The Saga of Gisli: A Critical View of Scandinavian Justice System and Settler Mentality

Essay by mizutenchi22College, UndergraduateA+, December 2004

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In The Saga of Gisli, Gisli's outlawry and pursuit is a classic example of the tensions present in Medieval Scandinavian culture's policial and justice system. Several shifts occurred in the ninth century that changed early Scandinavian worldviews, including the influence of Christianity and resistance to nationalism . For example, the old ways insisted that vengeance on behalf of one's kin was expected and power was measured by the ability to gain supporters. Christian thought, however, opposed revenge, uprooting traditional codes about kinship and honor.

Further, no central government enforced laws or regulations and crimes were customarily handled by the community or by cheiftains. Norway, however, seizing a window of opportunity during a civil war in the early 1260s, forced Iceland into a monarchical union, which was nothing more than the surrender of the freedom of self-determination and a national submission to the Norwegian crown.

The saga writer, therefore, comments extensively on the acephalous nature of early Scandinavia, in favor of the sweeping cultural changes brought about by Norwegian influence.

The author purposefully constructed the story to reflect his own opinion; the pre-national feudal conflicts between kin and the expectation of revenge fuels a vicious cycle that the author opposes. However, despite these beliefs, the author remains sympathetic to the central characters and believes that the changes brought about by national unification and Christianization will not resolve two essential questions about human nature. The result is that the author devises a consensual and apparantly contradictory worldview between the old and new ways of life.

First, the author of The Saga of Gisli, believes that conflict caused by the old kinship system is bad, but finds such conflict unavoidable, nonetheless. The author observes that settler communities, like Gisli's Iceland, are interdependent and tight-knit. Because resources are scarce and the community...