At first sight it may seem bizarre to be comparing examples of rule sets as a means of limiting conflicts in societies as distant in time and space as medieval Iceland, twentieth-century West Africa and contemporary China or Turkey. The rules and limitations themselves and the societies which developed them all seem wholly different from one another and surely incomparable. However, I would argue that there are some similarities between, for example, Iceland in its immediate post-settlement, “heroic” era and contemporary examples of “collapsed (or ineffectual) states”. These can justify a comparison of the efforts of people in those societies to bring some order into their lives. Such efforts aim to limit the destructive effects of conflicts that inevitably arise in situations of scarcity, competition, threats and fear, plus the absence of centralized authority, of any means of impartially determining acceptable outcomes from disputes, and of trustworthy security services. In all of these societies, such absences give rise to — admittedly highly varied — efforts to construct some pragmatic and acceptable “rules of the game” to cope with the existence of an anarchical environment. Just as there was “no law west of the Pecos”, to misquote a saying from the nineteenth-century US frontier, so the absence of an acceptable, formal system of law-making, law interpretation and law application in many societies led frequently to the development of some accepted informal rules, based — perhaps shakily — on pragmatism, consensus and restraint. The existence of such routine or ritualized rule sets as a means of confining otherwise unrestrained combat can be seen as a common feature in pre-state societies, in societies where the reach of the state is tenuous and limited, and in situations where the state has virtually fallen apart.
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