How the Vikings made the West
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
This article is based on a theme in the brand new book by Simon Vincent - KINGDOM OF VIKINGS: The Rise and Fall of Norway. More info: Kingdom of Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway: Amazon.co.uk: Vincent, Simon: 9781527280175: Books
The Vikings are typically protrayed as mindless barbarians raiding their way through Europe. Though it is understandable how this stereotype emerged, it is deeply inaccurate. The Vikings had very sophisticated societies, and a unique culture based on trust, duties and customs. As they swept across the continent, they revived these ideals on a larger scale, laying seeds for modern liberalism, capitalism and parliamentary democracy to spring forth.
FYI, what we call "Viking" is better referred to as "Norse". Viking simply means "raider" in the Norse language. This article therefore addresses the Norse culture. Vikings are simply a minor element in the overall Norse world of the old Scandinavians.
Trust, duties, customs and tradition
"[in Germanic societies] customs and tradition are much more effective in society than the most advanced laws elsewhere" - Tacitus, 98 A.D
The Norse ("Viking") culture stems from the old Germanic peoples. The Germanic tribes were Indo-Europeans who dwelled by the rivers Rhine and Danube, often fighting fiercely with the ancient Romans (ca. 80 B.C to 475 A.D). Apart from their shocking ferocity and stout physiques, the Romans observed that the Germanic tribes had an extreme adherence to customs, duties and tradition. Roman historian Tacitus (d. 98 A.D) writes that "[in Germanic societies] customs and traditions are more effective in society than the most advanced laws elsewhere." The "ought to" was much more powerful as a force for order and justice than the "must do".
For example, most Germanic tribes had a custom of never carrying weaponry unless during wartime. They deposited all their swords in a chest that was guarded by a slave - all on good faith. There were no laws for this, yet people adhered to it as an unwritten rule. All of Germanic society therefore revolved around trust.
In the 5th century A.D, most Germanic tribes emigrated into the Western Roman Empire, thereby destroying it and replacing it with their own various kingdoms. However, many Germanic peoples actually stayed behind. These were, for the most part, Scandinavians. While their other kinfolk inherited Roman culture, styles and traditions, these immobile Germanics continued their old Germanic ways. This would later saturate into the Norse culture - the Vikings.
Kings as Servants, Farmers as Deciders
In the Norse ("Viking") world, Kings and Chiefs were not considered superior to the people. On the contrary, the Vikings regarded Kings as the public servants of the people. If a King was corrupt or ruled the kingdom poorly, it was the duty of the citizen to oust him. Also, in times of war, it was expected of the King to walk first into the fray of the battle.
It should be noted that "citizens" in this context refers to the landowning farmers. In Norse culture, farmers were the bedrock of society. Since it was their private property that were at stake, they would have the last say in all matters pertaining to government . Private property was a sacred right.
Other issues like inheritance disputes, trade and commercial activity, plans for harvest and weather changes, and so on, would be voted on by farmers. If needed, they would call on the King or chief to execute the people's will.
In Norse culture, farmers were the bedrock of society. Since it was their private property that were at stake, they would have the last say in all matters pertaining to government. Private property was a sacred right.
This enormous power of the farmers is well illustrated in the Viking Era. For instance, when King Haakon the Good tried to introduce Christianity to the Norse Vikings, the farmers threatened to remove him from power. King Haakon was humiliatingly forced by the farmers to participate in pagan rite. This would be unthinkable in feudal Europe - but common in Scandinavia. Later Kings would also wrestle fiercely with the independent farmers. State tax on private property, for instance, was considered an outrage.
Other examples include famous feuds among farmers. If a farmer damaged another farmer's private property, or trespassed uninvited, it could cause a bitter feud between them. Such feuds could lead to death, or they would have to be resolved in a local assembly of other farmers, called a Thing assembly.
Things - þing - the ancient democracies of the Vikings
Thing was a governing assembly among the landowners (farmers) in a respective region. They discussed local issues, passed laws, resolved quarrels and, if they wanted, nominated a king or chieftain. The matters were decided upon by voting.
The thing is at the heart of Norse society. It was the only legislative institution. Chiefs and kings were always at the mercy of the will of the thing (actually, the common English word for thing – an object or item – derives from this word).
In Norway, thing assemblies ruled over a particular jurisdiction. Its laws were effective only in that jurisdiction, and only landowners from that jurisdiction could attend and vote in the thing. This gave Scandinavia and old Germania several law-codes in various provinces across the country, most prominently the Gula-code of Gulathing and Frosta-code of Frostathing. Until the 1100s, these laws were unwritten, being preserved through oral recitation by appointed lawspeakers.
