnarr the Wise Þorgrímsson
  1076–83 Sighvatr Surtsson  
1084–1107 Markús Skeggjason    
    1108–16 Úlfheðinn Gunnarsson
1117–22 Bergþórr Hrafnsson    
  1123–34 Guðmundr Þorgeirssona 1123–34 Guðmundr Þorgeirssona
    1135–38 Hrafn Úlfheðinsson
1139–45 Finnr Hallsson    
    1146–55 Gunnarr Úlfheðinsson
1156–70 Snorri Húnbogasonb    
    1171–80 Styrkárr Oddason
a. Classification uncertain for Þorkell Tjǫrvason, (?) grandson of Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði; and for Guðmundr Þorgeirsson, (?) brother-in-law of Þorgils Oddason and maternal great-grandfather of Guðmundr dýri, the eventual victor over the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise and Styrkárr in Reykjardalur.
b. Sturlunga saga makes more of Snorri Húnbogason’s connections to the Sturlungar than to the priesthood.
The first group includes Grímr Svertingsson and Skafti Þóroddsson, both of whom were closely related to the champions of Christianity at the time of the conversion; the conversion thus enjoyed the support of the same power grouping as controlled the lawspeakership at the time. Markús Skeggjason assisted Bishop Gizurr Ísleifsson in the establishment of the tithe laws late in the 11th century. Bergþórr Hrafnsson clearly cooperated with Hafliði Másson in the winter of 1117-8 when representatives of the Church first obtained permission to make a written record of the law. Bergþórr’s genealogy is unknown, but Hafliði had family relations to the bishops of Skálholt and considerable influence over the see of Hólar. Later in the century we find two priests as lawspeakers in amongst four laymen. The former, Finnr Hallsson, seems to have been from an otherwise rather humble background, which perhaps suggests that his newly acquired competence in the use of writing and written materials may have been instrumental in his elevation to a position of secular authority. The other, Snorri Húnbogason of Skarð, is mentioned only once in the genealogies in the (older) Sturlubók redaction of Landnámabók (as an incidental detail within his mother-in-law’s line of descent), but in the later Sturlunga saga his name appears within a much more exalted genealogy going from the Narfasons, through him, back to Earl Rǫgnvaldr of Møre, Ketill flatnefr, and Ingólfr Arnarson, and including a number of other noble figures on the way. This impressive genealogy, which is found only in younger sources, may point to an enhanced reputation for Snorri and his family following his term as lawspeaker and his sons’ association with the Sturlungar.
The second group comprises lawspeakers with family connections to the issue of Þórðr gellir and Ketill flatnefr, both well-known descendants of the legendary progenitor Bjǫrn buna. This perhaps demonstrates nothing more than that a sizeable number of those who held sway in the 11th century could trace their lines back to a single kinship group among the original settlers. But it is not impossible that the saga writers of the 12th and 13th centuries went out of their way to link certain lawspeakers in the first century after the conversion with those among the settlers whom folk memory associated with early (Gaelic) Christianity in Iceland (including Þórarinn Ragabróðir, the early lawspeaker with family origins in Shetland and the brother-in-law of Þórðr gellir). Steinn Þorgestsson and Gellir Bǫlverksson are traced back to Þórðr gellir (the son of Óláfr feilan, whose background was in Ireland and the Hebrides, and Álfdís barreyska, i.e. from Barra in the Hebrides), and from here it is a short step to the primitive Christianity brought to the Dalir region of western Iceland by Auðr djúpúðga, Þórðr’s great-grandmother. The ancestors of Sighvatr Surtsson at Kirkjubær remained Christian for some generations after the settlements, and Kolbeinn Flosason is said to have been Sighvatr’s uncle. Relationships are also specifically brought out between Kolbeinn and Sighvatr’s family and Gellir and Steinn, indicating that these four lawspeakers were thought of as constituting a distinct group. Though none of them appears to have had any direct dealings with the Church in the 11th century, their family connections with early Christian settlers appear to be a matter of interest in the sources, whatever construction we wish to place on this.
