Document Type


Publication Date



Our word law is a loanword from Old Norse.1 It makes its earliest appearances in Old English manuscripts in the late tenth century. At that time the Old English word for law was, believe it or not, æ, written as a digraph called "ash." Now most readers, myself included, tend to experience anxiety when we confront a ligatured vowel like ae and so we untie it as a prelude to getting rid of it altogether: we turn an aesthete2 into an aesthete before finally humiliating him (or her) as an esthete, all to resolve our nervousness. King Æthelred the Unready becomes AEthelred before turning ignominiously into Ethelred. If 2 had stayed our word for law and we make the necessary allowances for what happened to the pronunciation of Old English words that had an ash in them, instead of lawyers we would simply be "ers," which indeed was how Chaucer spelled arse.3 And imagine how hard it would be to maintain the pompous tone in which we are wont to speak of THE LAW if instead we were speaking of THE E, pronounced with a short e to add even further indignity to the institution. So we have something to thank those Vikings for after all. They might have emptied England of most of its silver and carried off no small number of captives as slaves, but they left us our word for the model of order4 - law - as an exchange for the disorders they wrought. So the etymology of law gives me my warrant for the violent yoking of my title: uniform laws and saga Iceland. And the retirement of my colleague Bill Pierce gives me the occasion for yoking them. The sagas were written in Old Norse or, more precisely, in a dialect of Old Norse philologists call Old Icelandic. Old Norse lög, a plural form, had a literal sense of things that had been laid down. But the word referred to more than positive enactments - Le., laws; it also indicated the community that shared those laws, a community that was then known as "our law." 5 Hence the term outlaw6 to indicate someone who had been expelled from the community and who as an outlaw was shorn of all jural status and all jural rights: he or she was supposed to be killed by anyone hearty enough to undertake the task.7 "Law" even came to be thought of as the land in which those people who followed one particular law dwelled. Hence the name Danelaw for the east midland region of England where the bulk of the invading Viking armies settled. Given this conception of law as the community defined by a single body of laws, there could not be, by definition, a persistent problem about uniformity of laws. Local custom might vary, but if it varied too much we were in a different world, a world of their law, not our law. With this as a most superficial of backdrops let me give you two case studies. The first deals with the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in the year 1000. This particular case treats of the specific problem of what happens when one faction within the unity of "our law" threatens to secede and make their own law. The second case discusses the problem for uniformity of law and laws when an oral culture meets a powerful new technology we call writing.