The Viking sense of justice was quite different from the one we have today – and it could be bloody.
Although it’s easy to imagine the Vikings as a bunch of scruffy barbarians who murdered, raped and looted without any conscience, they actually had a complicated honour and justice system.
Punishments could be severe, but the Viking legal system was based on a legislative assembly and a court.
The Germanic Thing
“A Thing” was a governing assembly in Germanic society that was typically held in a specially designated place. The Thing made political decisions, legislated and tried murder cases, a common problem in the Viking Age. The word lives on in several Scandinavian names for Parliament, such as Norway’s Stortinget and Iceland’s Alþing, as well as in place names like Tingwall in Orkney and Shetland.
People could be sentenced to death or be made outlaws by a judgment at the Thing. Being subjected to outlawry meant that you were banished from society and anyone could kill you, with no consequences.
People commonly settled disputes among themselves by paying fines, or through the holmgang—a duel between two men, often over women or property.
So what was regarded as a crime in the Viking Age? How was it decided what kind of punishment would be meted out?
Thinking like a Viking
Understanding the legal system requires thinking like a Viking from Scandinavia. Taking responsibility for one’s own actions was considered paramount. If you did something wrong, you had to admit to the deed. Then you could defend yourself at the Thing, which was the honourable way to handle it.
Theft was therefore a particularly heinous crime, since the point of stealing something is to hide one’s action.
Keith Ruiter is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen and has researched Viking punishments. He points to a theft in the Icelandic Grettir’s saga. Grettir is a poet who is a convicted outlaw in Iceland, and he must fend for himself in the wilderness for 20 years. He ends up stealing sheep from farmers, explains Ruiter, but is discovered.
Then the farmers “raised the gallows and were ready to hang him on the spot,” says Ruiter.
Fortunately for Grettir, he is spared the noose thanks to the arrival of the wise and firm woman Thorbjorg, who saves him.
“References to hanging are rare, but it seems to have been a particularly shameful way to be executed,” says Ruiter.
Beheading was another frequently used means of execution. Many Viking slaves may have ended their days in this way.
What about murder?
You could get away with killing someone, but only as long as you were honest about it.
“Today we distinguish between premeditated murder, intentional murder and manslaughter, but the Vikings didn’t have the same distinctions,” Anne Irene Riisøy tells forskning.no.
Riisøy is an Asssociate Professor at the University College of Southeast Norway (USN) who has previously focused on Norwegian legislation and case law in medieval and early modern times. Now she is researching law and justice in the Viking Age.
“For example, arson or killing someone at night was seen as highly despicable and therefore classified as murder because you weren’t giving people the opportunity to defend themselves,” Riisøy says.
But Vikings did distinguish between manslaughter and murder. You could kill someone in public without suffering serious consequences, because you were doing it openly and giving others the opportunity to react to it, she says.
You had to take responsibility for the killing and not flee, and pay the compensation imposed on you. The same applied to homicides resulting from fights or similar situations.
“As long as you were honest and open, and reported what had happened, it wasn’t considered murder,” says Ruiter.