O. Falk: Violence & Risk in Medieval Iceland

Violence & Risk in Medieval Iceland. This Spattered Isle

Falk, Oren
358 S.
£ 75.00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Alexander Wilson, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

The study of how violence was practised in medieval Iceland, typically discussed in the context of feud, has concentrated on the legal and cultural mechanisms used to redirect, circumvent, or put a stop to blood vengeance. Oren Falk’s "Violence & Risk" takes a different approach, focusing on how medieval Icelanders not only attempted to limit the risk of violence, but also cultivated and exploited that risk as a means of managing the potential hazards they faced (or thought they faced) in other areas of political life. The focus is violence in the Icelandic sagas, where violence is characterised as ‘forceful physical action apt to cause harm’ (p. 26). As Falk points out, while this definition separates violence from contiguous phenomena, such as systemic discrimination, it has the advantage of allowing him to concentrate specifically on violence, rather than conflict more generally.

Previous historians have tended to think about violence either as an instrumental practice related to acquiring and maintaining power, or as a form of symbolic labour, an expressive signification of the inner states of those who enact it. Chapter 1 offers an excellent historiographical account of these understandings of violence, especially in relation to the theorists Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias. In addition, Falk suggests a third function of violence, namely, a means of dealing with uncertainty by attempting to bridge the gap ‘between how we make sense of the world and how the world persists in frustrating our expectations’ (pp. 3–4). Where the world fails to meet one’s ethical convictions, violence is a mechanism for imposing those convictions onto it. But, as Falk notes, while violence has the potential to reshape the world, its effects are by no means guaranteed: violence is risky, and even those most proficient in its use can meet an unexpected demise. An understanding of risk is thus crucial to understanding violence, because the question of why people turn to violence is bound up with the question of how they calculate the risks of (not) doing so.

Falk views the historical calculation of risk as an intersection between mathematical concepts of likelihood and magnitude, and psychological and cultural models that determine the primacy of certain realms of relevance. A society may favour land ownership over bodily integrity, for example; similarly, an individual may prioritise social status over their psychological wellbeing. Each realm has a subjective threshold for an individual to perceive whether they are currently at a loss or a gain, with those perceiving themselves to be at a loss more likely to take risks than those at a gain. Whether a course of action is likely to succeed is not the only factor determining how likely it is to be taken up, as an individual may be willing to put up with losses in one realm (say, personal relationships) in order to protect their gains elsewhere (personal wealth). Where the unpredictability of violence comes to be seen as less risky than the loss of important gains, violence can be an appealing way to shift risk into a more acceptable realm. This understanding of how risk informs violence is the core of Falk’s book, and opens up intriguing ways to dissect the motivations of saga characters in opting to pursue violence against their enemies.

Indeed, as Falk shows, the logic of feudlike violence in Iceland offered significant opportunities for those willing to put themselves (or others) in harm’s way, allowing them to make real gains or to minimise their losses elsewhere. In chapters 2 and 3, which analyse episodes from a variety of saga subgenres, Falk convincingly explains why individuals choose violence or (attempt to) avoid it, showing that saga Icelanders were often concerned with ‘how best to bring risks under control: not just limiting them … but creatively reworking them to one’s advantage’ (p. 125). In Íslendinga saga, Sæmundr Jónsson avoids the risk of losing face among supporters by taking on the risk of physical harm, to which he is well suited, while the protagonist of Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs chooses, conversely, to shift risk from the realm of violence to that of reputation, preserving his bodily integrity at the expense of opening himself up to insult. Falk’s discussion of how violence was a decisive means of establishing and reinforcing the boundaries of identity is particularly insightful. In saga Iceland, violence could be a tool for creating and maintaining alliances, a signification of identity in contrast with one’s opponents, and a means of controlling risk by funnelling it against specific targets, thus reducing uncertainty over one’s obligations.

Chapter 4 goes on to consider the differences between feudlike and warlike violence, with Falk arguing that the latter lacks the constructive dimension of the former. In feud, violence has the capacity to enhance predictability; the participants are speaking from the same script, as it were, and can expect their actions to be met with prescribed responses. In war, no such predictability exists, and violence loses its structural capacity to become all-out conflict. Falk argues that the Icelanders were so steeped in feudal logic as to find warlike violence almost incomprehensible; even where the sagas depict Icelanders at war overseas, the representation of violence is filtered through the lens of personal vengeance. Chapter 5 stands out for its focus on natural, rather than cultural, forms of violence (natural disasters, disease, wild animal attacks). Falk shows how the effects of these phenomena are often transposed onto human(oid) agents, such as sorcerers and revenants. If natural forms of violence are arbitrary and unpredictable, human violence can be agentive and subject to control, and it follows that saga writers ‘found nature to be safer – more easily comprehended, represented, and employed to the narrative end of representing uncertainty – when they considered it as a species of violence’ (p. 275).

This book stands as a major theoretical contribution to the investigation of violence in medieval Iceland. By emphasising the importance of risk in shaping the communicative and constructive potential of violence, Falk opens up innovative ways of interpreting the sagas; in particular, his work enables a far deeper understanding of how agency worked in Iceland than has previously been possible. The book is also enjoyably well written; Falk writes with humour and verve, and though he deals with complex theories, these are communicated in clear and accessible terms. More broadly, Falk’s superb account of historiographical approaches to violence gives the work potential for historians seeking to study violence in other past contexts, especially in societies characterised by feudlike violence.

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