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Hell Hath No Fury Like Hallgerd’s – The Exclusion of Women and the Negative Repercussions in Njal’s Saga

Updated on February 20, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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Medieval Iceland’s legal system, while extensive and generally effective, had a major shortcoming: it denied women the right to participate in or prosecute cases (Laws of Iceland: Grágás I 159). This exclusion carried with it the possibility of violent consequences, a fact made very clear in Njal’s Saga, a work in which the character Hallgerd is continually limited to acts of homicide rather than being able to pursue her own legal avenues of conflict resolution. The first example of this to be examined is the bloody end to Hallgerd’s first marriage, something that could have been avoided if she been included in the betrothal process and had access the same support systems that characters like Unn did, allowing either legal summons or divorce. The second example, which is particularly significant for the sheer scale of its violent repercussions, is the escalating feud between Hallgerd and Bergthora, a situation that cannot be quelled by their husbands’ acts of self-arbitration. Excluded from Gunnar’s decisions regarding the feud and unable to publicly sue or prosecute Bergthora, Hallgerd must rely on her own terrible methods of retribution. Hallgerd’s violence in Njal’s Saga can be clearly traced back to her inability to participate in public legal and political forums; her actions demonstrate how unnecessarily damaging the exclusion of women from law and politics can be and how it leads only to increased bloodshed.

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The first instance of violence committed for Hallgerd’s cause is the slaying of her husband, Thorvald, by her foster father, Thjostolf. Thorvald’s death comes about after he, in a fit of anger, strikes Hallgerd “in her face so hard that she [bleeds]” leaving her to complain of this mistreatment to Thjostolf, inciting him to murder (Njal’s Saga 22). This murder, however, could have been avoided if Hallgerd had had more legal authority both in the choosing of her partner and in deciding how her marriage would end.

From the very beginning the marriage between Hallgerd and Thorvald had not been a happy one, due largely to the fact that “Hoskuld [Hallgerd’s father] did not consult his daughter” in his choice of husband for her (18). Hallgerd finds it abhorrent that her father “didn’t think it was worth consulting [her] on this matter” and as a result believes Hoskuld “do[es] not love [her] as much as [he] ha[s] always said” (18). It is apparent from this dialogue that Hallgerd feels that she has been wrongfully excluded from this decision, and this feeling of powerlessness and lack of choice is directly related to her marriage’s bloody end, especially since, when Thjostolf sees that Hallgerd is “upset” he vows that she “will be married a second time,” implying that, whether via violent means or not, her marriage to Thorvald will be short-lived (20).

It is clear that, had Hallgerd chosen her own husband, she would not have felt the need to end her marriage in such a violent way. This fact is demonstrated when comparing her first marriage to her second; Thjostolf kills both Thorvald and her second husband, Glum (whom she chose to marry), however in the latter case Thjostolf was acting against her wishes. Unlike the incident with Thorvald, Hallgerd had a say in her marriage to Glum and, when faced with domestic abuse, did not deem vengeance against her second husband necessary; she was generally happy and satisfied with her second marriage. While both marriages ended in much the same way (with Thjostolf murdering her husband each time) it is important to note the main distinction between them: the first marriage was not Hallgerd’s choice, however the way it ended (Thorvald’s murder) was; her second marriage was her decision, but the way it ended (Glum’s murder) was not. It is only when Hallgerd is denied access to the legal and economic exchange that constitutes her betrothal that she finds violent means to end her marriage necessary. In her first marriage to Thorvald she is left trapped and with few options to escape when things deteriorate, thus violence enacted on her behalf becomes a necessity.

