Fight For Your Honor! The Holmgang And Viking Law
Throughout their history, the Vikings were known as ferocious fighters, seafarers, raiders, and traders. The popular image depicts them as somewhat rambunctious and lawless - but that is far from the truth. To maintain a functioning society, the Vikings relied on strict laws and social norms. One of the most popular of these - and best attested - was the holmgang.
A common way to settle disputes between men, the holmgang was a sword duel that placed to the test one’s courage, skill in combat, and social status. It took a lot of courage to stand your ground against a fierce fighter, ready to maim you. Could you do it too?
The Viking Thing
It’s no secret that Vikings were quick to anger and were often quick to draw their sword. In the early medieval world, a man’s honor was highly prized. One insulting word - and blood could quickly be spilled. Of course, a society in which men kill each other daily for simple insults would never thrive and endure. That’s why it was important to have some semblance of law in place.
For the Vikings, the most important governing body was known as the Thing. The Thing was basically a court of the people. It consisted of the town or village elders and prominent men, as well as the people’s ruler - the earl.
Together, these men would pass new laws and judgements on which they would mutually agree, all in sight of the gathered folk. Every free man and woman gathered had their say in all matters.
When a law breaker was caught, the thing assembled in order to pass the judgement. It also gathered when new earls and leaders were to be elected. This happened at least once a year, or as was needed.
A Viking "Thing” (Wolpertinger / Public Domain )
Later, starting in the 900’s AD, the Thing evolved into the Althing, which was sort of a national assembly that first appeared in Iceland. It gave a voice to any free person and placed down the essential national laws. But when not meeting to pass new laws, the Thing most often assembled to resolve disputes concerning murder.
In the Norse world, life was cheap and blood was quickly spilled. One drunken night, a heavy insult, or a petty squabble, could easily turn deadly. If a murderer was caught, he could assemble a sort of jury of twelve men willing to vouch for his innocence.
However, this was guarantee that he would be freed. If the Thing found the man to be guilty, he could be banished, outlawed, executed, or required to pay a special fine. This fine was known as the “weregild,” and was paid out to the family of the victim.
The Einvigi And The Holmgang
But sometimes, two feuding men could settle their bitter arguments in a “civilized” duel. An insulted man could challenge his opponent to a “holmgang,” which was a lawful way to draw swords, avoiding potential murder charges and weregild payments.
It is important to note that the holmgang was preceded by the “einvigi,” another form of dueling to settle disputes. However, the einvigi was much less regulated. It could be done anywhere, under any conditions, with or without witnesses, and with any weapons, being in essence just an agreed fight between two men. It often – if not always – ended in death.
Statue of Snorri Sturluson in Bergen, Norway (Osbern / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The einvigi also had a god, according to Snorri Sturluson , the 12th century Icelandic historian. He was known as Ullr, and could be invoked by either combatant that sought his favor in the duel. But the einvigi was not efficient. It just caused more bitter feuds and charges, as the family of a deceased duelist could still seek recompense and vengeance.
In order to control these feuds and reduce them, as well as limiting potential fatal outcomes, the Norse developed the holmgang, a formal, regulated duel that evolved from and replaced the crude einvigi. The holmgang became the accepted and legal way to settle disputes.
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In stark contrast to the einvigi, the holmgang was much more formalized, regulated by a set of laws known as the “hólmgangulog” (lit. “holmgang-laws”). Literally translated, holmgang means “holm-going” where holm signifies a small, rounded islet. It was often interpreted that the combatants fought on a small and specifically chosen islet from which they could not escape from the duel.
However, it is likely that the duel was fought in a specially marked area which only symbolized a holm. Either way, these facts confirm that the holmgang duel was seen as a matter of great honor and courage. A warrior that retreated from a holmgang would degrade and embarrass himself beyond measure. Such a man would be seen as an ultimate coward and could even be banished for good.
Answering The Challenge
Contrary to some other European early medieval societies, the holmgang was not class-oriented. This means that anyone could challenge anyone, no matter the difference between their social statuses.
Also, the reasons for starting a holmgang could be numerous. It could be a matter of honor, an insult, land disputes, debts, disagreements, restoring a woman’s honor, or avenging a friend or a family member. Literally – anything goes.
To fail to meet the challenge meant being dishonored and ostracized ( lobard / Adobe Stock)
Once the holmgang had been agreed, it had to occur in the following three to seven days. If the man who sought the duel failed to appear at the arranged time, he would be banished and outlawed. Similarly, if either of the two men failed to appear, the other man’s cause would be seen as just, and the matter thus settled.
A man that did not appear at the duel would be formally proclaimed to “have no honor,” and was thus socially ostracized and outlawed. An outlawed man was outside of the bounds of law, and any man could kill him without suffering repercussions.
