Two “Vikings” (me and my friend Ragnar) face off for a duel. Photo credit: Emily Chesley.
[I recently wrote a series of articles on the Viking judicial duel–the holmgang–for the newsletter of my Sons of Norway lodge. I offer them now for you here, in three installments. lw]
“By law shall the land be established, and by lawlessness laid waste,” says the title character in the Icelandic Njal’s Saga. Historian Magnus Magnusson writes, “I can never resist reminding my sceptical friends that it was these allegedly pitiless savages [the Vikings] who introduced the word law into the English language.”
Anyone reading the sagas will soon realize the extreme importance of the idea of law to the Norse. And it’s in the context of this importance that the judicial duel, the holmgang, must be understood.
The Vikings had laws and courts, as we do today. What they did not have was a police force. Delegating the use of force to someone else would have seemed shameful to any free Norseman.
A Norseman who had been wronged by another could go to court at the “thing” (assembly) and get a judgment against his opponent, much as we would in our system today. He might be awarded compensation by the court.
It’s at that point that Viking law differs most dramatically from ours. In the absence of an enforcement arm—a police force—it was up to the Norseman himself to collect his compensation. This would certainly have involved a difficult and dangerous personal scene. Two armed men, face to face, bristling with resentment, one believing he has been injured, the other believing he has suffered injustice, must have made for an explosive meeting.
Here was the potential for violence, and for the spark that might set off a feud that would last years and waste valuable lives.
But that did not have to be the case.
There remained one more step in the legal process. One more firewall to prevent the waste and heartbreak of a feud.
Instead of unregulated violence, revenge and ever-expanding circles of retaliation, there was one more “court of appeal.”
That was the judicial duel—the holmang.
Every society has found it necessary to make provision for the controlled, legal employment of violence. Nowadays we delegate that work to the police.
In Viking times, two men faced each other in a strictly delineated space, under stringent rules, to decide their case by combat.
If carried out correctly, this legal procedure would allow both men to walk away with their honor intact. No one even had to die.