The reality was that Vikings were a bunch of law-making and law-abiding people.
The people who inhabited Viking societies had developed advanced political and legal systems that would help lay the groundwork for many later medieval and modern institutions.
Not such a lawless rabble
Unlike many modern countries, which produce trillions of legal and political documents each year, people in Viking societies not only had laws but also a form of government based purely on an oral culture.
They did have a form of writing, the famous runic alphabet, but it was only in the later medieval period, after the final Viking ship ever sailed, that these laws were written down.
The most famous was, of course, the Grey Goose Laws which are supposed to be based upon earlier Viking era laws and regulations, dating from about the mid-12th century CE and compiled in Iceland.
What must be stressed here is that we, in the 21st century CE, from the smugness of having the entire legal system of the world accessible with the click of a button, are more knowledgeable as a society than our Viking ancestors, but their oral knowledge would surely outclass even the best of us.
Living in a society where there is an oral culture endows its inhabitants with a special set of skills, amongst them chiefly is direct access to unfiltered information.
The Thing - settler of disputes and feuds
By the dawn of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), people in Viking societies across the North Atlantic world had developed a sophisticated legal system.
The origins of the Viking political systems lay origins in Germanic societies from the earlier medieval period, especially the centuries of population migratory movements (what was once called the Völkerwanderung in the 19th century whilst we call it the "Migration Period" now - which is a nice term but it has lost a little dramatic Teutonic flair though, hasn't it?).
Disputes, blood feuds, and family feuds were all part and parcel of these societies and remained part of the Viking societies. However, it wasn't always necessary to resort to violence.
All free men – and it was just men (this was a deeply patriarchal society) would often gather to make laws and settle disputes within their communities at a meeting named a "Thing."
This had a dual function of setting precedents (and thus "writing law") and deciding cases within the established law. The "Thing" would meet regularly at specific times and places, and often the whole community would come, but only free men could participate in the proceedings.
Each Viking society had slightly different regional things. Norway was governed by four strong regional things – Frostating (at Frosta, Trøndelag in northern Norway), Gulating (at Gulen, on the west coast of Norway), Eidsivating (responsible for southern Norway), and the Borgarting (much of the southwest and southeast of the country).
Two of the Norwegian things (Frostating and Borgating) live on as important locations for a Court of Appeals, important parts of the modern Norwegian legal system.
Iceland even had a "national" thing, the Althing – which is still the official parliament of the country. It claims to be one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world, tracing its roots back to 930 CE.
Today, there's a flagpole with the Icelandic flag at the former Althingi site at the Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. Photo: trabantos / Shutterstock
Law and Order, Viking style
One of the most important roles in a Viking society was that of the "Law Speaker" - a man who would, literally, be able to remember and recite all the laws from memory.
Along with the local chieftain, the "Law Speaker" would decide and settle the cases heard. All free men had a say, but the dominant and powerful elites had the most influence on how cases were settled.
As far as the punishments dished out at the Things, they fell into two categories – some form of banishment (they were declared semi-outlawed or fully outlawed) or were levied with fines.
Now, banishment was a much harsher punishment than it might seem. This was an era of food scarcity, so to be declared an "outlaw" (to live, literally, outside of the law - i.e., civilization) meant you were banished from your community and could not receive any assistance or support. Should you own property, that was confiscated.
Some of the more imaginative punishments included :
- Tarring and feathering for those that stole on "trading missions."
- Literal enslavement of women or men if they committed crimes like theft or other "minor" crimes. This "theft" could be for something as small as stealing a piece of bread (the English could carry on with this Viking tradition during the 19th century CE when they "exported" prisoners, to Australia, for similar "heinous crimes"). Should this slave refuse to work, corporal punishment was legally allowed with the degree and type set by the local Thing.
- Mutilation and amputation were also commonplace. If, for example, a slave (thrall) carried out a bad deed on behalf of their master, it was their master who was punished. There was one case, according to the Grey Goose Laws, where a thrall had his limbs (yes, all four limbs) cut off for killing his master.
The laws naturally reflected the misogyny of the society that shaped them. During the reign of Cnut, King of Denmark, England, and Norway, women who committed adultery had their noses chopped off whilst the men got away with a severe.... talking to!
While the Thing met to discuss weighty topics and dish out sometimes severe punishments, it wasn't all doom and gloom.
The Thing could take on a bit of a festive atmosphere as meetings and judgments could take days. It was not only a significant event in the calendar for the community but could also bring in merchants, traders, and people from near and far.
In Iceland, for example, assemblies met in spring and autumn and took several days, including the necessary feasting and jolly making afterward.
Markets and marriages could take place afterward, and there was no doubt all the revelry and mead drinking that people in Viking societies loved.
By the end of the Viking Age, the political and religious elite were tightening their grip on power, ending the Things throughout much of the Viking world. Photo: NazarBazar / Shutterstock
The impact of Christianity
The Christianization of Scandinavia, lasting from the 6th – 12th centuries CE, had many unintended side effects.
One of these was the loss and destruction of the political and legal systems that people in Viking societies had used for centuries.
With the importation, by priests and monks, of the Latin script, from Christian nations further south, an emphasis was placed upon the written word negating the need for "Law Speakers."
Furthermore, new, almost biblical (pardon the pun) punishments were dreamed up. One of these was the "ordeal." The logic was that if someone was accused of a crime, then given an "ordeal" (this could be a quite literal trial by drowning or fire) and the "guilty" person survived, then they must be innocent of all charges as they had God's protection.
Likewise, if a "guilty" person didn't survive the "ordeal," well then, God must have willed that too.
By the end of the Viking Age, in the mid-11th century CE, the political and religious elite were tightening their grip on power, ending the Things throughout much of the Viking world.
Many would influence later laws, practices, and regulations, but it would take almost a millennium before widespread parliamentary democracy (for everyone, not just "free men") was found throughout the Nordic region.
To learn more about the legal and political systems that the Vikings used, the BBC has a whole section dedicated to it on their website here.
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