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Debating the Thing in the North I: Introduction and Acknowledgments
Alexandra Sanmark, Sarah Semple, Natascha Mehler, and Frode Iversen

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 5 (2013): 1–4

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A. Sanmark, S. Semple, N. Mehler, and F. Iversen 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 1 The study of lordship and power in medieval societies in northwest Europe has seen considerable attention in historical as well as archaeological scholarship, with a particular focus on the transition between chiefdoms and petty kingdoms to supraregional kingdoms and states. The study of military and royal institutions has largely dominated the scholarly discourse, however, at the expense of discussion on what can be considered perhaps the most important agent in the process of medieval power: the assembly. Around the North Sea littoral, by the 9th to 12th centuries A.D., kingdoms were governed using systems of power in which assembly—both royal and public—were integral elements in the processes of negotiating, achieving consensus and exercising authority. In Norse society, assemblies referred to as thing, which were both parliaments and courts, are evidenced in runic inscriptions and written documents from the 11th century onwards. The term thing is, however, much older in origin, and the existence of a thing organization in other areas of Germanic settlement, can be gleaned in sources from, e.g., Neustria, Austrasia, Saxony, and East Frisia. Assemblies may in some regions have drawn on late prehistoric antecedents (e.g., Anundshög, Västmanland, Sweden and Lunde, Vestfold, Norway) and they could also prove enduring, surviving as an activity in certain places into the late medieval, early modern, and even modern eras (e.g., Þingvellir, Iceland and Tynwald Hill, Isle of Man, Great Britain). In contrast to other power centers, such as palaces and castles, the assembly seems to have been more focused around a collective ethos, where decisions and verdicts were made jointly by groups of assembly participants. The thing institution, despite often being labeled “democratic”, was a place where those with power often seem to have been able to push decisions in their favor, even before Scandinavian kings, through new legislation and legal reform, took full control of the assemblies from the late 13th century (Helle 2001, Sanmark 2006). The Assembly Project (TAP) represents the first international collaborative project dedicated to investigating the role of assemblies in the emergent power structures of medieval northwest Europe (A.D. 400–1500). TAP is led by the Museum of Cultural History (University of Oslo) and involving principal investigators from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, the Department of Prehistory and Historical Archaeology, University of Vienna, and the Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands. TAP is studying the northwestern European assembly-institution in its widest geographic and temporal contexts. By means of archaeological and historical enquiry from a landscape perspective, the project seeks to explore the role of the assembly in the development and maintenance of these complex networks of power and authority. This renewed interest in assembly is prescient in an era in which the investigation of social networks via material culture has risen to prominence (e.g., Knappett 2011). Most social networks in premodern societies integrated both hierarchical topdown and peer-to-peer relations, with one type of relationship likely to dominate the other (Iversen et al. 2007). The assembly was an institution that often sat at the axis of lordship and peer-to-peer relations (Adolfsen 2000). The balance between these major forces of society changed and varied through time, and throughout, the assembly or thing played an integral role in the shaping and balancing of these power systems. At the assembly, information was exchanged on many levels and power relations were negotiated. According to Norse written sources, assembly attendants represented different social levels to some extent, while active participation was limited to landowners. The existence of assemblies across medieval societies in northwest Europe demonstrates their significance at this time. They could be fluid, powerful, and even dangerous places where authority could be consolidated or challenged. Through the dynamics of those attending and participating in the meetings, they could at times act as a sort of independent agency. To control the assembly was therefore vital in the formalization, expansion, and consolidation of power, e.g., for kings in the Scandinavian kingdoms and for the Norse elite in the newly settled territories in the west. Debating the Thing in the North I: Introduction and Acknowledgments Alexandra Sanmark1,*, Sarah Semple2, Natascha Mehler3, and Frode Iversen4 Debating the Thing in the North I: The Assembly Project Journal of the North Atlantic 1Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1QX, UK. 2Department of Archaeology, Durham University, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK. 3Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte, Universität Wien, Franz-Klein-Gasse 1, 1190 Wien, Austria. 4Department of Cultural Management, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. *Corresponding author - alexandra.sanmark@uhi.ac.uk. 2013 Special Volume 5:1–4 A. Sanmark, S. Semple, N. Mehler, and F. Iversen 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 2 As part of The Assembly Project, four workshops have been held that have brought together the TAP team with external researchers, from a variety of disciplines and countries, to discuss and debate our major research themes. Invited speakers have contributed papers on their own research, complementing and contrasting concepts of assembly drawn from historical source material, place-names, mythology, literature, and archaeological evidence. This volume, the first of two, presents eight selected papers from the first two workshops. The papers build on four of our project and workshop themes: Valorization – assemblies in long-term perspective; Rhetoric – variations and similarities in the physical form and location of assemblies; Territorialization – the role of assemblies within existing and emerging kingdoms; and Migration of Administrative Frameworks – the implementation of systems of administration in new areas, especially in the Norse settlements in the west. In this volume, the papers fall into three sections. The first, Debating Sources, examines the age and role of assemblies, mainly through the use of written sources. Frode Iversen’s article reviews some of the earliest sources to the Germanic assembly institution, starting with the work of Tacitus from the 1st century A.D. and moving on to the core areas of the Frankish kingdom and then to the outlying areas, arguing for the possibility of a tripartite thing system in existence prior to the 6th century. It is the first study that not only traces the roots of the thing institution in the Germanic world, but also puts it in context with the thing institution in Scandinavia. Nanna Løkka and Anne Irene Riisøy, in two separate studies, take the novel approach of exploring the significance of eddic poetry in the study of law and assembly. Løkka, through detailed textual analyses, identifies several strong ritual elements connected to the assemblies and also highlights the role of mythology for assembly procedures, while Riisøy argues that the population of Viking-Age Scandinavia attempted to reproduce the “ideal assembly site”, described in the poetry, in their own landscape. In terms of assembly rituals, she points to the significance of sacrifices of both animals and humans. The volume’s second section, Systems of Power, contains studies from Norway and England, which together demonstrate the similarities and differences in administrative organization in the large geographical area under scrutiny by TAP. These papers also point to local variations in the administrative system, within and between law districts, showing that there is a lot of complexities and variation on the ground, despite the streamlined systems described in medieval laws and other sources. The first article, by Halldis Hobæk, illustrates through a study of the Hardanger area in western Norway, the value of detailed retrogressive analysis using a combination of written sources and archaeological material in order to reconstruct older administrative systems and units. In this way, Hobæk suggests eight possible local assembly (heraðsþing) districts, which earlier researchers have presupposed for this area, but have not been able to identify. In Marie Ødegaard’s case study, the focus is shifted to the Borgarthing law province in southeastern Norway, exploring the administrative organization and assembly sites, both on regional and lower levels, in particular the skipreiða units. Ødegaard convincingly demonstrates how the king’s varying position of power in the different parts of the Borgarthing area influenced law and enforcement. The third article in this section, by John Baker and Stuart Brookes, examines the hundredal organization in the southern Danelaw, again through detailed landscape analysis. Through a starting point in the 11th-century Domesday Book, Baker and Brookes illustrate that the administrative organization of the Danelaw at this time, which consisted of hundreds and wapentakes, was a multifaceted palimpsest of older and newer elements, reflecting the shifting and complex political history of the area. This administrative landscape is showing not only Scandinavian influence, but also