SMALL LOCAL COUNTRYSIDE THING
From the European Migration Period (400-600 AD) there were small local countryside societies in Norway which were headed by chieftains. These societies needed laws and rules, just as we do today, but there was no national state as we now have. The freeholder farmer was, therefore, much like a king overseeing his domain. However, the families in the small countryside societies had many common interests, and they met at the local Thing when these interests needed to be discussed. For example, how to share hunting and fishing resources might be discussed at the local Thing.
It became natural for the richest farmer or chieftain in the society to get a powerful position at the Thing and to become the custodian of law and order. He could, for example, help people who were entitled to recover damages awarded at a Thing dispute. For instance, he could force the party who lost the dispute to pay his mulct as required.
The Vikings had no penal institutions, so the only sentences of punishment were mulcts or judgments which made the criminals outlaws - exiles from society. However, as an outlaw, anyone was free to kill you without risk of criminal prosecution.
The Thing was a common-meeting at which laws were confirmed, conflicts solved and judgments awarded. It had legislative and judiciary powers, and was the highest available court level. The Thing system also was the basic political mechanism in Norwegian society and functioned as a stabilizing element in a society in which the kings might have a widely dissimilar political ideology. It was at the Thing, after the Norse tradition, that people elected their king.
There are reasons to believe that the Thing-system had existed in Norway from the 6th century, and maybe even prior to that. However, the Thing-system was continually under revision. Therefore, we need to look at the Thing-system as a dynamic apparatus, as it continually adjusted itself to the dissimilar leaders which reigned over the ages. Harald Finehair challenged the Thing-system with his ambition to be a monarchical king, but his empire was cut short before any serious damage was done to the Thing-system. His son, Håkon the Good, revitalized the function of the Thing-system and even advanced the system by creating The Gula-Thing, a larger, more comprehensive version of the Thing. He also initiated a tendency toward development of a Thing whose members were popularly elected and who represented society.
Every free man had a duty to meet at the Things common-meetings, except men who farmed alone and could not leave their farm unattended. However, at the Murder-Thing, the King-Thing and the Census-Thing, everybody had a duty to meet. Women and handicapped people could meet at the Thing as well.
The Vikings had no written laws. However, a man referred to as a «lovsigemann» - in English this means "law reader man" - opened the Thing by reading the laws, which he had memorized by heart. This was done to ensure that no one had changed the laws. Every free man had to respect the law, including chieftains and the king. The Thing was a democratic constitution and these common-meetings might last several days. Therefore, the Thing was also an occasion for a large marketplace at which the Vikings exchanged news and products. The Thing place had no buildings and the arrangement was held outdoors. Visitors could bring tents with them.
Disputes were most often reached as a settlement between families. They met at a settlement-meeting where the two families each stated their case. If they didn’t reach an agreement they brought the dispute to the Thing. The result of an agreement or a passed sentence at the Thing was most often a financial compensation.
Another way to settle a dispute was by «holmgang», which was somewhat
like a duel between two individuals. The two warriors would meet, with sword and shield, and have a fight of life and death. In the Cormac's saga you can read:
"It was the law of the holmgang that the hide should be five ells long, with loops at its corners. Into these should be driven certain pins with heads to them, called tjosnur. He who made it ready should go to the pins in such a manner that he could see sky between his legs, holding the lobes of his ears and speaking the forewords used in the rite called "The Sacrifice of the tjosnur."
Three squares should be marked round the hide, each one foot broad. At the outermost corners of the squares should be four poles, called hazels; when this is done, it is a hazelled field. Each man should have three shields, and when they were cut up he must get upon the hide if he had given way from it before, and guard himself with his weapons alone thereafter. He who had been challenged should strike the first stroke.
If one was wounded so that blood fell upon the hide, he should fight no longer. If either set one foot outside the hazel poles "he went on his heel," they said; but he "ran" if both feet were outside. His own man was to hold the shield before each of the fighters. The one who was wounded should pay three marks of silver to be set free.
So the hide was taken and spread under their feet. Thorgils held his brother's shield, and Thord Arndisarson that of Bersi. Bersi struck the first blow, and cleft Cormac's shield; Cormac struck at Bersi to the like peril. Each of them cut up and spoilt three shields of the other's. Then it was Cormac's turn. He struck at Bersi, who parried with Whitting (Bersi's sword). Skofnung (Cormac's sword) cut the point off Whitting in front of the ridge. The sword-point flew upon Cormac's hand, and he was wounded in the thumb. The joint was cleft, and blood dropped upon the hide. Thereupon folk went between them and stayed the fight.
Then said Cormac, "This is a mean victory that Bersi has gained; it is only from my bad luck; and yet we must part."
He flung down his sword, and it met Bersi's target. A shard was broken out of Skofnung, and fire flew out of Thorveig's gift. Bersi asked the money for release, Cormac said it would be paid; and so they parted."
