Democratic vikings? - On the Norse Thing system and Greek democracy.

Publisert 2015-09-18

The depiction of the bloodthirsty viking marauder is still a popular image in the public mind. Less frequent do we hear about the vikings as nation builders and inventors of what was to become the European and Scandinavian democratic model. Professor Torgrim Titlestad, dr.philos., has spent several decades studying the sagas and the viking world, and is one of Norway's foremost proponents of view that the vikings were democratic pioneers. Here follows an excerpt from his book Viking Legacy, due for publication early 2016.

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The Norse Thing and Greek Democracy

No one can say how old the Norse Thing system is. We first read of it in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus. It was an ancient system in northwest Europe for the ordering of relationships among free individuals. The Thing system is not an organizational arrangement that suddenly appeared out of mists of history. It was the result of evolution over more than a thousand years, and which is still discernible in modern Scandinavian society. The concept of the Thing runs like a red thread through the Migration Era, through the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, the Danish era, and into our own time.


Greek Democracy, on the other hand, must be described as having a revolutionary quality. It was created under Cleisthenes ca. 508 B.C., after the fall of the Greek tyranny, and lasted a mere 150 years. Then it was gone and did not re-emerge until the modern variety in the 1800s. The Norse Thing system might be compared to Greek direct democracy, because it had to do with public representation in very old times. Certainly slaves and thralls were shut out of both systems, but in contrast to Greece, women enjoyed a degree of influence in the Norse system. Widows with property could participate in Things. The Norse system has also enjoyed unique longevity and continuity. The Athenians assembled up to 6,000 men in their democratic Pnyx arena, while the Norse Things were small gatherings.


tingIt goes without saying that the smaller Norse Thing gatherings offered far greater scope for democratic practice. 6,000 men are much more likely to be deceived by eloquent demagogues than gatherings of merely 100 or less. In smaller assemblies it is easier to express what’s on one’s mind. One might make so bold as to assert that the world’s first lasting “direct democracy” was to be found in Scandinavia. The Gula Thing, the Frosta Thing, and the Eidsiva Thing eventually became the most important political arenas. Norway had no “capitol” so long as there was yet no monarchy. The closest thing to a capitol was the yearly Law-Things in each region, which probably did not appear before the 9th Century. Until after the Millennium the law had been preserved unwritten, in memory, and about one-third of it was “spoken” each year, as a check on the Thing men. But when the law was written down after 1000, it signified a weakening of democratic control by the Things, in which each individual who had participated up until then had known the content by heart. In later times the law became the privilege of literate legal specialists under the supervision of the king and the church. At the same time it is an interesting phenomenon that the Norwegian laws constitute some of the oldest collections of law in Christian Europe. But writing had more than a data storage function. It was the foundation of the new political structure. It was the tool of the Christian monarchy to erase the heathen political culture, based on an oral tradition.


How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development. 


But the heart of the Norse Thing proved to be of far greater vitality than the Athenian democracy. Gradually, archaeologists have succeeded in uncovering what may be assumed with a fair amount of certainty to have been Thing locations, physical evidence of Norse democracy. These are the so-called Ring-shaped Tuns (arenas for political discussions) which are found all over Norway, dating as far back as the Migration Era – fully 27 such locations, with the greatest concentration in south Rogaland (eight in all). The twenty-seventh was discovered during the summer of 2011. From generation to generation the ancient Northmen passed down the ancient Germanic concepts of law and governance, a system praised by the Roman Tacitus. This path we will trace further along into the Viking Age. 


ttrgbThe most important conclusion concerning the outbreak of the Viking Age ca. 793, is that the Scandinavians were not unknown on the Continent. They had been there long before, and had encountered many cultural impulses through trade and warfare. The Scandinavians had developed effective political and military mechanisms which made them dangerous opponents. Maritime activity and ships were the foundation for their contact with the wider world. From this perspective, we understand that the Migration Age lay the background for the Viking Age expeditions out of Scandinavia.

Photo: The author with a wax statue of Snorri Sturlasson at Perlan (the Pearl) in Reykjavik.


Translated by Lars Walker.

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