It is worthwhile to contrast Hallgerd’s situation with that of Unn, another unhappily married young woman of Njal’s Saga, to truly determine the extent that lack of access to the law restricts Hallgerd’s actions and encourages violence. Unn, like Hallgerd, is unsatisfied with her marriage to Hallgerd’s uncle, Hrut, as he is unable to have sexual intercourse with her. Unlike Hallgerd, however, this dissatisfaction does not lead to violence. Instead, with the help of her father, Unn begins the proceedings for divorce. It could be argued that since Unn was able to procure a divorce for herself, so too should Hallgerd have been able call upon similar legal avenues; she was not limited to murdering her Thorvald for vengeance. If Unn was able to successfully divorce her husband without violence, why did Hallgerd not follow suit?

When one considers the differences between Unn’s situation and Hallgerd’s it becomes apparent why such a course of action is not possible for Hallgerd the way it is for Unn. The first major difference in their situations is that Unn’s father, Mord, is sympathetic to his daughter’s plight and is willing to help her. This is not something Hallgerd is lucky enough to be able to rely on; when she complains of her marriage, her father simply says that her “pride” about the issue is not important enough to “stand in the way of [his] plans” (18). Since Hoskuld is so unwilling to help Hallgerd at the time of her betrothal, it is unlikely that he would want to help her once she has already been married. Also, not only is Unn’s father more willing to help than Hoskuld is, he is also “a powerful chieftain and strong in pressing lawsuits… [and] so learned that no verdicts were considered valid unless he had been involved” (3). This illustrates that Mord is a very powerful lawyer, therefore when Unn approaches him with her dilemma, he is able to give her decisive and legally binding advice, something it is unlikely Hoskuld would have had the knowledge or skill to do for his own daughter. Likewise it is not clear that Hoskuld would have willingly assisted Hallgerd in suing Thorvald for the assault. The Medieval Icelandic code Grágás states that “a widow or unmarried girl of 20 or more is [able] to have charge of her own lawsuits if they are assaulted or inflicted with minor wounds,” but since Hallgerd is neither a widow nor unmarried the law automatically either necessitates the help of male relative or forces Hallgerd to enact her own justice (Laws of Iceland: Grágás I 158).

Even someone like Unn, however, does not have unadulterated access to legal proceedings and she too must rely on male assistance in the form of her father’s counsel and authority. In fact, it is Mord that goes “to the Law Rock and declare[s] [Unn] legally divorced” from Hrut (17), a step that Jenny Jochens in her book Women in Old Norse Society says that “women were not empowered to undertake” by law (Jochens 59). Although Unn appears to have more options than Hallgerd, she is still limited in what she can and cannot do without a powerful male relative’s help. Jochens goes on to say that “male violence [like Thorvald’s against Hallgerd] was the most frequent reason for divorce in the sagas” but that “in order to be effective… divorce initiated by wives must be shown to be possible” (58). Because Hallgerd lacks family backing and a strong legal support system like Unn’s, divorce becomes an impossibility and leaves her trapped in her unhappy marriage until Thjostolf kills Thorvald. If Hallgerd had been consulted before her marriage to Thorvald, and if she had been able to pursue divorce as an option, Thorvald’s death could have been avoided.

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Hallgerd’s first marriage demonstrates the violence that women like her are forced to enact due to their exclusion from the legal system, however it is during Hallgerd’s third marriage to Gunnar that the negative repercussions of such exclusion are most severe. During this time, Hallgerd and Bergthora (the wife of Gunnar’s very good friend Njal) begin to feud, and their retaliations against each other continue to grow in scale and violence until several important members of each household have been killed.