In the 800’s there were approx. 30 small chieftain-doms or kingdoms in Norway. As the population increased these societies had more contact with each other. Soon they needed common rules about the rights to fishing, grazing, hunting, and human rights as well. Also, during the Iron Age and the Viking Period trade became more important. People needed to devise bigger, more encompassing Thing districts than the older, smaller local Things.
The oldest example we know about was in Trøndelag. Through the 600-700’s the people living at the Throndhjemfjord had so much interaction that they organized the area into 8 counties. Each county had their own Thing and linking them together was an Øre-Thing which covered all 8 counties. It’s from this era that we believe the Thing-system, as we know it from the sagas, achieved its classical form in Norway.
From Halfdan the Black’s saga (800’s AD)
«King Halfdan was a wise man, a man of truth and uprightness -- who made laws, observed them himself, and obliged others to observe them. And so that violence should not come in place of the laws, he himself fixed the number of criminal acts in law, and the compensations, mulcts, or penalties for each case, according to everyone's birth and dignity».
This law is called the Heidsævi-law.
From Håkon the Good’s saga (920-960 AD)
«He (Håkon the Good) was a man of great understanding also, and bestowed attention on law-giving. He gave out the Gula-Thing's laws on the advice of Thorleif Spake (the Wise); also the Frosta-Thing's laws on the advice of Earl Sigurd, and of other Throndhjem men of wisdom. The Heidsævi-Thing laws were first established in the country by Halfdan the Black, as has before been written.»
Around 900 AD the big Thing-districts began to form: The Eidsiva-Thing, The Gula-Thing, The Frosta-Thing and, later, maybe in the 1100-1200’s, The Borgar-Thing.
FROSTA-THING (Norse = Frostuðing).
The Frosta-Thing was a common Thing and included most of the areas north of the Dovre. The Frosta-Thing were first located on the peninsula Frosta. Later it was moved to Throndheim. The Frosta- Thing law was valid in this district until it was replaced by the common Norwegian law in 1274, which was made valid by Magnus Lagabøter, the King of Norway. In English, Lagabøter means «make mulcts» or The law maker.
In the Frosta-Thing law it is written, «With the law the domain shall be built up, (and) not by illegality shall it be ruined. And as for a man who won’t permit an action by others, he too shall be denied that action.»
One of the most curious and oldest element in the Frosta-Thing law is the so-called «resistance law» (Trønderske motsandsretten), which is a type of court ruling not found in any other Scandinavian or Germanic law. This law stated that the King was not allowed to do violence to others. If the King didn’t respect this law, the agricultural population was required to capture and kill the King. If they were unable to capture the king, they were required to ban the King from the country for life. The inhabitants who didn’t take part in the pursuit of the king’s head were punished severely according to this law.
The peculiar aspect of this law was that the inhabitants not only had a right, but also a duty, to severely punish the king if he broke the law. We believe this law dates to 900 AD or slightly afterwards. The Frosta-Thing law was transcribed from oral memory to written record sometime during or between the 11th and 13 centuries.
The Hålogaland-Thing was a common Thing which was separated from the Frosta-Thing in the 12th or 13th centuries. It included the areas in the northern portion of Norway.
The Eidsiva-Thing was a common Thing which included the areas of Hedmark, Hadeland and Romerike. The Eidsiva -Thing is one of the oldest common Things, and may have been put down in writing in the 12th century. Only few fragments have been preserved. The Eidsiva-Thing law was valid in this district until it was replaced by the common Norwegian law in 1274. (Magnus Lagabøter)
The Gula-Thing was a common Thing which, at the outset, included only the areas from Jæren to Stadt. In the 9th and 10th centuries Agder in the south and Sunnmøre in the north were included. Later, in the Middle Age, Hallingdal and Valdres were included as well. The Gula-Thing was located in Gulen (Eivindvik), a little south of the Sognefjord’s estuary. In the 13th century the Gula-Thing was moved to Bergen.
The Gula-Thing law is an exceedingly old collection of laws. As we know them, they were put down in writing in the second half of the 1100’s. This law is often called the Gula-Thing law, as opposed to the more recent «country law» (Landsloven) which also was applied at the Gula-Thing. Later, the «country law» was replaced by the common Norwegian law in 1274. (Magnus Lagabøter).
It is the old Gula-Thing law, nearly without exception, that history books are referring to when they refer to the laws the Vikings used. It should be noted that Agder was later separated from the Gula-Thing when a separate common Thing was established for this area.
The Borgar-Thing included the areas from the border line of Sweden in southeast Norway to along the coast of Rygjarbit. (Risør) It is the most recent of the old common Norwegian Things. The Borgar-Thing got its name from the old Thing place Borg (now Sarpsborg). The Borgar- Thing law was valid in this district until it was replaced by the common Norwegian law in 1274. (Magnus Lagabøter).
