"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu,
vol. 1, p. 515-524
people in assembly—Different assemblies—The general
assembly—Local assemblies—Analogy of the United
States—Retinues of Thingmen— Attendance at the Thing
— The summons — Place of assembly — Its
sanctity—Breach of the peace at a Thing a sacrilege -
Laws regulating judgments of the
Thing—Appeals—Common law of the towns—Confirmation
of resolutions passed at the Thing—Amusements between
the sessions — Accommodation of members — Assemblies
in Iceland —Jurymen.
From the most ancient times we find that the people in
assembly, called Thing, exercised their judicial
and legislative power. There they deliberated, not only
on the questions concerning their small communities, but
also on the internal or external affairs of the whole
country. Thee were smaller and larger Things. classified
under the different names of Thing, Mót, and Hús—thing,
the latter being a private meeting to which the
chief summoned his own men.
order to preserve freedom of deliberation and the
individual liberty of each person who came, the most
stringent laws and regulations were laid down.
With laws shall our land be built, and not be laid waste
by lawlessness. But he who will not allow others the
laws shall not enjoy them himself” (Frostath., i. 6).
The Herad-things were apparently held very often,
and were only at tended by the people belonging to the
Herad ; every one who wished a question to
he settled, and required a Thing, had the right to
summon one. (1)
Earlier Gulathing's Law. 131.
were general Things, or Fylkis-things, in which
several herads were represented, under the leadership of
the hersir or king.
Herad was independent of the Fylki in its local affairs,
and every Fylki was independent one from the other, each
having self-government. When the affairs of the country
required the presence of all the people, then the bśndr
of the Herads and Fylki met together at a general Thing
called Allsherjar-thing (Thing of all the hosts),
and all had to abide by the decision taken. In fact the
country was a union of states bound together for mutual
protection; but they felt that a general government was
not able in all things to attend to the affairs of each
Herad or Fylki, and could not know the wants of the
people, as the majority of those who would have had the
management of affairs lived far from them, and many had
never seen other Herads or Fylki than their own. The
nearest approach to this ancient form of government is
that of the United States.
we say that the Thing was the assembly of the people, we
must qualify the expression, for only bśndr (or free
men) who owned land had a voice in the deliberations.
The sons and other relations of these bśndr, or free
men, who did not own land had no voice whatever in the
affairs of the country. The Thingmen were followed by a
more or less large retinue, according to their rank or
the bśndr of the Herad were bound to appear at the
Herads-thing on pain of fine, unless a bondi had such a
small farm as to be einvirki (sole worker). These
latter were not obliged to appear at any other Thing
than  Konungs-thing, i.e. a Thing summoned
by the king himself;  Manndrápsthing, i.e. a Thing
in consequence of a murder;  Manntalsthing, i.e.
a Thing for the equalization of the tax; and  Vápnathing,
i.e. a Thing to examine if every man
possessed the weapons prescribed by law. All members of
the Thing according to law had an equal vote.
summons was by sending out a Thingbod (Thing-summons),
or, in case of murder, an ör (arrow) throughout
the whole Thing-district; the summons or arrow was sent
from farm to farm, and called upon all Thing-men to meet
at the usual Thing-place, generally the fifth day after
the issue of the summons.
“Every man who thinks a Thing necessary may have one.
Every man shall carry the summons and not drop it. It
shall go between the winter-houses and not between the sśters.
The Thing-summons shall delay nowhere in weather fit for
travelling except in night-quarters, and not unless
there is necessity. If a man drops the summons he is
liable to pay three aurar....
The man who carries a summons shall cut three
notches on the doorpost or door - - . and
put the summons over the lintel. All bśndr shall go to
the Thing when the summons comes to their house except
single-workers. They shall go only to three Things—a
Thing for murder, a Thing for choosing a king, a
man-reckoning (census) Thing. During all other Things
they shall sit at home. . . A widow and
a disabled bondi shall not go to the Thing against their
will. All other bśndr shall go to the Thing when the
summons comes to their house, or pay a Thing-fine”
(Earlier Gulathing's Law, 131).
The Thing was held in an open place called Thingvöll
(Thing-plain), in earlier times near a temple. (1)
On the Thingvöll, or near it, there always seems to
have been a Thing-brekka, or Thing-hill, from
which all announcements were made.
