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Territorial adjustments

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Expansive energies: 9th - 10th century

The achievement abroad of the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century (in colonization and trade, as much as in direct and brutal conquest) is extraordinary in itself.

It seems even more so considering that in the same period the Scandinavians at home are creating their first centralized kingdoms. In811 a Danish king, by the name of Hemming, is strong enough to make a treaty with the Franks establishing the river Eider as his southern border (it remains the Danish frontier until 1864). In the following century much of Norway is united in a single kingdom. Meanwhile it is the seafaring Scandinavians, the Vikings, who are making a bigger stir in the world.


The Scandinavian thing: before the 10th century

At the time of the first Viking raids overseas, most of the communities in Norway, Sweden and northern Denmark are living in small tribal groups. They are isolated by the barriers of fjord or forest. They are pagan and not yet literate. A Christian and literate Scandinavia will not begin to emerge until the 10th century.

Yet by this time the people of these regions already have one well-established custom of lasting value and interest. This is the institution known in Scandinavian languages as a thing.


A thing is a meeting of all the free men of a community (several communities coming together for a joint meeting on larger issues constitute an all-thing). The function of these democratic gatherings is limited, for they are legislative rather than political. The free men gather either to affirm or to amend the existing state of the tribal law, which is expounded to them by experts in the matter.

In a pre-literate society this is in a sense a communal aide-mémoire, but it also enables the group to assess its own response to any new situation. The ancient tradition of the thing is echoed today in the names of the parliaments of Iceland (Althing), Norway (Storting) and Denmark (Folketing).


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