a 31 vengeance

Lesson 12 - Blood, Feud, and Honor.

Komið þið sæl,

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Last week we discussed the ideal system of law in Viking Age society. Yet, that is just the surface of the system that actually existed. Although not directly related, feud was the true process for obtaining justice. Law was merely a phase that most feuds would go through. This lesson aims to shed light on how justice was truly obtained, how honor governed all things within society, and how blood was the answer when honor was violated.

This is an area of Viking history with a good amount of complicated elements. I am going to attempt to simplify and condense it, but if there are any questions, I will happy answer them with greater, isolated detail.


  1. Defining a “feud”
  2. The Economy of Honor
  3. Vengeance
  4. Peace

Defining a “feud”

Characteristics of the feud process:

  1. Feud is a hostile relationship between two groups.
  2. Involved groups that can recruit in various ways (household, clientage, etc.)
  3. Violence is controlled and scaled, generally remaining between the involved groups.
  4. Collective liability (one person getting killed meant that any person from the other group could be killed in return).
  5. A notion of exchange (my-turn/your-turn).
  6. Score is kept.
  7. Honor as prime motivator.
  8. Governed by social norms (a well defined process).
  9. Culturally acceptable means of settlements and hostility.

Feud was frequently moral, often judicial, and always political. It was moral when social norms are violated (seating arrangements, gift giving, etc.). It was judicial when involving settlement and legal action (the law phase). It was political because it is the primary exchange of power and influence. Feud was far more than vengeance-killing alone. There is also no specific term for feud; it was a process not an institution.

The Icelanders did have a model for feud though, and it takes the vocabulary of gift giving and inverts it. Score is kept and a gift (or killing) is returned with another. Feud took place between people of relatively equal status and resources. It generally did not cross social strata and such conflict would be perceived differently. Those below the middling farmer could not afford to feud. Supporters who died in feud did not spark feuds themselves, because they were a part of the feud between the big men. Feud was not always the first course of action either, of course. If terms were good, matters settled quickly. Yet even settlement was not automatic and feud was never too far away.

Counsel was a major role in the feud process. Not seeking out advice from kin was seen as disrespectful and something that would lead to disaster. After all, kin were effected by feud as much as the complainant himself.

Much of the work behind the feud was actually in gaining support or preventing the other from gaining support themselves. From killings to legal action, support was needed. The uninvolved were crucial, for they were the audience and the judges who would distribute honor accordingly.

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