The Landslov: The Dynamic Traditionalism of Norwegian Law

Dillon R. F. Knackstedt

A sample page from a late-thirteenth-century copy of the landslov, Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection

In Iceland, in 1281, a new law book was presented to the assembly at the Althing by Lodin Lepp, a legate of the young King Eirik II of Norway (r.1280-1299). Later named Jónsbók after the man who possessed the original copy, this law book was the final product of a two-decade legal reform project carried out by Eirik’s late father King Magnus VI (r.1263-80), who was given the epithet lagabœtir “Lawmender” for his efforts. While this project produced a number of separate law books, the common name for the main body of them in Norway is landslov: “the law of the land.”

These facts alone have served to relegate the landslov to general obscurity. Composed in an inconspicuous corner of Europe, in a distant time, and on a subject of relatively little interest, if not active apprehension to most scholars and ordinary people, it is little known outside of certain strata of Norwegian academics.

And yet, it is as important in Norwegian history as the Magna Carta of King John is in English history. While the Magna Carta is known the world over as a hugely significant attempt to limit royal power, the landslov deserves to be known as the earliest comprehensive national law published and put into common use in European history. Earlier law books were not as comprehensive, in that they only encapsulated certain aspects of the law, applied to only one subdivision of a larger polity, or were not widely circulated and in general use. To take an example, the slightly earlier Spanish royal law code Siete Partidas was scarcely used for decades after it was compiled and was in limited circulation. The landslov, in contrast, was widely circulated throughout the entire kingdom and was in everyday use for more than four hundred years, beginning in 1274. It touched on every aspect of law and was meant to completely replace the numerous earlier law books that had developed across each of the diverse regions of the Kingdom of Norway.

Just as Magna Carta is often viewed as the result of a conflict between King John and his barons over rights, jurisdiction, and power, so the landslov was, to some extent, the product of conflict within Norway. Traditionally, the law book has been classified as part of an on-going dispute between the crown and the church over legal jurisdiction, a dispute that made the project of legal reform an episode of the saga of church-state conflict. This narrative is questionable, however, insofar as there is a limited amount of evidence for any sustained conflict, and the king was typically an arbiter in disputes between the nobility and the bishops. Consequently, the book is not so much evidence of conflict with the church as of a royal attempt to revitalize the laws of Norway and Iceland and make them more just and consistent. Matters of canon law were properly left to the jurisdiction of the bishops and the papacy, and other contemporary sources like the Saga of Bishop Arni testify that Magnus actively avoided judging matters of church law even when the magnates of the realm tried to convince him to intervene.

The landslov begins with a prologue written by King Magnus and is broken into a number of sections, each dealing with a certain aspect of the law. First of all, and purposely so, is the Kristindómsbálkr: the “Christian laws section.” Subsequent sections deal with specific categories of laws, such as royal succession, personal rights, theft, marriage and inheritance, land, and trade, making this an excellent source for understanding the full gamut of Norwegian society. All of these sections preserve the structure, legacy, and legal traditions of the old law books of Norway and Iceland, again in marked contrast to other European law books that owed more to the flourishing tradition of Roman law on the continent. In 1302, Magnus’ son Hakon V (r.1299-1319) even stated, in reference to the landslov, that Norway should keep the laws handed down by St Olaf the King in the tenth century and amended by his successors, rather than adopt the laws of the emperor and the church. Many of the laws are very specific and straightforward, such as the very exact criteria for selecting the heir to the throne, but the book also contains more theoretical sections. A good example of this is the section “On Judgments”, which was written for all judges to read before delivering their verdicts and calls on them to be merciful, to employ the spirit of the law, and to remember that their faults and errors in judgment would be subject to harsh punishment by God after death.

All of these sections and many of the exact laws themselves are taken directly from earlier laws that pre-date the reign of Magnus. Of all the sections of the new law book, however, it is the first part, the Christian laws section, that most markedly differs from the content of earlier laws. Gone are the provisions and regulations about proper Christian practice (now for the bishops to arbitrate), replaced by a discussion about the importance of faith and the role of the king and the bishops in running the kingdom for the common good. This is one of the primary indications that part of Magnus’ intention for mending the laws was to shift the emphasis of the law away from coercion, judgment and external obedience towards peace, mercy and internal obedience, from legalism towards the law of charity. In other words, the landslov was shaped directly by the theological currents of the thirteenth century.

This is evident in even the initial line of the text. All of the old law books began with some variation of the command that “It is the beginning of our law that all men shall be Christian in this land”. Magnus changed it to read, “It is the beginning of our law that we shall have and hold fast the Christian faith”, a subtle shift to emphasize common faith and belief rather than the old emphasis on the mandate that everyone who was not baptized would have to leave the kingdom. Magnus even included an original version of the Christian creed to spell this out clearly, a unique addition to a law book. It evidently adopted parts of the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, and the creed of the Fourth Lateran Council, but it also added some original elements of its own. It uses the plural pronoun “we” instead of “I” in order to emphasize the communal aspect of Christian belief, and it accentuated church teaching about the triune nature of God, the two natures of Christ, liturgical time, the communion of the Christian people, repentance and penance, the mass, prayers, alms-giving, and final judgment. The overall picture of Norway presented by the law is built on Christian theology: it is a kingdom bound together by love, justice, and charity, and it was only when these failed that penance, mercy, or punishment would be required to bring back order and restore the peace.

It is this focus on the kingdom as a community of belief, alongside its comprehensive legislating scope, that makes landslov a unique source for legal history. While Norway was cut off from the mainstream of European culture, its new laws were, nevertheless, clearly influenced by the theology, political thought, and ideas of kingship flowing out of Europe’s cultural centers. While innovative in its expansive application to an entire kingdom and all aspects of law, it is also old-fashioned in its language (Old Norse) and structure. It is neither Roman law, canon law, or what we expect from common law. Nevertheless, Magnus did not really even think he was creating entirely new law; he was simply “mending” the laws handed down for centuries since the time of St Olaf, demonstrating how medieval societies were not static but lived and used their traditions through the flux of time. ----------------------

Further Reading

  • Bagge, Sverre, From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010) (Features extensive coverage of Magnus and the new laws in a wider history of Norway, mostly from a political angle)

  • Grímsdóttir, Guðrún Ása, ed. ‘Árna Saga Biskups’ in Biskupa Sögur III, Íslenzk fornrit. (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1998) (This edition of the saga is very rare, but it is an important example which counters the narrative of Church vs. State)

  • Larson, Laurence M., ed. and trans., The Earliest Norwegian Laws: Being the Gulathing Law and the Frostathing Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935) (An old text, but now easily found on the internet. Features English translations of two of the old law books which pre-date Magnus’ revision)

  • Schulman, Jana K., ed. and trans., Jónsbók: The Laws of Later Iceland; the Icelandic Text According to MS AM 351 Fol. Skálholtsbók Eldri (Saarbrücken: AQ-Verlag, 2010) (An English translation of the Jónsbók, the Icelandic edition of the landslov. The landslov itself is undergoing translation by H. Leslie-Jacobsen and samples are available on Academia.edu)

  • Sunde, Jørn Øyrehagen, ‘Daughters of God and Counsellors of the Judges of Men: Changes in the Legal Culture of the Norwegian Realm in the High Middle Ages’, in New Approaches to Early Law in Scandinavia, ed. by Stefan Brink and Lisa Collinson (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), pp. 131–183. (An important recent contribution, which is reasonably easy to locate in academic libraries)

  • Kong Magnus Håkonsson Lagabøtes landslov, ed. by Bjørg Dale Spørck and Magnus Rindal (Arkivverket, Norrøne tekster 9, 2018 <https://www.nb.no/forskning/lagabote/ressurser/> (A freely accessible digital version of the new edition of the landslov in Old Norse, hosted by the Nasjonalbiblioteket,)

  • The Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law <https://mdvlnld.wordpress.com> (A new dictionary of legal terms from Nordic law, which non-specialists will find most useful for its excellent bibliography page concerning all aspects of Nordic laws, the landslov included)

D.R.F. Knackstedt is a High School history teacher at Nolan Catholic High School. He completed his master’s thesis at Western Michigan University in 2019 on the influence of Christian theology on the laws of King Magnus the Lawmender. His other research interests typically involve how Christian ideas, beliefs, and values shaped and incarnated themselves into medieval culture, especially through law.