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Outlawry in the viking age

In the Viking Age and for centuries thereafter in Scandinavia and Iceland, fearsome creatures lurked in the forests, moors, and mountains. Anyone who happened to encounter them would say that they looked perfectly human, but the local villagers would instead insist that these outlaws – for such they were – were wild, uncivilized entities that had once been members of human society, but were so no longer.

Viking political institutions had no executive branch – like police, for example – to enforce their laws. It was left to the general populace to enforce them. Since the laws were more or less just a codification of the social norms that people were expected to live by anyway, political leaders and legal assemblies typically had little problem getting the people to enforce the law themselves.

This meant that there was no formal death penalty for those crimes the Vikings considered worthy of execution. The list of which crimes fell into this category varied across the Viking world, but commonly included such dastardly deeds as murder, rape, kidnapping, malevolent sorcery, highway robbery, and nið (pronounced roughly “NEETH”), a ritual curse that often involved an accusation of extreme sexual depravity.

Instead of arresting and executing a person found guilty of such crimes, the Norse declared him an outlaw. This meant that, as the term implies, he was “outside the law;” he no longer had any rights,all of his property was confiscated, and could be lawfully killed by anyone. In a culture where honor-based revenge killings were commonplace and considered to be proper, this was often effectively a privatized death sentence.

The only way an outlaw could have this dreaded status revoked was to pay a large sum of money to the political officials. By the end of the Viking Age and the beginning of the medieval period, these fines were important sources of revenue for them.

In Iceland, and probably throughout the Norse world (although, due to scarcity of records, we don’t know for sure), there were two types or levels of outlawry. “Full outlawry” meant that the outlaw lost his right to live as a full member of society for the rest of his life. Full outlawry was also called skóggangr (pronounced roughly “SKOHG-gahng-er”), a word which literally meant “going into the forest.”The full outlaw himself was called a skógarmaðr (pronounced roughly “SKOHG-ar-mah-ther”), “man of the forest." This referred to the fact that such outlaws, in order to escape the weapons of their disgruntled former peers, usually fled to otherwise uninhabited wilderness areas or left the country altogether. But there was also a “lesser outlawry,” which meant that this period of banishment was limited to three years rather than the rest of the offender’s life.

Outlawry in the viking age

Apart from the obvious physical hardships that came with being an outlaw, it’s hard to overstate just how emotionally devastating it must have been. For the Norse, “law” and “society” were virtually synonymous concepts. The phrase vár lög (pronounced roughly “VOWR LOHG”), “our law,” was frequently used to refer to society itself. To be outside of the law was also to be outside of society – no longer a member of a social network of family, friends, and tribe, but merely an isolated “man of the forest,” and even a “wolf,” as outlaws were also called. To be declared an outlaw was, in the words of Norse scholar Stefan Brink, nothing less than a “social death:”

When we try to understand early society in Scandinavia it is obvious that it was decisive for an individual to be part of a family and a social group. You were in a way identified by your affiliation to a family, a group and a society. The worst punishment you could thus get was to be cut off from this group and society, to be excommunicated or outlawed, which has been described as a ‘social death.’ In other words we can see that our forefathers had another concept of freedom than we have. Freedom was not defined as an individual freedom, but a right to belong to a fellowship, to be part of a social group. A stranger was often considered as an enemy.