One of the reasons that the feud escalates in such a violent and rapid manner is that neither Hallgerd nor Bergthora have the ability to summon the other to court. According to Grágás, neither an “unfit man [nor] a woman” could be active at the Althing or in the courts (Laws of Iceland: Grágás I 159). If either of these women had had the right to take the other to court, there could have been a fair and satisfying conclusion to their disagreements early on before so many other people had gotten involved and, essentially, killed. Compounding this issue is the fact that, since their husbands are such great friends, neither Gunnar nor Njal is willing to take the other to court to account for the crimes of their wives. Instead, they engage in sjálfdoemi, or self-arbitrated settlements, which, as Wiliam Iam Miller points out in his article “Avoiding Legal Judgment: The Submission of Disputes to Arbitration in Medieval Iceland” could in some cases be considered favourable because they “were able to reflect considerations of fault, excuse, justification, moral character, and social status of victims and principals” (111) and “eliminated… possible outcomes… [such as] outlawry or exile” (116). In this case, however, the process sjálfdoemi is not acceptable to the women involved, (particularly Hallgerd, who is often “cross with Gunnar for having settled the slaying[s] peacefully”) and only serves to further isolate the women from possible legal options (63).

There is, however, one law that would have been applicable in this case and would have actually included the women. Grágás stipulates that “[i]f either [spouse] becomes responsible for paying for a misdeed he or she has committed, then whichever of them committed it must atone for it with his or her own means” (Laws of Iceland: Grágás II 68). According to this legislation, Bergthora and Hallgerd should have had sole responsibility when dealing with each other, whether in their retaliation or their exacting of the wergild. As Hallgerd and Bergthora are the ones committing the “misdeeds”, they are the ones who must also be at the forefront of any settlement. Their husbands’ separate dealings are therefore not in accordance with Icelandic law. By engaging in their own processes of sjálfdoemi Gunnar and Njal are keeping their wives from one of the few legal regulations which would allow them some authority and responsibility in their affairs, forcing them to resort to ever more violent methods of feuding.

It is not accidental that Njal and Gunnar are excluding their wives in this manner, in fact it is blatantly done. For example, when Hallgerd expresses her irritation at Gunnar’s handling of matters, he responds that “she would decide her own actions but [he would] decide how the cases are settled” (Njal’s Saga 60). This is a very stark indication of who holds the legal power in their relationship, and implies that Hallgerd can do nothing but to continue exacting her own violent revenge if she is to be satisfied and her honour upheld. Gunnar is telling her that she has no other choice; she must disgrace herself with inaction or work on her own outside of a legal framework. This further encourages the violent back-and-forth relationship between households as neither Hallgerd nor Bergthora are allowed access to this law, and therefore neither one has to face the legal consequences or is even able to take legal responsibility. In this particular case it is not the fault of the law itself, but rather of the male characters, that Hallgerd and Bergthora are thus separated from such legal recourse. Whatever the method, however, the result is the same: excluding women from participating in these legal processes leaves them with no other viable options other than those of violence.

Hallgerd and her actions as presented in Njal’s Saga present the disturbing symptoms of a flawed system, one that operates under the authority and participation of only half the population. For a judicial system as complex and extensive as medieval Iceland’s, the exclusion of women from its processes is a glaring fault, one with dangerous repercussions, as Njal’s Saga illustrates. Whether Hallgerd is being excluded from legally binding decisions regarding her betrothal, from the processes of divorce, or from the courts during the feud, she is continually denied participation in legal and political spheres by both the law itself and men around her, and is therefore forced to resort to more easily accessible methods of violence to achieve her goals. Hallgerd and the violence that surrounds her is a testament to the failures of this aspect of Icelandic society and Njal’s Saga makes clear the devastating consequences of such failures, consequences that, with a more equal and inclusive legal system, could have been avoided.

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WORKS CITED

Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás. Trans. Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins.

University of Manitoba Icelandic Studies 3, 5. 2 vols. Winnipeg: University of

Manitoba Press, 2000-2006. Canadian Publishers Collection. Web. 20 March

2014.

Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

ACLS Humanities E-book Collection. Web. 20 March 2014.

Miller, William Ian. “Avoiding Legal Judgment: The Submission of Disputes to Arbitration in Medieval Iceland.” American Journal of Legal History 28.2 (1984): 95-134. Jstor. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Njal’s Saga. Trans. Robert Cook. London: Penguin Group, 2001. Print.

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