Name Change and New Website

It’s been a while since the MNLD project ended, but fortunately the editors have been hard at working ensuring that work continues, and quite a lot of work at that. After quite a bit of deliberation, we elected to change the name to A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law or LMNL for short.

Thanks to a lot of hard work by our partners at the Sheffield Digital Humanities Institute, content from the LMNL is now searchable and browseable through our website at Pretty much everything we have is now available there, including an introduction to what the LMNL contains and a series of short supplements on legal topics the editors deemed worthy of extra attention.

We are also extremely pleased to report that we have partnered up with Open Book Publishers to create an Open Access book version of the LMNL. Their innovative approach to publishing has enabled us to set up a way to set up a partially automated process for converted our database into a downloadable PDF and print-on-demand book. We are hoping that this will allow for easy subsequent ‘editions’ as the inevitable small errors are removed from the LMNL and more content is added to it.

Do please visit the website, and if you’re interested in knowing more or have suggestions for improving the content or the usability of the site, please contact us.

Quarterly Editors’ Meeting

Just before the Midsummer holiday the MNLD editors met in Stockholm on 18-20 June to discuss final practical matters concerning the publication of the dictionary. A printed version is planned, as is a searchable online corpus. Details of both will be provided in due course.

Bishops’ Careers

A new AHRC-funded project focused on the office of the bishop in the medieval North has been launched at the Universities of Hull and Aberdeen. Dr Sarah Thomas will be exploring how one was elevated to episcopal sees in Northern Europe by studying the individuals who occupied them, their education and their family and political connections.

We look forward to the insights this project will offer on bishops in their roles as lawmakers. Their considerable influence on medieval legislation, both sacred and secular, is evident throughout the surviving law codes, including the Icelandic Járnsíða which makes specific mention of the division of powers between the bishop and the king:

Nú af því að guðs miskunn sér till þess þörf hversdaglega ótölulegs lýðs og ímis fjölmennis þá hefir hann skipað tveim sínum þjónum að vera augsýnilega hans umboðsmenn … Eru þeir tveir, annar konungur en annar byskup. Hefir konungur af guði veraldlegt vald til veraldlegra hluta, en byskup andlegt vald til andlegra hluta … (II.2, ed. Haraldur Bernharðsson et al.)

Now because God’s mercy sees to the daily needs of countless people and diverse multitudes, he has assigned two of his servants to be his visible agents … There are two of them, one is the king, the other the bishop. The king possesses from God worldly authority over worldly matters, and the bishop has spiritual authority over spiritual matters …

A conference on the lives of medieval Northern bishops is being held at Aberdeen 26-27 May, 2017. The programme is available here.

Law at the 2018 Saga Conference

The first circular has just been distributed for the 2018 Saga Conference to be held in Reykjavík and Reykholt. In commemoration of the 900th anniversary of the compilation of the Grágás laws in 1117/1118, one of the conference thematic strands will be ‘Með lǫgum skal land byggja’.

Further details about the themes, as well as practical information, can be found on the conference website:

Word of the Week: fiskhelgr

fiskhelgr (ON) n.

Literally ‘fish-sanctity’. A unit for measuring distance; the distance at which cod fish could still be seen in the water from land.[1] This indicated the space between the coast and the limit in open waters to which the fishing and drift rights of the landowner extended. Beyond the fiskhelgr were common waters (ON almenningr).

See also: almenningr, rekamark

Lit.: Gísli Pálsson and E. Durrenberger 1987; idem 1996; Hastrup 1992; KLNM s.v. hvalfangst

[1] An Icelandic newspaper article from 2002 suggests 300-600m (

Word of the Week: grefleysingr

After a summer hiatus, the MNLD word of the week returns with a term fitting for the beginning of autumn when everyone is finishing their summer gardening:

grefleysingr (ON) n.

Literally a ‘hoe-freedman’. A former slave who had been granted freedom but whose freedom had not yet been announced at an assembly and therefore possessed a liminal legal status. The term appears only once in Grg Vís 112. The name grefleysingr has been variously interpreted as referring to someone permitted only to be armed with a hoe as a weapon (as opposed to the folkvápn born by free men) or as someone relieved from the more onerous tasks performed by slaves, such as digging.

spade-freedman OIce Grg Vís 112

See also: folkvapn, leysingi, þræll

Refs.: CV; F; GAO s.v. Freigelassene; Grg I:174 n. 171; KLNM s.v. leysingi

Word of the Week:gælkare, gjaldkyri

gælkare (OSw), gjaldkyri (ON) n.

