Medieval Studies Nordic Laws
by
Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Helle Vogt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0320

Introduction

By the end of the Viking Age, the Nordic region was divided between three kingdoms, all of which still exist in the early twenty-first century, albeit with very different borders, and Iceland. In Scandinavia, if we exclude the Sami language, a single vernacular language was spoken during the Early and the High Middle Ages: the so-called dönsk tunga or Danish tongue. The English word law originates from the Old Norse noun lög, plural lag. Lög also refers to a region, that is a territory united by the laws. Gulaþingslög, for example, covered the west coast and interior of Norway. In Scandinavia, there were probably about fifteen larger regional administrative regional law assemblies (lögþing) by the end of the Viking Age, with as many different laws. Denmark was unified before the Viking Age and had three lögþing. Denmark’s first national law was enacted in 1683. Sweden was unified in the twelfth century, but the eight/nine provinces kept their own laws until the middle of the fourteenth century, when they were replaced with a national law for the entire kingdom. Norway was unified in the eleventh century. Its four law regions gained a common law in 1274. The national law had to be accepted at the regional law assemblies, and were therefore called Gulathing Law, etc. According to Íslendingabók, written c. 1125, the first laws in Iceland, from c. 930, were modeled on the Gulathing Law. These laws, Grágás, were the law of the Free State, c. 930–1262/64. Between 1262 and 1264, Iceland became a tributary land under the king of Norway, and received two new law books, Járnsíða in 1271 and Jónsbók in 1281, the latter based on the Norwegian national law. The Swedish provincial laws were enhanced with local church law, which were local collections of canon law that covered local matters such as the church building and the support of the priest. The provincial laws in Norway also included church laws, however not the Norwegian national law. The situation was similar in Iceland: Grágás contain church laws, whereas Járnsíða and Jónsbók do not. In Denmark, the provinces of Zealand and Scania had church laws from the 1170s. However, unlike the other Nordic laws, they were not church laws in general. Instead, they regulated the gray area between the secular and the bishops’ jurisdiction. Most of the laws of the Nordic countries are written in the vernacular. The oldest manuscripts are from the thirteenth century.

General Overviews of the Nordic Laws

An important task for 19th-century scholars was to find the medieval sources and edit them. In the period to c. 1920, all the major medieval Nordic sources were edited. Inspired by Monumenta Germaniae Historica, scholars in all the Nordic countries, except Denmark, also started series to publish medieval letters and documents: Diplomatarium Norvegicum, Diplomatarium Islandicum, and Diplomatarium Suecanum. The first volume in the Danish equivalent, Diplomatarium Danicum, came in 1938.

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