A small village just outside Stockholm, Sweden, stands as a testament to how Viking societies were ruled and governed and its influence on later Swedish democracy. To delve deeper into this rich history and experience the remnants of Viking governance, explore with a guided tour by STOEX. Discover the legacy firsthand by booking your journey now.
Did the Vikings invent democracy?
One of the key features of Viking societies was a surprising amount of legal, judicial, and political governance.
Despite perceived lawlessness when Vikings would raid and pillage, their societies back home had a high level of structured laws and rules.
Whilst a powerful local chieftain or ruler had significant autonomy in decision-making, they were not all-powerful.
Other members of the community – primarily men – did have some form of airing grievances and agency through a system known as a Tingstad (collectively sometimes referred to as Tings), a type of assembly.
These assemblies were gatherings of free men and landowners, as well as leaders from the local community.
They met regularly to make important decisions, resolve disputes (often before they escalated into bloody feuds or vendettas), and for the creation and debating of laws.
Modern historians have described these assemblies as early democratic institutions because all free men had the right to attend, speak, and vote on issues affecting their local communities.
This allowed for a degree of participation and representation centuries before any sort of parliament was established in Europe.
It's important to note that, in the backdrop of these gatherings, slavery was a common feature of Viking societies.
A tingstad in Viking society was a designated assembly site where community members convened to discuss laws, settle disputes, and make collective decisions. Photo: Pål-Nils Nilsson / Riksantikvarieämbetet (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Decentralized power and collective decision-making
The Tingstad was responsible for the creation and enforcement of all local laws.
Disputes were often brought before the assembly, and decisions were made collectively. This is not to say that judgments were even-handed or that justice was blind.
The power and influence of local elites – whether powerful chieftains or wealthy merchants – could often sway popular opinion and thus outcomes.
However, unlike other contemporary societies in the very beginnings of feudalism, there was a large amount of communal decision-making in Viking societies thanks to the local Tingstad.
The Tingstad system facilitated the decentralization of power at a time when, in contrast, power in the Frankish realms was being centralized under Frankish chieftains and kings.
This decentralized approach promoted a degree of equity and prevented any single individual or group from wielding unchecked and absolute power.
Modern historians have also pointed to this decentralization of power as a reason why the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden emerged later in the medieval period compared to other European entities.
- Planning a trip to Stockholm? Book your Viking history tour here!
The location of the Tingstad was strategically chosen, often at natural or man-made mounds, symbolizing its importance and ensuring easy accessibility for attendees from various regions. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Where and when were they held?
Given that a local Tingstad served not only as an assembly but also as a court and a proto-parliament, they quickly became widespread throughout Viking societies in the early medieval period.
They were often held at either natural or man-made mounds. The chosen site was typically selected for its easy accessibility, with many situated near rivers, lakes, or frequently traveled paths and roads.
There were also runestones erected at these sites, often detailing a local family's legacy and dominance over the area.
One of the most important functionaries in any local community was the "lawspeaker." This individual was a type of judge who had to (literally) memorize all the local laws and edicts.
Given that literacy skills were limited (though not entirely absent) in Viking societies, laws, edicts, and rules were best shared orally.
The frequency of the Ting assemblies varied by region, but they typically aligned with the rhythm of the seasons.
A particularly suitable time to hold one might be after the summer harvest before the community prepared for the long winter.
Disputes would be resolved before a period of communal hibernation set in, preventing slights or disagreements from festering throughout the winter.
In some Viking societies, however, a Ting was held only once a year, turning it into a festive occasion and a reason for local merriment and celebration.
Located at Arkils tingstad, the U 225 and U 226 runestones bear inscriptions detailing the establishment of an Assembly-place and a widow's lament for her husband. Photo: Berig / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Arkils tingstad: A place of assembly, beauty, and loss
Some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Gamla Stan, Stockholm's picturesque old town, lies Skålhamra, where the remains of the Arkils tingstad, an ancient Viking assembly, can be found.
It's surprising that the remains of this ancient Viking assembly are situated so near the hustle and bustle of a major European capital city.
Situated right next to the shores of Lake Vallentunsajön, all that remains of this Viking-era assembly is a rectangular stone formation and two runestones.
On these runestones, we learn of the Skålhamra family through a poem dedicated to Ulv, a deceased female member of the clan.
It is one of the longest runic inscriptions yet uncovered and speaks of the family's loss and mourning.
This family is believed to have been responsible for the creation of the Arkils tingstad sometime in the early 11th century.
They were believed to be local bigwigs and may have established this Tingstad not only for the legal benefit of the community but possibly for its spiritual benefit as well.
There is a theory that the Tingstad was established by a lake to also provide a place of baptism and conversion to the new Christian faith.
The best way to experience the Arkils tingstad in its beautiful surroundings and uncover its hidden mysteries is to book a tour with STOEX.
Offering intimate guided day tours from the center of Stockholm, STOEX has carefully created a range of tours that focus on Swedish Viking history and beyond.
All tours include a visit to the Arkils tingstad, and their knowledgeable staff will help illuminate the events, tales, and hidden history of this impressive Viking monument, representing both early democracy and a family's love and loss.
This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.
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