Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Vikings - Legal System - Survival of the Fittest.

viking house, Fyrkat/photo gb

Denmark was in the Viking period divided in about two hundred districts, the socalled "herreds", which each had a ting (thing). The thing was the counsil of free swordsmen coming together to manage the law, to issue rulings, and to discuss matters of a more common character..

The law was a complex of customs, something which was remembered from generation to generation. Therefore the thing-assembly was often a case of old men - with support from the old rhyme-formulas (stavrim)  - to remember and claim the law..

The punish provisions towards acts of violence or murder - among free men - were built  upon mandeboden (man's fine) and its various degrees: full mandebod for a killing or cutting off the nose; half mandebod for an eye, quart  mandebod for an ear etc. The warrant was made by the thing-men themselves,  and the law was no doubt not rarely bent to the power, since the enforcement  of the court decision had no special protection. If a member of a strong family during the eternal feuds among the families had insulted or violated a man from a weaker family and had been sentenced a mandebod on the thing, then the weaker part  had to recover the mandebod (the man's fine) himself, which might be difficult or even impossible.This was a shortage of the legal system.
law document Sweden wikipedia
The word herred is interpreted as hærfølge = (army escort ). Maybe this points back to a military system where each district (herred)  was obliged to make men or ships available during war. Or else the really big decisions - like election of a king, war and peace or alike - or a court decision of a special complicated or questionable case - were assigned to the big landsting, which in Jutland was held in Viborg, at Zealand in Ringsted and in Skåne (Scania) in Lund. Such difficult cases could be decided by holmgang (duel) following special rules or by  jernbyrd  (ordeal by fire) where they in reality pushed the case respectively to the right of the stronger or the judgment of the gods.

Theft was a dangerous thing to be engaged in, the punishment was simply hanging  which was not  from moral principles, but contrarily with a base in the very realistic view that the thief was a poor man (that was why he stole) and a poor man had only one thing to lose: his life.

Germanic assembly, wikipedia

Like in all other human societies the society of the Vikings was also built on relations and Community. The worst punishment was social exclusion : he who denied to bend to the decision of the herreds-ting and therefore had his case brought to the landsting exposed himself to exclusion The landsting had the power to declare outlaw inside its area. In the length to live his life in isolation, without legal rights, being hunted, excluded from the circle of his fellowmen:  this was impossible, the only ways out were exile or death. But for the man who respected the Viking society's unwritten customs and the rooted view of the law  from the time immemorial, this man could live a flourishing life in prosperity, if he was versatile and had "god  lykke". (good fortune.)

Viking house, Fyrkat, photo gb
A magnate from the grade of the earls had enough to organize, he might lead his own Viking expedition in the summertime, either alone or together with other chiefs and come back for winter with a good prey. He might also be a merchant and lead his own trade business and he had to take care of his own farming. Finally he had to take care of secular and clerical public offices : to judge at the thing and to see to that he - as the gode (Gothi)  of his hov (court) took into account the demand of the gods when it came to cultivating the land and taking care of the law.

Uffe hin Spage, Lorenz Frölich, wikipedia

A means to decide disputes between persons  - or through them between families -  was the holmgang (the duel) The oldest description in a written law fragment from Sweden is about a holmgang-  and it reflects in a realistic way both the sensitive honour which was so vulnerable:  to insult with words and the brutality of the law of the strongest man. The fragment says: " if you say insulting words like: You are not equal to men or: You are not a real man " -  then the two men will have to meet where three roads cross. If he who said the word comes,  and if he who was told the word does not come,  then he'll have to stay as he was named, and then he is not able to give oath or to be a witness - neither in a man's or in a woman's case. If he comes who was told the word , but not he who said the word, then he'll cry three times: "Nidding"  and make a mark in the field. And  he who said the word will then be an inferior man since he dare not stand by what he said.

Now they'll both meet fully armed: if he falls who said the word: a word-crime is the worst - the tongue is the first killer:  he lies on the ground upon his deeds.

A similar picture of the legal system in the Viking period is seen in Sweden. Here is also a family society, a life built upon the land-properties of the family and the inner solidarity,  with orally handed-down laws and rules of law, which were put into power by warrants at the thing-assembly of the herred (Swedish: de hundradets). Here is undoubtedly also a system of a common war oganization. And here is also a limited royal power. In the Ansgar- biography is said about Birka, that it was a usual custom to let common cases decide by the agreement of the people rather than on the king's demand. Two concepts were in front of life of the Nordic Viking: den gode lykke = the good fortune - the prosperity of the fortunate man - and æren (the honour) which had to be protected and must not be breached.

Hakon the Good, P.N.Arboe, wikipedia.
The same schedule is found in Norway as to the secular building of society. The indivual bygder (settlements) had their local thing-assemblies, and the large districts had their own more comprehensive things, where chiefs and old experienced men were judges and interpretors of the law. In Norway is also the family society with the single man, the private person, who seeks his right supported by his family via mandebod for a revenge-killing.
Like in Denmark and Sweden the problem is the same in Norway. Direct primary sources to a knowledge about the legal system of the Viking period are missing,  it is only possible to refer to the medieval laws, the * Frostatingloven  and the *Gulatingloven  (both laws are Norwegian laws, which acccording to the sagas were ordained by Hakon the Good for respectively Trøndelagen and Vestlandet). Like in Denmark there is reason to believe that there was a military system too in Norway ( a leding) where each district  was obliged to deliver ships and warriors to a common defense. And like in Denmark and Sweden it is also the same for Norway:  that the royal power was limited by the thing-assemblies and  folkets vilje ( will of the people). Anyway the king's power must not be too much reduced, for the king had his team of housecarls , his hird, which from an original private organization grew up to a half public factor  - a very active means of power which became the core of a larger army 

A Gothi /priest) Lund, wikipedia.
Iceland had no king. The legal system was established after west-Norwegian design and after the rules in the later Gulatinglov. This thing-constitution became common to the whole island from year 930. The common thing was held each summer( named altinget), with the lovsigemand (the man who  recited the law rules) and with the heathen priests (the Gothis) as the real rulers. The island was later divided into four quarters each with 3 (one with 4) herredsting. Since the magnates were goder (Gothis) it must be said about the Icelandic free state that it was a regular chief-union without a king. An oligarchy in a classical saying.

Source: Johannes Brøndsted: Vikingerne;. Vikingen hjemme, Samfund.  Ggyldendal 1960

No comments: