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Medieval Icelandic law has been appropriated for modern purposes as diverse as creating a history for European democracy and proving that a libertarian legal system can work in practice. It has been put to so many modern uses because it presents us with a picture of the Icelandic Commonwealth (ca. 930-1262) as a society of free and relatively equal farmers who operated with no king, no nobility, and minimal government. The laws represent Iceland as an exceptional polity, strikingly different from the monarchies and hierarchical societies that dominated Western Europe in the middle ages. This exceptionalism resonates strongly with modern audiences.

In this article, I suggest that one of the major surviving sources of Icelandic law, the body of legal texts we collectively refer to as Grágás, is a work of fiction. The manuscripts of Grágás that have come down to us were written in a period when the Icelandic Commonwealth had been replaced by a hierarchical and centralized society under the control of the king of Norway. The authors of the two Grágás manuscripts set out to critique that society. The Grágás authors took material from a prior legal tradition and—through strategies of inclusion, exclusion, and organization — selected and emphasized certain legal material from the Commonwealth period to present it as a time of freedom and equality.


2014 Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop selection.