The Vikings and the Law

Did the Vikings have laws?

Oh, yes they did and we know what they were like. The very word LAW in English is a Viking word. The English word for a local law, e.g. laws about where you can park cars etc., is "by-law". The word "by" comes from the Scandinavian word for "town". Similarly a local election is called a "by-election". There are no indications that the 'Danelaw' in England was more lawless than the areas under Anglo-Saxon rule.

What was the Viking Legal System like?

The 'ting' was the Viking word for a legislative assembly and a court. A criminal was brought here to stand trial. The presumed facts of the case were established by a panel (Old Norse "kvidr") of people stating what they THOUGHT was the truth.

A jury of 12, two times twelve or three times twelve, depending on the importance of the case, decided the question of guilt. The 'law-sayer' told the jury what the law said about the crime committed and the accused was either convicted or declared innocent by the jury.

If convicted, the criminal was either fined or declared an out-law. To be an outlaw meant that the criminal had to live out in the wilderness and no one was allowed to help him in any way, and he was free game for his enemies. They were free to do their best to hunt him down and kill him.

'Ull's ring', the sacred ring of the Norse god ULL, is supposed to have been important at trials.

What about Vikings attacking and raiding other people?

There was no law against war with others (Is there today?). Like the Elizabethans in England and others, the Vikings had no law against piracy as long as it was against the "enemy", so raids outside the "law-area" were not illegal!

To solve disputes

Holmgang (A duel) was a common way of solving disputes and there were detailed rules for duels. If the duel took place near the coast a small islet, hulme or skerry was chosen, and inland duels took place at some secluded place. Swords and shields were favourite weapons. The sagas state that a dueller was defeated as soon as his blood touched the ground. To win a duel was regarded as proof that you were right, because the gods always helped the "right" man to win. The introduction of Christianity put an end to this kind of duel.

Ordeal by fire

Jernbyrd 'carrying of (hot) iron' (Old Norse: Járnburdr) The Christian church introduced the Vikings to ordeal by fire. The most common method was to grab a piece of iron from boiling water and walk 9 paces with it carrying it in ones hands.

This way of deciding the truth outlived the Viking Age. Inga from Varteig in 1218 'carried iron' to prove her son Håkon Håkonsson (king of Norway 1217 - 1263) was the rightful heir to the throne of Norway.


Walking 12 paces on red-hot irons (ploughshares for instance); could prove innocence if after 3 days the feet were inspected and the wounds were found clean e.g. without infection.

Harald Gille, king of Norway from 1130 - 1136, "proved" his right to the throne walking on hot iron.

The Christian church introduced these methods and the church also abolished them. In Norway it was abolished in in 1247.


In Fiji, among other places, fire walking is still performed today using hot stones. This is done as a cultural ceremony, not a trial.

- 14. august 2004 -