The Haensa - Thorir Saga: A tale of law in Medieval Iceland
One of the more political Icelandic sagas, the tale of Hænsna-Þórir remains an interesting view into the legal proceedings of Iceland in the ninth century. The legal conflict woven throughout the text speaks volumes about the struggle that persisted in Iceland following the Golden Age of the republic, rectified when Norway took control of its lands in the 11th century. Furthermore, the saga deals with the morals of society in a fascinating way, painting law breakers and lawful men alike as honorable, generous, or venal.
The Hænsna-Þórir Saga opens with a brief description of the men who came to the region of Burgfirth in Iceland, a district under the direction of Odd-a-Tongue, both chieftain and lawspeaker. Among the people who arrived in Burgfirth were Erne and Hænsna-Þórir. Erne and Odd-a-Tongue immediately butted heads, as Erne chose to stay in Burgfirth for the winter and sell his wares for money, but Odd-a-Tongue would not allow him to set his own prices. Further, Odd-a-Tongue denied Erne the ability to trade at all.
Hænsna-Þórir entered the scene as a fellow trader who was greatly disliked and initially very poor. He traveled to Holtbeacon Heath and, by selling hens, made a great fortune for himself. Unfortunately for his circumstances, however, word spread of his lack of likeability and few people desired to have dealings with him. Despite this, Hænsna-Þórir determined to make up for this absence of support by visiting the priest Angrim and requesting to foster Angrim's son, Helgi. Though Angrim also did not like Hænsna-Þórir, Hænsna-Þórir offered monetary compensation to Helgi that swayed Angrim, and Hænsna-Þórir and Angrim entered into an alliance kept together by this relationship.
The tale then turned to tell of Blundketil, a landowner with high moral values and an empathetic tendency toward his tenants. When a particularly tough winter did not allow for many of the occupiers to properly ration their hay—to feed themselves and to use to pay Blundketil—he allowed many of them to owe him at a later date. Yet, this quickly became a sustenance battle, as neither landowner nor tenants could feed their animals, making slaughter a difficult, undesirable task. This took a toll on the food store for the winter months, so Blundketil took it upon himself to come to a solution.
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With a large amount of money, he traveled to the farm of Hænsna-Þórir and offered him the sum for a portion of Hænsna-Þórir's hay. Hænsna-Þórir, to everyone's knowledge,—including his own—had plenty of hay to for all the wanting parties but refused, for no reason other than apparent greed. Concerned for his folk, Blundketil took a percentage of the hay anyway leaving the money, in his mind settling the debt between the two of them. Hænsna-Þórir, however, was not pleased.
Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-century manuscript of the Egils Saga. Public Domain
Hænsna-Þórir believed himself legally wronged by this deed and resolved to have Blundketil persecuted. Because of his dislike though, no one would take his case until he met Thorvald, the son of Odd-a-Tongue. Thorvald brought the two men together to assuage the accusations, but Hænsna-Þórir adamantly refused to take the money Blundketil offered, creating a large legal problem.
This painting depicts an early meeting of Iceland’s Althing with the Lögsögumaður (Lawgiver) calling the body to order at the Lögberg (Law Rock). Image Source
In medieval Iceland, compensation was the usual way to solve robbery disputes. With the refusal of Blundketil’s money, Thorvald was forced to find an adequate compensation for Hænsna-Þórir, and did so by declaring Blundketil a thief to be punished. This greatly pleased Hænsna-Þórir, but not quite to the extent he wished. Hænsna-Þórir wanted Blundketil to suffer.
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An opportunity for vengeance against Blundketil was presented when a house guest of Blundketil—Erne, in fact—chose to avenge the kind landowner and shot at Hænsna-Þórir with his bow. When the arrow slew Helgi instead of Hænsna-Þórir, though, Hænsna-Þórir thus had a reason to attack Blundketil. Together, Thorvald and Hænsna-Þórir burned Blundketil's farm to the ground with Blundketil still inside.
The saga of Hænsna-Þórir came to a close when the son of Blundketil, Herstein, decided to avenge his father. He went abroad to gather supporters, and then took his case to the Althing, the governmental body of Iceland at the time. On his way to the Althing however, Hænsna-Þórir himself assaulted Herstein and Herstein's company with his own small army of twelve. Herstein defended himself and got vengeance for his father when he beheaded Hænsna-Þórir; the feud between the two of them finally came to an end.
Illustration of bloody battle during an Icelandic Saga involving Haakon Sigurdarson (Haakon Jarl). 1899. Public Domain
Though the saga is one of the shorter ones, it interests scholars predominately for its legal documentation. In medieval Iceland, there were two types of laws in place: natural and positive. Natural referred to the laws of nature—that is to say, the morals of a culture. Positive law was defined as the laws made by men.
The Hænsna-Þóris Saga is an example to academics of how these laws ceased to suit Iceland's needs as time passed, and the culture moved away from its republican ideals. The titular character is intended to serve as an illustration of one of the ways in which both the natural law and existing positive law could fail, thus requiring the law-speakers to attempt to adjust it accordingly so that justice was served. The legal struggle is seemingly the intent of the Saga of Hænsna-Þóris , thereby providing written evidence for the conflict Iceland was soon to face.
Featured image: ‘Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse’ by P. Raadsig, 1850, depicting Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Wikimedia Commons)
"The Hænsna-Þórir Saga." Iskendur Sagna-Grunnur. Accessed February 23, 2014. http://www.sagadb.org/haensna-thoris_saga.en
Long, Roderick T. "The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland." Formulations, Spring 1994. http://www.freenation.org/a/f13l1.html
Malcolm, Thomas. "The War of Laws: Hen-Thorir's Saga." T he Cross Section: An Exploration of All Things Nordic . May 27, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2015. http://thecrosssection.com/2014/05/27/the-war-of-laws-hen-thorirs-saga/.
Miller, William Ian. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.)
Miller, William Ian. "Avoiding Legal Judgment: The Submission of Disputes to Arbitration in Medieval Iceland." The American Journal of Legal History, April 1984, 28.2.
Penack, William. The Conflict of Law and Justice in the Icelandic Sagas (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.)
By Ryan Stone