Þing – the Old Norse Democratic System

Þing – the Old Norse Democratic System  

Þing is the Old Norse name for an assembly, council, or parliament that was crucial to the political system of Scandinavians and their descendant Germanic tribes since time immemorial. Nobody knows how old this democratic system is. The first time we hear speak of it is with Tacitus (the Roman author of the “ethnographic” study “Germania” – referring to all the north-west European and Scandinavian tribes) in the year 98 AD:

11. On affairs of smaller moment, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community; yet with this circumstance, that what is referred to the decision of the people, is first maturely discussed by the chiefs. They assemble, unless upon some sudden emergency, on stated days, either at the new or full moon, which they account the most auspicious season for beginning any enterprise. (…) An inconvenience produced by their liberty is, that they do not all assemble at a stated time, as if it were in obedience to a command; but two or three days are lost in the delays of convening. When they all think fit, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on this occasion a coercive power. Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins; for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms.

12. Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. (…) In the same assemblies chiefs are also elected, to administer justice through the cantons and districts. A hundred companions, chosen from the people, attended upon each of them, to assist them as well with their advice as their authority.
Tacitus, Germania chapters 11,12 – 98 AD
 

Parliament was already then an ancient system of North-West Europe for arranging and organizing the relations between free individuals in society on a basic level. It was a place where laws, law suits and decisions were voted upon, and where temporary war-leaders and less temporary chiefs and kings were elected.

 

Direct Democracy and Votes for Women

Then all the gods went to parliament
And all the goddesses
All to have their say
And about this they spoke
The high holy powers…

Vegtamskviða, st. 1, The Poetic Edda

The Norse parliament was democratic in the sense that each household had one vote. Each household could send one representative, usually the male head of the household, or his widow, who unless her sons were adult would then be the female head of the household. As such, even if individuals did not hold individual votes but each household counted as one vote  - or exactly because of that –  women also had the vote in Scandinavian parliaments from time immemorial.

The one household-one vote system meant that the representative who went to parliament and voted would vote for the entire household, men and women, and speak the case of their members, whether male or female. Within the household, councils were held and those individuals of both genders who wished to run a case at parliament would ask the representative to speak his or her case, which the representative would then be obliged to do.

The parliaments were held both locally and tribally and eventually nationally (when nations began to appear – not exactly the same nations as we know today, but getting there). In Norway alone 27 parliament seats have been excavated yet, showing that democracy was very direct and locally based. The many local/tribal/clan councils would come together in greater regional parliaments annually and decide greater matters of more regional concerns.

The parliament was so vital to the Norse civilization that it was brought with those who traveled and happened on every level. If a group of people were on a sea journey and found that vital matters had to be decided upon, they held parliament at the mast of the ship.

Centralized power was introduced very late. This is one of the reasons why Scandinavia in the Viking Age and earlier has been considered uncivilized despite fulfilling most of the requisites of a civilization – one definition of “civilization” is centralized power – but Scandinavia was mostly decentralized, ruled by local councils. In Norway, no more centralized powers existed until the late 9th century AD when King Harald Hair-Fair conquered the whole land – before that there were at least thirty tribal regions/lands that were ruled either solely by parliament (such as the Thronds) or else by chiefs or petty kings.

The introduction of kings is relatively late in Norway – it was introduced perhaps only as late as the early 8th century, although the earliest signs of royal houses in Scandinavia as such began around the 2nd and third centuries AD, when the old clan-based and tribal-based parliament-ruled society was increasingly challenged by particularly rich and militarily strong clans who eventually demanded a royal status. These did not destroy the democratic system entirely, however, and they depended on the parliament for their election into power.

In Sweden, all the nations (some seven to twelve, depending on era) gathered for a great parliament at Uppsala every ninth year.

I have not yet found any detailed information on this from Denmark, where power may have been far more centralized in the hands of one or two kings from much earlier times. But from Sachsen a little south of Denmark we know that the twelve tribes met every year in parliament. Each tribe was represented by their chief, one elected noble and one elected commoner. Thus three men from each twelve tribes, each representing three layers of society, came together to vote (each held one vote) on laws, decide law suits and decide various measures of war or peace for the coming year. The description of the Saxons is probably the most detailed description we have of their most central parliaments, and very possibly similar to the systems that existed further to the north.

As such, Scandinavia before and during the beginning of the Viking Age was perhaps more democratic than any other civilization in its time – and certainly more so than the ancient Greek, where only a small part of the male privileged population could attend and vote at parliament.

Election of leaders

“7. In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”

Tacitus, Germania, ch.7, 98 AD

Only king´s sons could become kings, but being a king´s son did not automatically mean that you could become king, not even if you were the king´s oldest son by legitimate marriage. The idea of legitimate marriage was rather fluid and many kings had more than one legitimate marriage – and besides the son of a concubine or even just a short-term mistress could claim the right to be king because the Norse by the time of the Viking Age primarily counted the father line. 

I say primarily because the mother and her family certainly counted – the mistress or concubine had to be sufficiently high-born to be taken seriously as a prospective king´s mother, and her kinsmen had to be powerful enough to be able to make a claim for her sons royalty on the father´s side. But apart from the resourcefulness of the mother, it did not matter if she had been married to the king or not – it was the father´s identity that mattered – if he had acknowledged the child as his own, or else there was sufficient evidence (great courage, ability and a noble bearing was often thought of as sufficient evidence, as was the power of the boy´s mother´s family). Thus there could be several princes who all had a claim to the royal high seat because of their father´s. They had to go through various trials to show themselves worthy, gather enough supporters, and finally be elected by parliament. The same was true for other kinds of leaders. Not until well into the Christian era did the legitimate oldest son automatically inherit.

Description of a Parliament

The sagas provide descriptions of parliaments every now and then. This is a little excerpt of a parliament from the early 11th century AD:

“It is here told that when king Magnus went east from Russia he first sailed to Sweden and up to Sigtuna. There was Emundr Olafsson king of Sweden, and there was also queen Astrid who had been married to Olaf the Holy. She received Magnus very well, her step-son, and immediately let invoke parliament at a place called Hangrar.

At this parliament queen Astrid said: “To us have now come the son of Olaf the Holy, and his name is Magnus. He will go to Norway and demand his father´s legacy. I am obliged to help him on this journey, for he is my stepson, as is well known…I shall not hold back on anything that is within my power to help him and make him as strong as possible, neither in regard to great retinues of people that I rule, or money. And all those who go with him on this journey shall be certain of full friendship with me. I will also proclaim that I am going with him on the journey – then it will be easy for people to see that I do not hold back on anything.”

Thus she spoke a long time, and wisely, but when she stopped speaking, many replied and said that the Swedes had won little glory on their last trip to Norway when they followed king Olaf, his father (Olaf the Holy actually lost and died in his last battle against the heathens in 1031), and they could not expect any better results if they followed the son. Then Astrid replied:

“Those who want to be regarded as manly men should not let themselves be frightened by such things. And if anyone has lost friends or family or been wounded when they went with king Olaf the Holy, then it is a manly deed to go to Norway to avenge it.”

Astrid´s words (and appeals to their manliness) convinced the people to follow Magnus to Norway…

(From Snorri Sturlasson, Magnus the Good´s Saga)

One Response to Þing – the Old Norse Democratic System

  1. Tyrsson SilverWolf says:

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