A Court called Thing – ‘þing’
An outline of random findings and thoughts
Please….. before reacting in any way, read these introductory lines!
For quite some time already I had the intention to write an article about that ancient legal term called ‘Thing’. But there always were so many other interesting topics to write about. Well, now I’ve done it and again a topic can be removed from my TO DO list. But I have to admit that it isn’t a typical book with a nice and logical structure. I’ve just formatted a little bit the older and recently gathered information and not all used sources were checked in the way I usually do when writing a book.
So, just take this contribution as the sub-title already says: An outline of random findings and thoughts.
Additionally, some results of a few nice discussions from the last years are also implemented.
Reading at first, the word ‘Thing’ might confuse many because of its many common meanings like an item, an object, a matter and in the context of a sentence it also has many other meanings, like in “that isn’t my kind of thing”, “take things as the come”, etc. But in this contribution the term has the specific historical meaning of an assembly or a court of justice. If the term is used in that meaning below, it is capitalized here. Orally, too, there is a difference because today this word Thing is usually spoken as ‘ting’ – like ‘ring’ but instead of the ‘r’ a ‘t’.
Nevertheless, the linguistic roots of both words ‘thing’ and ‘Thing’ basically may have been the same.
While researching, there was a lot of ‘information’ gathered concerning the Thing or in an older spelling ‘þing‘. Some of that clearly on a scientific level, others only seem to have such a level, however that was not possible to verify. Other information, again, did not claim such a level. The following text also does not have any academic pretensions.
The academic reader will also miss both references to literature in the text and footnotes – but those who want to research themselves more about this, can have a start in the overview of used sources at the end.
There is surely much more to tell about the Thing than is presented here. If, after reading, you would like me to add some related interesting piece of information….. just send it in a mail to me and if it fits in my opinion, I’ll be happy to revise this contribution.
Enough said now….. from here this ‘Thing’ text starts … starting with …
A god called Thincsus
Votive altar for the god Mars-Thincsus and the goddesses Fimmilena and Beda. Source: Germanischer Götterglaube, by GardenStone, p. 239.
The oldest written source in which the word ‘Thing’ often is assumed to appear is an inscription on a votive stone from the third Century CE, found at the Roman fortress Housesteads (its ancient Roman name was Vercovicium), at Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. The Latin name MARTI THINCSO on this stone is grammatically the Roman Dative case, in the nominative form this may become MARS THINCSUS.
The altar is over six feet high and on the right side a standing woman is depicted who has her right arm outstretched:
Several older scholars have suggested, that this figure and a removed one on the other side of the Altar stone would be the in the inscription mentioned two Alaisiaga goddesses the one depicted here would be then Fimmilena.
Tall square pillar which may have been the left-hand jamb of a shrine’s doorway (Collingwood and Wright, RIB, 507). On the right side of the pillar is a female figure, perhaps an Alaisiaga, in relief. The pillar was found with a sculpted arcuate lintel which portrays in its central panel Mars with sword, shield, and spear. A goose stands to his right. Cross-legged nude figures, carrying wreaths in one hand, offer palm-branches to Mars.
Georgia L. Irby-Massie’s description of the altar in Military Religion in Roman Britain
THINCSUS, today often also written as THINGSUS, later more about that change, is assumed to be a god, who was venerated by the Germanic tribe TUIHANTES. This assumption is based on the Latin inscription on that stone (perhaps he was also honored by the Frisians):
DEO MARTI THINCSO ET DVABVS ALAISIAGIS BEDE ET FIMMILENE ET N AVG GERM CIVES TVIHANTI VSLM
DEO MARTI THINCSO ET DVABVS ALAISIAGIS BEDE ET FIMMILENE ET N(VMINI) AVG(VSTI) GERM(ANI) CIVES TVHANTI V(OTUM) S(OLVIT) L(IBENS) M(ERITO)
To the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and the divine spirit of the emperor, the Germanic tribesmen from the Tuihantis willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.
St. Olav speaks at a Thing. Christian Krohg, ca. 1890. Source: Book: Snorre Sturluson: Heimskringla, J.M. Stenersen & Co, 1899, Wikimedia commons.
What this Latin promise at the end comprised is unknown; the connection of Thincsus with Mars could point very well to battle. It is often assumed, that Thincso is related with a court of justice and jurisdiction, but this does not seem very logical here, except perhaps restricted to a military court.
Maybe such a sphere of competence would fit better to the goddess Fimmilena:
Her name is brought in connection with the Frisian legal term ‘Fimmelthing’, probably a tribal assembly where also judicial procedures took place. However, this term, (Fimelthing) does not appear before the 11th or 12th Century – a time in which the people in the Frisian regions were Christianized for many centuries already. It simply does not seem really likely, that in that time such a reference to an ancient heathen goddess would have been accepted in political or juridical organization.
Additionally, the expression ‘final judgement’ is sometimes added in this context. Therefore too, Fimmilena is often interpreted as a goddess of justice.
However, the etymology of the name of this goddess is not yet clearly satisfying: it is brought in connection with ‘Fimme’, ‘Fimmiki’, ‘Fritlinmud’ and ‘Frithumund’ with the meanings peaceableness and protectress of peace_; hence the connection Fimmilena with Thing isn’t obvious.
Neither is the presumption convincing that the Frisian Bodthing, the term is in several languages written as: botdinc, botthinc, botting(h), bothing, bottinge, bodthing, bodding, baduthing, bedthing, bodthing, boddening, botdunck, boteding, bott(h)ing, bötting, and poting, would be point to the goddess Beda. These names for such a court also did not appear before the 12th Century at earliest; at that time it concerned a court of justice, a popular assembly or a State Diet, ordered by the King or his local representative. The term points in German to a “gebotenes gericht”, which is a court session ordered by the king or another high noble.
Whether the name Beda is related to Germanic *beda-, *bedam, *bida- and *bidam, which all deal with request, prayer, patience, plea, wishing, worshiping is hypothetical. Such a relation is based again on the since the 19th Century established relation between Thincsus and the later term Thing.
Anyway, in both cases, the terms Fimmelthing and Bodthing appear almost a thousand years after the found votive stone was created.
In the Latin inscription only the Tubantes(?) appear, but because it is known, that in that English region both Frisians and Tuihantes together served in the Roman army and because it is assumed that their tribal homelands were rather near to each other, it is often presumed, that the Frisians knew these three deities too. However, that cannot go beyond the level of an assumption. Some even suggest that those Tuihantes would be in fact Frisians. That is nothing more than a highly speculative guess and not really likely.
