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The Ancient Parliamentary Plains of Iceland

The Ancient Parliamentary Plains of Iceland


In the modern world, the parliamentary system is one of the most common forms of government. The modern concept of this system has its origins in 18 th century Great Britain and Sweden. Nevertheless, the oldest parliamentary institution in existence belongs to neither country, but to Iceland. Incredibly, the national parliament of Iceland, known as the Althingi (literally meaning the all thing, or general assembly), is over a thousand years old.

Founded in A.D. 930, the Althingi was initially used for the general assembly of the Icelandic Commonwealth. These assemblies were conducted at Þingvellir (the ‘assembly fields’ or ‘Parliament Plains’), which is in the south western part of the island. The gatherings typically lasted for two weeks in June, which was a period of uninterrupted daylight, and had the mildest weather. During these meetings, the country’s most powerful leaders would decide on legislation and dispense justice. At the centre of the assembly was the Lögberg, or Law Rock. This was a rocky outcrop which the Lawspeaker, the presiding official of the assembly, took his seat. This Lawspeaker was an important national official, and was elected for a three-year term as the chairman of the lögrétta (legislative or law council). Among other duties, the Lawspeaker had to announce publicly the laws that were passed by the lögrétta. Despite the prestige that went along with this position, the Lawspeaker had, in reality, little or no official power. Thus, the Lawspeaker may be comparable to the Speakers of modern day parliaments.  

This painting depicts an early meeting of Iceland's Althing with the Lögsögumaður

This painting depicts an early meeting of Iceland's Althing with the Lögsögumaður (Lawgiver) calling the body to order at the Lögberg (Law Rock). Image Source.

Serious matters of government were not the only items on the agenda. The general assembly was in fact also the main social event of the year. Hundreds of Icelanders of all professions, including farmers, traders and craftsmen, would converge on the Axe River which ran through the Þingvellir. During the two weeks that the general assembly was in session, friendships were formed and broken, news and information were passed on from one person to another, disputes were settled, and business would have been transacted. The gathering would almost certainly have had a festival-like atmosphere to it.

Vikings marching to Althing

Vikings marching to Althing, the world's oldest parliament established in Thingvellir in AD 930. Image by Marja.

It was perhaps the location of the gatherings that tempered the serious business of governance with the fun factor of a carnival. Today, Þingvellir is an Icelandic national park, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The natural beauty of Þingvellir would have made it a suitable place for large outdoor gatherings. Furthermore, Þingvellir is home to the largest lake in Iceland, Lake Þingvallavatn, and is abound with life. This would have provided the assembled with enough food during their stay at Þingvellir.

The Law Rock - Iceland

The Law Rock, where the world’s first every Parliament congregated. Image source.

In 1262, Iceland became a province under Norway. As a result, the function of the Althingi changed, as an additional level of power – the king of Norway, was introduced. Nevertheless, the assemblies were still conducted as they were before Iceland was incorporated into Norway. In 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed, in which both Iceland and Norway were subjected to Denmark. As absolute monarchy was practised by Denmark, the Althingi lost its legislative powers, and functioned mainly as a court of law. In 1798, the last Althingi was conducted in Þingvellir before it was disbanded in 1800. In 1843, a royal decree provided for the establishing of a new Althingi. This Althingi, however, was not the same as its predecessor, as it acted mainly as a consultative body for the Danish crown. It would take several decades before the Althingi is transformed into the legislative body that we are familiar with today. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the parliamentary system began in Iceland more than a thousand years ago. On top of that, the Icelanders made an excellent choice for the location of their assemblies, which allowed them a balance between work and play.       

Featured image: Þingvellir National Park, iceland. Photo source: UNESCO.

By Ḏḥwty


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Wikipedia, 2014. Althing. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Parliamentary system. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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