Slímusetur in Early Icelandic Law and its European Context

  • Viðar Pálsson


Iceland received new law from its king in 1271, Járnsíða (Ironsides). Among other novelties, it forbade unwelcome and overbearing guests ‘slimesitting’ at other people’s feasts, sitja slímusetri. Analogous articles appear in the Norwegian Landslǫg (National Law, 1274) and Jónsbók (1281).
To understand the king’s newly acquired interest in legislating against slímusetur, it is necessary to appreciate both the local context of legal reform and the European context of political language. Many things that had not been the concern of the king now became so. My present argument is that law forbidding people from imposing themselves on others by enforced hospitality must be understood in its European context and in comparison with similar legal provisions made elsewhere during the high Middle Ages. The two contexts, local and European, are but different viewpoints; however, they are useful in separating the specific and contextual from that which is general. The local context of legal reform in the Norwegian realm during the second half of the thirteenth century is principally a variant on a European theme that rang loud in the central Middle Ages. Essentially, it was a part of a larger, European process of state building.
The introduction to Icelandic law of a prohibition against slímusetur, in Járnsíða and then Jónsbók, was not a response to local political conditions. Mainly, it was symptomatic of the fact that Iceland had now joined a new and different political unity, the Norwegian realm. In Norway, its introduction corresponded better to local conditions. Ultimately, however, the legal measures taken against forced hospitality in Scandinavia were echoes of a European development in which kings and princes increasingly policed their territories as legislators, supreme judges, and protectors of public peace and order.