In the second half of the 11th century a third group emerges: Gunnarr Þorgrímsson the Wise and his descendants. Initially they alternate as lawspeakers with the descendants of Bjǫrn buna and representatives of the Church, but after the writing of the laws in 1117-8 this group appears to form the only counterweight to the growing clerical influence. Later in the century the vitality of this dynasty of lawspeakers appears to be on the wane: the position of its chief representatives becomes less secure; they begin to disappear from national affairs and toward the end of the century we find them retiring to monasteries to spend the last years of their lives. A few generations later, however, this family makes something of a comeback in the person of the priest Ketill Þorleiksson, who was related to the Haukdœlir through marriage and through this connection managed to regain the lawspeakership in the final years of the Commonwealth.
The evidence seems to suggest that, however large it features in the written records, the Church did not become an influential force in Icelandic society until after the end of the 11th century. [32] It is, of course, perfectly understandable that the sources should give a rather distorted view of the general importance of the Church, since it was the Church that lay behind the production of most of the oldest sources. The status of the Church increased considerably in the 12th century. Apart from the writing of the laws, this is symbolized by the massive importation of timber in 1152 for the new cathedral at Skálholt, ‘er at ǫllu var vǫnduð fram yfir hvert hús annat, þeira er á Íslandi váru gør, bæði at viðum ok at smíði’ (‘over which more pains were taken than for any other building in Iceland, both as regards timber and craftsmanship’) (Hungrvaka, 107). In 1181 Gizurr Hallsson was elected lawspeaker, an indication that by now the interests closest to the bishopric of Skálholt, the Haukdœlir, were powerful enough to ensure the appointment of one of their own men. From this point on, all the lawspeakers come either from the ranks of the Haukdœlir or the Sturlungar. Around the time that the Haukdœlir are starting to enjoy the fruits of their support for the Church, a tough warlord from the west of the country, Sturla Þórðarson of Hvammur, gets into a dispute with his neighbors and is not pacified until his son Snorri is offered fostering at the most significant cultural center in the country at Oddi. Perhaps Sturla realized that by this move his offspring were being put in a position to become leaders in the new world that was opening up, just as at the start of the computer age ambitious parents packed their children off to computer courses to get a head start on their contemporaries. Snorri and his book learning gave the Sturlungar the impetus they needed to advance themselves in the world. (Exactly what Snorri learned at Oddi is unknown, but his later works and career are more suggestive of a secular training in poetry, storytelling, genealogy, and law than of devoted study of theological texts.) The Sturlungar thus mastered the technique of writing without having to become the Church’s men, and for a time became the most powerful family in the country in secular politics. Their reputation, of course, has not suffered by the fact that it was they who wrote the history themselves, leaving out or playing down the parts of those who failed to grasp the power that followed from a command of literacy.


We have started our search for the oral tradition of medieval Iceland among the cultural conditions that existed at the time when traditional, orally preserved learning was first put into written form, i.e. when the laws were recorded early in the 12th century. Learned scholars of modern times have hitherto been almost unanimous in regarding this change as an undisputed step forward: the ancient lawmen were now able to rely on a book as a repository for their fund of knowledge, and so it went without saying that the lawspeakers received the new technology introduced by the Church with open arms. But this picture changes if we apply the comparative approach and ask ourselves whether this assumption is necessarily justified.
From what we can read out of our meager sources, the lawspeakers appear always to have been representatives of whatever groupings enjoyed most influence in the country at the time, and to achieve influence in Icelandic society in the 13th century it was necessary to have mastered the literate culture that had come with the Church in the 11th century and gained increasing importance throughout the 12th. Those who did not care to take advantage of the opportunities provided by this ecclesiastical innovation found themselves at a disadvantage in the struggle for power and influence, and their descendants were doomed to obscurity unless they could ally themselves through marriage to those who had heeded the call of the times and learned to read and write. Those who did so then went on to use this new technique to achieve immortality by recording, shaping, and fixing in permanent form knowledge that previous generations had kept alive without the aid of writing—and without any idea of what they were missing.
