Taxation and Theft, Viking Style
When visiting an exhibition about the Viking Age at the Museum of History in Stockholm I came across a memorial runestone that had been raised by Skuli and Folki in Torsätra in Uppland,1 telling about their brother Husbjörn, who had died of sickness while collecting taxes in far away Gotland. Now, some years later, I found my photos of the stone, and it got me thinking that the stone might have something to tell us about the nature of taxes. The short runic inscription also tickled my imagination, and I started to wonder if maybe what happened was something like the following:
Gotland, Sweden, year 1061 AD
Side by side, Gunnar and his robber chieftain, Husbjörn, move swiftly and quickly. They decide that the battle is at the point where they can, and should, take on Uffir, the owner of the farm. With his strength and readiness he is injecting courage into the defense. Initially, Gunnar and Husbjörn are successful in their move.
Uffir’s roar of pain is heard loudly over the alarm of the tumultuous raid when Husbjörn, using his shield, knocks Uffir’s sword arm out of joint.
Furious with the bandits’ attack, and full of fear for his life and those of his loved ones, Uffir is pumped to the brim with intoxicating adrenaline. This makes him hold his ground despite the numbing pain and able to parry Husbjörn’s blow toward his neck. But this is not the first time Husbjörn and Gunnar have performed this maneuver: the chief launches a heavy attack using his shield, then his sword, after which Gunnar follows up.
Thus, Husbjörn is not surprised when his face is flooded with a warm and sticky stream of blood. He grunts with excitement when he feels the irony taste.
Only, it is not Uffir’s blood.
Gunnar’s throat is slit wide open by the firm pull of a short and very sharp blade. It is the steady hand of Ylva, Uffir’s wife, holding the sword. Where she came from is not a question presenting itself to Husbjörn, as he has been momentarily blinded by the stream of blood splashing his face. At the moment he is oblivious to the fact that Gunnar has been slain as well as about who his undoer is.
Likewise, it is only later that he learns who stabs a sword, still dripping with Gunnar’s blood, deep into his mouth. Husbjörn backs away from the blade, painfully pulled out of his face. He manages to raise his gaze enough to realize that he can now choose between flight and death. His eyes, briefly meeting Uffir’s, do not find the slightest trace of mercy in the defender’s raging face. The arm that Husbjörn and Gunnar have left unharmed is massive and strong, and fully prepared to repay the debt that the robbers justly deserve.
It turns out that Husbjörn shall not die by Uffir’s hand. He is saved by his band of bandits, which loses two more lives to the farm’s defenders before they retreat, head over heels, without any of the wealth they came to plunder.
Back at their camp, the efforts to save Husbjörn’s life begin, but he can neither eat nor drink. His deep wound gets infected and reeks so badly that his men draw straws for who will pour water into the mouth of their chief.
Husbjörn dies a few days later, slain by a woman who refused to let herself or her family fall victims to robbers and bandits.
The day after his death, Husbjörn’s brothers, Skuli and Folki, arrive, rich and almost unharmed from their more successful raids and pillages elsewhere. They arrange for a Viking chieftain’s funeral for him.
Once back home in Torsätra in Uppland, Skuli and Folki consider what should be Husbjörn’s legacy. Yes, their brother died in battle, but it was by the hand of a woman, and he chose to flee. They decide that his stone will tell that he died from sickness. They also tell the runemaster to inscribe that it was while collecting debt:
Skúli and Folki have raised this stone in memory of their brother Húsbjǫrn. He was sick abroad when they took gjald on Gotland.
“Gjald” as a Euphemism for Theft
Gjald was the Old Norse word for debt and is what robber Vikings called the kind of theft that Husbjörn was engaged in. The word made the victims seem like they owed the perpetrators something. If they did not voluntarily pay their “debts” the violence brought upon them was justly deserved.
The heirs of the robber Vikings inherited this trick but instead used the word “taxation.” They also made it
Article from Mises Wire