Would you have dared to offend one of these Vikings? (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett ©)
If you offended a Viking, a normal reaction would be to kill you on the spot. If the murder took place in daylight with witnesses present and without trying to hide his act, the punishment for the crime was paying fines.
The Vikings had a complex honor and judicial system that probably developed over many centuries, long before the Viking Age.
Most conflicts were resolved between the involved families. If it was impossible to reach an agreement, the Thing (Old Norse, Old English and Icelandic: þing, the governing assembly of free people) had the final word.
To be summoned to the Thing was regarded a very hostile act and therefore the parties always were trying to reach an agreement. The summons could also be a means to force the opponents to reach a settlement.
A Viking could be fined, sentenced to death or be outlawed. Being outlawed meant that anyone could kill you without any consequences, something considered worse than a death sentence.
Another method to settle the matters among themselves was a duel (Old Norse: hólmganga) – a challenge where two men were fighting with swords or other weapons, often about women or property.
In the Viking society, all free men and women had the right to conduct revenge killings.
You could kill somebody in public without suffering serious consequences, because you were honest and did not hide your actions, and gave others the opportunity to react.
It was important to take responsibility for the murder and not run away, and to pay the fines. The same applied to killing somebody in a fight.
The Tinghaugen mound in Frosta municipality in Central Norway where the Frostating governing assembly took place – probably dating all the way back to the 400s AD. (Foto: Stig Morten Skjæran / Wikimedia Commons)
Arson or killing someone at night was looked upon as extremely despicable because you did not give people the opportunity to defend themselves. The acts were punished with death penalty, or the perpetrator was outlawed.
The Vikings could be extremely violent when raiding the British Isles and mainland Europe, but at home in Scandinavia, there were severe penalties for committing crimes.
The whole family was responsible if a relative made offenses, such as revenge killings, and they had to pay substantial parts of his or her fines.
One example: By the killing of a free man the family hat to pay the equivalent to 189 cows. In comparison, one average male thrall (slave) had the same value as 12 cows and a female thrall, 8 cows.
Converted to today’s value 189 cows corresponds to (approximately):
The killer had to pay 120,470 USD.
The killer’s brother had to pay 43,058 USD.
The killer’s uncle had to pay 11,765 USD.
The killer’s uncle’s son had to pay 22,235 USD.
Distant relatives had to pay fines that ranged between 188 – 5059 USD.
The purpose of the fines was to take care of the victim’s family.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews
Sources: Research portal forskning.no, “Slavery and Social Death”, Orlando Patterson, Harvard University Press, 1982.