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.
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.
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.
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.” Unfortunately, we know very little about the specific procedures by which the assemblies operated.
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.
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.