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This article deals with the geographical organization of the thing system of Northern Europe prior to the processes of supra-regional kingdoms in the 8th to 10th centuries, re-evaluating the early written evidence. It is argued that at least three interrelated geographical judicial units (referred to as civitas, pagus, and centena) existed prior to the 6th century within the historic areas of Austrasia, Frisia, and Saxony. Parallels to such a tripartite system are found in Scandinavia and Iceland in the 10–12th centuries.
The question of whether and how the legal and the religious domains may have interacted within pre-Christian Norse society has been treated in various ways by scholars from a range of different fields; still, much remains opaque regarding the links between the two in the Viking period. With this article, I hope to contribute to the study of this aspect of the Viking period by focussing on assembly and the assembly site as portrayed in the mythological eddic poems. The primary question I set out to explore is: What do the descriptions of things in mythological sources tell us about the position of the thing within the pre-Christian culture of the Viking period? I account for the various occurrences of the assembly-site motif, and examine how they are constructed. While examining these occurrences, I discuss how they can be interpreted in a larger religious context.
Eddic poetry constitutes an important gateway into the pre-Christian legal universe of Scandinavia. This paper presents a broader, deeper discusson of how the thing functions in the eddic poems and the legal language and motifs that are used around this concept. It is argued here that eddic poetry can provide some insight into the ideal characteristics of Norse assemblies; indeed, Norse assemblies in real time may have drawn from motifs and concepts in the eddas. Place-name and archaeological evidence is used to demonstrate that the population of Viking Age Scandinavia strived to reproduce the “ideal assembly site”, described in the poetry, in their own landscape.
This paper discusses some consequences of the state-formation processes on the thing organization in the Borgarthing law province in southeast Norway, between the 11th and 14th centuries. The aim is to identify and discuss thing sites in relation to social organization and regionalization processes related to power structures and the emerging supra-regional kingdom. The study explores two spatial levels—a regional level and a lower administrative level—through a case study of an Old Norse skipreia unit. Questions about territoriality, stability, and change will be discussed, particularly regarding the king's shifting influence in the Borgarthing law province.
As part of an ongoing Ph.D. project focusing on medieval assembly sites in western Norway, this paper discusses administrative units in the Hardanger district. An improved understanding of the medieval administrative organization, particularly local-level units, is of vital importance for the study of assembly sites. Using Hardanger as a case study, this paper discusses how reconstruction of older administrative units can be attempted by a detailed retrogressive study combining written sources and archaeological material. Although preliminary, the investigations indicate that in some parts of western Norway, among them Hardanger, the administrative structure differed from the general model described for the region. This finding implies a larger degree of heterogeneity in social and political organization within the medieval Norwegian kingdom than hitherto assumed.
It is a commonplace notion of Anglo-Saxon studies that by the 11th century, and perhaps very much earlier, English shires were subdivided into administrative territories known as “hundreds” or “wapentakes”. These units consisted of groups of vills brought together for fiscal, judicial, and other purposes, and were commonly named after their meeting-places—“moots”. Both these meeting-places and the administrative territories to which they belonged are the subject of a three-year interdisciplinary research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust—“Landscapes of Governance: Assembly Sites in England, 5th–11th Centuries”. Landscape analysis carried out by this project suggests that the hundredal pattern of eastern England as it existed in 1086 preserves a complex palimpsest of older and newer elements, reflecting its convoluted evolution. This paper describes evidence for the hundredal patterns of the southern Danelaw in order to consider the West Saxon, Mercian, and Scandinavian influences on the administrative landscape of this region.
The assembly (thing) sites in Shetland have hitherto not been systematically examined, and their locations are more or less unknown. The aim of this article is therefore to identify the locations of the assemblies in the so-called thing parishes and analyze their characteristics, using comparative evidence from other areas of Norse settlement. As part of this process, it is proposed that Rauaring, one of two “lost” parishes, was located on the island of Yell, rather than on the Shetland Mainland as previously argued. Close examination of the proposed thing locations has revealed a number of striking features, most of which have parallels in Scandinavia. This finding demonstrates that great care went into the selection of thing sites, although with some consideration for local conditions. On the basis of the strong site characteristics, a new potential thing site has been identified in the area of Benston in Nesting on the Shetland Mainland. Finally, it is argued that the first thing sites were established by early Norse settlers in the time before the Norwegian kings had established firm rule in Shetland.
Booths are a distinctive feature of the assembly sites established in Iceland in the Viking Age. The study of Icelandic assemblies has a long pedigree. Although there have been significant advances in this field in recent years, the booths remain enigmatic, both in terms of their dating and their function. In this paper, it is argued that instead of viewing the booths primarily as functional solutions to the problem of camping in the open, it is more revealing to consider their symbolic meaning, which can be deciphered on at least two levels. On the political level, the size of the booths, their number, and their arrangement were determined by the political landscape of each assembly, providing fuel for hypotheses about political developments in late Viking Age Iceland. On an ideological and mental level, the booths can be seen as symbols of collective and individual participation in the new social and political structures being created, but also—critically in landscapes only beginning to acquire cultural signifiers—they served the purpose of marking, and thereby legitimizing, the assemblies and their functions.