Viking Political Institutions

The kings and queens of the 12th-century Lewis chessmen (photo by Andrew Dunn)

Throughout much of the Viking Age, political power in Norse society lay predominantly in the hands of chieftains – warlords who ruled a relatively small group of people. They commanded the bands of raiding warriors whose forays across Europe made the Viking Age the Viking Age. The kings that would turn Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into unified countries hadn’t yet come to power, and Scandinavia was a somewhat haphazard patchwork of the chieftains’ dominions, some large and some small.[1]

As warlords, Norse chieftains were in constant competition with other chieftains for power. To prevail over his rivals, a chieftain needed a loyal band of warriors to fight by his side. The more warriors he commanded, the more powerful he tended to be. To obtain and retain loyal warriors, in the words of historian Anders Winroth,

A chieftain needed to be generous to his men, he needed to be victorious in battles – to “feed carrion to the ravens,” in the poetic vocabulary of the time – and he needed fame and a good reputation. If he was not able to achieve all of this, he could not achieve any of it. It was through winning battles that he gained the riches that allowed him to be generous, and his generosity stimulated poets… to contribute to his fame by composing and reciting poetry. This, in turn, inspired warriors to seek out the famous [chieftain], so that he got more warriors and won battles even more easily, which gave him a good reputation and more booty to hand out to warriors.[2]

Traditional Norse poetry contained a seemingly infinite array of stock phrases and expressions that had to do with wealthy chieftains giving away their wealth to their followers. Such was the ubiquity of the concept in Norse culture – and perhaps especially in the minds of the poets, who composed for particular chieftains and had an economic motive to give their employers a reputation to live up to.[3]

Since there was no true money in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, chieftains dispensed wealth primarily in the form of precisely-weighted arm rings of gold and silver. Sometimes these were very simple, and sometimes they were expertly and ornately fashioned. In either case, however, they were essentially worth their weight in the metals from which they were made. Wealth was also granted in the form of land and the products of the land.[4]

Chieftains were also generous to their followers by throwing lavish feasts for them. These feasts typically had an element of religious ritual to them, which infused the relationship between the chieftain and his followers with the sacred.[5]

Of course, the generosity of chieftains was no mere charity. Their gifts were given to their warriors in exchange for the warriors’ gift of their loyalty, which couldn’t be taken for granted. The bonds of fealty had to be continually renewed if they were to remain intact.

But this wasn’t only a calculated economic transaction. Honor, pride, and belongingness were also at stake. While fighting and economic reward were the concrete means of maintaining the relationship between chieftain and warrior, the relationship was what really mattered. An extreme – but common – example of this is that, in the eyes of Viking society, one of the noblest deeds a warrior could perform was to fall in battle alongside his leader – proving loyal even to the point of death, forsaking not only his wealth, but his very life.[6]

The Rise of Kings

Medieval European chroniclers noted, with fear and exasperation, that the Viking fleets who raided their shores grew larger and larger with every passing year. What they were witnessing, whether they realized it or not, was the consolidation of Norse political power into the hands of fewer and fewer chieftains, the most successful of whom ultimately became kings.[7]

This was, after all, the logical endgame of the processes by which chieftains amassed their power. Those chieftains who drew the most and best warriors to them won more battles, and thereby acquired more plunder and prestige, which in turn enabled them to afford to employ yet more warriors who would win more prestige for themselves by fighting for the most successful chieftains. Eventually, the best chieftains grew to be mighty enough to conquer other, lesser chieftains and establish themselves as kings over wide areas. Being Vikings, they didn’t hesitate to do so.[8]

The transition from chieftains to kings was slow and ragged, and different parts of Scandinavia underwent the shift on different timetables. Broadly speaking, Denmark was the first, with kings having already begun to establish themselves there in the eighth century AD. Next came Norway, whose first kings came to power in the tenth century. And, finally, in Sweden, the shift had been more or less completed by the mid-thirteenth century, although Sweden remained quite decentralized all through the Middle Ages.[9][10]

Compared to chieftains, kings weren’t just more powerful rulers; they were also a different kind of rulers. They had more in common with other European monarchs than they did with the Vikings chieftains who had preceded them.[11]

As the scale of a ruler’s power became larger and larger, it became increasingly impractical to maintain the bonds of direct, warm, friendly loyalty and the gift economy that had been the hallmarks of the chieftains’ mode of rule. These were replaced by more impersonal and bureaucratic administrative and military structures. The king’s followers had much more specialized roles in both war and peace, rather than almost all being first and foremost warriors and some having other, secondary positions, as had been the norm under the chieftains.[12]

Norse chieftains had governed loose and ever-shifting confederations of people, and succession was a free-for-all. Kings, by contrast, established sharply-delineated rules for succession and governed sharply-delineated territories and all who happened to live within their boundaries. Rather than raiding other peoples for the necessary wealth to rule, as the chieftains had done, kings took that wealth from their own people in the form of taxes and fees.[13] These were in theory for the protection of the taxpaying populace against foreign aggressors. In practice, however, when the people were threatened by such foreign aggression, whether and to what degree the king and his men actually responded varied considerably from case to case.[14]

The Vikings’ shift from chieftains to kings occurred at roughly the same time that the Vikings were converting from their native pagan religion to Christianity. Intriguingly, there seems to have been a religious dimension to how the political transformation was interpreted.

As we’ve seen, the relationship between chieftains and their warriors was primarily one of mutual obligation, despite the great difference in power between the chieftain and his warriors. Pagan sacrifice – where the people would offer sacrifices to the gods in exchange for success in battle, bountiful harvests, or any number of other desired outcomes – manifested this same idea of mutual obligation between highly unequal parties, maintained by a gift economy.

