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Medieval Scandinavia: Assemblies, Law-Giving and Language

Medieval Scandinavia: Assemblies, Law-Giving and Language


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By Beñat Elortza Larrea

In this feature on the Medieval Scandinavia series, Beñat Elortza Larrea discusses law assemblies, legislation, and how legal terminology can be tricky from a researcher’s perspective.

During the Viking Age, the Scandinavian Peninsula was a politically fragmented region. We know rather little about how these polities looked territorially, but it is quite likely that political organisation somewhat resembled early medieval Ireland, with a plethora of regional lords, petty kings and ‘high kings’ forming a complex layered system of overlapping domains. Only fragmentary evidence has survived from the period predating the initial unification of the Scandinavian kingdoms during the tenth century, and this evidence suggests that the largest of the territorial units were the lǫnd, which have survived to our day in the form of the Swedish landskap or the Norwegian fylker.

While little is known about the original extent of these territories or who governed them, the centrality and importance of laws and legal procedures in Viking Age Scandinavia is apparent – highlighted, for instance, by the fact that the word law itself was borrowed into English from the Old Norse lǫg. Although leaders, both weak and strong, came and went, each lǫnd of the Viking Age had a shared legal system, which quite likely ensured their continuity as somewhat unified communities.

The regional assembly – þing in Old Norse – was the main institution of the legal system, and had a central role in society. The assemblies were arenas for legal settlements and debates on collective decision-making. It is quite clear that, as mentioned in the first post of the series, Viking Age Scandinavia was a hierarchical society, and this stratification was certainly present in the þing, too. Allodial farmers, those who owned their own lands, formed the backbone of the system, and possessed full rights to represent themselves and their dependents, while tenant farmers’ rights were more limited, according to the earliest written laws. Magnates seem to have dominated the assemblies, as their wealth, prestige and clientelistic networks allowed them to hold sway in the þing; the leading figure of the Lawspeaker, who presided over meetings and executed the decisions made by the collective, was probably of an aristocratic background.

As centuries progressed and the Scandinavian kingdoms began taking shape, assemblies became an invaluable tool to centralising royal power. By creating larger þings, kings could compel – or outright force – larger communities to agree to royal reforms and tacitly recognise the kings’ jurisprudence over large swathes of land. According to Heimskringla, a collection of sagas compiled in the thirteenth century, Håkon the Good of Norway (r. 933-961) created the Gulating assembly, which encompassed the fylker of the western part of the kingdom. While it is possible that the Gulating preceded Håkon’s reign, the assembly was probably reorganised during his reign, and its importance as a judicial organ grew. From the tenth century onwards, kings and aristocrats alike would establish larger assemblies as the political power became steadily centralised.

The main method used to regulate these assemblies were laws. Initially, these laws only existed orally; the reciting of the law, for example, was one of the most significant duties expected from the Lawspeaker. There is one notable exception, however: the Forsa rune ring, from the Swedish province of Hälsingland and dating to the late ninth century. The rather large iron ring – 43 centimetres in diameter – has runes inscribed into it, which detail the fines an individual had to pay if they failed to restore a vi, a type of cultic site. From the eleventh century onwards, however, the provincial laws began to be put to parchment with earnest patronage from the Scandinavian Crowns. One of the main reasons why the kings – as well as the magnates and the Church – had a vested interest in writing down legislation is closely tied to the centralisation of power; for instance, new legal reforms could be legitimised by including them in the new law-books, or small – but significant – changes to the wording of laws could be introduced.

Overall, it is difficult to say which reality the earlier laws reflect; it is possible that it was the earlier oral traditions that were compiled, but it is likewise likely that the drive behind legal codification had been spurred by new and meaningful changes to the legal system. Recent research has suggested that the medieval Scandinavian laws were deeply influenced by the knowledge of Roman and Canon law that had recently arrived in the region. As far as their function is concerned, however, one thing is clear: most provincial laws tell us that legislation had a crucial role in society. The majority of written laws begin with an ominous warning which, when dialectal and textual iterations are considered, conveys the same message. According to the twelfth century Norwegian Frostating Law:

At lǫgum skal land várt byggja en eigi at úlǫgum eyða

Our land shall be built on laws, and not desolated by lawlessness

The contents of these laws are quite diverse; the texts cover a variety of regulations from assembly attendance, inheritance law and adultery to military institutions and punishments for murder. One of the defining features of these laws is that they are usually proscriptive, rather than descriptive, texts. This means that laws give us glimpses into medieval Scandinavian society by mentioning which actions were not allowed, rather than providing a more detailed view of activities that might have been legal but not socially acceptable.

