Viking legal system:
Already, you’re probably wondering: vikings? Isn’t that those raiders who plundered and pillaged and killed and what not…? They had a legal system? Well, yes, they did.
Vikings were first and foremost a society who resolved their issues through legal means. Well… through a mixture of violence and legal means.
They used to have assemblies that they called Tings, where they resolved their issues with each other. And they had law makers and lawmen, who were basically lawyers of their time.
This kind of assembly is also called a Ting in Danish, and as a kid that used to make me laugh because Ting means: thing. So basically the Vikings all gathered at the “thing”. And then sometimes they had really large assemblies that they called the Alting, the “all things”. Sometimes you just have to discuss “A” thing and sometimes it’s “all the things”.
And today we’re going to discuss ALL OF THE THINGS
Kinsmen (The smell of guilt):
No matter if it was just a thing or all the things, it was important to have kinsmen and friends in the Viking age. Especially if you got into any sort of legal issue because, at the Ting, your kinsmen would have to stand up for you and stand with you.
In fact, if one person committed murder, then all of their close kinsmen had to pay reimbursement for the crime, and this could be a very expensive matter, as we will come to see. I’ve brought he receipts.
It was also important to have friends. Because a freeman could clear his name if accused of a crime: with the testimony and oath of three, six, or for severe crimes, twelve other freemen.
These were not necessarily witnesses of the crime, but instead were people who knew the accused well and were there to testify to his or her character.
So if you happen to travel back into time and end up in the Viking Age, I’d say the first thing you ought to do is make some friends for when you inevitably end up stepping on a butterfly.
Because the Vikings lived in strong communities. They were many people under the same roof. When they sailed, they were all bundled up together with no privacy at any moment of the day. And when you live like that, constantly surrounded by others… It’s really suspicious if you have no friends whatsoever.
It kind of makes everyone go: what is wrong with you that no one will speak on your behalf…? I sense guiiiilt.
Okay, so that’s a thing. Popular kids got away with things, even in the Vikings Age, but okay, you’re a Viking and have no friends, so what? How bad could it possibly get…?
Deadly Insults (Call me a coward and die):
Let’s start with something quite simple… Insults.
So picture this: you’re trailing along a busy road when someone comes riding past you. You jump out of the way and land in a mud puddle. Enraged you yell after the rider: “Watch where you’re riding, you stupid coward!”
Uh-uh…. You’ve done it now.
The man turns his horse and declares that he will see you at the next Ting and summons everyone else on the road to be his witnesses…
This is bad news. Because in the Viking Age, if you insulted a man or spoke of him in a way that could be interpreted as negative, no matter if the person was even there, or not, he would be entitled to compensation.
And the truth doesn’t protect you either. Even if the man IS a coward, it doesn’t matter. You’ve wounded his reputation by speaking like that, and in the Viking age, your reputation was EVERYTHING. It was your insurance, your means of making a living, means of proving who you are and your worth. It’s how you gained good employment and made friends. AND your reputation didn’t just reflect on you. It reflected on your entire family. Not just your kids or your parents or grandparents but also your cousins and second cousins and third cousins….
By insulting one man, you’ve effectively insulted twenty people. That’s why if you taunted a man in the Viking Age, or called him names, and by doing so disfigured his reputation, EVEN if what you said was actually true, you would be convicted of a crime and the price was pretty high.
If found guilty all of your property would be confiscated and you would be evicted from your home country.
Some words though, were thought to be so despicable and so damaging to a man’s reputation that he was legally allowed to kill if such words were said about him.
Not only was he allowed to kill the person who had said it, it was almost expected of him too. If he didn’t first take actions to clear his name, by killing the person who had spread such terrible words about him, or at the very least wound them, others might wonder why he didn’t protect his own name, and then he would effectively be ruining his own reputation for not striking down hard enough.
So, for any time-travellers out there, here’s a piece of advice: do not call a man of the Viking Age womanly or otherwise insinuate he has bedded another man. And whatever you do, do not call anyone a Nidding.
Such words could get you killed and your killer would be in the right and face NO legal consequences for taking your life.
Nidding was the worst insult. I suppose today I could call someone a "scum of the earth, despicable horrible cowardly a**hole of a waste of a human being", and we would still not come anywhere close to the word Nidding. And that’s why it was an insult that got you a get-out-of-jail-free card if you wanted to kill someone.
Come on, call me Nidding, I dare you.
Single Combat (Getting rich off killings):
Because if you do call me Nidding, that means I either get to kill you for it, or challenge you to single combat to kill you AND get all of your property and goods, if I win. Which… let’s be real, I probably wouldn’t, so please don’t insult me like that, I retrieve my taunt and offer you this video as compensation.
If you were skilled at fighting in the Viking Age though, single combat known as Holmgang was probably the easiest way to ascend the ladder of society and get rich.
Holmgangs were banned during the Christian period, but we have hints and pieces that tell us that single combats happened across Scandinavia and there were rituals and laws regulating them, which differed a bit from place to place.
According to the Heathen law from Sweden, you could challenge someone to a Holmgang if they had insulted you with one of the deadly insults we saw earlier. But if the person did not come to meet you and fight, you could call him Nidding three times in return, because that was much much worse than anything he could have said about you.
Now if you both show up, then a date is set and you both go off to prepare.
