Old Norse Democracy

«It is the opinion of many men that to write about the settling [of Iceland in the 9th century] is knowledge of little importance, but we believe that if we truly know the truth about out ancestors, we may more easily counter the mockery of foreigner when they accuse us of descending from slaves and bandits. And for those who wish to know ancient transmissions and how to trace lineages, it is better to start with the beginning than to enter in the middle. However it is, all civilized nations desire to know the origin of their own society and of the settling of their lineages.»

                  Landnámabók (The Book of the Settlingo of Iceland), unknown authors, 1140s

The First European Democratic Republic After Athens

“Then all the Powers went/ to the high Chairs of Fate/ the sacrosanct gods/ to discuss this…”

(Völuspá, st. 6, Poetic Edda)

When Iceland was fully settled by Norse peoples during the late 9th and early 10th centuries, something unique in medieval Europe happened; a democratic republic was created right in the midst of a medieval world ruled by totalitarian kingdoms and religious institutions. The Icelandic Alþingformally established in 930 AD, is the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world. It began as an outdoor assembly at a place called Þingvellir, where large crowds of people gathered for markets and celebrations or attended the Þing (=the Parliament) where the country´s thirty-six leading men, the goðar, met to decide on legislation and dispense justice. All free men could attend the assemblies (and as we shall see, even free women sometimes attended, although their legal cases would usually be promoted by their kinsmen) which were usually the main social event of the year and drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travellers. The centre of the gathering was the Lögberg, or Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. His responsibilities included reciting aloud the laws in effect at the time. It was his duty to proclaim the procedural law of Parliament to those attending the assembly each year.

The importance of this medieval democratic institution made the conversion to Christianity a great deal smoother in Iceland than it did in other Norse countries, where wars were fought for centuries over the issue of religious freedom, which the Heathens in these lands supported (although they would usually expect their leaders and other members of the community to attend great public sacrifices for the welfare of the community, even if they were otherwise allowed to believe whatever they wished), versus the totalitarian, enforced religion and the control over mind that the medieval Church represented.

In Iceland, people gathered at Parliament in the year 1000 AD and made a vote instead. The Christian fraction then represented half of the voters, and after winning over the one lacking vote that would make a slight majority, it was henceforth decided that Christianity should be the official, public religion of Iceland. In tune with ancient democratic values such as freedom of thought and religion, however, the Heathen half of the population was allowed to pratice their Heathen religion at home for another hundred years and then some – one of the reasons why Icelandic writers became our main source to the Pre-Christian religion: There were still Heathens and Heathen practices around when Icelanders first learned to write books.

Icelanders were also among the first medieval Europeans to write books almost exclusively in their native language, thus preserving the Old Norse language, poetry and storytelling traditions to a degree that no other Scandinavian country was able to muster. Snorri Sturluson explained this in his introduction to the Heimskringla:“It was Ari Priest the Wise (1068-1148)… who was the first man here in our country (Iceland), who wrote in the Norse language knowledge about old and new times.” That people should be able to read their own history in their own language was another extremely radical notion in medieval Europe, where most books were written in Latin and accessed only by the elite readers who knew that language. In Iceland, anyone who knew how to read – and they were an unusually literate nation for their time – could read the stories of their ancestors to other Icelanders.

An Ancient Norse/Germanic Tradition

Germanic thing, drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (AD 193)

Germanic thing, drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (AD 193)

Although the early Norse settlers who came to Iceland certainly knew of kings, most of them were from Norway, which up to recently had been a tribal land. There were at least 20 nations in Norway, made up of a single large tribes or else by confederations of smaller tribes. Many of these had been ruled by petty kings, but some had been republics ruled by tribal council since time immemorial – and even when there were kings, the king´s power was balanced by the power of the parliaments, the ancient tribal council known as a þing.

When my grandfather told me about the settling of Iceland when I was a child, he spiced up the story by claiming that Iceland was settled by Norwegian people who would rather emigrate than bow their knees to a single ruler. Even if simplified, his observation was partly true; many of the first settlers emigrated exactly because they were fleeing the new conditions at home caused by the forceful claim to totalitarian power and sole kingship over all the tribes of Norway, made by Haraldr Hárfagri. Rather than submitting to his rule, they went to Iceland and made a republic.

As surprisingly modern this attitude appears, the Norse form of democracy was an ancient and sacred institution that was first mentioned by Tacitus («Germania») in the first century AD, where the Roman historian and ethnographer wrote:

«Affairs of smaller moment the chiefs determine: about matters of higher consequence the whole nation deliberates; yet in such sort, that whatever depends upon the pleasure and decision of the people, is examined and discussed by the chiefs. Where no accident or emergency intervenes, they assemble upon stated days, either, when the moon changes, or is full: since they believe such seasons to be the most fortunate for beginning all transactions. Neither in reckoning of time do they count, like us, the number of days but that of nights. In this style their ordinances are framed, in this style their diets appointed; and with them the night seems to lead and govern the day.