One interesting document from the 13th century explains to us the necessary conditions that precede a holmgang. By the time it was written, the practice was already well established and formalized, although the earlier, 10th century practices were likely similar. The document originates in Vastergotland in Sweden, and states:
“If someone speaks insults to another man, they shall meet where three roads meet . If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.
“If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry “Nithingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.
“Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.”
The Rules Of The Holmgang
Often, the holmgang would take place at a customary place in the town or village, or in its vicinity. Many communities had their own place reserved only for these duels. Either way, it was very important that the duel occurred in a clearly marked area, which combatants could not leave at any time during the duel.
A Holmgang within a circle surrounded by rocks (Johannes Flintoe / Public Domain )
It was documented that a holmgang duel would take place on a stretched ox hide that was pegged to the ground by the combatants. The pegging was a ritual action, and held a lot of importance. The duel would then take place on the square of the ox hide, and neither man could step outside of it.
Later on, the ox hide could be replaced with a small circle of stones, or the men’s cloaks thrown on the ground. Either way, the marked area was very small, and could not be exited during the duel. To do so would mean great cowardice and an immediate defeat.
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One curious piece of Scandinavian literature tells of the unique rituals connected to the placing of the ox hide for the duel. The Icelandic Saga of Cormac the Skald (Kormáks saga) tells of the holmgang between Cormac and his opponent Bersi.
When the time comes for placing of the hide, the saga tells that it should be pegged in such a way that “you can see the sky between your legs, hold the lobes of your ears, and speak the forewords of a rite called “The Sacrifice of Tjosnur”. If you peg the stakes in such a manner, you were sure to win.
Opponents could agree beforehand on the smaller details of the duel, such as the rules for forfeiture or the weapons that were to be used. Most often - if not always - the weapons used were swords and shields.
Glory to the winner, dishonor to the defeated (GioeleFazzeri / Public Domain )
Each fighter also had an assistant standing by. These men carried two spare shields to be replaced. The total number of shields was thus three - but they were likely of a poor quality and were quick to splinter.
The warrior that ran out of shields the first was more likely to lose the duel. In certain cases, the opponent would at this moment also drop all his shields and fight sword-only, proving his courage and honor.
To The Victor The Spoils
It is likely that early on, the holmgang was a fight to the death. The warriors stood in the small circle and took turns striking one another. One mistake or a miscalculated hit, and it could all be over.
However, later on, the duel became much more formal, and it was all about turning up and preserving honor, rather than killing your opponent. In this way it was similar to other popular European dueling practices.
Nevertheless, holmgang was about shedding blood . If it was agreed that the duel was not to the death, then it would most commonly be won by the first man to draw blood. When blood fell to the ground or the cloaks on it, the duel was over. This meant that a skilled warrior could end the holmgang in seconds, with a well-placed sword hit.
The victorious man was often able to claim all the belongings of his defeated opponent - especially if he had killed him. If the cause of the dispute was over land, the holmgang was a sure way to try and claim it.
The Holmgang was abused by professional swordfighters looking to claim lands ( Breakermaximus / Adobe Stock)
This led to a widespread practice of dueling, and the emergence of “professional” duelists that relied on the holmgang to acquire land and wealth. Often these were knights or skilled warriors that challenged less able men and entered into disputes with them. They would find the most blatant and silly reason and proclaim it as a grave insult that could only be settled by a holmgang. As payment, they required money or land.
And thus, by quickly defeating them in a duel, they would claim all their land and become wealthy as a result. This misuse of the holmgang was remedied with the option of having a hired warrior fighting in your stead if you are not skilled with the sword. Even so, the exploitation of the holmgang for personal gain was widespread in medieval Scandinavia. From the late 11th and early 12th centuries AD, the holmgang started to become forbidden as a result.
Live by the Sword - Die by the Sword!
The holmgang was, in many ways, an efficient Viking practice that lowered the fatal outcomes of feuds and formalized the dueling practices in the society. Thanks to the small circle in which the fighters stood, it was immensely difficult to deliver an unexpected killing blow. Thus the point was to simply draw blood. A particularly skilled warrior could, of course, find a way to kill his opponent even in such circumstances, but deaths were fewer even so.
Duels were a common occurrence in Europe, from the earliest Middle Ages down through the centuries. While the holmgang was originally a brutal duel to the death with almost no rules, it later evolved into a formal duel between men. It was a way to restore one’s honor and solve disputes without resorting to straight out murder, because even the Vikings realized that there was no point in dying in vain!
Top image: The Holmgang was formalized but could still be deadly. Source: Alex_marina / Adobe Stock.
By Aleksa Vučković
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