The windswept Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean may not be the first place you would expect to be a cradle of democracy.
Yet it can make a claim as being a genuine cradle of democracy as a parliament, of sorts, has existed here for more than a millennium.
Midway between Iceland and Norway lies an archipelago of 18 rocky, volcanic islands famous for their sheep, birdlife, and unspoiled isolation. These are the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory, part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
Unification with Denmark came only recently, in 1814, as a result of the Napoleonic wars. For the previous eight or so centuries, it was part of the Kingdom of Norway, where it had been won for the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvasson, in the early 11th century CE.
This was the process of more than two centuries of Norse colonization of the islands, with, according to legend, the Norse having arrived on these islands exiles and malcontents, fed up with the long hand of Harald Fairhair's rule in the late 9th century CE.
The original inhabitants of the islands were believed to be people from the British Isles, particularly Irish monks, with the historical records mentioning several famous religious hermits.
If we are to believe early medieval Christian records, it was Saint Brendan, one of the famed "Twelve Apostles of Ireland," that first discovered these islands sometime in the 6-7th century CE.
Yet despite this lonely outpost being a perfect spot for religious solitude and reflection, it wasn't long until the Vikings showed up on these rocky isles.
The Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands is shrouded in both mystery and controversy. According to some historians, the Norse colonization was nothing short of cultural genocide, with the original inhabitant (however few there were...and what we can assume was only a smattering of male hermits, can't have been too many) put to the sword.
Like so many other areas where British and Celtic people had settled (e.g., the Orkneys or Shetlands), the new Viking invaders may have, literally, wiped out the previous population.
Soon the islands became an important trading post and stop between Iceland and the "Viking homeland" of Scandinavia. It was the Norse who were said to have brought the famous sheep, which, by the early 10th century CE, was said to outnumber the human inhabitants 15 to 1!
Yet livestock was not the only thing the Vikings brought across the seas. They also brought their own laws and justice system.
A wander around the capital of the Faroe Islands, and its largest city, Torshavn, and you'll notice a craggy peninsula that cuts the harbor into two.
On the tip of this harbor lies all the government buildings of the landstyrri, the local Faroese government. The peninsula itself is called Tingnaes, which translates to "Parliament Point" in the local Faroese tongue.
It was, in 825 CE, that a local Ting, a sort of proto-parliament, was said to have first been established.
Perhaps some of the best colors for this period are to be found in the Færeyinga saga (The Saga of the Faroe Islands). Although this was written in Iceland in the early 13th century CE, it describes how the islands were converted to Christianity and later became part of the Norwegian realm during the late 10th and early 11th century CE.
It is here, in this saga, that there is a first mention of a Faroese proto-parliament, a Løgting (literally "Law Assembly"). Given the familial and clan nature of Viking society, the Løgting saw families, clans, and important members of society gather at a point to pass judgment and laws.
The location of this was neutral, so not one faction of Faroese society could take advantage, or possession, of this parliamentary place. For the Norse on the Faroe Islands, a peninsula on the largest island of Streymoy was selected for this proto-parliament, what would later be known by the locals as Tingnaes.
To this day, the important business of government, and the hubbub of politics, hasn't strayed far from where the Løgting was said to have taken place over a millennium ago.
The turf roofs on the parliament buildings in the Tinganes quarter in Torshavn. Photo: Robin Lardon / Shutterstock
An assembly of free men and the adoption of Christianity
According to later medieval sources, of which none were written on the Faroe Islands, with most written in Norway and Iceland, the Løgting was very much a proto-parliament, an assembly of "free men." Like all Viking tings and proto-parliaments, this was a strictly all-male affair.
Despite some historians stressing the larger degree of autonomy and agency that some Viking-era women had in some Viking societies, the fact remains that women were second-class citizens, at least when it came to their political rights.
This assembly of "free men" was, in reality, a sort of big boy's business club with only the wealthiest, and therefore most influential, farmers being allowed to join.
It was here, according to the Norse sagas, in 999 CE, that Christianity was said to have been "introduced" to the islands by Viking Chieftan Sigmundur Brestisson.
Aside from being one of the main characters of the Færeyinga saga and an early tax exile from Harald Fairhair (not for the first time in history has a rich Nordic person fled their homeland due to perceptions of heavy-handed taxation), he was said to be the first Faroese convert to Christianity.
Upon introducing a decree at the Løgting, stating the islands would now instantaneously be converted to the new Christian religion, he started a riot and was lucky to escape with his life.
Brestisson decided that a different tactic was needed to convert the island's population to Christianity and bring it into the realm of the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvasson, to whom he owed allegiance.
Soon after his fiasco at the Løgting, he took a posse of men and snuck into the home of the most important Viking Chieftan, Tróndur í Gøtu. He offered the Chieftan a choice between widespread conversion for the island's inhabitants or a slit throat.
That is, according to the Norse sagas, how Christianity became adopted in the Faroe Islands.
Beyond the Vikings
By the mid-11th century CE, not only was the Viking Age coming to a close, but so was the short-lived independence of the islands.
The Løgting had established itself now as very much separate from the rule of the burgeoning medieval kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, where many of the Norse population had originated from two centuries before.
During the early 11th century CE, the islands saw the Løgting become a proto-republic ruled only by rich merchants and farmers.
The adoption of Christianity, whether by sword or persuasion, was evident by the 11th century CE. Upon Tróndur í Gøtu's death in 1035 CE, the next most powerful chieftain was the son-in-law of Brestisson, who swore an oath of allegiance to the Norwegian King, Olaf Trygvasson.
From this point on, the islands would become part of the Norwegian realm up until the era of Napoleon, centuries later.
Whilst the Løgting ceased to exist as an independent parliament, it still functioned for centuries in a judicial form. The contemporary Løgting is housed in a building in Torshavn that was constructed during the mid-19th century CE.
It was moved away from Tingnaes, the place where the Viking era laws and justice were decided during the early medieval period. The modern Faroese Løgting traces its origins back to the Viking era and is now a parliamentary assembly consisting of 33 members of parliament, with the prime minister given the honorary Viking era title of løgmaður meaning literally a "law person."
Thankfully the franchise has now extended to universal suffrage with the first female Prime Minister, Marita Oetersen, elected in 1993.
For more on the early history of the settlement of the Faroe Islands, visit the BBC here.
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