There was an element of unconditional fealty present in the chieftain-warrior relationship as well, exemplified most strikingly by the expectation that an honorable warrior would sooner die by his chieftain’s side than flee and live. But this was largely subsumed by the sense of mutual obligation; a warrior could, after all, choose to whom he offered his mortal loyalty, and leave one chieftain for another if he thought that another would treat him with more generosity.

With the rise of kings and the importation of Christianity, the emphasis was reversed. The relationship between the king and his fighters – which had necessarily become much more impersonal with the great increase in the number of fighters each king commanded – was spoken of in terms borrowed from Christian language. In the same way that Christians were supposed to serve God unconditionally as his “slaves and thralls,” so, too, were a king’s men supposed to serve him.[15]

Nevertheless, an element of the older relationship of reciprocal duties survived in the form of the taxes-for-protection model, which became, in an important sense, the updated version of the loyalty-for-generosity model.[16]

So while the rise of kings made the Vikings more formidable raiders and fighters in the short term, in the end it proved to be part of a constellation of deeply intertwined developments that doomed the distinctively Viking way of life by bringing the Scandinavians into the European mainstream. By the thirteenth century, Scandinavia was, in the eyes of Europe, no longer a savage land of barbarians that lay to the north of Europe; it was a part of Europe.[17]

The Legal Assembly

But Viking Age politics wasn’t only a matter of the raw, personal power embodied in chieftains and kings. Alongside those institutions stood the legal assembly (þing in Old Norse, pronounced like the modern English word “thing”), which held power by law rather than by force.

Despite the Vikings’ reputation for savagery, their societies placed a high value on law. In fact, law was so central to their way of life that the English word “law” itself comes from the Old Norse lög. The word was used so much by Vikings in England that it made its way into the English language.[18]

Norse legal assemblies were typically held out-of-doors in an area marked off by a fence or a rope. All free men seem to have been able to take part in them. Slaves, the lowest of the low in the Viking social hierarchy, couldn’t participate, and women seem to have only had a voice when they acted as representatives of male relatives who were unable to attend.[19]

The assemblies were mostly held at a local level, although regional assemblies are known to have been held, too, albeit on a less frequent basis. Only in Iceland was there a national assembly in the Viking Age.[20]

At the assembly, the laws were recited, and amended or added to by the participants. Disputes were also settled. The assembly therefore served the purposes that we today give to the legislative and judicial branches of our governments. The substance of the laws seems to have differed from polity to polity – that is, there wasn’t a uniform set of “Viking laws.”[21] Unfortunately, we know very little about the specific procedures by which the assemblies operated.[22]

Although the þing combined what we today would call the legislative and judicial functions of government, it didn’t have an executive branch to enforce its laws and decisions. When a dispute was resolved, the enforcement of the assembly’s decision was left to the victorious party and his or her family. The typical punishment for someone found guilty of a crime was a fine to be paid to the aggrieved party. But if the crime was severe enough, or if the guilty party failed to pay the fine he was required to pay, he could be declared an outlaw. That meant that the protection of the law would be stripped from him, and he could be legally killed by anyone. This is how the þing was able to get away with not having an executive branch; it had the defendants, and the people more generally, do its “dirty work” for it.[23]

And what was the relationship between the legal assemblies and the rulers – chieftains and kings? Lamentably, the sources are virtually silent on this point, so we don’t know.[24]

Meanwhile in Iceland

Both of the main Norse political institutions – rulers and legal assemblies – existed in a highly unique form in Iceland.

Iceland was ruled by an oligarchy of goðar (pronounced “GO-thar,” with a hard “th” as in “they;” singular goði, pronounced “GO-thee”), usually translated “chieftains.” But the goðar were quite unlike Scandinavian chieftains, because they ruled fixed territories and didn’t rely on war to maintain the allegiance of their subjects.[25] They were therefore something like a cross between kings and aristocrats – hardly “chieftains” in the Viking sense of the word.

Only goðar could vote in the Alþing, the Icelandic national legal assembly held every summer on the plain of Thingvellir (Þingvellir) near Reykjavík. The Alþing was much more developed, and much more central to its country’s politics, than the other Norse legal assemblies were.[26]

Want to learn more about Viking political institutions, and the Vikings in general? My list of The 10 Best Books on the Vikings will surely prove helpful to you.

References:

[1] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 132.

[2] Ibid. p. 134.

[3] Ibid. p. 134-135.

[4] Ibid. p. 135.

[5] Ibid. p. 138.

[6] Ibid. p. 136-137.

[7] Ibid. p. 142.

[8] Ibid. p. 132.

[9] Ibid. p. 144-155.

[10] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Law and Society: Polities and Legal Customs in Viking Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 23.

[11] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 142-144.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. p. 144.

[14] Ibid. p. 155.

[15] Ibid. p. 143.

[16] Ibid. p. 155.

[17] Ibid. p. 144-155.

[18] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Law and Society: Polities and Legal Customs in Viking Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 24.

[19] Wolf, Kirsten. 2004. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. p. 152.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Law and Society: Polities and Legal Customs in Viking Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 29.

[22] Wolf, Kirsten. 2004. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. p. 153.

[23] Ibid. p. 153-155.

[24] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Law and Society: Polities and Legal Customs in Viking Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 24.

[25] Wolf, Kirsten. 2004. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. p. 151.

[26] Ibid.

The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion