The Althingi

930-1271 AD

Thingvellir was the regular meeting place of the Althingi until 1799. The Althingi is both the oldest and greatest national institution. Its establishment, as an outdoor assembly held on the plains of Thingvellir from about the year 930 AD, laid the foundation for an independent national existence in Iceland.

To begin with, the Althingi was a general assembly of the nation, where the country's most powerful leaders, called go›ar, met to decide on legislation and dispense justice. As all free men could attend, the assemblies were usually the main social event of the year and drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travellers.

Those attending the assembly dwelt in temporary camps known as bú›ir during the session. Within the bounds of the Althingi everyone was entitled to sanctuary.

The centre of the gathering was the Lögberg, or Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the Lawspeaker (lögsöguma›ur) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. His responsibility included reciting aloud the laws in effect at the time, one third of the entire corpus each year. He was to proclaim the procedural law of the Althingi to those attending the assembly each year.

Public addresses on matters of importance were delivered at the Law Rock and there the assembly was called to order and dissolved. The Lögrétta, the legislative section of the assembly, was its most powerful institution. It was comprised of the 39 district go›ar plus nine additional members and the Lawspeaker.

As the legislative section of the Althingi, the Lögrétta took a stand on legal conflicts, adopted new laws and granted exemptions to existing laws.

The Althingi of old also performed a judicial function and heard legal disputes in addition to the spring assemblies held in each district. After the country had been divided into four quarters around 965 AD, a fjór›ungsdómur, or quarter court, of 36 judges was established for each of them at the Althingi. A fifth court (fimmtardómur) was established early in the 11th century. It served as a supreme court of sorts, and assumed the function of hearing cases left unsettled by the other courts. It was comprised of 48 judges appointed by the go›ar of Lögrétta.

The tenth century Althingi convened on Thursday of the tenth week of summer, according to the ancient calendar, or about the middle of June. Thereafter the assembly met a week later, with sessions lasting two weeks until about 1271.