By asking new questions of the sources, it is perhaps possible to discern signs of a struggle between the clergy and lawspeakers from secular backgrounds in the first decades of the age of writing. People with close connections to the Church were instrumental in taking down the law from the memory of lawspeakers (who thereby lost their right to arbitrate in disputes over the letter of the law) and recording it in books which then took over the function of deciding on the legality of particular provisions (with the bishop’s book at Skálholt taking precedence where books differed). A previously powerful family of lawspeakers that shows no sign of having assimilated the technology of writing gradually loses its influence as the 12th century progresses—not least in the records of those who came after them. This interpretation of the development is reflected in the way these earlier lawspeakers are spoken of in the written sources. It seems that the lawspeakers are treated differently by later writers according to whether or not they are connected in any way with the Church and the book learning that went with it. Other than their genealogies, essentially nothing is known of the 11th and 12th-century lawspeakers who had no connections with the Church, but from these genealogies they appear to fall into two groups, those said to be descended from well-known early settlers of the line of Bjǫrn buna, and those descended from or associated with Gunnarr the Wise. The line of Gunnarr the Wise seems to have enjoyed considerable influence in the second half of the 11th century and on into the 12th, but then disappears entirely from the political scene once the written law texts have become fully established towards the end of the century. These people, who in their time must have been major figures in society, appear to have been of little interest to the saga writers and ruling élite of the 13th century, judging from their absence from the genealogies presented in the written sources.
After the first writing of the laws early in the 12th century there appears to have been a transition period in which lawspeakers from established families and the descendants of Gunnarr the Wise alternated with priests without inherited influence but with command over the technological innovation of the age, i.e. they could read and write. This of course is not a unique case of mastery of a new technology enabling people to rise swiftly up the social ladder at the expense of more conservative groups with an entrenched position bolstered by family connections and accumulated wealth. This clash between literate priests and orally trained lawspeakers appears emblematically in Íslendingabók in the passage where Ari describes how the laws were read out aloud for confirmation by clerics at the Alþingi the summer after they had first been written down, while the lawspeaker, the man who had previously had the honored duty of reciting the law from memory, stood by and listened. There is no way of knowing what passed through his mind that June day on the plains of Þingvellir, but perhaps it occurred to him then and there that this new technique would sooner or later render his oral skills redundant, when any little priestling could read from a book what he had spent his youth learning by heart without even knowing what writing was.
Late in the 12th century the office of lawspeaker came under the control of churchmen of the Haukdœlir clan. Their influence over the election of lawspeakers was not to be challenged until the secular chieftains of Iceland had acquired a literate and educated representative of their own in the person of Snorri Sturluson, with the priest Styrmir fróði as his right-hand man. In addition to a thorough knowledge of the law, which must always have been a precondition of the office of lawspeaker, Snorri’s written works reflect an intimate familiarity with the oral tradition of poems and stories. The rise and career of Snorri Sturluson can therefore be viewed as an emblematic reflection of the way in which oral knowledge of the law would have gone hand in hand with other forms of oral knowledge and a command of the rhetorical uses of language inherent in literature. From this point on, representatives of the Sturlungar and the Haukdœlir alternated in the post of lawspeaker up until the end of the 13th century. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the tradition of oral learning remained strong at least into the 13th century and was held to be of considerable importance in the world of politics vis-à-vis the new technique of writing that had been gaining ground since early in the 12th. In the very nature of things, only the written records have survived, making the part of the Church in 11th and 12th-century events appear greater than it may really have been at a time when orally trained lawspeakers must still have enjoyed considerable influence in political affairs, however little we hear of them in the later written sources.
From a modern methodological perspective, the evidence presented here can be viewed as an example of how the findings of field studies of modern-day oral societies can be applied to ancient sources in order to tease out significant new information. Firstly, the comparative method helps us to recognize that previous discussions of orality in Iceland were based on unquestioned assumptions and therefore led to unfounded conclusions about historical developments at the time of a ‘step forward’ in cultural history—in this case, the introduction of literacy. We are thus in a position to reassess older ideas in light of new knowledge gained from research into oral traditions elsewhere. Secondly, we are forced to recognize the importance of taking into account how the written sources refer to historical characters. Thus, the genealogies do not only record raw historical data about who was related to whom in reality; they also serve to valorize individuals and family lines, indicating, as it were, who was in and who was out in the eyes of the writers of history. As often as not, the genealogies are used to elevate the status of particular families and individuals and thus tell us much about the people who recorded them—such as who they considered important, and who they chose not to be associated with. Using this approach, we can detect traces of an underlying power struggle which is never identified as such in the sources and which remains hidden if our research is confined to reconstructing a reality out of the direct testimony of the sources rather than seeking to decode the indirect thoughts and intentions of the scribes through whose eyes all knowledge of their contemporary culture has come down to us. The comparative method has thus helped us to identify a previously unsuspected historical development that occurred when writing was first used for the large-scale preservation of knowledge in a society that had previously relied overwhelmingly on oral tradition.


