Things: Old Viking Parliaments, Courts And Community Assemblies
Ancient governmental terminology such as monarchy, oligarchy and democracy have been used for more than 2,000 years and have Greek and Roman origin, but in Early Germanic societies, right up to the Vikings of modern Scandinavia and Britain, the word Thing described ancient community assemblies conducted under governance of a local lawmaker, at locations called Thingstead or Thingstow, or in Old English, at þingstedes and þingstōws, respectively. The modern English word Thing, and the German and Dutch word ding, as well as the Scandinavian ting, all mean ‘object’, with an etymology in the Old Norse, Old Frisian and Old English word: þing, which means ‘assembly’.
“Althing in Session.” 19th-century rendering of the Law Rock in Þingvellir by W. G. Collingwood (1854–1932) Bridgman Art Library (Public Domain)
According to Norway's Law of the Gulathing dating back to 900 - 1300 AD only ‘free men of full age’ could participate in Things, which functioned as both courts and parliaments administering local, regional, and supra-regional levels of Norse society. According to Natascha Mehler's 2015 paper “ Þingvellir: A Place of Assembly and a Market?” they were judicial centers where disputes were resolved, political decisions were taken, and public religious rites associated with the election of chieftains and kings were conducted.
In pre-Christian Germanic Scandinavia the most popular method of conflict resolution was feuding and Things managed potentially escalating tribal feuds to avoid social disorder, therefore, serving communities as forums for conflict resolution, negotiators of tribal alliances through marriage and settlers of inheritance disputes. All across Scandinavia Things were held at man-made ancestral burial mounds and at places with abundances of natural resources, for example at the Alþingi ( Althing) national parliament of Iceland founded in 930 AD at Þingvellir (assembly fields) situated 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of the modern capital city, Reykjavík.
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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history. www.ashleycowie.com.
Top Image: The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession by Lucas de Heere (1572) National Museum Cardiff (Public Domain)
By Ashley Cowie