Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Grágás or Gray Goose laws referring to horses

My previous post referred to the commonly held but false belief that Iceland banned the import of horses around 1000 AD to prevent the spread of disease into the herds.  In reality such a law was not passed until 1882.

An ivory Lewis Chessman or knight
depicted as mounted Viking
warrior--dated 12th century

I thought it might be interesting to look at what the laws in Iceland  related to horses were around 1000 AD.  Grágás or the Gray Goose Laws are the early laws dating from the founding of the Althing in 930 to the assumption of sovereignty over Iceland by the Norwegian king in 1262.   Originally the speaker of the Althing recited one third of the laws at each yearly session.   Current knowledge of the Gray Goose laws comes from two small incomplete volumes Konungsbók written down around 1260 and Staðarhólsbók written around 1280; laws from these books may compliment each other, support, or even contradict.  Below is a partial listing of the laws related to horses.

  • A heir for inherited property was regarded as mentally incompetent if he could not identify the front versus the back of a trough-saddle or type of wooden saddle.
  • A husband had to provide his wife with a fit horse if they were riding to a meeting with the Archbishop, regardless of which spouse initiated the meeting
  • Mounting and riding a horse without the owner's permission called for major outlawry.
  • If a man hires a horse to ride to the assembly and it gets galled, the horse has to be rested for two weeks.
  • If a man shakes a rattle at another man's horse at a baiting while that man is on an assembly trip and the rattle scares the horse, the law calls for lesser outlawry.  If not on an assembly journey there is a fine.
  • Docking a stud horse's tail calls for lesser outlawry.   Docking the tail of horse travelling to an Assembly or a wedding is lesser outlawry.  Docking a tail and touching bone is lesser outlawry.  Otherwise docking a tail is a fine of three marks. 
  • Wounding a horse with no harm is a four ounce fine.  Wounding a horse with over five ounces worth of damage is lesser outlawry.
  • Men of a household are to provide their own horses if they have them; otherwise the house owner is to provide horses if they go to assembly.
  • If a man owns woodland on another's property, he may not keep horses there overnight.
Early Icelanders valued their horses, viewing them as major assets related to their personal honor.  However, I would like to point out that there is no mention of a law that bans the import of horses.

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