Thing-plain was a sacred place, which must not be
sullied by bloodshed arising from blood-feud (heiptarblód)
or any other impurity. The Thing, from the time it
was opened until it was dissolved, was during pagan
times under the protection of the gods. It was opened
with certain religious ceremonies, which included a
solemn peace declaration (grida setning) over the
assembly, which in earlier times was pronounced by the
Hersir near whose temple the Thing took place. Every
breach of the peace at a Thing was a sacrilege which put
the guilty one out of the pale of the law—be was like
the violator of the temple peace—a varg í veum
(wolf in the sanctuary), an outlaw in all holy or
inhabited places, and an útlagi (outlaw) for all
until he had made reparation for his crime.
struggle having arisen between the godi Thorstein and
his followers and some descendants of a chief Kjallak
who bad announced their intention not to respect the
sanctity of the Thing and proceeded to act in defiance
of the remonstrances of Thorstein, recourse was had to
arbitration, and Thord Gellir was appointed arbitrator.
**1. After the introduction of Christianity, near a
“No peace was made between them, for neither
would have it The plain on which they fought was covered
with blood, and also the place where the Thornes-thing
stood during the fight . . .
“He began the arbitration by saying that both parties
should be content with their lot, that neither slain men
nor wounds should be paid for, and that the plain was
spoiled by the blood of hate which had come down on it
and was no longer holier than other ground. Those who
attacked first had caused this which was the only
breaking of peace. He said that no Thing should
thereafter be held there “ (1) (Eyrbyggja
Saga, c. 9, 10).
On the journey to and from the Thing, and during its
duration, all the men were peace-holy.
“All men named for Gulathing journey shall be at peace
with each other until they come back to their homes. If
any one breaks the peace and wounds or maims a man, he
has forfeited loose property and peace in the land, and
shall never come to the country” (N. G. L., ii. 16).
The punishment given to those who did not heed the
judgment given at a law-thing, and confirmed by
weapon-taking. was a fine.
“If a man breaks the judgment given at a law-thing,
and confirmed by vápnatak inside and outside the
law-court, then he is to pay the king four marks of
silver, and one mark to the plaintiff” (N. G. L., ii.
“If a man has been fined for breaking a judgment once,
and persists in disregarding it, then the king's
stewards shall summon him to a Thing and outlaw him
unless he pays what is then due. A man is liable to the
same if he breaks the judgment given at the Frostathing,
and confirmed by Vápnatak inside and outside the
law-court" (Earlier Frostathing's Law, v. 46).
In Iceland Things were held regularly twice a year,
namely, before and after the Althing (Thing for the
whole land). The one taking place in the springtime
lasted at least four days, or at most a week. (3) The
other, called Leid, at the end of summer, lasted not
more than two days.
**1. Cfr. also Frostathing's Law, i. 2.
**2. Laws by King Magnus, A.D. 1263-1280.
**3. Grágás, 56.
“We (the people) shall have Leid (autumn-thing),
and those godis who hold a Thing together shall have Leid
together The Leid shall not be held before
fourteen nights after the Althing. No Leid shall
last less than one day, or longer than two nights” (Gragas
(1852), iii. § 61).
The country was divided into four quarters, and each of
these into three Thing-districts, except the northern
quarters which was divided into four. (1) Every
Thing-district was divided into three parts, each of
which was ruled by a godi who was temple-priest. At the
Quarter-thing all the bśndr of the quarter assisted.
**2. Eyrbyggja, c. 10; Landnáma, ii. c. 12.
Althing, which was held once a year, took place between
the two other Things. This was natural, as at the
Springthing they prepared for the Althing, and at the
Thing held at the end of summer it was usual to make
known what had taken place at the Althing.
“The Althing was placed where it is now, according to
the advice of Úlfljót and all the men of the land.
Before this the Thing was at Kjalarnes, established by
Thorstein, son of Ingolf, the (first) settler, and
father of Thorkel Máni (moon), lawman, and other
chiefs” (Islendingabók, c. 3).
The appeal of a cause from a lower Thing to the higher
one was expressed in the Gulathing's Law, which probably
had the greatest authority over the larger part of the
country; every dispute had first to be treated at the
smaller Thing of the Herad, and only when it
could not be satisfactorily settled there was it to go
before the Fylkisthing. A Thing from two Fylki
had less power than one of four, and one from four less
than one from eight.
“In every case when all the men of the Fylkě agree,
no lawful judgment of theirs in matters about which they
have ríght to judge shall be broken, though kinsmen on
the male or female side or near relatives do not come.
