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THE THING

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 515-524

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The 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.

In 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)

 

**1. Earlier Gulathing's Law. 131.

 

There were general Things, or Fylkis-things, in which several herads were represented, under the leadership of the hersir or king.

Every 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.

When 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 wealth.

All 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 [1] Konungs-thing, i.e. a Thing summoned by the king himself; [2] Manndrápsthing, i.e. a Thing in consequence of a murder; [3] Manntalsthing, i.e. a Thing for the equalization of the tax; and [4] 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.

The 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.

The 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.

A 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 church.


“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). (2)

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. 17).

  “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)

 

**1. Islendingabók, c.5        
**2. Eyrbyggja, c. 10; Landnáma, ii. c. 12.

 

The 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 paupers.

“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).

There 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) . .

Five 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, § 234).

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 dissolved.

“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. 41).

**1. 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 king.

“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.

Thorstein 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).

**1. 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 standing.


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.

The 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 the plaintiff.

The 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.

In the earliest times the same practice seems to have held in Norway, till Christianity coming in brought with it the purification oath.

Men 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

   

 
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