[ back ] 1. This chapter is an expanded and revised version of my article (Sigurðsson, G. 1994) in the Jónas Kristjánsson Festschrift, Sagnaþing.
[ back ] 2. See Líndal 1984:127, 129 and references there.
[ back ] 3. See Stock 1990:22-4, 140-58 on ‘textual communities,’ i.e. groups within medieval society united around the use of particular texts.
[ back ] 4. Rafnsson 1974:151-8 makes the same point with respect to deeds and charters.
[ back ] 5. See Líndal 1984:126-8, 134, and reference there to the work of Frederik Stang.
[ back ] 6. ‘Moreover, the lawspeaker shall recite aloud all parts completely, in such a way that no one knows them more completely in any way. But if his knowledge does not extend so far, then he shall convene a meeting with five or more lawmen the day before, from whom he can get the best [information], before he recites each part, and anyone who tries without permission to interfere in their deliberations will be liable for a fine of three marks [of silver], with the charge to be brought by the lawspeaker.’
[ back ] 7. One of the first tasks of most newly literate societies in the Middle Ages was to establish a chronology of their own histories and align it with the chronology used within the Church. This was generally done by setting calendar dates to events that had previously only been identified by reference to the periods in power of particular individuals.
[ back ] 8. It is highly misleading to categorize a particular stage in culture on the basis of the lack of some unknown technology. For instance, no one would dream of defining Western culture in the first half of the 20th century as being a ‘computerless culture.’
[ back ] 9. For expression of this view in a popular history, see for instance Aðalsteinsdóttir 1990:106; for a comparable academic example, see Jakob Benediktsson 1968:24. Benediktsson believes there is no need to interpret Ari’s words (‘vas nýmæli þat gǫrt, at lǫg ór skyldi skrifa á bók at Hafliða Mássonar,’ ‘an innovation was introduced, that part of the law should be written into a book at the home of Hafliði Másson’) as implying that this was the first time that any of the law had been set down in writing, and considers it unlikely that at least some passages of the laws were not recorded earlier. Peter Foote 1977:204 makes similar comments. Since an earlier version of the present chapter was published in 1994, Judy Quinn (2000) has made similar observations to my own regarding the writing of the law not necessarily serving the interests of the lawspeakers.
[ back ] 10. The articles in McKitterick 1990 consider the spread and uses of reading and writing in various European societies in the Middle Ages. The book makes clear the enormous impact of the introduction of literacy while also shedding light on its diverse roles in the relations between the Church, the secular authorities, and the ordinary people. Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1944:181, 190 makes no allowance for any tension between the secular, orally trained lawspeakers from well-established families and the newly learned priests from modest backgrounds who filled the post of lawspeaker during the course of the 12th century (see below, p. 79 f). Sveinsson’s research into literacy in ancient Iceland is characterized by the modern view that literacy constituted an undisputed attribute of education in all areas from the very outset.
[ back ] 11. ‘King Hákon made an appointment to hear Þórðr and Gizurr’s cases. And at the hearing Þórðr got someone to read out a long scroll that he had had written about the dealings between the Haukdœlir and the Sturlungar. It included details of much harm Þórðr had suffered in the way of losses among his men. Then the king said, ‘What have you got to plead in return, Gizurr?’ He answers, ‘I haven’t written down what I want to say, but I do have a few things I could say in reply. Still, I’d call this a fair enough account of our dealings.’
[ back ] 12. There is no reason to suppose that Snorri’s brothers, Þórðr and Sighvatr, ever learned how to use and apply literacy in the way Snorri had done at Oddi. Snorri’s interest in the office of lawspeaker is apparent from the list of lawspeakers in the Uppsala manuscript of his Edda (Snorre Sturlassons Edda. Uppsala-handskriften DG 11, pp. 48-9), giving the names of all the lawspeakers from earliest times down to Snorri himself: see also Nordal, G. 2001:50-5.
[ back ] 13. See Karlsson, G. 1975:31-9, Stefánsson 1975:86-119, Þorsteinsson 1991:72-4. On the Oddaverjar, see Hermannsson 1932.
[ back ] 14. Compare the remarks above (pp. 56–57) on the experience of the British when recording local traditions in Africa. See also Guðmundr Þorgeirsson’s additions to the legal texts discussed below.