But if one-fourth or more of the right Thingrnen do not
come, a new Thing shall be summoned from two Fylkis for
the case.... If they do not agree at the Thing of two
Fylkis, it shall be sent to a Thing of three Fylkis. If
they do not agree, a Thing of four Fylkis. If they do
not agree, a Thing of eight Fylkis; that which is agreed
upon by all there and brought into the law-court shall
stand” (Frostath., x. 30).
To this Thing as well as to lesser Things, every bondi
who was a working man had to come. In later times, if
the king was not present, his representatives the lendir
men were bound to be there. Among these lesser Things
were those which dealt with questions relating to
“It is customary in Iceland for the bśndr to have a
Thing in the autumn in order to deal with the poor; the
one first named among the poor was Thorljót, the father
of Thjódolf” (Flateyjarbók, iii. 421).
In the course of time and towards the latter part of the
pagan era there arose from the Herad towns proper (kaupstad=
trading-places), and the people formed a separate
class whose interests were not identical with those of
the bondi, and who required a special government and
Thing. The common law of the towns is known under the
name of Bjarkeyjar-rétt (town law). Each town
had its mót, formed by all householders (húsfastir).
were also meetings of people of the Hrepp, which
was a tract of country consisting of at least 20 bśndr,
who were able to give pay to Thingmen. Their meetings
were ordinary or extraordinary. For extraordinary
meetings they had to send the cross (or in early times
the war-arrow) around. At the meeting the affairs of the
poor and other burdens of the community, and the
regulations concerning order, were settled. Five men
were chosen, who were the representatives or executive
power of the community. These men had not necessarily to
be landowners. Their duty was to prosecute vagabonds or
criminals, and to be present at oath-taking.
“There shall be lawful Hrepps in this country
(Iceland). It is lawful when 20 bśndr or more are in
it. If the lögréttu-men (law-court men) allow it there
may be fewer (bśndr) . .
landowners (bśndr) shall be chosen in every Hrepp to
prosecute all those who do not fulfil their duties in
the Hrepp, and also to divide the tithes and food-gifts
(to the poor), or see to the keeping of oaths taken by
men. They need not be landowners if all the men of the
Hrepp agree...... . . . If a pauper is unlawfully
brought into the Hrepp, the man to whom he is sent shall
cut a cross if he thinks he needs a Hrepp-meeting, and
carry it to the next house, and there appoint a
Hreppmeeting within seven nights or more, and tell the
others to carry the cross. Then each of them shall have
it carried as directed by the man who cut it, and it
shall be sent in all directions” (Grágás, p. 171, §
The resolutions taken at the Thing were finally
confirmed by the vápnatak (weapon-taking), for,
as we know, the thingmen during the deliberations put
away their weapons, and by again taking them up and
shaking them they declared matters settled and the Thing
“King Sverri summoned the people to Eyrathing (1) in
Thrándheim, and named twelve men from each Fylki of the
eight which are on that side of Agdanes. When they came,
the name of king was given to Sverri at this Thing of
eight Fylkis, and it was done with weapon-taking, and
the people of the land took oaths to him, according to
the old laws of the land” (Fornmanna Sögur, viii.
A Thing held on the plain.
Sigurd Slembidjakn, who pretended to be the son of
Magnus Bare-foot, murdered Harald Gilli of Norway in his
bed at night, and then asked the people to take him as
“Many from the king's house came down to the piers,
and all answered, as with one mouth, declaring it should
never be that they would yield homage and service to a
man who had murdered his brother; 'for if he was not thy
brother, thou art not born to be king.' They clashed
their weapons together, and declared them all to be
outlawed and peaceless. Then the king's horn was blown,
and all the lendirmen and hirdmen were gathered” (Harald
Gilli's Saga, c. 18).
Between the sessions of the Thing amusements took place,
among them that of saga-telling; and the people who
attended were often finely dressed.
“Thormod the scald wondered that no man was, in the
booth, as many were there when he fell asleep. Fifl-Egil
entered and said: 'Too far art thou now from
great fun.' Thormod answered: 'Where wast thou, or what
is the fun?' Egil answered: 'I was in the booth of
Thorgrim Trölli, and a great part of the Thing-assembly
is there.' Thormod asked:
'What is their amusement?' Egil answered: 'Thorgrim
Einarsson is telling a saga.' Thormod asked: 'Of whom is
he telling a saga?' Egil answered: 'I know not about
whom the saga is, but I know that he tells it well and
entertainingly; he sits on a chair outside the booth,
and the people sit round and listen to the saga.'