If you were not capable of fighting, you could designate another to fight in your stead on the day. A specific area was designated for the fight. It could be a small island, a fenced area, or atop some hides on the ground. If one of the two duellists stepped out of the designated area, they lost and were called a Nidding.
The duel didn’t necessarily have to end in death. Sometimes drawing blood was enough to end the duel but often death was the natural end since no one wanted to flee and be called a Nidding.
You could basically challenge anyone to a duel by insulting them. And if you were a skilled fighter there would be ample reason to do this because the winner of a Holmgang gained the property and goods of the loser to compensate them for the threat to their reputation.
I have seen some modern historians refer to the compensation of single combats as being equal to robbery, but it really wasn’t. Thievery was the worst kind of crime in the Viking Age and that’s because to steal from someone you not only had to have bad intentions, you also had to lie and conceal your actions. On the other side, a Holmgang was announced and fought in front of witnesses without any concealment. Even if you went into a Holmgang hoping that the other person would lose so you could get their property, you still risked a lot by challenging someone. You risked not just your own life and your own property, but something much more precious: your reputation.
For if you lost, you would be treated as a Nidding until the end of time. A most despicable person with no worth whatsoever. And as a result of this name calling, you likely wouldn’t be seen as being good enough to get into the cool afterlife of Valhalla once you died, either. So by challenging someone to single combat, you risked losing everything.
I think the lesson to learn here is that in the Viking age, the one thing that could get you into the biggest kind of trouble was a quick tongue. Watch your words fellow Vikings, watch your words. Don’t want to insult anyone.
Love Poetry (How not to pick up girls)
Even if you weren’t out to harm or insult, your words could get you into serious trouble. Even if you were just… you know, in love.
There was a time when writing a love poem to declare your love was thought of as romantic, desirable even. Well, that time was NOT the Viking Age.
Composing love poetry for a woman was risky business that could have you outlawed, which basically means deported. So if you absolutely insist on composing poetry for the woman you love, then please make sure she likes it, or at least likes you, so she won’t haul you to the Ting to have you shipped off to foreign coasts.
Outlawry (The worst criminals):
Because that was the usual punishment for hard crime, like an insult or composing a love poem. (yes these were harsh crimes) The punishment was outlawry, which in today’s world would mean deportation and confiscation of all property and goods.
You could get outlawed for many different reasons. This is why Vikings made settlements in so many places outside of Scandinavia. Some of the worst Scandinavians were the ones who left Scandinavia to live elsewhere. Because usually they did so because they had been outlawed at home… I mean Erik the Red who was the first Scandinavian to really settle in Greenland and whose son, Leif the Lucky is known for sailing to North America, moved to Greenland after being outlawed first from Norway and then from Iceland. A true criminal of his time.
If you were fully outlawed you were banished from society. Your property was confiscated. You could not be fed or sheltered. Wherever you went, you could be killed by anyone who saw you without penalty. Again, it was almost expected that people ought to kill you on sight.
Lesser outlawry was slightly different. It meant that you were only banished for three years. And your property was not confiscated, making it possible for to return to a normal life after the three years were over… if you survived that long.
Because if you did not leave the country you had virtually no means of staying alive, as it was against the law to trade with an outlaw.
A lesser outlaw still had it better than a full outlaw because he was immune from attack at three places within the country in question, or within a bow-shot of them, or on the roads that connected the places, as long as he moved more than a spear-length off the road when other travellers passed.
I just love these measurements.
An outlaw had no entitlements, and was at the bottom of society. Even thralls, Viking Age slaves, had it better, and the reason for this is most probably that an outlaw was someone who had benefitted from the rights of a freeman, unlike a thrall who had never been considered free. An outlaw was a former freeman who had committed a severe crime, which shamed everyone who had family ties or friendly relations with him. Effectively an outlaw was a freeman who willingly threw away all of his bonds to kinsmen and friends and all of his personal rights.
Under no circumstance could such a person be deemed honourable, and in Viking Age Scandinavia, honour was law.
Murder (Killing isn’t murder):
But the Vikings did kill, and to our modern day eyes that doesn’t seem very honourable.
As we saw above you were legally allowed to kill a man for insulting you… but they also made a clear distinction between Killings and Murders. These were not synonymous actions in the Viking Age.
A killing was not necessarily seen as dishonourable. It was an action that happened at broad daylight and was not hidden. If you killed someone, you’d confidently admit to the deed at the Ting. Often the other person might have wronged you in some way, but even if they hadn’t, a killing was to take another’s life openly without hiding the action, often with witnesses present and it was merely seen as taking action, and responsibility for your own life, which was a good thing.
A murder however… A murder was to kill another and conceal the action. It was a most despicable deed. Almost as bad as stealing from someone. Yes, theft was a terrible crime. The worst crimes in Viking Age Scandinavia were basically crimes related to lying and not being truthful.
That’s why killings were punished less harshly, because you were up-front and truthful about it. Whereas murder, something you had hidden away and wouldn’t admit to was seen as a terrible crime. If you can’t stand up for your own actions then why did you act in such a way? It makes no sense to a Viking. And it means that no one can trust you.
Wounded by a king :
To be honourable was to stand up for your actions and beliefs and be up front about who you are take responsibility for what you have done that has caused harm to others. Everyone was responsible for their actions.
Even a king.
The king was subject to the law, not above it.
There’s a section of the Norwegian Gulating law, which dictates how much any given man, freed-man, freeman, and even a king should give in compensation for wounding someone.