This all even becomes a little bit more uncertain…. the Latin inscription reads TVIHANTI, which in its nominative form becomes TUIHANTES. In related literature it is assumed that people of the tribe of the Tubantes are meant, nevertheless, it cannot be explained convincingly why the Latin inscription does not read TUBANTES:
We know the TUBATTII from Strabo’s list of Germanic peoples from 17 CE and in 98 CE Tacitus mentions the TUBANTES.
Why then, on the aforementioned votive stone and also on a second one, TUIHANTI is written and not TUBANTES or TUBATTII can only by ‘explained’ by presuming. The actual interpretation offered is:
Tuihanti points to a group of people which is composed of ‘two groups’; the first parts is linguistically related to the number ‘two’ (twi) and the second part to ‘hansa’ (gothic: group, Old high German: group of warriors, Old English: hôs). The name is survived in the name of the Dutch region ‘Twente’ and its older name Tuchenti, part of the province Overijssel and borders the German region Münsterland. Almost simultaneously the name Tubanti has survived and means ‘two districts’ (counties). It is assumed, that both words are in fact pointing to the same, but tuihanti would be the Latinized Frisian translation of Tubanti.
It is also suggested, that the name Tuihanti / Tubanti does not point to a tribe with that name, but to (a perhaps split off of) the people of the Sugambri (Sicambri) because the word Tubanti is supposed to be a Sugambrian word.
Germanic council (Thing). Relief on the pillar of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Source: Was ist was, band 62, die Germanen, p. 30, Nürnberg, 2008.
Just to show how speculative the above mentioned conversion from THINCSUS to THINGSUS is and the whole further derivation with Thing…..
Grammatically there isn’t a logical reason why the ‘C’ in THINCSUS is replaced by a ‘G’:
The Germanic tribes of the TENCTERI and the BRUCTERI, both Latin names, had their homelands in the northwest of actual Germany, geographically likely not far away from the homeland of the TUIHANTI, the people who offered the votive stone on which MARS THINCSUS is mentioned. TENCTERI is translated in German as Tenkterer, BRUCTERI as Brukterer – in both cases the ‘C’ becomes a ‘K’. It is the same with the tribes of the CHAUCI, FRANCI, MARCOMANNI, etc.
We also know the names of Latinized Germanic deities like ISENBUCAEGA, SUNUCSAL and VIRODACTHIS; they all have a ‘C’ in their names which is not replaced by a ‘G’ – SUNUCSAL, also written as SUNUXAL was a goddess of the Germanic tribe of the SUNUCI, which in its German translation becomes Sunuker. The ‘C’ becomes a ‘K’ again.
That may mean, that THINCSUS was interpreted as THINGSUS because then a connection with the aforementioned Court called ‘Thing’ could be established and on its turn that connection was used to interpret the sphere of competence of the god THINCSO.
We don’t know what was the name of the god Thincsus in Germanic languages, suggestions are thincsaz, tincsaz and þincsaz. Mainly scholars from the 19th century saw a connection between this god and Týr from the Viking era who we know approximately a thousand years later; Týr is supposedly derived from Proto-Germanic ‘*Tîwaz‘ or ‘*Teiwaz‘. This Proto-Germanic word simply means ‘god’ and may have become only many centuries later its theonym meaning, a god-name.
The language(s) of the Frisians and Tubantes from that early time precisely belonged to Proto-Germanic, hence, those two words *Tîwaz or *Teiwaz may have belonged to their language and therefore it can be rejected that Tîwaz/Teiwaz was the Germanic name for Thincsus; a Latin form of Tîwaz/Teiwaz would not become Thincsus – even in a translation this does etymologically not fit.
Germanic assembly. Source: “Wild Hunt and Furious Host” by GardenStone, 2013.
Because of the Old Norse word þing in its meaning of a ‘court of justice and jurisdiction’ which is in Norse Mythology generally seen as a sphere of competence of Týr, a search which was like a kind of back-projecting ‘quest’ was started for cognate words in Germanic languages to ‘prove’ that because of such terms, Thincsus and Týr would be the same deity. It has to be stated clearly that this does not go beyond the level of conjecture without supporting acceptable indications, nevertheless, its results often are presented as facts.
Very often it is accepted, and even as a fact, that the main aspect of THINCSUS is jurisdiction. But on the basis of the INTERPRETATIO ROMANA, which refers to the identification of a foreign god as a Roman one, this assumed aspect becomes problematic:
In Roman mythology, several derivations exist for the god MARS. One interpretation says, there is a relation with MARIS, the Etruscan god of love and fertility. Another more favored one gives *mawort-, Latin: MAVORS, an Old Italic farmer god as the origin of Mars; however, many others see this more restricted – Mars was already a god of the Latins as they were just farmers and herdsmen and he was responsible for the protection of the farms, the fields and the cattle against the ‘wild’ nature around. Accordingly, his attributes were a shield and a spear. Later Mars was seen as the defender of the city, the god of the citizens with the ability to put up a fight, needed to defend a city or a settlement against human enemies. As Rome became an army of regulars, Mars moved for quite some time to the sidelines. It was only under Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 44 BCE) that Mars returned into the center of attention. After the Roman adaptation of the Greek theotechny, Mars became the pendant of the Greek Ares, god of war and companion of armies. A difference with Ares was, that Mars was competent only for righteous and rightful wars, which was the reason, that Caesar did his very best to present his campaigns north of the Alps as just and legitimate.
Roman god Mars. Museo della civiltà romana a Roma. Source: Wikimedia commons, photographer and copyrightholder: Giovanni Dall’Orto.
Some derivative conjectures
In no way during the periods of his veneration was Mars connected to a court of justice or some assembly. For the administration of justice the Romans had the goddess Justitia and Jupiter also had that in his package of competences.
However, for the aspect of ‘justice’ and ‘court’ the search started for related words in the several Germanic languages. That led to quite a ‘field’ of conjectures, not all dealing with Thincsus …
The old words þing, Thinc and Thing would be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European word morpheme ‘*tenk-’ with the meaning ‘draw’, ‘tight’ and ‘span’, also concerning ‘time’… time span. The current of thought was developed as follows:
– first: a specific point of time, moment,
– second: a meeting at a specific moment,
– third: an assembly which was held regularly,
– fourth: a court of justice that took place at specific agreed-upon moments.
Thing is supposed to be derived from Germanic *Þenga-, meaning convention and assembly. There is a relationship assumed with the Gothic conception ‘*þeihs’, which means ‘time’. Subsequently, this is interpreted together as an assembly which was held at a specific time. Part of this assembly also would have been then judicial procedures where the members of the tribe were present.
