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;


Word of the Week: slímuseta

slímuseta (ON) n.
A ‘slime-sitting’. Refers to someone who overstays the hospitality of another. Such unwanted guests could be forcibly removed without legal penalties for assault.

hangers on OIce Mah 28
parasite OIce Js Mah 33
unwanted guest ONorw GuL Mhb


sitja slímusetri

to remain as a ‘slime-sitter’ OIce Js Mah 33
to stay afterward as a hanger on OIce Mah 28

Refs.: CV s.v. slímusetr; Fritzner s.v. slímusetr


Word of the Week: rauðarán

In order to improve our dictionary, and to showcase some of the material we’ve composed thus far, we’ll be periodically posting short articles discussing some of the more unclear terms appearing within medieval Nordic law texts. The editors welcome comments, suggestions and especially bibliographic citations referring to the term in question. We hope to share an article every week over the next six to nine months. This week’s word is rauðarán:

rauðarán (ON) n.

‘Red robbery’. The term is known only from Grg Rsþ 228 and is described as an extension of hand-seizure (ON handrán), where an item stolen out of someone’s hands is then taken away. The penalty for rauðarán was full outlawry (ON skóggangr). Most scholars have interpreted the first element as an intensifier meaning ‘outright, brazen, notorious’. This seems more likely than the alternative suggestion of ‘petty’ offered by Hoff. Saxo’s colorful etymology associated the term with a pirate called Røtho.

arrant seizure OIce Grg Rsþ 228

See also: handrán, rán
Refs.: CV; Fritzner; Grg tr. II:179; Hoff 2011:223

The Danish Medieval Laws Published by Routledge

A second volume of translations in the Medieval Nordic Laws series published by Routledge has appeared. The Danish Medieval Laws, edited by Ditlev Tamm and Helle Vogt, contains translations of The Church Law of Scania (Skånska kyrkelov), The Law of Scania (Skånske lov), Valdemar’s Law of Zealand (Valdemars sjællandske lov), Erik’s Law of Zealand (Eriks sjællandske lov) and the Law of Jutland (Jyske lov). Also included are translations of a few selected ordinances, a general introduction to the medieval Danish provincial laws, two glossaries (one annotated) and an index.

The Danish Medieval Laws can be purchased directly from the publisher, as can the first volume in the series, Christine Peel’s translations and commentaries on Guta lag and Guta saga.