Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Icelandic Commonwealth refers to the state existing in Iceland between 930 (the establishment of the Althing) and 1262 (the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king). It was initially established by a public consisting largely of recent emigrants from Norway who had fled the unification of that country under King Harald Fairhair.
The state had an unusual structure. At a national level, it had only two branches; the legislature and the courts. There was no king or other central executive power. Subnational government was divided into numerous gošorš ("gothorth"}, which were essentially clans or alliances run by chieftains called gošar ("gothar"); singular goši("gothi"). The chieftains provided defense and appointed judges to resolve disputes between gošorš members. The gošorš were not geographical districts. Instead, membership in a gošorš was an individual's decision, and one could, at least theoretically, change gošorš at will; but no group of lesser men could elect or declare someone a goši. The position of goši was property, which could be bought, sold, borrowed, and inherited.
This is the basis of the disputed claim that the Commonwealth was a democracy. If a person wanted to appeal a decision made by his gošorš court or if a dispute arose between members of different gošorš, the case would be referred to a system of higher-level courts, leading up to the four regional courts which made up the Althing, which consisted of the gošar of the Four Quarters of Iceland. The Althing eventually created a national "fifth court", as the highest court of all, and more gošar to be its members.
According to one theory, associated with the economist David Friedman, Icelandic society was anarchic during the 300 years of independence. The legislature was more akin to a chamber of commerce than to the law-making body of a sovereign. If this were an accurate characterization, then Icelandic history would be the closest approach yet made to the Friedmanite ideal of anarcho-capitalism.
The Althing was only moderately successful at stopping feuds; Magnus Magnusson calls it "an uneasy substitute for vengeance". Nevertheless, it could act very sweepingly. At the Conversion of Iceland in 1000, the Althing decreed that all Icelanders must be baptized, and forbade the public celebration of pagan rituals. (Private celebration was forbidden a few years later.)
In the early 13th century, the Commonwealth began to suffer from serious internal strife. Due to discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the rulers of Norway, the Icelandic chieftains in 1262 decided to acknowledge Norway's Haakon IV as king. This ended the commonwealth.
- An article by David Friedman describing the gošorš system in more detail.
- An article by Roderick Long presenting a theory of the causes of the commonwealth's end
- Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power by Jesse L. Byock
- Medieval Iceland and the Absence of Government
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