From their extensive liberty this evil and default flows, that they meet not at once, nor as men commanded and afraid to disobey; so that often the second day, nay often the third, is consumed through the slowness of the members in assembling. They sit down as they list, promiscuously, like a crowd, and all armed. It is by the Priests that silence is enjoined, and with the power of correction the Priests are then invested.

Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins. The most honourable manner of signifying their assent, is to express their applause by the sound of their arms.»

Kings And þings

The þing was a law-giving, law-enforcing democratic institution of great antiquity in Norse/Germanic societies. Even when there were kings, the parliament had the power to approve of a king, and if the king failed to live up to the expectations for years on end, the þing could decide that his time was up, which usually meant that the king would be sacrificed.

Such events are described in several sources, such as the Ynglinga saga 15:

«The third autumn, the Svear gathered in large numbers at Uppsala when the sacrifices were to be held, then the chieftains held parliament and agreed that the famine must be blamed on Domaldi their king, and that they ought to kill him and sacrifice him for a good year, attack him and kill him and color the sacrificial altars red with his blood, and so they did.»

It was also to the parliament that an aspiring king had to turn if he wanted the support he needed to take the throne. A great king often had many wives and concubines, and thus many sons. Each son was entitled to inherit his father´s throne – if the parliament agreed, and enough people mustered to support him and/or swear their allegiance to him. In the Saga of Magnus the Good, son of Olaf the Holy, we hear that his stepmother, Queen Astrid, speaks his case at a Swedish parliament, a description that illustrates well the importance of the parliament in order to muster people for war or the support of a kingship-claim:

Astrid Queen speaks at the Parliament at Hrangrar

Astrid Queen speaks at the Parliament at Hrangrar

«…there was also Astrid Queen, who had been married to Ólaf the Holy. She received Magnus her stepson with great warmth, and she called for parliament at once, at a place called Hangrar. At that parliament Astrid spoke and said; `To us has now arrived… Magnus. He wishes to travel to Norway to demand his father´s legacy. I am deeply sworn to help him on this quest, for he is my stepson… I shall not hold back on any support that is in my power to give him, neither in the power of warriors that I rule, or in money. And all those of you who travel with him on this journey may expect my full friendship. I also announce that I will personally join him on this journey…´Thus she spoke at length and with wisdom, but when she finished, many responded and said that the Svear had won little honor from their last journey to Norway when they had followed Ólaf King, his father… 

Astrid replied; `All those who wish to be manly men will not be frightened by such. And if any of you have lost friends with Ólaf the Holy, or received scars, then it would now be a manly deed to travel to Norway and avenge it.´

Astrid made it so with her words and her support, that she got a lot of people with her to follow him to Norway.»

The World´s Oldest Democracy

225px-Olav_den_helliges_saga_CK5Erik Werenskiold

In his book, «Norge i Vikingtid» («Norway in the Viking Age»), Torgrim Titlestad discusses the importance of the Parliament in Norse/Germanic cultures. He points out that the Parliamentary system was age-old on Northwestern Europe that did not spring out of history´s darkness. It was rather an evolutionary phenomenon developed through more than a thousand years and which still has political roots in modern Scandinavian societies (which are often considered the most democratic nations in the world). The concept of the þing runs like a red thread from the Migration Age via the Viking Age and the Medieval state and on to the present day.

The Greek democracy, on the other hand, could rightly be called revolutionary. It was created by Kleisthenes around 508 B.C. and lasted for little more than 150 years. Then it vanished and did not show up again until the modern variety during the 19th century.

Titlestad points out that one could compare the Norse þing-system to the Greek democracy because they are both about folkish representation in ancient times. Certainly, slaves were excluded in both systemes, but contrary to the Greek norm, women actually had a certain influence in the Norse, where widows who owned property could attend the Parliament. Besides, the Norse þing-system had a unique longevity and continuity, and they were smaller assemblies that allowed for a more direct democracy than the Greek ever did. In short, the world´s first and long-lasting «direct democracy» was actually invented in Scandinavia. It was only later, when the laws were written down by scribes rather than remembered by everybody, that knowledge of the law became a privilege for the educated few.

Titlestad remarks that it is almost remarkable that this Norse contribution to a very basic aspect of European civilization has not become more famous. But the Norse did not leave grand monuments and remained in the outskirts of civilization until modern times, and so this major contribution to more modern ways of thinking and organizing society has been largely ignored. Yet, as soon as Vikings began to settle in other countries, they brought this organizational system with them: In England, Scotland and Ireland we know of nine þing-places. From generation to generation, Old Norse people transmitted the ideas of folkish representation and democratic values since time immemorial, testified not only by many written accounts, but also by the wealth of Parliament-places from ancient times – in Norway alone archaeologists have dug out at least 27 ancient Parliaments.

