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3. - The Animal-Human Community: Legal Tradition in Iceland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2023

Harriet Jean Evans Tang
Affiliation:
Durham University
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Summary

As to be expected from a society in which domestic animals were vitally important, the earliest written laws we have surviving from Iceland contain extensive descriptions, regulations, and stipulations around the care, control, and nature of these animals. What perhaps is unexpected is the way certain animals are considered in these laws: as legal agents. Examining how these legal traditions structure the animal-human relationship and the animal-human boundary deepens our understanding of the interspecies interactions discussed in this book and can be brought together with the physical landscape of Iceland to construct the building blocks of medieval Icelandic social experience of animals. The animal-related content of Grágás has been little examined by scholars of early Iceland, and references to these laws are often used for contextualising discussion of the Icelandic sagas rather than analysed for their own sake. The value of these animal-laws, when placed alongside material and other textual evidence of animal-human interactions, has never been fully explored. Such is the purpose of this chapter: to unpick the representation of domestic animals in these laws, and to consider how the role of animals in the legal society and landscape of medieval Iceland can be brought into constructive dialogue with the other sources examined in this book.

These laws offer a narrative of daily life in an agro-pastoral Christian society and enable the visualisation of the relations between people and things, structures, and animals within this daily practice. The laws present ideal interspecies relations in medieval Icelandic society, but explicitly emphasise the variation in such encounters. Domestic animals were not part of one homogenous legal category but were placed on a spectrum of rights and protections, and each animal could be subject to differing levels of legal status and permitted agency. While the laws seem designed to control both men and animals, the capability for certain animals to act outside of this control, to shape their own actions, and work with (or against) humans is recognised by the texts. The disruptive potential of domestic animals is strongly emphasised in the focus on control we find in many of these laws, and the regulations suggest that working with animals, and the responsibility for their actions, were the domains of certain skilled individuals within the household.

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Animal-Human Relationships in Medieval Iceland
From Farm-Settlement to Sagas
, pp. 106 - 139
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2022

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