Was Iceland a medieval libertarian society?

The Nordic Mythology Channel has joined the think-tank PolitiPeeps in a collaboration on investigating cultural expressions of libertarianism. Over the coming weeks, I will be offering my expertise in discussions with them about the history of Iceland, indigenous peoples in the Arctic, Neo-paganism, and heavy metal music culture to dig deep into the historical and sociological aspects of libertarianism. We are asking the question: where -and how- do we find communities that have established a kind of anarcho-libertarian social model that works? 

I am personally very excited about these discussions, and even if you do not subscribe to the libertarian ideology, I think that you will find these talks quite stimulating. You can find the links to our first discussion on YouTube at the end of this post. We begin with a discussion about Iceland as a medieval libertarian society. In the following I am offering some background information about that subject. 

Iceland’s socio-political and historical background

The idea that Viking Age and early medieval Iceland was some sort of libertarian society has been prevalent for more than a century. During the latter half of the 19th century, republican Icelanders seeking sovereignty from the Danish monarchy advanced the idea that Iceland was established as the world’s first (liberal) democracy. Back then, this was part of an anachronistic interpretation of Iceland’s history, fueled by contemporary political developments of the time. It is not hard to understand why this happened. 

Iceland ceased to be a sovereign state in 1262. First, it was taken over by the Norwegian king, but in 1388-9, Norway and Denmark were unified with Sweden in the Kalmar Union by Queen Margaret the 1st. She had married the Norwegian king, Håkon the 6th, who died in 1380 and left the rule of Norway to their young son Olaf. Queen Margaret the 1st became the de facto ruler over Denmark-Norway as the protector of King Olaf, and after some warring, Sweden was included in the union, too. 

This heralded the 434 years of the unified kingdom Denmark-Norway, which continued after Sweden seceded from the Kalmar Union in 1521. As an original part of Norway, Iceland remained in the Danish-Norwegian empire. Norway, however, left the union with Denmark in 1814 and was soon included in a union with Sweden, which lasted until 1905. Sweden had no interest in Iceland, and the country therefore remained part of the Danish kingdom.

If you go to Iceland, you will notice that Icelanders are immensely proud of their sovereignty and their Viking Age parliament, the Althingi, which was established at Thingvellir next to the mid-Atlantic ridge in c. 930 AD. The tourist industry in Iceland never misses an opportunity to tout the Althingi as the world’s oldest parliament. This is often aided by the fact that the Icelandic saga literature, written during and after the time of the Norwegian take-over, often mentions that people left Norway for Iceland due to the oppressive regime of King Harold Finehair. 

Thanks to the historical backdrop of Iceland’s struggle for independence from Denmark in the 19th century, much of modern Icelandic self-perception has been cast in the light of a liberal democracy struggling to free itself from the constraints of an oppressive monarchy. These ideas were inspired by the French Revolution, not least the American Revolution, and the creation of the United States of America, which has been considered a national role model by many Icelanders for more than a century.

Since World War 2, the relationship between USA and Iceland, indeed the rest of Scandinavia, has been warm. Aside from close political alliances and trade, many strong cultural ties have been created, often aided by the Scandinavian-descended communities in North America. I don’t think I am overstating when I say that, by and large, we Scandinavians love America. For many Americans, Scandinavians are also perceived positively. It is no wonder that we would look to each other’s histories to find common ground in various ways.

With the recent surge in interest in the Viking Age in North America (even globally), Iceland and its medieval saga literature has become more popular, and there is no doubt that much of what looks like “wild west” themes in the Icelandic saga literature resonates with American self-perception. The idea of freedom-loving Vikings who left Scandinavia to build an egalitarian society in Iceland parallels the idea of freedom-loving settlers who left Europe to build a republic in North America.

And it is not just Americans who think of Iceland that way. As libertarianism is growing and more people are looking for historical precedent for libertarian societies, the prevailing myth about Iceland as a historical anarcho-liberal, democratic society is being investigated. In 2002 the Mises Institute published an article suggesting that the Icelandic Free State (870-1262 AD) was a proto-libertarian society. These ideas have been circulating among libertarians since, so I sat down with Trish, Dennis, and Edward at PolitiPeeps to investigate the historical reality behind that claim.

Click the banner below to watch the conversation on YouTube:

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