According to Titlestad, the Parliament-system was the very blood-vein of Old Norse culture. The system´s flexibility is shown in the way Vikings could have the þing as its most outstanding export-item. They brought it with them everywhere. If they were traveling, they had húsþing – «House-Parliament», in ships these were held by the mast.

The result was, as Chris Wickham writes; that the Norse Parliaments grew to become a part of the state-building in Western Europe. The Norse Parliament-system was the one collective element in relation to a European King-system that based itself on an exclusive societal top-elite around the King or the Emperor ruling through a network of elite-members. Here we see the Norse political system as an advanced and renewing element away from the more pyramidal systems on the continent. The Norse Parliaments pointed towards a democratic direction.

ting in Norway ting

The Viking Age and the Threat to Democracy

Titlestad is among the many Scandinavian historians who see the start of the Viking raids as a direct response to events happening right south of Heathen Denmark ever since the 770s – the Frankish expansion into Saxon territory in what the Norse people knew as Saxland (Sachsen in Northern Germany). Charlemagne invaded Sachsen over the course of thirty years, brutally enforcing his Christian religion upon the Heathen Saxons and destroying their ancient democratic system in favor of his absolute dictatorship. Charlemagne not only suppressed the Saxon people and their religion, but also dissolved their Parliaments, as the missionay Lebuini described them in 770:

«It was also the custom among the Saxons that, once a year, held assembly by the river Weser at a place called Marklo. There came usually all the chiefs from the varous districts, as well as 12 chosen nobles, an equal number of free and an equal number of un-free representatives. There, together they renewed their laws in common council, decided upon the most important legal cases and decided what they were to accomplish in war- and peace-operations for the coming year.»

The historian Martin Linzel who has written carefully about these aspects of Saxon history claims that the number of representatives at the Saxon Parliament was 36 and that they represented the supreme political sovereignty in all public cases – interestingly enough, the Icelandic Parliament also began with 36 gódar.

During the 780s, Charlemagne forbade this sort of decentralized Saxon Parliament-system in order to monopolize all political power, before he forbade the Saxon Heathen religion and introduced a new monotheistic religion that gave the death-penalty to all religious deviants.

Norsemen had never before faced such a threat to their way of life, what must have been a major cause for the aggression that began with the first Viking raids against Christian strongholds in Europe.

Democracy and the Heathen Religion

Religion, ritual and tradition played an important part in the Old Norse democracies, as we often see in the many descriptions of such assemblies. If we go to Old Norse myths, we quickly see that the idea of Parliament was sacrosanct – even the gods ruled by Parliament. According to Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, the gods keep their Parliament by the Well of Origin beneath the Ash Yggdrasill.

The Edda poem Völuspá refers to such divine parliaments several times. Every time a great event takes place and needs to be acted upon, the «powers» gather at Parliament – at the «High Chairs of Fate. The formula repeats itself like a sacred chant in the first lines of verses 6,9,23, and 25):

Then all the powers went – Þá gengu regin ǫll

to the high Chairs of Fate – á rǫkstóla,

the sacrosanct gods – ginnheilug goð,

to discuss this… – ok um þat gættusk;

To Parliament do the surviving children of the gods also gather after Ragnarök in order to remember the past and assess the future (Völuspá st.60):

The Aesir come together – Finnask æsir

At the Plains of Return to Source – a Iðavelli

And of the ancient tidings – ok um Moldþinur

Did they make judgment – mátkan dœma


The Parliament is also mentioned in another Edda poem, the Vegtamkvíða, st. 1, where the gods and goddesses gather at Parliament to discuss the omen dreams of Balder:

All together, the gods came to council – Senn vorv æsir allir a þingi

And all the goddesses, to speak together – ok asynivr, alla a mali,

And what they talked about, those powerful gods – ok vm þat ræðv rikir tifar,

Was why Balder was having sinister dreams – hvi væri Balldri ballir dravmar


Article by Maria Kvilhaug


3 thoughts on “Old Norse Democracy

  1. I like your articles. They are very informative. I miss your U-Tube lectures. They were excellent in content. Some of the lighting could have been better, but I thoroughly enjoyed them. You ought to be on the BBC or something. I also appreciate the sketches that accompany many of your works.

    I noted on the map of Thing locations that there was one at Dumfrieshire in Scotland. If you happen on any dates or details, I would love to know.

    Mike Scruggs
    Clayton, North Carolina (near Raleigh),
    formerly of Hendersonville, NC in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


  2. Pingback: From Barbarianism to Civilization? | BLADE HONER

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