Government - The Vikings for Kids and Teachers Illustration

The Vikings

No Central Government: The Vikings did not have a central government. Norsemen banded together in small groups or clans. Each clan had a village. Each clan or group was led by a chief (sometimes called a king.) Viking government, although not centrally organized, was well organized. Law and democracy were at the root of Viking government.

A Thing:  Each chief was assisted by a council. But the chief and council could only guide. All free men in the village took part in final decisions at a "Thing", or a meeting. Although the chief ran the Thing, free men (citizens) voted. Their vote was final. They voted on laws and added new law. They voted to decide who owned a piece of land or what punishment someone would receive if they were found guilty of breaking the law. At a Thing, people could defend themselves and present their side of a situation. They could also call any free man as a witness. After everyone was heard, a vote decided the outcome of a disagreement or a trial. Once a year, an Althing was held. At an Althing, free men voted on the most important things, like the election of a new chief or a new king.

Laws and the Law-Speaker: There were no law books. Laws were not written down. Instead, one person in each village was assigned the job of memorizing all the laws of that community. He was called the law-speaker. Some laws were true for all Vikings. Some laws were true for that particular village. The law-speaker knew all the laws of the Vikings and of his village. It was a very important job, and he was a very important person in the village. After new laws were passed at a Thing, the law-speaker would go to the law rock. It was there that he recited all the laws, including any new laws, to all of villagers - women, children, and slaves who had to assemble at the law rock and listen, along with any free men who chose to listen to remind themselves of the law. If there was any confusion about a law, during a Thing, the law-speaker would explain the law to the assembly.

Crime and Punishment: The punishment for a violent crime was typically to declare that person an outlaw. Outlaws were rejected by their village and had to flee into the woods and hide, or leave the area entirely and live in the wilderness, because anyone was allowed to hunt down an outlaw and kill them. Eric the Red, as famous as he was, was banished from Iceland because he killed another Viking in a fight. Punishment was severe for violent behavior towards other Vikings. Lesser crimes might be settled by a fight, or by taking land from the guilty and giving it to the victim or the victim's family. Some disagreements were resolved with a compromise. Others ended in laughter. The Vikings tried to be fair and not to allow personal feelings to enter into their vote.

Women: Norse women were not considered property of their husbands as women were in some ancient cultures. Although women were not permitted to vote at a Thing, Norse women did enjoy a great deal of freedom. Women ran the household. They ran the farm when their husband was away. They could own property, will property, run a business, and divorce their husbands. Acceptable reasons for divorce included things like he is not taking care of the farm or he's abusive to his wife or his children. If divorce was granted, the wife received the farm and the kids, and was free to remarry or not. But women clearly were not equal with men. For example, men were encouraged to carry weapons. Women could not carry weapons. A woman was responsible for anything domestic in the home - such as making clothes, gathering and cooking food, taking care of the household and the house. A woman could not wear men's clothes. A woman could not cut her hair short. There were many things women could not do, but still, women in Viking society had much more freedom than did women in most other ancient cultures. In the ancient Greek world, for example, most women had little or no freedom.

Family: The family was an important unit. You can see this from their laws. Norse laws of inheritance, for example, stated women had a right to inherit. Sons were given priority over their sisters. But sisters were given priority over their uncles and grandfathers. Women could inherit land from their children, if their children died without living children of their own. This helped to keep families and family property together. These laws might have been created because men were frequently away from home, fighting, raiding, and trading.

Religion vs Law: In the Viking world, it was not the church or their gods that dictated Norse behavior. It was Norse Law that dictated their daily life and actions.

Laws, Trials, and Things (meetings to discuss things)

Vikings and the Law (Law is a Viking word)

Rights and Freedoms

What was Viking Society Like?