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28. Social Institutions

Gunnar Karlsson

Subject Literature » Medieval Literature

Place Northern Europe » Scandinavia

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631235026.2004.00031.x


There is little reason to doubt that, from their first appearance on the scene of history, Germanic tribes normally lived under the rule of kings. By the end of the pagan period in Scandinavia, kings seem to have been so numerous there, at least in Norway, that they can hardly have had more than a few thousand subjects each. According to Sigvatr Þórðarson, court poet of King Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway, the province of Upplǫnd alone was ruled over by 11 men before Óláfr had it converted to Christianity in the early eleventh century. 1 However, by the end of the Viking Age in the eleventh century the whole of Scandinavia had been united into the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Since the formation of these relatively large kingdoms coincides with the adoption of Christianity in the area, it seems overwhelmingly likely that ambitious kings made use of Christendom as a weapon in subduing old, traditional petty kingdoms. In the case of Norway this can be deduced from the kings’ sagas. Here Scandinavia seems to have followed common European practice in the early Middle Ages ( Stancliffe 1980 : 59–63, 70–7). As well as being subject to kings, the Germanic peoples held regular assemblies, which were called Þing (in sg. as well as pl.) in Old Norse, and were probably attended by all able-bodied, free males. The Roman author Tacitus describes assemblies of this kind among ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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