Thormod said: 'Thou must be able to name some man
mentioned in the saga, especially as thou sayest it is
so entertaining.' Egil answered: 'One Thorgeir, a great
champion, was mentioned in the saga as having fought
very well, as is likely. I should like thee to go and
listen to the saga.' Thormod answered: 'I can do it,'
and rose” (1) (Fostbrśdra Saga, c. 32).
“The sons of Hjalti made an arvel after the death of
their father. They were summoned to the Thorskafjardar-thing.
When they came to the Thing they were so well dressed
that people thought the Asar had come” (Landnáma,
iii. c. 10).
As the people often came from a long distance, there
were erected near the Thing-place Thing-booths for their
accommodation, some of which were very large.
had slain the thrall of a neighbour, and therefore was
summoned to the Thing.
“Thorstein, son of Egil (Skallagrimsson), had very
many men with him at the spring Thing, and went there
one night earlier than the others, and he and his
Thingmen tented their booths. (2) When they had made
their own booths ready, Thorstein bade his Thingmen go
and raise large booth-walls; then he had a much larger
booth than the others, in which there were no men” (Egil's
Saga, c. 85).
The Saga was about Thorgeir Hávarsson, Thormod's
foster-brother, and his last fight, in which Thorgrim
had fought against him. Thormod cleft Thorgrim's head
with his axe as he sat on the chair, and escaped.
**2. Pitched a tent over the walls which remained
In Iceland we find the kvid (a law term which may
mean both the witnesses and the jury). The men who were
in the kvid did not need to be eye-witnesses; but
had to be men who were impartial, and who could form the
best judgment from the circumstances of the case. They
had to give a verdict under oath. The number of the men
of the kvid, and the manner of choosing them,
varied according to the matter to be considered. In some
important cases, recourse was had to the Tylftarkvid (a
body of twelve men) summoned at the instance of the
plaintiff by the godi of the district, who with
him named or chose eleven of his Thingmen.
second kind of kvid was Búakvid (bondi
kvid), which was used in cases of murder and other
crimes, consisting of five or nine neighbours chosen by
third kind or Bjargkvid (saving kvid) consisted of five
men, also chosen by the plaintiff and of the same place.
The defendant had the right to challenge jurors out of
the kvid, but only for lawful reasons, and the
places had to be filled up. If the kvid after
deliberation could not agree, the majority ruled; and if
in the Tylftarkvid the votes were equal, the godi
had the casting vote; but the verdict was nevertheless
to be given unanimously, though the minority were not
responsible if the verdict was found to be wrong.
the earliest times the same practice seems to have held
in Norway, till Christianity coming in brought with it
the purification oath.
could be turned out of the jury if they were not bśndr.
In a law case at the Althing after the burning of Njál,
Eyiólf Bölverksson, a man skilled in law, said the
following with regard to the jury or kvid:
“ I name witnesses to this that I take
these two men out of the kvid, and name them
both, because they are booth-sitting men (less than bśndr)
and not bśndr.' Mörd went to the court and said: ' I
name witnesses to this that I make void the lawful
challenging of Eyjólf Bölverksson, because he
challenged men out of the kvid who are rightly in
it. Every man who owns three hundreds (1) in land
or more, though he has no milch cattle, has the right to
be in a jury of bśndr, as also he who has much cattle,
though he is a tenant.' lIe had the witnesses before the
court, went to where the bśndr (of the jury) were and
told them to sit down, and that they had a right to be
in the kvid. Then there was a great uproar, and all said
that the case of Flosi and Eyjólf was made perfectly
void" (Njala, c. 142).
**1. The term “hundreds “means some value,
perhaps of vadmal or of silver.
It seems that it was usual to have twelve judges to
decide important cases.
“Thereafter King Heidrek went home with his queen and they
loved each other well; he left off all warfare
and made laws in the land; he chose twelve of the wisest
men to judge in important cases in his realm, and
prevented all warfare in his land; he became a great
chief and was well liked” (Hervarar Saga, c. 14).
Gunnar, when attacked, slew Thorgeir Otkelsson, and was
summoned before the Thing to answer for it.
“Many chiefs tried to effect a reconciliation, and the
result was that twelve men were to arbitrate in the
case” (Njala, c. 74).
King Olaf, of Sweden, always had with him twelve of the
wisest men, who assisted him in difficult cases.
"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu,
vol. 1, p. 515-524