Reply To: Stateless societies in the West?


These would not have been societies in which individual liberty was necessarily prized, though.

Could you expand on this? How was liberty violated in medieval Ireland and Iceland? Do you think the unlibertarian aspects of these society were caused by the lack of government, or did they persist despite the absence of government?

In the article you link to, David Friedman writes:
And yet these extraordinary institutions [in medieval Iceland] survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one . Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small;[5] and its literary, output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.[6]

Friedman’s footnote 5 reads as follows:
Sveinbjorn Johnson, Pioneers of Freedom (1930). A partial exception is the status of thralls, although even they seem freer than one might expect; in one saga a thrall owns a famous sword, and his master must ask his permission to borrow it. Carl O. Williams, in Thraldom in Ancient Iceland 36 (1937), estimates that there were no more than 2000 thralls in Iceland at any one time, which would be about 3% of the population. Williams believes they were very badly treated, but this may reflect his biases; for example, he repeatedly asserts that thralls were not permitted weapons despite numerous instances to the contrary in the sagas. Stefansson estimates the average period of servitude before manumission at only five years but does not state his evidence. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Icelandic Independence, Foreign Affairs, January 1929, at 270.

Friedman also writes, “Third, a person unable to discharge his financial obligation [to pay the fine for a crime] could apparently be reduced to a state of temporary slavery until he had worked off his debt.” Thus, it seems that some slaves were justifiably enslaved.

Doesn’t all this suggest that medieval Iceland was pretty free in comparison to other contemporary societies? Could you recommend a source that gives a different evaluation of Iceland?