The corpus of medieval Scandinavian legislation is rather large; from the eleventh to the early fourteenth centuries, laws were written for specific regions – often roughly corresponding to the Viking Age lǫnd –, which means that several dozen laws coexisted in Scandinavia during the medieval period. In Norway, there were four large legal districts, centred on the Gulating, Frostating, Eidsivating and Borgarting assemblies, and each of these assemblies had their own law. In Denmark, on the other hand, there were three legal provinces, those of Scania, Zealand and Jutland. Sweden – as it is recurrent in the Middle Ages – is the odd one out; a politically decentralised kingdom, in Sweden each of the eight major landskap had its own provincial laws. Smaller polities, such as Gotland or Iceland, had their own single legislative texts, no doubt owing to their small size and population. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some of these laws were superseded by newer ‘national’ texts; this took place in Norway in 1274, and in Sweden in the 1340s. In addition, the law of the Icelandic Commonwealth, Grágás, was superseded by Norwegian-sponsored legislation after the island submitted to Norwegian authority in the 1260s.

From a researcher’s perspective, the medieval Scandinavian laws are extremely valuable written sources; the survival of many of these laws, written over several centuries and originating from different parts of the Scandinavian kingdoms, provide us with an invaluable opportunity to research both the laws themselves and the societies in which they functioned. The varied chronology of these laws – the Gulating Law was written in the late eleventh century, while the Law of Hälsingland was compiled around 1320 – highlight the different speeds at which the compilation of laws took place, and the details included in their regulations allows us to observe similarities and differences between different laws.

One of the main obstacles we must navigate stems exactly from the wealth and variety of the sources. Since the laws were written across Scandinavia over several hundred years, the specific legal terminology they use often differs considerably from source to source; in addition, some of these laws contained several passages that had been originally designed to be memorised and recited orally, which further hinders our efforts. Even in an age when we can easily search the text of digital files, finding instances of the same concept in two different law-books can be tricky, especially if these laws stemmed from different oral traditions.

A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law aims to bypass this very obstacle. The lexicon is, first and foremost, a reference work: it contains 6,000 entries in the medieval Scandinavian languages, thus creating a comprehensive database of legal terminology from 25 different law books, which includes all the major provincial laws, the Icelandic and Faroese texts, and the Gotlandic Guta lag. The headwords themselves are often accompanied by a text that details their significance and presence in legislation, and each entry also includes the instances where the headword appears in the body of legal texts, as well as relevant bibliography where applicable. Since each entry discusses a concept, rather than a word, each headword includes the term in all relevant languages. The entry for a law assembly, for instance, includes the terms laghþing and laghaþing (Old Swedish), laghthing (Old Danish), and lögþing and lögþingi (Old Norwegian). In addition, the publication includes an English to Nordic section, where terminology can be searched in English in order to find the relevant headwords in the Scandinavian languages.

A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law also contains other useful information that can be used by experts and amateur historians alike. Its section on material can be used as an excellent catalogue to identify relevant editions of the laws used by the project; each entry contains bibliographical information on the vernacular editions used, as well as their English language counterparts – although many of these are still being drafted, and have not been published yet. The appendices contain yet another surprise: each appendix – there are six – details different aspects of medieval Scandinavian societies that might be useful to the reader, such as administrative subdivisions, monetary systems or feast days.

The only drawback of the publication is that it does not include every medieval Scandinavian legal text. This undertaking would have been undoubtedly gargantuan, but the absence of Magnus VI Lagabøte’s Landslov from 1274 is a pity; the Icelandic Jónsbók – which is included in the lexicon – was written using the Landslov as an inspiration, and the ability to cross-reference both texts using a single source seems like a missed opportunity.

All things considered, A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law is an invaluable asset for any scholar researching laws and legal culture in medieval Scandinavia. Moreover, the fact that it is an open access publication with an English-language section means that it is readily available and easy to use by anyone with an interest in the period too.

A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law, edited by Jeffrey Love, Inger Larsson, Ulrika Djärv, Christine Peel, and Erik Simensen is published by Open Book Publishers. You can get a PDF or ebook copy for free by visiting their website.

Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. .

Top Image: A lawspeaker depicted in a 1899 edition of Heimskringla.


Watch the video: Viking Laws and Values (July 2022).


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