English, especially from the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. The third and final section, entitled Places of Assembly, deals with the archaeological evidence of assembly sites, placing them within the judicial networks in the landscape, from Shetland (Alex Sanmark) to Iceland and the wider North Atlantic Norse settlements (Orri Vésteinsson). Sanmark’s study of Norse assembly sites in Shetland illustrates the strong pattern of assembly characteristics, both in terms of landscape characteristics and archaeological features, found in this area. The article also makes clear that assemblies formed an integral part of Norse society and were therefore most likely introduced rather early on in the settlement history, instead of merely being products of the Norwegian kingdom. Finally, Vésteinsson’s article contains a detailed investigation of the role and function of the “booths”, which have long been considered to be a key component of an Icelandic assembly site. Vésteinsson’s argument goes beyond function, as he sees a symbolic meaning in the booth structures and in this way offers a fascinating and tempting interpretation of the political underlying symbolism of the booths in Iceland. A. Sanmark, S. Semple, N. Mehler, and F. Iversen 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 3 Acknowledgments The Assembly Project (TAP) – Meeting Places in Northern Europe AD 400–1500 (2010–2013) is funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area). We would like to express our gratitude to all invited speakers to our workshops for contributing research papers and sharing their expertise. The first workshop was held at Durham University,Great Britain, in February 2011, while the second event took place in October 2011 at Utstein Monastery, Stavanger, Norway. Participants and speakers at these two events were: Dr. John Baker, University of Nottingham; Dr. Stuart Brookes, University College London; Prof. Stephen Driscoll, University of Glasgow; Endre Elvestad, Stavanger Maritime Museum; Dr. Ulf Jansson, Stockholm University; Dr. Nanna Løkka, Telemark University College; Dean Paton, University of Chester; Prof. Andrew Reynolds, University College London; Dr. Anne Irene Riisøy, Buskerud University College; Ola Svensson, The Institute for Language and Folklore, Lund; Prof. Orri Vésteinsson, University of Iceland; and Prof. Ingvild Øye, University of Bergen. Literature Cited Adolfsen, E. 2000. Maktforholdene på tingene i Norge ca. 900–ca.1200. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Universitetet i Bergen. Bergen, Norway. 114 pp. Helle, K. 2001. Gulatinget og Gulatingslova. Skald, Leikanger, Norway. 240 pp. Iversen, T., J.R. Myking, and G. Thoma (Eds.). 2007. Bauern zwischen Herrschaft und Genossenschaft. Tapir Academic Press, Trondheim, Norway. 289 pp. Knappett, C. 2011. An Archaeology of Interaction: Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 251 pp. Sanmark, A. 2006. The communal nature of the judicial system in Early Medieval Norway, Collegium Medievale 19:31–64. A Note on Terms and Conventions For terms where standard English translations exist, these have been used. This applies to titles of Icelandic sagas, eddic and skaldic poetry, and laws, and in most cases, Old Norse titles have also been provided. For terms for which there is no standard English translation, standardized Old Norse terminology has been applied. Glossary containing some of the most important terms discussed in this volume Althing – a thing in Scandinavia were all members of a defined group where obliged or encouraged to meet, depending on the type of meeting. In a local context, this applied to all free men and some women. In a regional context where assemblies were often representational, the “all” probably referred to all the representatives. In Iceland, on the other hand, althing was the name of the general assembly at the top of the hierarchy. Áttungr – “one eighth”. This administrative unit is known from all the Scandinavian countries, although their form and function varied strongly between regions. Within the Gulathing law province, which is discussed in this volume, the áttungar represented subdivisions of the fylki (see fylki). Birk – a judicial district that did not form part of the herað organization. These districts, which in most cases were tied to manors, are first mentioned in manuscripts dating from the middle of the 13th century in the areas that are, or were, part of Denmark. Its origins are unclear, but connections with the Viking-Age trading site Birka in Sweden, and a basis in special royal legislation, have been proposed. Fjórðungr – “one fourth”. This administrative unit is known from all the Scandinavian countries, although their form and function varied strongly between regions. Within the Gulathing law province, which is discussed in this volume, the fjórðungar represented subdivisions of the fylki (see fylki). Fylki – large administrative divisions in Norway, usually translated as “province” (see provincial law). Gau – A Germanic term used in the Carolingian Empire for large administrative divisions comparable to fylki and shire (see these terms). Herað – the smallest administrative unit, known from all the Scandinavian countries, although it was never uniformly enforced. Other types of such units also existed (see skipreiða). Heraðsþing – a local thing for the population of the herað (see herað). Hundred – the smallest administrative unit in Anglo- Saxon England. The equivalent of the Scandinavian herað. Not uniformly enforced, as other such units existed too (see wapentake). Lagsogn – a subdivision of a law province (see this term). Each lagsogn had its own lawman (see lǫgmaðr). For example, in Norway in 1223, there were three such subdivisions in the Frostathing law province and two in the other law provinces. Landzþing – In Sweden, this was the assembly at the top of hierarchy in each law province, equivalent to the Norwegian lawthing (see this term). In Denmark, there were at least thirteen such assemblies, A. Sanmark, S. Semple, N. Mehler, and F. Iversen 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 5 4 of which three were ranked above the rest from the 13th century onwards. In East Frisia, Landdinge were held within areas denoted by the element land (Brokmerland, etc.) Lathe – administrative units in Kent, Great Britain which consisted of several hundreds and filled some roles usually associated with hundreds (see hundred and rape). Law province – an area that had its own law. In the 13th/14th centuries, there were sixteen such provinces across Scandinavia, and at least five in the Norse settlements in the west. Lawthing – The highest ranked thing(s) (there could be several) within a law province (see this term). A lawthing was a representative assembly where royal law was introduced and enforced. Lǫgmaðr (lawman)/Lǫgsǫgumaðr (lawspeaker) – the person whose responsibility it was to memorize and recite the laws at the assembly and give órskurðr, i.e. explain the stance of the law regarding matters brought to the thing. From the late 13th century, the lawman had become an approved judge, who could deliver verdicts. Pagus – Latin term for Gau (see this term) or a general term for an administrative area in the Carolingian Empire. Provincial law – a law that applied in each of the law provinces of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In the 13th/14th centuries, there were sixteen such laws across Scandinavia. Latin medieval sources referred to them as, e.g., mos provinciae (provincial customs), ius terre (the law of the land), and regionis consuetudo (regional customs). Rape – administrative unit in Sussex, Great Britain, which consisted of several hundreds and filled some roles usually associated with hundreds (see hundred and lathe). Riding – secular (?) administrative unit in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Great Britain (cf. Þriðjungr). Shire – English term equivalent to fylki and Gau (see these terms). A flexible designation, it was largely synonymous with the county. However, it was also associated with the archaic “small shires” of the north and indeed served as a gloss for a number of later feudal estates. Skipreiða – administrative unit connected to the levy fleet (leiðung) in Norway in the 10th and 11th centuries. The skipreiður were also administrative districts with their own assemblies (cf. herað). Sýsla – administrative district connected to royal office, found in Norway, Denmark (Jutland), and Iceland. In Iceland, these districts were only introduced in the 13th century, when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway. Sýslumaðr – the royal officials of the sýslur (see sýsla). Tithing – A sub-division of the Anglo-Saxon hundred consisting of ten members designated to vouch surety for one another. An equivalent term, Temanetale, is encountered in the wapentakes of Richmondshire, UK (see hundred and wapentake). Þingmaðr – Landowners/”freemen”, most likely including landowning women too, aged over twelve or fifteen, depending on geographical area, who had the right to participate in the thing meetings. Þriðjungr – “one third”. An administrative unit. In eastern Norway (Romerike and Hedmark), known only as an ecclesiastical unit. Also found in Yorkshire, Great Britain (see Riding). Wapentake – administrative district found in the Danelaw. A division of the Riding and/or Shire (see these terms). The rough equivalent of an Anglo- Saxon hundred. Term derived from ON vápnatak. Ward – administrative district found in northern England north of the Tees, functionally equivalent to a hundred or wapentake but of likely post-Conquest origin. Abbreviations OE Old English ME Middle English OHG Old High German ON Old Norse OScand Old Scandinavian OSw Old Swedish