Norse Law – the Vikings had a ‘Thing’ for it

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Law and order is a necessity among all civilized people in order to peacefully live amongst each other.

The Norse, like all other people, made their own laws to uphold peace and justice between them. At a gathering, they made their laws and passed their judgments on the law breakers at an assembly called the Thing.

The Thing (þing) was a public assembly of which all freemen would have a say in the governance of the land and people. The old Norse clans formed the Thing as a balancing structure for the leaders and freemen of the country to meet at least once a year, or as needed to settle matters.

The gathering of karls (freemen) and jarls (earls) at the Thing dealt with electing or recognizing other jarls, clan leaders, or even kings.

It was at the Thing meetings they made and enacted laws. This was also when they made judgments following the law before a law-speaker. A law-speaker was someone who memorized and recited the law to ensure it was known and followed.

The thing, although not consistent, held much of the same laws throughout the Norse world and weren’t written but memorized by the Law-Speaker (lögmaðr).

Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker showing the power of his office to the King of Sweden at Gamla Uppsala, 1018. The lawspeaker forced King Olof Skötkonung not only to accept peace with his enemy, King Olaf the Stout of Norway, but also to give his daughter to him in marriage. Illustration by C. Krogh.
Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker. Illustration by C. Krogh.

It wasn’t until the Christianization of the Norse was when the laws began to be written down. Prior to the practice of writing everything down by the christian church, all laws were memorized and passed on.

A Thing assembly typically met in each region for a week during the Spring and Autumn.

From around 902 AD onward in Iceland, of which there wasn’t a king or centralized ruler, they held a meeting called an Althing.

The Norse Althing is considered to be Northern Europe’s first national assembly, much like the centralized assemblies held by the Roman Senate in the Southern portion of Europe. However, unlike the Romans whom only gave voice to the members of the Senate, the Norse Althing gave voice to all freeman.

'Althing in Session' oil on canvas by W. G. Collingwood (1854–1932)
‘Althing in Session’ oil on canvas by W. G. Collingwood (1854–1932)

The mutually agreed recognized powers bestowed to the Thing allowed it to set taxes, decide and confirm who was king and even argue and negotiate property disputes and marital affairs. It was also at the Thing that murders and other crimes were investigated.

An accused murderer might call upon the support of twelve men to swear his or her innocence, similar to what we consider a jury today. If the assembled freemen at the Thing meeting found the accused person to be guilty of murder, then the guilty person might be required to pay a fine (weregild) to the victim’s family.

The concept of “Weregild” was a system of value that was placed on all humans and property. This was usually the value paid to affected families or owners of lost or damaged property. This is similar to a modern civil lawsuit today when a victim or a victim’s family sues for monetary damages.

Sometimes a murderer would be found guilty and sentenced to death, or be banished and outlawed from the country for a set period of time (as was found with Erik the Red). The relatives of the victim could also demand that the wrongdoing be settled with a duel to the death, called a Holmgang.  <Read About: Viking Duels>

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Although the assembly of a Thing was often dominated by those with the most power and influence within the clans, such as chieftain jarls, kings, and the wealthy. The purpose of the Thing was to maintain universally recognized laws and try to give an equal voice amongst the people.

The very existence of the Thing was necessary to prevent social disorder and tribal feuds.

Not an easy task as it was customary with the Norse that every member of a clan was obligated to avenge the injuries against its dead and mutilated. The Thing assembly prevented wars by allowing disputes to be peacefully heard and the demand for reparations be settled by means other than outright blood feuds between clans.

Germanic Thing depicted by Marcus Aurelius (AD 193)
Germanic Thing depicted by Marcus Aurelius (AD 193)

There were various levels of Thing assemblies, starting from the smaller local Things to the larger high leveled Althings where the local Things would be represented. Much like a representative congress or parliament, at the Althing a representative of the clan would attend and speak on behalf of their clan before the other clan representatives.

The location of a Thing assembly was often held at a religious site or other well known trade location. They were held at locations that were well known or near landmarks of the day so they could be found by distant members.

The Thing eventually evolved into Parliaments and still reflects the original concept that the Norse had for a representative government.

The Thing is still in use today in many Scandinavian areas. The ‘Storting’ (Great Thing) is the name of the Norwegian Parliament. The Swedish speaking people of Finland are represented by the ‘Folkting’ (‘Folks Thing’ or Thing of the People) and the Sami are represented by the Sameting (‘Sami Thing’ or Thing of the Sami).

~

Source:
Kane, Njord. “Norse Law.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018

by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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