How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament

How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament

Patrick Lynch - May 31, 2017

The Vikings are known as plunderers, murderers and generally perceived as violent thugs by those with only passing knowledge of these Norse warriors. In reality, most of the Vikings were hunters and fishermen who embarked on their adventures to help them survive the harsh winters back home. As they had an oral culture with rune writing, it isn’t easy to find accurate details of Viking society but what we do know is that they were not lawless savages.

Even with the lack of written law, there was a system of government amongst the Vikings. Their free men would gather within their communities to create new laws and decide cases and punishments if applicable. These meetings were called a ‘Thing,’ and each Viking community had its own Thing.

How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament
Thingvellir. Lastwordonnothing

It was necessary to have these meetings or else chaos would reign and disputes would be settled via duels or bloody family feuds. The purpose of the Thing was to solve these disputes in a legal manner. The Thing would meet regularly at pre-determined times, and there was a law speaker at each meeting who had the ability to recite the law from memory.

With the aid of the local chieftain, the legal speaker would judge and settle each case they heard, and every free man within the community was allowed to speak at the Thing; which means Vikings were allowed their day in court just like in the modern era. And just like it is today, these meetings were dominated by the wealthiest and most powerful individuals.

The Oldest Parliament in the World

It is incorrect to suggest that no Viking laws were ever written down. In fact, written records were kept when the Norse converted to Christianity. Before this practice, the Vikings would somehow remember their laws and pass them on to the next generation. There were typically two Things a year; one in spring and another in autumn. Each region would have its own Thing, and it would last for a full week.

How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament
Viking ship, Oseberg. National Geographic

Iceland has the distinction of having the world’s oldest parliament; the Althing. It was established by the Vikings in 930 at Thingvellir which is less than 30 miles from the nation’s capital, Reykjavik. There was a law rock, known as the logberg, in the middle of the assembly. The speaker of the assembly sat there, and it was his duty to say the decisions and laws out loud to the attendees. The logretta was the Althing’s most important group; it was made up of the nation’s 36 district leaders, nine members, and the speaker.

The Althing remained at Thingvellir until it moved to Reykjavik in 1845. However, the modern-day Republic of Iceland was established at an Althing session at Thingvellir in 1945.

While the Althing sessions were similar to the Roman Senate, it differed in that everyone had a voice, unlike the Roman version where senators were the only ones allowed to speak. The Thing was able to decide who should be the king; it also set taxes, negotiated property ownership and oversaw marital disputes. Also, murders and other serious crimes were investigated and judged at the Thing.

The Vikings allowed someone who was accused of murder to call on the support of 12 men who claimed the accused was innocent; it is similar to a modern-day Jury except these individuals were biased towards the defendant. If the freemen that assembled at the Thing found the defendant guilty of the crime, he would be forced to pay a fine, known as a Weregild, to the family of the victim. The Weregild was a system of value placed on all property and humans. It is similar to a modern-day civil suit.

In some cases, a convicted murderer was sentenced to death or banished from the community for a set period of time. Another option was for the family of the victim to demand the case be settled via a duel, known as a Holmgang. While the Thing was dominated by the wealthy and powerful families of a community, it was effective in settling disputes and giving a voice to all freemen. In that sense, it was an improvement on the Roman model.

How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament
Depiction of a Viking Thing in progress. realmofhistory

The Thing Was Designed to Uphold Social Order

It was a difficult task because, at heart, the Vikings were warriors and preferred to settle disputes by the sword. In the Norse tradition, every family and clan was obligated to avenge their members if they died, were mutilated or were wronged in some other way. The Thing enabled families to settle their differences without the need for an all-out clan war. Without the existence of the Thing, there is no doubt that practically every dispute would have been settled in a violent manner.

It is worth noting that in Norse society, every free man and woman had the right to carry out a ‘revenge killing.’ The only caveat was that you do it in public. If you murdered someone who had killed a member of your clan in public, you would get away with it because you were perceived, to be honest. However, Vikings had to take responsibility for this action and pay any fines owed; the same rules applied if you killed someone in a duel.

How the Vikings Formed The World’s Oldest Existing Parliament
Depiction of a Holmgang. Wikimedia

Different Levels of Thing

The assemblies varied in importance. At the lowest level, there were local Things where community issues were dealt with. The next level involved the affairs of several local communities. Finally, the Althing dealt with national matters.

It was common for parties to try and settle their disputes before being summoned to the assembly because getting called to the Thing was deemed a hostile act. Those who were called to the Thing knew the verdict could have a terrible impact on their lives. If you were found guilty, you could be fined, declared a semi-outlaw or suffer complete banishment. If you were declared a semi-outlaw, you were banished for a total of three years.

Being declared an outlaw and suffering banishment as a punishment was an awful outcome for any Viking. Not only were they thrown out of their community, but their property was also confiscated. Also, they could not receive any help from anyone in the form of food or support. In other words, they were thrown to the wolves and expected to fend for themselves. As well as suffering from dreadful loneliness, banished Vikings were easy targets because free men were allowed to kill them without consequence.

Vikings could also settle their disputes via arbitration outside of the Thing. In these cases, both parties agreed to allow an unbiased third party to be the judge. The aforementioned Holmgang duels were usually fought to the death although both parties could also agree to fight to ‘first blood.’ The favored weapons in these duels were swords and shields. If you won, it was regarded as proof that you were right because the Gods always ensured the correct man won. The Holmgang was abolished with the introduction of Christianity.

It is important to note that while the Thing had legislative and judiciary powers, it didn’t have the power to carry out the sentence; the family of the wronged party had that particular honor. While the Thing was an extremely important event with dire consequences for those found guilty, it took place amidst a festive atmosphere. Traders took advantage of the large gatherings by bringing their goods for sale and merchants also set up shop in the area.

It was normal for the Thing to be held in a place close to a reliable source of water to make it easy to catch fish, hunt and provide grazing ground for animals. Brewmasters brought barrels of alcohol, and local chieftains used the opportunity to forge new alliances while marriages were also arranged. It seems that as long as you were not directly involved in the Thing, it was practically a carnival.

Although the Vikings were warriors and were certainly guilty of horrendous acts of violence when they plundered certain regions, they were not the uncouth savages of lore. The Thing was a democratic system of law where everyone except slaves and exiles was considered a citizen with a voice.

Some Sources and Further Reading:

History Collection – Norse Mythology Shows There Was a Different Side to Vikings than Plundering and Pillaging

The Culture Trip – A Brief History of Althing, the Oldest Parliament in the World

Popular Science – For Vikings, Murder Was A Family Affair

History on the Net – Vikings History: An Overview of the Culture and History of the Viking Age