Thursday, November 25, 2010

REPORT FROM THE INTERNATIONAL VINLAND-SEMINAR IN CHICAGO, Part One

Viking Norway by Torgrim Titlestad
On October 16, a series of scholarly papers were presented at North Park University as part of the International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago. For an overview of the three-day seminar and a historical sketch of the Vínland episode, please read the Norse Mythology Blog’s “Preview: The International Vinland-Seminar in Chicago.” This next series of articles will summarize the salient points in each of the papers that were given at the seminar.

The first paper of the day was Togrim Titlestad’s “The Vikings in History & Their Effect on Modern Minds.” Titlestad, a professor at Norway’s University of Stavanger, specializes in the Viking Age and the oral transmission of history. He leads an international team of scholars in the long-term project of translating the Norwegian history of Icelandic historian Þormóður Torfason (1639-1719) from Latin into modern Norwegian. Titlestad’s latest book in English is Viking Norway.

Determined to challenge the popular image of Vikings as bloodthirsty pirates, Titlestad began his talk by describing Viking activity in modern military terms. The Viking raids of the late 8th century were “pre-emptive” strikes by the Norsemen that were designed to show Charlemagne their military strength, and the Viking ship was the “stealth bomber” of its time. The strategy was successful; there was no European attack on Scandinavia in the Viking Age, and there was no invasion by a foreign power. The Norsemen were “safe in their fjords.”

Titlestad argues that the Vikings were not the first or only group to engage in raids. Long before Vikings took to the seas, raiding occurred in other cultures, and raiders often targeted their own people. In an early use of propaganda and misinformation, Frankish chroniclers blamed Vikings for raids in which the Norsemen were not even involved. What was truly different about the Viking raiders was their use of fast, agile, and sturdy seafaring ships. In the Stone Age, the first Norwegians came from the area of modern-day Hamburg, Germany. Already in the 3rd century, Scandinavians were able to plan sophisticated overseas campaigns.

The evolving political culture in the North culminated in the development of the assembly known as the Þing, the world’s first democratic system (artificially reinvented in Scandinavian society during the 18th century). The oldest and most explicit description of the Þing is in the Germania of the Roman writer Tacitus (written in 98 CE), but the Icelandic sagas are filled with information about the assembly system. Titlestad argues that the Þing was the main export of the Viking world; the Vikings distributed concepts of democratic assembly throughout the regions they explored, conquered, traded with and/or settled. Assemblies called Þings (or local variants of the name) were introduced by the Norsemen into England, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Titlestad went on to describe various forms of the Þing in the Scandinavian lands. Each country was divided into four geographical parts – is this, perhaps, one of the many meanings of the four-quadrant sun cross? There were various levels of assembly: local, regional (“Quarter- Þing”) and complete. The Allmannaþing was an annual assembly of all freemen, including widows who had inherited property; representatives were appointed by important men of their home region. Each region of Norway had its own shipyard, responsible for both building and crewing a ship, and each ship had its own Þing that could be convened for meeting while away from home. Between ten and fifteen percent of the inhabitants of Viking-age communities were active participants in the Þing structure. The Þing was fundamentally different from the feudal system in continental Europe; its laws covered everyone.

In the middle of the 9th century, King Harald Finehair became the first monarch of Norway. In a fundamental change, power was taken away from the Þing and became centered in the hands of a single ruler. Throughout the North, kings fought and gained national independence – at the cost of the democratic institution of the Þing. The kings’ unity with Church authorities further reduced the power of the Þing over a period of two hundred years. In the 14th century, the Þing was revived as the Black Death killed off the monarchs, a development which enabled farmers to re-establish the older system.

Titlestad concluded his talk by asserting that the tradition of freedom and democracy in modern Scandinavia can be traced directly back to the time of the sagas. After his presentation, I asked Dr. Titlestad if there are records of the Þing system existing in the ancient continental Germanic lands. He replied that there is a written source from 9th-century Saxony that describes a legal structure very similar to the Þing in Scandinavia, but that Charlemagne destroyed the German legal system during the Saxon Wars (772-804 CE).

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