I'm currently writing a new Viking e-book for Fiction Express and it has set me thinking again about just how unusual a country Iceland was and is.
When Iceland was claimed and settled by the Scandinavians in 800-900, it became Europe's first republic (or commonwealth) and first democracy. Without a feudal system of Kings, lords and land ownership, this new land forged its own way. All the settlers came from monarchies, but this model wasn't how they chose to shape or build their new country.
Land was claimed by the settlers as they arrived (apparently according to how many bonfires you could light within view of each other in a day if you were a man or how much land you could lead a goat around in a day if you were a woman, but I'm sure it was also a matter of what you could grab!) As the land became settled, a number of regional councils were set up which met in spring to agree laws and settle disputes. And ultimately a national council was set up at Thingvellir, (council valley) in the rift valley outside Reykyavik. These type of councils had already existed elsewhere in Scandinavia but there they were ultimately subject to the king. Men (yes, I'm afraid it was almost all men, though women in Scandinavia were far from powerless) met inside a circle into which they could bring no weapons and there they talked.
Some people openly flouted the law and stayed on their farms or didn't pay their fines. Then a posse of vigilantes (often the families
who had been injured in the first place) would get together and kill him.
The real problem here came with the Icelandic notions of honour. If someone in your family has been killed, your honour is in question until you have avenged him. This didn't theoretically apply to lawful killings, but in practice often did. And then his family would be honour bound to take revenge in their turn.
From this stemmed many blood feuds that over generations wiped out whole familes. Many of the Icelandic sagas centre around feuds and their resolutions. Gradually, a few powerful familes gathered most of the country's wealth and influence into their hands; never a healthy situation.
Tragically, violence and killing reached such a pitch by the thirteenth century, that the Icelanders decided to call the Norwegian crown to restore peace. This was their undoing and led to a long period of colonial oppression, poverty and starvation, even worse than the initial problem. The darkest period of Iceland history was when Norway and Iceland came under the Danish crown and were treated with heartlessness and cruelty.
Iceland didn't become a democratic, monarch-free state again until Denmark was occupied by Germany during World War Two. They then seized their opportunity and who can blame them?
Thus from its earliest history, Iceland led the way for democracy. I find it fascinating to note that recently they have led the way again, by refusing to be crushed for several generations by the unscrupulous business practices of a few Icelandic bankers. Instead of agreeing to accept their debt as a nation, they rejected the notion of national guilt and (as I understand it) democratically rewrote their constitution online. As a result, after a brief but severe recession, the country is thriving while the rest of Europe is groaning under the yoke of austerity.
This view of Iceland's history is of course open to debate and not everyone agrees they made a right or fair decision. But as far as I'm concerned the message is: Long live democracy! (but you do need law enforcement...)