If you now remember all of the mentioned names and localities of the Viking common Thing districts in this article, you also will know the names, localities and divisions of the current Norwegian court system.
PUNISHMENT FOR VIOLENCE
The Norse society was a society which regulated itself, and it had a high degree of compliance from the citizens who fell under the laws which were passed through the Thing system. A shared belief in the Norse gods was also a stabilizing element of society. Our viewpoint of these people, as being constantly bent on destructive blood vengeance, is probably an exaggeration which is derived from the propaganda of Christians who were determined to paint the pre-Christian faith as barbarous. (Torgrim Titlestad, Kampen om Norvegen,1996.) (The Norse pagan history is not written by heathen people. The only authorities who wrote the extant Norse pagan history are those who were bound to the Christian or to the Muslim faith.)
During the Viking period, most of the murder and violence cases were settled via mulcts. In the Gula-Thing law you can read, in a paragraph which likely belongs to the eldest stratum, that the mulct for a murder of a freeholder is 18 «merker». In accordance with another paragraph, which probably is younger, the mulct is 7 times higher.
How much you had to pay was based upon how closely related you were to the murderer. The law tells in detail how - the murderer and his family - had to pay mulcts to the injured party. The idea of justice was a collective liability - if one of the family members was a criminal, the whole family was prosecuted as criminals. As the whole family was accountable, they were also responsible for the acts of the perpetuator. This approach was in contrast to Roman law and the Christian jurisprudence which arrived in the Norwegian areas later. In these, the individual alone was accountable.
The early «Christian» Kings of Norway used Christianity as a tool to secure power. The most important method to get power was to damage the old, important ancient lineage of the family traditions. By making the individual alone accountable for his acts, and to remove the connection to the family, the «Christian» king was able to erase the old and strong, conservative tradition of jurisprudence associated with the Norse Thing. The way to do this was to force the people to believe in the Christian god. The conservative family tradition had a cohesive function in Norse society and, therefore, it was extremely difficult to make changes in the society. But the philosophy imbedded in Christianity was the tool of change - the individual was directly under God and the King. In this way the King secured more power over the people.
THE MULCTS OF VIOLENCE
In the killing of a freeholder, and where a man has admitted his guilt, the murderer’s grandfathers generation and grandchild’s grand-child generation, in addition to aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grand-aunts, grand-uncles, grand-nieces and grand-nephews were victimized as well.
The mulcts for a murder were divided into monetary classes. If we accept the mathematical formula I have taken from the University Museum of Antiquities Oslo, we will get an idea of the mulcts a murderer’s family would have to pay if the victim was a freeholder. (1 mark = 8 øre = 24 ertog = 240 penning, and 1 mark = 3.2 cows. [As it is written in the Gula-Thing law]. If we allow the cost of a cow (not older than 8 winters) as being approx. NOK 10 000, in 1993-value money, and if one US Dollar is NOK 7, we will find as follows:)
In the Gula-Thing law it is written that the murderer’s family had to pay a mulct of 189 cows for the killing of a freeholder. If one cow is estimated to be $1 430 in US dollars, the different family members had to pay approx. the following amounts in mulcts:
The murderer’s mulct: US $ 146 300
The murderer’s brother mulct: US $ 52 300
The murderer’s uncle (father’s side of the family) mulct : US $ 14 300
The murderer’s nephew (father’s side of the family) mulct: US $ 28 300
The more distant relations had to pay mulcts from US $ 230 to US $ 6 150
The mulcts the murderer’s family had to pay were divided among the victim’s family. The closer ones relation to the victim, the more he or she received in compensation. The laws indicated that the Vikings might award financial compensation to the next generation as well.
If we look at the women who received compensation, we find that both the mother and the sisters of the victim received a payment. But if any of the sisters were childless when they completed their fortieth year, they had to give a part of their compensation to someone who had children.
The amount of the mulcts shows a clear discrimination between the sexes. Certainly the liability for murdering a woman was equal to that of murdering a man. However, the family on the female side had to pay less in mulcts than the family on the male side, and the family on the female side of the family of the victim received less compensation than the male side of the family.
Killing was expensive, but violence to people was also punished severely. In the Gula-Thing law we also find mulcts for accidents, fighting, wounds and the severance of body parts. If we use the mathematical formula we have used before, we will find the mulcts for a cut off body part will approx. be:
The mulct for one cut off thumb: US $ 13 710
The mulct for one cut off forefinger: US $ 4 570
The mulct for one cut off middle finger: US $ 4 570
The mulct for one cut off ring finger: US $ 3 430
The mulct for one cut off little finger: US $ 1 140
The mulct for one cut off hand which still is sticking: US $ 66 430
The mulct for one cut off hand or foot: US $ 132 860
The mulct for one cut off hand and foot: US $ 265 710
Laurence M. Larson: The Earliest Norwegian Laws, New York, Columbia University Press, 1939
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Last updated 21.10.2002