Therefore, if a person wanted to be King over all of Norway, he had to win the popular vote in every Thing assembly across the land. If a King lost popular support at the Things, he would be evicted. This happened to many of the rulers of Norway: Eric Bloodaxe, Harald Greycloak, Earl Haakon the Mighty and Olaf Haraldsson.
However, as the idea of a unified Kingdom began to take roots, it became contradictory to have many small local jurisdictions. The Things therefore gradually became more institutionalized. Haakon the Good made them into representative bodies, where each village or county would promote a Representative to go in their stead.
With the arrival of feudalism, the power of the King eventually eclipsed the powers of the independent farmers. Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf) is famous for revolutionizing the Norwegian political system in this way. His half-brother, Harald Hardrada (Hardrada meaning Harsh Ruler) finally cemented the superiority of Kings by cracking down on all opposition and consolidating the Monarchy.
The Thing-laws continued to govern as different jurisdictions until 1280, when King Magnus the Law-Mender of Norway merged all Thing-laws into one, national code. This was a revolutionary concept, namely the idea of one single code across the country (this did not happen in France until Code Napeoleon in 1802, and in Spain until the rule of Franco in the 1930s). After this, the use of Things gradually declined.
Norway still honors this tradition by calling their Parliament Storting - the Great Thing. Indeed, Viking Thing assemblies worked practically the same way as modern Parliamentary democracies.
This gave rise to the distinct British culture - a unique merger between Norman feudalism and Norse devolution.
Britain had always been a second-home to the Vikings. Masses of Scandinavians emigrated there, bringing their laws, values and customs with them. Anglo-Saxon England was, therefore, a Christian land with strong Norse influence.
A major turning point came in 1066, when the Normans - a Norse-Frankish people - conquered England and brought stricter feudalism to the island. But the Normans soon realized that it was difficult to impose such rule over the skeptic Anglo-Saxon population. Their values of private property, civil independence, popular voting assemblies and the King as a servant, were too deep-rooted. Thus, the Normans adapted. This gave rise to the distinct British culture - a unique merger between Norman feudalism and Norse devolution.
In 1215, the first major result of this cultural merger arrived: the Magna Carta ("the Great Charter", dubbed "Great Charter of Freedoms"). This was a charter of freedoms that was formally accepted by King John of England. It declared that the King shall be under the Law. In other words, the King is not above the law - but perfectly liable under it. The King, therefore, is not an invincible autocrat, but a "first" citizen among the people.
The triumph of the Magna Carta is not a new invention - but the success of enshrining an old custom into constitutional form. The Magna Carta is a testament to the timelessness and strength of the Norse and Germanic customs.
This is understandably presented as a revolutionary moment - but, as we have seen, it wasn't really revolutionary per se. This concept had always existed in old Germanic societies. It had simply been accentuated by the Vikings, who then "installed it" in England. The triumph of the Magna Carta is not a new invention - but the success of enshrining an old custom into constitutional form. The Magna Carta is a testament to the timelessness and strength of the Norse and Germanic customs.
Dawn of the Western civilisation
"...[This] therefore created the cultural foundation that would later produce Parliamentary democracy, classical Liberalism, and free market economics (capitalism)."
Recall that the old Germanic culture that fought the ancient Romans in the 5th century, was the same Germanic culture that swept over Europe in the 8th-10th as Vikings. The Vikings belonged to the old Germanic heritage. They had simply never left their ancestral lands to invade Rome, but stayed put in Scandinavia.
Admittedly, the Ancient Romans had already flirted with the ideas of a popular Republic and the state leader as the "first among equals" - but they failed to establish it. Rome became an autocratic system of Emperors. When it collapsed, many of the invading Germanic tribes simply inherited the same autocratic system, giving rise to medieval feudalism.
But these Germanic customs of private property, free and independent citizenry, popular voting, and the King as a servant, were carefully preserved in the Viking societies of Scandinavia. Then, in the 8th century, when they swept across Europe, they revived these ancient ideals.
The melting pot between the Norse and the world of Christendom therefore created the unique cultural foundation that would later produce Parliamentary democracy, classical Liberalism, and free market economics (capitalism). Popularly marked with the triumph of the Magna Carta, this was the dawn of the Western civilization.
BOOK RELEASE: KINGDOM OF VIKINGS
Simon Vincent, the main author of Strategos History, is releasing his second book: Kingdom of Vikings - the Rise and Fall of Norway.
The unique Norse culture is a main theme throughout. It explains and discusses how the Things and old Germanic customs clashed with European feudalism, and how these different political systems eventually merged to produce a unique Kingdom of Norway, and a unique Britain. This is a fascinating, yet so far rarely told, story.
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