[ back ] 15. This has already been done in exemplary fashion by Jón Sigurðsson (1886). For another attempt to build up from the fragmentary sources a comprehensive overview of particular chieftains and magnates, including many of the lawspeakers, see Ingvarsson 1986-7. See also Guðmundsson 1936, 1937; and Hermannsson 1943.
[ back ] 16. Peter Foote 1977:204 notes that the lawspeakers from Markús Skeggjason to Styrmir Kárason (i.e. over the period 1084-1214) appear to come from different quarters of the country.
[ back ] 17. Ari uses the same word ‘borgfirzkr’ of Tungu-Oddr when describing his dispute with Þórðr gellir (Ari’s forefather of the fifth generation) during Þórarinn’s term as lawspeaker.
[ back ] 18. Grímr is described in Egils saga (ÍF II:241-2) as a wealthy and well-connected lawspeaker at the time of his marriage to Egill’s niece and stepdaughter, Þórdís Þórólfsdóttir. The same source also mentions that Grímr and Rannveig, Skafti’s mother, had the same mother.
[ back ] 19. Ari’s way of presenting the early lawspeakers perhaps implies that he considered the regional origins of the lawspeakers to have been more significant in the 10th century than in later periods. This may suggest that an equity built into the original system, with control of the office alternating between parts of the country, had begun to break down by the time we reach the 11th century and that kinship connections had taken over as the overriding factor in the choice of lawspeaker. This would be well in line with the experience of more recent societies in which the equitable ideals of the founders of political systems have been eroded by an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families.
[ back ] 20. Assuming that a sentence about the twelve-summer term of Guðmundr Þorgeirsson (1123-1134) is a later interpolation: see Benediktsson, J. 1968:23.
[ back ] 21. Markús is mentioned widely in the sources. His descendants are listed in the Þórðarbók redaction of Landnámabók (based on material from the lost Melabók), and both the Sturlubók and Hauksbók manuscripts (S 355, H 313) trace lines of descent from Hrólfr rauðskegg (‘Redbeard’), the settler of Foss between the rivers Fiská and Rangá, to three later lawspeakers: viz. Hrólfr is said to be the maternal grandfather of Þorkell máni, the great-grandfather of Þorgeirr of Ljósavatn, and the great-grandfather of Ásborg, wife of Þorsteinn goði, who was the great-grandfather of Markús Skeggjason. (Þorsteinn goði was also related to lawspeaker Skafti Þóroddsson in the second and third degrees.) About Bergþórr less is known; he is not mentioned in Landnámabók and his family details are uncertain. The history of the early bishops, Hungrvaka, mentions that he died during the episcopacy of Þorlákr Runólfsson: ‘Þá var lǫgdeila þeira Hafliða *Mássonar ok Þorgils Oddasonar; þá var ok sætt þeira. Margir hǫfðingjar váru Þorláki byskupi óhœgir fyrir sakir sinnar óhlýðni, en sumir í óráðvendi ok lagabrotum, en *hann hafði allt í hǫndum sem bezt váru efni á’ (‘This was the time of the dispute between Hafliði Másson and Þorgils Oddason; then they were reconciled. Many chieftains created problems for Bishop Þorlákr through their disobedience, and some were unrighteous and committed crimes, but he conducted every case in the best way he could’) (98).
[ back ] 22. In references to Landnámabók (‘The Book of Settlements’), S refers to Sturlubók and H to Hauksbók, the two most complete redactions.