The king’s treasurer or steward. The gjaldkyri has been suggested as a Nordic equivalent of the Lat. præfectus urbis or exactor or a justice of the peace in medieval England. The gjaldkyri appears in Scandinavia from the twelfth century, most frequently in Norway. The term itself possibly of foreign origin, though it might also be a combination of ON gjald ‘payment’ and -keri/-kyri from ON kjósa in the sense of ‘to acquire’.

The gjaldkyri was in charge of city affairs and served as the king’s agent in market towns (ON kaupangar), where he was responsible for collecting fees, maintaining order and the administration of justice. According to Bj and Morkinskinna, the gjaldkyri was also obligated to collect land dues (ON landeyrir), had to report news from a legal assembly (ON lögþing) and declared outlaws. He may have had an obligation to jail criminals and to assign members of the night watch. A gjaldkyri might have been synonymous with a sýslumaðr, or at least the two seem to have worked together closely. Following amendments during the late thirteenth-century, the gjaldkyri was one of the few men permitted to bear arms in a city. The Swedish gælkare in VmL appears to have had the same responsibilities as the Norwegian gjaldkyri. The rarely attested Danish gælkere probably initially held these duties as well before eventually receiving an expanded set of powers as the king’s governor of Skåne.

In Norway the gjaldkyri was initially elected by the population of a city, but he was later joined by the sýslumaðr and lögmaðr, all appointed by the king. These three, along with the councilmen (ON ráðsmenn) made up the city council. After the fourteenth century they were gradually replaced by the foguti (or byfogd?), an official borrowed from the German administrative tradition.

Gjaldkyri remains in use in modern Icelandic to refer to an organization’s treasurer or bursar.

paymaster OIcel Jb Kge 28
town sheriff OSw VmL Mb
treasurer ONorw FrL Leb 8, Reb 2

See also: foghati, laghmaþer, lænsmaþer, lögþing, raþman, sýslumaðr

Literature: Bayley 1990; CV s.v. gjaldkeri; Fritzner s.v. gjaldkeri; Hertzberg s.v. gjaldkeri; KLNM s.v. gældker, vapenförbud; NF s.v. gjaldkere

Word of the week: avund, avend, öfund

avund (OSw) avend (ODan) öfund (ON) n.

Literally ‘envy; resentment; enmity, hate’. Often used of premeditated—typically violent—deeds, and sometimes contrasted to deeds done in sudden rage (i.a. vreþe). In Swedish laws avund appears in the context of eþsöre ‘the king’s sworn peace’ as part of the king’s expanding power and attempts at restraining acts of revenge, and in the context of means for protecting personal rights by checking the disqualification of witnesses or others acting at e.g. the þing ‘assembly’ or during a ransakan ‘house search’.

enmity ODan Jyl 2; OSw DL Eb; HL Kgb; Ögl Eb; SdmL Kgb; YVgL Till
evil intent ONorw GuL Tfb, Mhb
premeditated harm ONorw GuL Mhb

avund ok ilder vili (OSw), avend ok ilvilje (?) (ODan)
malignancy and wrath OSw YVgL Rlb
hate or ill will ODan SkL 149

fæ, vild æller avend
gain, favour or hatred ODan SkL 121

See also: eþsöre, osater, sater, vaþi, vili, vreþe

MNLD Word of the Week: stæghl

stæghl (OSw) n.
Literally ’stake, pole’ referring to an implement for capital punishment of disputed construction and usage. Presumably refers to a wheel placed on top of a pole used for breaking a criminal’s limbs or joints and/or for attaching and displaying the dead or dying body. Thought to have been a method of execution or a means of public degradation after death. Used for certain male murderers, whereas female offenders were to be stoned. It was not specified who was to act as executioner, but ÖgL Eb suggests that it could have been the plaintiff.

wheel OSw HL Mb; SdmL Mb

See also: hjul, stæghla

Literature: Ambrius 1996: 63; Kjus 2011: 100‑101; KLNM s.v. dødsstraf, straffredskap; Schlyter 1877 s.v. stæghla;