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In Iceland one must have a home; it is an offense not to-in some circumstances, a capital offense. A sturdy beggar was liable for full outlawry, which meant he could be killed with impunity. The laws are hard on vagrants. Fornication with a beggar woman was unactionable; it was lawful to castrate a vagabond, and he had no claim if he were injured or killed during the operation. One could take in beggars solely for the purpose of whipping them, nor was one to feed or shelter them at the Thing on pain of lesser outlawry. Their booths at the Thing could be knocked down, and if they happened to have any property with them, it could be taken from them without liability. How much of a homelessness problem there was we don't know. But there is a kind of panicky desperation that suffuses the laws that could indicate a fairly large population of unattached people, or merely that unattached masterless people were uncanny sources of contagion, disgust, loathing, and fear, divorced from their numbers. Beggars figure in the sagas too. Beggar women serve as transmitters of gossip, beggars are shown to be untrustworthy and are abused now and then, but no saga shows anyone outlawed for vagrancy, although of those outlawed for theft, a significant number were no doubt unattached to any household.


Reproduced with the permission of the University of Notre Dame Press.