[ back ] 23. The history of the early bishops, Hungrvaka (77), bemoans the general immorality in Iceland at the time of Bishop Ísleifr’s return to his native country. It mentions a certain ‘lawman’ (whom, perfectly naturally from the point of view of the Church, it considers subordinate to the bishop) who was having an affair with both a mother and her daughter at the same time—though it does not state directly that this was during Gellir’s term in office. The reference may, in fact, be construed as applying to any period within Ísleifr’s episcopacy, which makes it impossible to be sure that the lawspeaker in question was Gellir rather than one of the three others during these years. The matter is discussed by Einar Arnórsson 1947 (see also Guðmundsson B. 1936:55-7 (p. 135, note 9) who suggests that the lawspeaker was Kolbeinn Flosason). Arnórsson is certainly too ready to assume a general compliance with the rules and strictures of the Church, which there is good reason to believe was at best uneven: see for instance the comments in Hungrvaka cited previously (p. 70, note 21); and two letters from Archbishop Eysteinn of Niðarós (Trondheim), one from around 1170, complaining that Icelanders have been beating up clerics and keeping whores, and one from 1180, regarding rampant debauchery (‘búfjárlíf’) among Icelandic chieftains (see Stefánsson 1975:94-5; Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, vol. 1, pp. 218-23, 260-4). See also the general laxness in sexual matters among the leading chieftains as depicted in Sturlunga saga and Bishop Árni’s disputes with various chieftains over their abuse of women—to say nothing of the Icelandic bishops who kept wives and had children long after the Church’s attempts to enforce celibacy. For the keeping of mistresses among Icelandic chieftains, see Magnúsdóttir 1988, 2001; Guðmundsson, G. J. 1989. For the growing influence of the Church on ideas about marriage and domestic life in the 12th and 13th centuries, see Rafnsson 1982; Arnórsdóttir 1995:105-23, 1996; Jochens 1995:17-64.
[ back ] 24. In Íslenzkar æviskrár (‘Register of Icelandic Biography’), vol. 2, 1949, Páll Eggert Ólason claims that Gunnarr was the son of Þorgrímr, son of Eyjólfr grái (‘the Gray’), son of Þórðr gellir, citing as evidence a manuscript by Steinn Dofir; I have not been able to trace this source.
[ back ] 25. Modern Kirkjubæjarklaustur in central southern Iceland.
[ back ] 26. The order of Ásbjǫrn and Þorsteinn is the reverse of that in Laxdœla saga. In light of the possible family connection between Sighvatr’s maternal uncle, Kolbeinn, and Flosi the burner of Njáll, it is worth noting that Njáls saga says that Flosi appointed Surtr as a mediator in the peace negotiations following the killing of Hǫskuldr (ÍF XII:310).
[ back ] 27. A priest called Finnr is mentioned in a genealogy in Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs (ÍF XI:79); the details differ from the Landnámabók genealogy, so it is unclear whether this Finnr can be identified with Finnr the lawspeaker.
[ back ] 28. In volume 1 of Íslenzkt fornbréfasafn, p. 187, Jón Sigurðsson makes the suggestion that Þórhallr Finnsson was the son of Finnr the lawspeaker. Þórhallr appears in Sturla saga (Sturlunga saga, 51, 55). His wife Valgerðr was the daughter of Þorgils Oddason, and in 1150 he gave shelter to a killer called Aðalríkr who had been sent to him by his brother-in-law Oddr Þorgilsson (foster son of Sæmundr fróði of Oddi) and whom Hvamm-Sturla Þórðarson (Snorri Sturluson’s father) was after for killing his kinsman Skeggi; this incident marked the start of Sturla’s political career. Þórhallr is not mentioned in the saga again. In view of the affinity through marriage between Finnr and Hafliði Másson, it seems unlikely that his son Þórhallr should marry Þorgils’s daughter and protect criminals sent from Oddi in exactly the way that Finnr had previously done for Þorgils’s enemy Hafliði
[ back ] 29. The Auðunnar máldagi (‘Auðun’s Cartulary’) mentions that a certain Ísleifr (possibly Hallsson) endowed the Church with land at Grenjaðarstaður (see Níelsson 1869:195), and it is generally assumed that the father and son Hallr and Eyjólfr served there as priests. The evidence of Sturlunga saga, however, speaks against this. On monasteries in Iceland, see Jónsson, J. 1887.
[ back ] 30. It is somewhat puzzling that Helga is not mentioned in Sturlunga saga, since her brothers and sisters are there: Þorleifr hreimr, Ketill, and Valgerðr, daughter-in-law of lawspeaker Snorri Húnbogason and mother of the Narfasons: see the Haukdœlir family tree in ‘Ættir og átök,’ 54, in Sturlunga saga, vol. 3, Skýringar og fræði, p. 102.
[ back ] 31. See ‘Ættir og átök,’ 1 and 2, in Sturlunga sögu, vol. 3, Skýringar og fræði, pp. 73-4. On the functions of the genealogies in Sturlunga saga, see Rafnsson 1985, Bragason 1993, and Arnórsdóttir 1995:43-77.
[ back ] 32. See Vésteinsson 2000 on the stages in the gradual development of the Church’s power within Icelandic society. Vésteinsson does not, however, consider the significance of writing as a tool in this development.