Norse Althing, Saxon Thing, Anglish Witan

Updated: Jan 31

A Thing (Old Norse “þing”) was a government assembly of early Germanic society. It was made up of the freemen was and presided over by ”eosagen,” the Old Saxon word for “lawspeakers.” The Scandinavians who venerated the Aesir used the word “Thing” to refer to their law-assembly. The Old Saxons who venerated the Aesir used the word “Thing” as well. The Anglish however used the word “Witan.” The Anglish had kings who called the Witans, while the Old Saxons did not have kings at all. The Anglish word “Witan” means “wise men” (or “men of “wit.”). There are also Anglish texts that have the word “Witenagemot

This article will focus on the Old Saxon and Old Norse “Thing.” The national legislatures of today's Iceland, Norway and Denmark all have names that incorporate Thing: Alþingi – The Icelandic "General Thing"; Folketing – The Danish "People's Thing"; and Storting – The Norwegian "Great Thing.” Like all important matters in Germanic/Norse society, the Moon decided when Thing would be held (and when the holidays would be held, i.e. full moons were when the major holidays were, See my blogs on the dating of Norse holidays):

Nonetheless, Tacitus implies that just before new moons, or just after full moons, was when "business" was transacted (presumably to stay away from the religious rites done on new moons and full moons.) Excerpt from Tacitus “Germania” (97 AD)

Translation by Robert Sass from Latin, Tacitus writing about the Germanic Tribes:

"They assemble on fixed days, either just before the new moon or just after the full moon. This they reckon to be the most auspicious starting-point for transacting business. Indeed, they do not reckon time by days, as we do, but by nights (i.e., their calendar was lunar). All their decisions, all their agreements, are made in this way: night is seen as ushering in the day…”

þing in Old Saxony:

Lebuini Antiqua 4, THE LIFE OF ST. LEBUIN, 9th Century AD

Vita Lebuini Antiqua, edited by A. Hofmeister, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores

(x926-34), vol. xxx, 2, pp. 789-95.”

“In olden times the Saxons had no king but appointed rulers over each village; and their custom was to hold a general meeting once a year in the center of Saxony near the river Weser at a place called Marklo. There all the leaders used to gather together, and they were joined by twelve noblemen from each village with as many freedmen and serfs. There they confirmed the laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases and by common consent drew up plans for the coming year on which they could act either in peace or war… Then, when they had gathered together, they first offered up prayers to their gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the gods. Then when a circle had been formed, they began the discussions.”

Bede - Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 AD): “For these Old Saxons have no king, but several lords who are set over the nation. Whenever war is imminent, these cast lots impartially, and the one on whom the lot falls is followed and obeyed by all for the duration of the war; but as soon as the war ends, the lords revert to equality of status.”

Nithard – Frankish count and historian, Grandson of Charlemagne, Histories (9th Cent AD): “Charlemagne, deservedly called emperor by all nations, converted the Saxons to the true Christian religion of God, from the vain cult of idols through much diverse toil, as it is known to all the nations living in Europe. The Saxons from the beginning were distinguished as nobles and often, with many indications, as most zealous for war. This people are entirely divided into three orders: there are those who are called in their language edhilingui, frilingi, and lassi. In the Latin tongue that is nobles, free, and servile.”

From these passages we learn the following about Saxon Things:

1. The Saxons did not have kings.

2. The Saxons had a republic which was government by the Thing.

3. The Saxon Things met annually at Marklo in the middle of Saxony

4. Twelve Noblemen, Twelve Freemen, and Twelve Serfs (the three classes in Saxony) were equally represented at thing, as each Saxon Gau (or village) sent 12 of these three classes, totaling 36 people, to the Thing at Marklo.

5. At Thing, the Saxon tribes’ laws were confirmed, judgement was given in cases, and war plans were given for the coming year.

6. Saxon Thing was done in a circle (unlike the Norse half circle)

7. The Thing began with prayers to the Gods to protect their country and guide them in making decrees pleasing to the Gods.

8. The Saxon Thing decided annually which of the Saxon Drohtins would be Theoden if there was a war. A Drohtin was a noble who had a Druhting, which was an army, hence the word “Drohtin” and “Druhting” are related words. Druhting is the retinue of soldiers behind the Drohtin. Theoden was not a king, but was the “tribes’ leader” in the event of war for that summer (or year) alone. When that year was over, all the Drohtins again revert to equality of status.

9. There are some Germanic scholars (not just of the Saxons in Saxony) that believe the modern Jury of twelve comes from not just the Saxons in Saxony, but that Norse Things used twelve people to decide which side aligned most with the laws recited by the lawspeaker. Therefore, many argue that the modern “jury” of twelve people originates in Germanic Things.

10. Per the Old Saxon Heliand passage below, circa 830 AD, swearing false oaths was a VERY serious offense at a Saxon Thing.

11. Per the Old Saxon Heliand, "oath-staffs" were used at Thing, for the swearing of oaths.

Here is an interesting Old Saxon Heliand passage (circa 830 AD) about Thing.

Another Heliand passage showing the word "Thinghus" in Old Saxon.

Another Heliand Passage, showing a law-speaker.

þing in Scandinavia:

In the Viking Age, Things were the public assemblies of the freemen of a “hundred” (Swedish: härad, hundare, Danish: herred). According to Norway’s Law of the Gulathing, only free men of full age could participate in the assembly. [Ødegaard, Marie (2013). "State Formation, Administrative Areas, and Thing Sites in the Borgarthing Law Province, Southeast Norway." Journal of the North Atlantic 501: p. 44."]

The meeting place of the Thing was outdoors and was called a thingstead. The thing met at regular intervals, legislated, elected chieftains, and judged according to the law, which was memorized and recited by the "lawspeaker" (the judge). The Thing's negotiations were presided over by the lawspeaker and the chieftain. In reality the thing was dominated by the heads of clans and wealthy families, but in one-person one-vote was the rule. Towards the end of the Viking age, royal power became centralized and the kings began to consolidate power and control over the assemblies. As a result, things lost most of their political role and began to function largely as courts in the later Middle Ages.

To be called to the Thing was regarded as important act and therefore most people tried to resolve their conflicts before being escalated at Thing. A Norse person could be fined (to pay skild), sentenced to death, or outlawed. Being outlawed meant that anyone could kill you without any consequences, something considered worse than a death sentence.

Other methods of resolving conflict were duels (Old Norse: hólmganga). To win a duel was regarded as proof that you were right, because the God’s always helped the "right" man to win. It was also seen as the just “fate” by Uurd and her Shapers (Norse: Nornir.)

In Norse society, all free people had the right to do revenge killings. Killing someone at night was dishonorable, as it did not give a person the opportunity to defend themselves honorably. The entire family was responsible if one family member made the offense. Wergild (compensation for a death) was set in Norse society for a freeman at 189 cows. Today, this is worth around $120,000 USD. The purpose of the wergild was to take care of the victim’s family.

Pictured below is the Tinghaugen mound in Frosta municipality in Central Norway where the Frostating governing assembly took place – Credit: Stig Morten Skjæran

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