A connection is surmised with the existence of a Frankish or Saxon god ‘*þingsaz‘, who would have had as his competences meeting, gathering, conference, assembly and judicial procedures. Both such a god and his competencies are just guesses, based again solely on the Roman inscription from Housesteads. Tubantes are breezily disappeared here, because to this conjecture belongs the assumption that they were merged into the tribal confederation of Saxons, who on their turn were later (first just partially) assimilated by the Franks.
Based on these previous conjectures, either on all or on some of them, the god Thincsus on the inscription is interpreted as a god of justice, which is even on many places on the web presented as a conclusive fact.
A later interpretation of the name THINCSUS does not see a connection with a popular assembly or a court of justice but rather with a sky- or war-god TIUS who is equated with the Roman Mars. This is based on comparisons with inscriptions on other votive stones where the Alaisiagae are mentioned, together with Mars but without Thincsus.
Whether a god ‘Tius’ really was known in the first Centuries is completely unknown; the Old Norse name Týr only was Latinized by the 19th Century German writer W. Wägner to create that ‘TIUS’; from that ‘discovery’ a connection with the Germanic god name ‘Ziu‘ was established which on its turn was equated with Týr.
For Týr the Old English forms Tiw, Tig are accepted as are also the Old High German forms Ziu, Tiu and Tiuz. Those last forms perhaps may have seduced W. Wägner to see in his Latinized ‘Tius’ a synonym for Thincsus being Týr. Although this ‘language-play’ is no way provable this too is often presented as a ‘fact’.
Based on the presumption that THINCSUS would be the Latin form of Germanic *þingsaz, which is surmised to have been derived from the word from that time for a ‘popular assembly”, which then is guessed to have been held under the divine projection of a god called ‘*Teiwaz’. That all is based on possible indications from many centuries later from which it is uncertain whether they are correct – those indications then are projected back in time to ‘explain’ name and sphere of competence of THINCSUS.
The words MARTI THINCSO, being MARS THINCSUS simply would mean: ‘Mars of the assembly’ and does not include the name of a Germanic god. Yet, with that description not really the Roman but a Germanic or local indigenous god is meant. Which one stays unknown.
Here too first the presumption is accepted that THINCSUS would point to an assembly, a presumption that is based again on the conjecture that there is some connection with the Norse god Týr from a thousand years later- the rest of the ‘construction of thoughts’ is based on that.
Some of these conjectures may look rather wierd, others may look more acceptable. Nevertheless, none of them is going beyond the level of a conjecture, which either makes acceptance a matter of personal favor or simply following the view of an older or more recent scholar.
According to the Germania, an ethnic essay written by the Roman Tacitus, in about 100 CE, Germanics indeed had their assemblies and courts, as can be read in the chapters 11 and 12:
“11. On matters of minor importance only the chiefs debate, on major affairs the whole community; but, even where the commons have the decision, the case is carefully considered in advance by the chiefs. Except in case of accident or emergency they assemble on fixed days, when the moon is either crescent or nearing her full orb. These, they hold, are the most auspicious times for embarking on any new enterprise. They count, not like us, by days, but by nights. It is by nights that they fix dates or make appointments. Night is regarded as ushering in the day. It is a defect of their freedom that they do not assemble at once or in obedience to orders, but waste two or three days in their dilatory gathering. When the mass so decide, they take their seats fully armed. Silence is then demanded by the priests, who on that occasion have also power to enforce obedience. Then such hearing is given to the king or chief as age, rank, military distinction or eloquence can secure; but it is rather their prestige as counselors than their authority that tells. If a proposal displeases them, the people roar out their dissent; if they approve, they clash their spears. No form of approval can carry more honor than praise expressed by arms.
12.One can launch an accusation before the Council or bring a capital charge. The punishment varies to suit the crime. The traitor and deserter are hanged on trees, the coward, the shirker and the unnaturally vicious are drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wattled hurdles. The distinction in the punishments implies that deeds of violence should be paid for in the full glare of publicity, but that deeds of shame should be suppressed. Even for lighter offences the punishment varies. The man who is found guilty is fined so and so many horses or cattle. Part of the fine is paid to the King or State, part to the injured man or his relatives. In the same councils are elected the chiefs, who dispense justice through the country districts and villages. Each of them is attended by a hundred companions, drawn from the commons, both to advise him and to add weight to his decisions. “
Again, neither this nor other ancient sources contain indications that the word Thing or a variation thereof was used for such gatherings at that early time.
A Thing of the Frisians. Roever, N. de, Dozy, G.J., Het leven van onze voorouders, vol. 1, p. 252, Amsterdam, 1913.
A little bit (more) of Etymology
Maybe the West-Germanic expression ‘*þiŋʒa-‘ and the Lombard thinx were derived from Proto-germanic ‘- (*þiŋʒ-s*þiŋʒiz-, -az-), with the probable meaning: ‘A meeting on a certain moment’. Yet again, this too does not automatically imply a connection with the god with the Latinized name Thincsus (þincsaz?); a phonetic similarity does not self-evidently mean similar semantics!
Rudolf Simek, in the German edition of his well-known dictionary of Germanic Mythology “Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie” from 2006, writes (translated):
“Thing: Old Norse ‘þing‘, Old English ‘ðing‘, Old-Frankish and Old Saxon ‘Thing‘, Old High German ‘ding‘, Lombard ‘thinx‘ is the legislative and judgmental gathering of the free men in the ancient Germanic world.”
This is Simek’s interpretation. All evidence of the mentioned languages are from many centuries after the text on the votive stone was carved. Which word was used by the Tuihanti and the Frisians serving in the Roman army for such a gathering is simply not known! All the more because we do not know anything about the kind of variation or dialect of Proto-Germanic these peoples spoke.
The Online Etymology Dictionary writes:
Old English þing “meeting, assembly,” later “entity, being, matter” (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also “act, deed, event, material object, body, being,” from Proto-Germanic *thengan “appointed time” (cf. Old Frisian thing “assembly, council, suit, matter, thing,” Middle Dutch dinc “court-day, suit, plea, concern, affair, thing,” Dutch ding “thing,” Old High German ding “public assembly for judgment and business, lawsuit,” German ding “affair, matter, thing,” Old Norse þing “public assembly”). Some suggest an ultimate connection to PIE root *ten- “stretch,” perhaps on notion of “stretch of time for a meeting or assembly.”
And the English Wiktionary site offers for þing:
From Proto-Germanic *þingą. Cognate with Old Frisian thing (West Frisian ding), Old Saxon thing, þing (Low German Ding), Old Dutch thing (Dutch ding), Old High German ding ‘assembly, council’ (German Ding ‘matter, thing’), Old Norse þing ‘assembly, council, business’ (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish ting) and an unattested Gothic *þigg. It may go back to an Indo-European root *ten- ‘stretch, pull, span’, the source of Old Irish tan ‘time’, Latin TEMPUS ‘time’.
Only in the change from Thing to Dinc appears a C (Thincsus), but that language was spoken in the Netherlands between 1200 and 1500 – much to late to be acceptable for a C – G conversion.
These etymological explanations do not provide clear and plain indications, that the Germanics from before the Carolingian time indeed used the word Thing or in a near spelling variant for tribal assemblies or law courts or as a wider expression for ‘meeting, gathering’. It is all based on attempts to reconstruct those old Germanic languages and these reconstructions (or constructions) are used to ‘interpret’ which word ‘Germanic peoples’ could have used for their meetings and juridical matters. That is a way, perhaps even the only way, to build a consistent possible ‘picture’ of our early history and it surely is a valid way, but we have to be careful not to accept and spread such things as “this is our history”.
Ding-House, Maastricht, the Netherlands, called after its long-time use as Law Court. First mentioned in the 14th Century. Source: Wikimedia commons, Author: Michiel Verbeek, released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
After the reserved and questioning presentment concerning the god Thincsus and the Thing, it has to be admitted, that the reasoning for such a connection is well-sounding. Indeed, Thincsus could in its Germanic form have that ‘g’ for the ‘c’. The comparison with later Germanic words for a Thing aren’t far-fetched and the interpretation of the names of the Alaisiagae could be have a connection with a court or assembly. The etymological assumptions are accepted widely; if a c – g conversion is accepted, the Germanic form accordingly is assumed to be *þings-a-. Otherwise, if the ‘c’ is kept and seen as the ‘c’ in the tribe name Tencteri, then this could point to the aforementioned þeihs.
Because the Thing likely was in its earlier forms probably was used too for a levy, the decision for a arrière-ban, the council of war and the court-martial the step from a war god to the Thing looks comprehensible, all the more because battle and court are presumed to be connected to eachother if in an ordeal a decision is caused through a combat.
Through the whole chain of indications, deductions and linguistic interpretations this most spread interpretation concerning Thincsus is surely not reprehensible and blameworthy, it is a matter of chosen opinion.
Judicial combat, by Jörg Breu the Younger and Paulus Hector Mair, 16th Century. Source: Wikimedia commons, public domain.
The importance of a god Thincsus for ‘the’ Germanics in the Roman Era cannot be determined. We only know, that the assumably small tribe of the Tuihanti worshiped this god. Neither on some other inscription on votive stone where members of other Germanic peoples are imentioned together with Thincsus nor im some related document from roman times, his name appeared. But because those Tuihanti served together with a group of Frisians in the roman army, perhaps those Frisians also knew that god … perhaps …
Court of justice
A German teaching book from 1896 writes (translated) about the ancient Thing as a court of justice:
“Only after a lawsuit was filed it was invited to the court meeting, following the principle: “Without a plaintiff, there is no judge. The plaintiff had to charge the defendant himself before the court and submit his charge with true solemnity; then the defendant is asked to respond. Then he interrogated the defendant, who was obliged to answer clearly, precisely and truly while the judge and the bystanders were listening. When the defendant confessed, the plaintiff asked for the verdict and the judge made a proposal, which the attendant people could approve or reject. The defendant could cleanse himself from the accusation by swearing an oath, but his relatives, neighbors or colleagues had to support that as compurgators by also swearing an oath on the innocence of the accused one. On capital crimes the court could use the ordeal by battle as crucial evidence; lots were drawn by plaintiff and defendant and they had to fight each other. Whoever either won or drew a lucky number was proven right. Sacrifice was the only public punishment; it was practiced in the case of very bad criminals, deserters from army, slaves and prisoners of war. Traitors and thieves were hanged, cowards and voluptuaries were thrown in a marsh or swamp, spies and wizards suffered death by fire, and the punishment for murderers was breaking their back. But a murderer could be released from the death penalty if he paid to the relatives of the slain a number of horses or cattle as a compensation, called ‘Wergelt’. The amount of the Wergeld was related to the social status of the dead, so that, for example, for a free man a free yard had to be paid.
In addition to the death penalties, there were also the sentences to public humiliation, which could be cutting short the clothes or the hair; a short dress and short hair was a sign of bondage.
In Saxon Law, the houses were burned of those who repeatedly broke the law.
Prisons and prison sentences did not exist at that time, but a criminal could be outlawed, which means he was expelled from the society and had to live his life in the forest thicket as a peaceless forest walker (dweller?).
Those who did not want to sue could go the way of an open feud to get vengeance, retributive justice was a legal right of the ‘injured’ one. The way of feud usually was preferred by the relatives of the slain who sought blood revenge.”
In many cases in medieval times, the Thing likely was both a council and a court of justice, as is shown in the Danish prescription: Ifølge lovene mødtes alle frie, voksne, våbenføre mænd på tinge for at ordne fælles anliggender og afgøre retstrætter, meaning: Following the laws all free, adult, armed men meet at the Thing to solve common issues and decide in litigation respectively lawsuits.
For Norway it is stated:
“Every free man had a duty to meet at the Things common-meetings, except men who farmed alone and could not leave their farm unattended. However, at the Murder-Thing, the King-Thing and the Census-Thing, everybody had a duty to meet. Women and handicapped people could meet at the Thing as well.“
But it isn’t far-fetched to assume that in other late pre-Christian Germanic societies something similar was maintained as well … as long as we keep that as an assumption and not as a fact.
Similar the statement has to be taken in which is said that ‘because the Germanic people already experienced, that such a thing as the ultimate ‘right’ does not exist, they followed the rule: Truth goes for right (justness).
Thing as a parliament
Among heathen peoples the term Thing may have had a wider meaning, yet since Christian times it became the restricted meaning of a gathering of the people where the administration of justice and deciding legislative decrees were the central activities.
Concerning the Things of the pagan Vikings, all free and weapons graded men of a district were allowed to participate, women were not admitted. Such a Thing was a social and political event: For several days they built huts and tents at the gathering place (see chapter: Thingbooths), friends met there and business transactions were settled. Poetry readings or wrestling matches were offered as distraction. To larger Things sometimes groups of people from an area sent representatives.
Since the 10th Century, the meaning of ‘Thing’ was in West- and Middle-Europe mainly restricted to the work of law courts; in Scandinavian countries the meaning as an ‘assembly’ was kept alive.
After the migration in the 9th and 10th Century of Germanic peoples from Norway and other Scandinavian countries and also of Celtic settlers, several small chieftaincies or goðorð were founded around the coast. At regular, stated times people came together in meetings to discuss and solve matters between people of the chieftaincies. Such meetings were called Thing (Old Norse: Þing). The word is still kept in the actual name for the Icelandic legislative parliament which is called Althing (Icelandic: Alþingi).
Ancient Alþing in Iceland, Painting by W. G. Collingwood, 19th Century. Source: Wikimedia commons, public domain.
During the Viking era the governing basis in Scandinavia was founded in the traditional Things (þings) which from the beginning were public juridical and political assemblies which took place in the open air. That legal system already existed as the Norse settlers colonized Iceland and they continued using it in their new homeland. Except for a nationwide Thing there also existed Things on lower level; each region had its Thing, and every district, either based on population density or on geographical size (surface area, size of settlement area, etc.), also had its own Thing. Although the Thing-system wasn’t unique for Iceland, the unified Law system they created surely was.
It is often stated that the Thing was a democratic institution, however this was not the case in an actual sense; the power of the Goðar, who formed their own ruling class was too strong for that. The place where the national Thing was held is called Thingvellir.
Sketch of Thingvellir, Iceland, from 1791 or 1792 with two stable stalls in the center, surrounded by several tents. Source: Thing- , Markt- und Kaufmannsbuden im westlichen Nordeuropa by Natascha Mehler p.74. In: Mitteilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Archäologie des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit Bd. 24, 2012.
Today, the Thingvellir (Þingvellir) is a national park on Iceland and a famous tourist attraction. But from 930 CE this was the place where in June during an event of two weeks the Allthing (Alþing) was held. In Icelandic, the name Þingvellir means ‘Assembly Fields’. That name is the plural of Þingvöllur, which was the original name for the place. Meanwhile Þingvellir has become the commonly used name.
In the Allthing held here in 1000 CE the Icelanders decided to convert to Christianity and also on this place the Republic of Iceland was declared in 1944.
But the annual Things here ended already in 1798.
The actual parliament and supreme legislature of Norway is called ‘Storting’, (Norwegian: Stortinget) and can be translated as ‘the great Thing’. In its present form it was constituted in 1814, but its origin can be traced back until the 9th Century. At that time it was called ‘Althing’, which encompassed at first local and regional meetings where legal and political matters were discussed and decided. As in the 10th Century Norway was unified and became one kingdom, regional ‘lag-Things’ (law-Things) were created, ultimately under command of the king. Before the new parliament was formed, Norway was for several centuries an absolute monarchy and the jurisdiction through Things by the people disappeared until 1814.
The oldest Thing we know about was in Trøndelag. In the 7th and 8th Centuries the people living around the Trondheimsfjord had so much contact with each other that they organized their region into 8 counties. Each county had its own Thing and the higher Øre-Thing covered all those counties.
It is assumed that the Thing system we know from the Viking era was developed of this ancient Norwegian form.
The actual parliament from Denmark is called ‘Folketing’, Danish: Folketinget. Literally the word means ‘The people’s Thing’, pointing to a governing assembly formed by the people. In the 8th Century Denmark became a unified kingdom. In the course of their history, the country wasn’t independent the whole time. In the 14th Century it was part of a union together with Norway, Sweden and parts of Finland, which endured until the Swedes left that union. In the following time Denmark was conquered repeatedly. Then came a time that the country was part of a Norwegian-Danish union until that dissolved in 1814. Since 1660 Denmark was an absolute monarchy which ended when its Constitution was signed in 1849, which made Denmark a unitary constitutional monarchy, organized in a parliamentary democracy with the Folketing as its highest political body.
In medieval Denmark the word ‘Thing’ for a council was commonly used as shown in: “Landet havet sit egit Gilde, efterson Landsloven indeholder flere Bestemmelser om dem, ja endog sætter dem i Sammenligning med Kirke og Thing“, which means: The land had its own guilds, as country law has several rules regarding them, yes there is even made a connection between them and the Church and the Thing (Council).
In the Atlantic Ocean, about in the middle of a triangle formed by Norway, Scotland and Iceland lies the island group called the Faroe Islands. They are part of the Danish Kingdom but are self-governing within that realm. Except for foreign affairs, currency, the military, police and justice, the inhabitants of the islands control all other domestic matters. Their parliament is called the ‘Logting’, which is derived from Old Norse ‘lǫgþing’, which means legal assembly and court of justice. Because its roots can be traced back to the early 10th Century, this parliament belongs to the oldest ones in the world. Except for this central Thing until 1892 each of the 7 districts also had their own local Thing, called Várting.
The Løgting’s building in Tórshavn, parliament of the Faroe Islands. Source: Wikimedia commons, uploader: Erik, released under GNU Free Documentation License.
Apparently Sweden knew the Lagmän (legal experts) and the ‘Ting‘ (Thing) already quite early. However, it is not known how early, some mention the 6th or 7th Century but sources are lacking. Obviously it concerned in that early stage not a court of justice but a public assembly where even Kings were elected.
Later the juridical aspect was added and the Lagman could pass sentences together with a jury of 12 gode-män (priests). He could make someone an outcast who could be killed legally by anybody and he also could decide about fines for killings.
Only since the Viking era a supra-regional Thing as a political assembly was established. Today the Thing (þing) is also preserved as a judicial court in the Swedish administrative body ‘härad’ and is called häradsting which is the lowest court for sentencing people.
In the late Middle Ages in Sweden the terms ‘landstinget’ and ‘gutestuven’ came in use as Things in regions, these disappeared by and by, the last one was held in 1862. Today, the national parliament of Sweden is called Riksdag, but the term Landsthing (länting) is still alive and used; that concerns the administration of the 21 regions or provinces, called län, which are governed by democratic elected representatives.
The highest ruling body in Gotland since the 12th Century was called Gutna althingi, which means Gotland’s Althing. That was the Gotlandic supreme legislative, judicial and decision-making authority. For a very long time already, Gotland is part of Sweden, but the term Gutnaltinget is still in use by the Gotlanders in their own Gotlandic language for their regional administration, however, that is not an official name.
Isle of Man
The Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland, is a self-governing British Crown Dependency. Except for Foreign Relations and Defense, for which the British government is responsible, the inhabitants are practically independent although ultimately the Government of the United Kingdom can overrule things. The Tynwald (in local language: Tinvaal), its formal name is High Court of Tynwald, is the legislative assembly and probably the oldest known continuous parliament. The name Tynwald is derived from Old Norse Þingvǫllr meaning the Thing place where the members of the assembly come together.
Thing sites as cult places
Although we have hardly any evidence about prayers and other religious acts during pagan Things, it is widely accepted that they were part of it. There are quite a few indications for this. Some of them are:
1. Although the term Thing is not mentioned, a similar kind of gathering is described in the Germania by Tacitus as he writes at the end of the 1st Century in which clearly a ‘cultic’ aspect can be seen:
Unless something unexpected occurs, they gather on set days, when the moon is either new or full, because this they regard as the most auspicious time to begin their business.
Translation by J.B. Rives
2. The Old Norse expression helga þing, which means: Holy Thing, points to initiate a meeting with specific religious rites and also Old Norse þinghelgi which means “the holy boundary of a meeting within the pale fixed in the formulary”, most likely point to the widely spread assumption, that a Thing also had cultic-religious aspects.
3. A Viking chieftain was both secular and religious leader, in the second function he was a goði or gothi (plural goðar). Correspondingly a Gyðja signifies a priestess, but they hadn’t the important role the priests had. We know the goðar from the Norse Sagas in which they are described as religious and political leaders of their district (goðorð). In pre-Christian Iceland, temple-places and the temples themselves were privately owned and maintained by a temple priest (hofgoði). The goðar were also important parts of the Icelandic political system. That continued for a long time even after the Christianization there. Except from Iceland where the goðar would have been of historical importance, we don’t have further similar surviving attestations from other regions where Germanics lived.
4. On countless web pages, it is written that at Thing sites gods were also honored and worshiped. That seems acceptable, but it should not be forgotten that this opinion is based on interpretation of indications, and not on passed down hard evidence. An example of such an interpretation is the festival for the earth goddess Nerthus, described by Tacitus in chapter 40 of his Germania. That event could have been more than just a pure religious happening; it is pretty well conceivable that the meeting of the delegations of the in the Germania mentioned seven neighboring tribes was a kind of Thing where also topics were discussed like solving intertribal problems or conflicts, new allocation of hunting areas, crossing-rights etc., and maybe also hammering out plans.
Tynwald Hill in St. John’s, Isle of Man on Tynwald Day, pre ceremony, owner: Dan Karran.
Wikimedia commons, released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5
5. In a quite bombastic and rather baroque way the controversial author Otto Höfler gives his view on the Thing, (translated):
“The Thing assembly and the order which they were obliged to keep, to maintain and to defend, were part of the holy total world order. If this interpretation is correct, then the Thing was not ‘free’ in terms of an unlimited freedom of decision of its members. Neither could the traditional norms and standards and customary rights be understood as human inventions and arbitrariness constitution. They were part of the total world order, as independent from humanity as the creation of the world. But they were committed to humanity and their sacred assembly to protect a continuous fruition.”
Höfler ‘substantiates’ that view with the presumption that the god Thincsus would be the patron and protector of the Thing, which in Höfler’s opinion then basically had a strong divine character. As an argument for that view, Höfler points to Tacitus’ description where an assembly was opened by a priest. He loosely bypasses a period of a thousand years to transfer Tacitus’ short note to the Things of the Viking era and he completely leaves out the more secular Things of the pre-Viking Franks.
Höfler’s view became quite popular for awhile and even was accepted as true although its philosophical character defies any reasonable verification. Today this ‘World order view’ is hardly mentioned any more in this form.
Excluded in this contribution are the Thingplaces (Thingstätten) and their ‘Thingplays’ (German: Thingspiele), a kind of outdoor theatres from pre-war Nazi Germany during the 1930s. These outdoor amphitheatres just got a tough of assumed Germanic history. From the 400 that were planned only about 40 were built. These places are not historical just some historical information was abused for this by the Nazis. See for more information about this the Wikipedia entries at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thingspiele (in English)
A sacrifice to Thor by J.L. Lund (1777-1867). Source: Wikimedia commons, Immediate source: http://www.arild-hauge.com/kunst.htm. Original uploader: Haukurth. Public domain.
Thing in place names and expressions
The term Thing is kept in names of places like Dinxperlo in the Netherlands, Tingvoll, Tingvatn and Tinghaug in Norway, Tingstäde on the Swedish island Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Þingvellir in Iceland and on the British Isles Tynwald, Dingwall, and Tingwall – the latter place, Thingwall, was recorded for the first time in 1177 and in the 13th Century the noble family who owned the place got the noble name Thingwell. The place name is brought in connection with the Old Norse Þingvǫllr, meaning ‘assembly field’. Thus the name could indicate that it was once the place where a Thing was held.
Dingwall is a town in the Highland council area of Scotland. In the Middle Ages the Dingwall Castle there was one of the most impressive buildings around. In 1411 between the Clan Mackay and the Clan Donald the “Battle of Dingwall” had taken place. Dingwall is derived from Norse Þingvöllr – the name preserves the Viking connections in that part of Scotland.
As for Germany, from the district of the city Oldenburg in the north of Germany the names ‘dingstede‘ and ‘Thienfelde‘ are known – both are clearly pointing to former Thing sites.
Dingbuch (Thing-beech) is a part of the town Söchtenau in the German state of Bavaria; the name mentions the beech as a Thing tree.
Denghoog is an ancient megalithic (chambered) tomb on the German Island of Sylt. The name Dengboog means Thing-hill. That name makes it likely that the place with this tomb was used from early medieval times by the local inhabitants as a meeting place for gatherings or a court of justice.
In several languages the word ‘Thing’ or a variation thereof like ‘Ding’ is still known in terms and expressions as the following few examples show:
The term Thing in its more or less ‘judicial’ meaning is kept in several expressions, i.e.‘dinglich‘ (tangible, to hypothecate), ‘Bedingung‘ (condition), ‘dingfest‘ (to arrest), ‘sich ausbedingen‘ (defending oneself).
The expression “in het geding brengen” means bringing something into discussion or bringing up something, “in het geding zijn” means to be an issue, and “in het geding komen” is something coming into play. “Bedingen” means stipulating for something or insisting on something.
‘Tingsrätt‘ is the first level of the system of law courts, a district court.
‘Tinglysning‘ actually means ‘registered by the state’, most often about restrictions or responsibilities attached to a piece of land or a house. And at an election a few decades ago a Danish politician told the people: Vort lokalområde skal igen på tinge. Stem personligt på … which means: Give your vote at the Thing in our local area to …
Sometimes also in Danish ‘ting’ is used in another context, like in hver ting til sin tid (each thing in its time) and in Tag tingene, som de kommer (Take things as they come).
þinghald means conferencing and is for instance used in: rafrænt þinghald (electronic conferencing), sýndarþinghald (virtual conferencing) and tölvuþinghald (computer conferencing). A member of the congress (Thing) is called þingmaður; in earlier days it pointed to men only as maður means man.
Thing in the Netherlands
Also since the 10th century, probably even later, the ‘þ-’ in ‘þing’ was replaced by a ‘th‘. Only in Middle Low German and Middle Dutch a ‘d‘ came in use, hence the word was written then as ‘dinc’, later as ‘dinge’ and ‘ding’. Together with this its meaning became widened again: except for court sessions (Dutch: geding) it was also used for ‘making a bid’ and’ ‘two parties talking things over’ (older Dutch: dinghen) and generally pointed the term to the administration of a geographic area.
An example of the use of the term Thing (Dutch: Ding) through the Middle Ages:
Recorded since the 14th Century, but possibly an origin that must be situated earlier, are districts in the Dutch province Drenthe, called “Dingspel” or “Dingspil“, in earlier times also written as “dinxspil“. Probably at first these were judicial areas only; but later they got the wider interpretation as administrative areas, still including the legal aspect.
From 1412 it is recorded:
ellic dinxspil, ellich kerspel ende elllic buerscap wilkoren bij hem selven te samende to komen
every (administrative) district, every parish and every hamlet has to organize meetings themselves.
And from 1557:
“tlandt van D. is gedeelt in sess dingspille, ende elck dingspill hefft voele dorper onder sich”
The region of Drenthe is organized in six administrative districts and every district encloses many villages.
This ‘Dingspel’ governing structure in Drenthe was kept until the French-Batavian period (1785–1815) as the Netherlands became first a vassal state of France and from 1810 until 1813 even a part of France.
But also in other regions of the Netherlands such a “Dingspel” appeared. More to the south lies the place ‘Dinxperlo‘ which is likely derived from the words Thing (Ding, Dinx) and ‘loo’ which means ‘forest’. Together it likely points to a court of justice held in the nearby forest. The coat of arms from that town still depicts a Lady Justice, which points to that ‘Ding’.
Relief of the coat of arms of the late Dutch municipality of Dinxperlo. Source:
Wikimedia commons, Author: Apdency. Public domain.
Tithing and Frankpledge
From medieval England we know the ‘Tithing‘, also ‘Tything‘. Originating from the 10th Century, a Tithing is defined as a legal, administrative or territorial unit from early Anglo-Saxon England, meaning a group of ten households, forming a ‘Thing’ (assembly). Each household was represented by the leading adult male.
The fundamental characteristic from the Tithings was the compulsory sharing of responsibilities among persons from a family. (Family means here people related through kinship). Those leading males, called ‘Tithing-men’, also legally represented their family when an oath of allegiance had to be sworn to a Lord or other noble.
This ‘system’ was first called ‘frith-borh’, later the term ‘Frankpledge‘ was used. Literally that means “peace-pledge”.
If someone of the family had committed a crime, the tithing-man was also responsible that the accused would appear in court. If he was absent, the whole family could be amerced.
This system of ‘joint suretyship’ can be traced back to the first half of the 11th Century.
The duties of the Tithing changed during the following centuries, it became used for a wider range of legal and fiscal contents, and slowly the Frankpledge part came more in the background or disappeared in many regions. But generally in some parts of rural England, these kinds of Tithings existed even up into the 19th Century.
Today, the term Tithing is used only in a church-related meaning of paying a ‘tithe’ (a tenth) of the income as a contribution to a religious organization. Sometimes use of the term also points to a tax that has to be paid to the government. However, the etymology here is different; it doesn’t go back to the Germanic and Old English ‘þing’ but to ‘Tithe‘, derived from Old English: ‘teogoþa’, meaning a “tenth”. Tithing then is the act of paying that tenth.
Thing and Lex Salica
The Franks called a small court of justice a ‘Hûsting‘, (House-Thing), similar is the Anglo-Saxon ‘husting‘ which was a court of justice for urgent lawsuits. At such small Things, the Frankish people had to follow the rules of the tribe; their most famous set of laws was called the Salic Law.
That LEX SALICA was in the early 6th Century commissioned by Clovis I, the first king of all Franks. This Salic Law, likely named after the Frankish royal Salian dynasty, used the Latin term THUNGINUS, which is assumed to be connected to Old Saxon ‘thing-en*’ or ‘thingôn*. This Old Saxon term is also passed down through the epic poem Heliand from the 9th Century where an event or a case is meant:
Verse: 4376 reads:
[thenkean] fora themu thinge;
remember, before the event (the case);
The term THUNGINUS is likely medieval Latin, used for the first time as this Lex Salica appeared. (Due to the name of this set of laws, the word ‘salicus‘ became a synonym for Frankish). A Thunginus was a court officer who was the leading judge of the court in a district.
King Clovis I was baptized in 496, so before the Salic Law came into being. Somehow it does not seem comprehensible that an old Germanic God (Thinc(g)sus) would be honored by Christians by choosing this term. It seems much more acceptable, that the term ‘Thing’ (or its variations in the several Germanic languages) was simply common usage at the time without any religious background.
Concerning the Thing, apparently this Law several times mentions this term. In an English translation it starts with:
1. “If anyone be summoned before the “Thing” by the king’s law, and does not come, he shall be fined 600 denars, which make 15 shillings (solidi).
2. But he who summons another, and does not come himself, shall, if a lawful impediment have not delayed him, be fined 15 shillings, to be paid to him whom he summoned.
This Salic Law also states:
If any man should wish to migrate, and has permission from the king, and shall have shown this in the public “Thing;” whoever, contrary to the decree of the king, shall presume to oppose him, shall be sentenced to 8000 denars, which make 200 shillings.
If any one shall set fire to a house in which men were sleeping, as many freemen as were in it can make complaint before the “Thing;” and if any one shall have been burned in it, the arsonist shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
It looks like the term ‘Thing’ appears only in the translations, because the reconstructed Latin original does not mention that term, as exemplarily is shown in the Latin text of the above Nr. 1:
Si quis ad mallum legis dominicis mannitus fuerit et non uenerit si eum sonies non detenuerit, 600 denarios qui faciunt solidi 15 culpabilis iudiceter.
From the end of the 9th Century, so almost an Old High German translation of the Latin text of the Salian Law was made in a ‘writing-school’ in the city of Mainz. That translation reads:
Sohwerso anthran zithinge gimenit. intierni cumit iz ini sunne ni habet, gelte 8cillinga XV
The term ‘zithinge‘ is usually interpreted as ‘to the Thing’ (German: zum Thing). However, also the interpretation ‘court sitting’, (German: Gerichtssitzung) is proposed. Whether the two interpretations interrelate is not yet known, it should not be excluded.
Hence, the translations from Latin does not seem to be literal but interpretive, likely based on the aforementioned term THUNGINUS being the leader of the gathering and/or perhaps on an Old High German term for a court sitting.
Often it is stated that the king, the tribe leader or the head of the kin had the function of the chairman during the Thing, which took place in the open air and lasted for three days. The discussions and all legal matters were held during daylight only. At night, the Thing-participants had their own dwellings on the Thing place …
Throughout the Northwest and North of Europe, strategically situated places are found from which archaeological and radiocarbon dating show that those sites contained dwellings for humans, dated from 200 CE – 500 CE upward. They do not show signs of any agricultural use and no remnants of animals are found there. Researchers are convinced that these places could not have been used for permanent habitation. Such a periodical use of those ‘accommodations’ on those sites presumably indicates that it concerned meeting sites. We don’t have any knowledge of some legal society using those places for such gatherings (Things) in Northern Europe before the 6th Century. For North-Western Europe, south of Scandinavia we only have spare Roman sources about cultic meetings. Our related knowledge about Scandinavia starts in the Viking era. Any projection back in time about pre-Viking Things is based only on interpretation, of course using the knowledge that the Viking cultures were developed from earlier societies. When today the historical Things are spoken and written about, it deals with the Vikings and the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland, the European mainland and the British Islands starting at the earliest in Viking times.
A sitting of a local Thing, being a court of justice often but not always was held on one day. But if it needed more than one day, usually people could go home, as in most cases their homes were rather near. Bigger regional or nationwide Things, being an assembly in which also juristic matters were discussed and court rulings were decided, could take several days. Then so called Thingbooths were built. In the Middle Ages since the Viking era these dwellings consisted usually of a stacked sod or turf base and a tent-like roof, made for temporary use. After the Thing had ended, those booths were closed and stayed empty until the next Thing. Every leader had his own booth in which he and his retinue were lodged. Later it may have been real tent camps, but from the beginning they were more or less a bit tent-alike; the Old Norse word ‘búð’ for those ‘huts’ is often translated today with ‘tent’.
Things were even held up to the Viking colony in Greenland. Two places were found there where remnants were identified as Thing-booths.
Thing booths – left a sketch, right a picture of ancient Thingbooths. Source:
Some German sources tell about a Thing- or Courtlime (Limetree) from which it is said that the lime should have the power of augury and healing and should be able of bringing the truth to light. Many Thing-declarations ended with the words: “hereby assigned under the Limetree” (German: Gegeben unter der Linde). Some of those court-limes were also seen as free-limes, which means if a fugitive who reached such a tree no one was allowed to arrest or sentence him.
A Thing-place sometimes was even surrounded by lime trees. But not only court cases took place there; those places were also used for community meetings and even for proclamations which concerned everyone in a village.
Some of those limes were called ‘Vehmic Limes‘ (German: Femellinde, Femlinde). The word ‘fem‘ points to ‘free’. Under such limes so called ‘vehmic lawsuits’ took place (German: Femgericht, Fehmgericht). These concerned “proto-vigilante” tribunal systems which mainly were held during the later Middle Ages. They were based on a fraternal organization of lay judges, also called “free judges”. The judges of such courts only had to justify their actions directly to the emperor and they had the jurisdiction to sentence death penalties. Such vehmic courts lost their importance since the 15th Century but came back into memory in the Romance Era and a few of such courts were held again even up into the Second World War in Bavaria and in the Dutch province of Friesland.
In several old German documents the Latin words JUDICUM SUB TILIA appear, which means: Judges under the lime tree. It is assumed that in such courts the limetree as a holy tree could help reveal the truth.
Vehmic Court. Painting by Friedrich Peter Hiddemann, ca. 1880. Source: Wikimedia
commons, Das Wissen des 20.Jahrhunderts, Bildungslexikon, Rheda,
1931, public domain.
From the city of ‘Kierspe’ located in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia it is told (translated):
“Around 1490 Kierspe became the seat of a Holy Vehme, (Vehmic court) an independent jury of commoners with the right to mete out the death penalty. Such Feme juries were common in Westphalia at the time. That court was held under a Thing-lime.
In the Middle Ages, the court was often held under a sheltering tree, because it was an obligation to hold a court open-air … To protect the court, separate trees or groups of trees were planted. Naming them in order of frequency were the lime, elm, oak, spruce and ash trees. The lime tree strongly dominated, because of the superstitious attribution of diverse and strong magical effects. For instance, one should be protected most safely from lightning under the lime. But for the choice of the lime as ‘Court-Tree’ par excellence its rapid growth, the high stature, the long lifespan of several hundred years and its dense canopy were certainly decisive.
In addition, the lime can relatively well withstand ‘encroachments’ of human hands like the supporting and redirecting of branches, to increase the protected area or to set up a dance floor in her crown. The close connection between lime and court comes in some areas of Germany is also reflected by the fact that the word lime sometimes is used as a synonym for a court of justice.”
Heiner Lück, Gerichtsstätten. In: Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte. 2nd. edition, 2004.
The name ‘Dingbuche‘ (Thing-beech), which still exists in German, shows that the limetree was not always the central tree on a Thing site.
Thing in Paganism and Fantasy
The Thing of Germanic origin is not only used today as name of parliaments, it has also revived in other contexts, like:
– The German ‘Tolkien Society’ has its annual general assembly, which is highly concentrated on the life and works of the famous fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). They call this event the Tolkien Thing.
– Many members of Germany’s biggest Asatru organization ‘Eldaring’ call their annual assembly ‘Eldathing’. Other German Asatru-groups are using the word Thing too in similar contexts.
– An independent group of Dutch Pagans had held in the Netherlands a “Lowlands Asatru Thing” in which lectures and workshops were offered and rituals performed. Another similar event is in planning.
– The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international living history group which studies and recreats parts of European culture from before the 17th Century, regularly organizes for their members meetings, often called SCA Encampment; the term Thing is quite often used for that, accordingly their tents are called Thing-booths. The name of this society was coined by the famous SciFi (Science Fiction) author Marion Zimmer Bradley.
– The LARP group “Hanaheim” uses the term Thing in “Holy Thing” and “Winterthing”. They’re no re-enactment group but nevertheless historically inspired; the center of their activities is Hamaheim which is a fictional free port, based on the historical town Hedeby.
– The word ‘Thing’ is on many more occasions used today, in paganism, in reenactment, in role playing games, and surely not least in fantasy literature. A short web search will show that clearly.
SCA Chivalry Tournament, May 2008. Source: Wikimedia commons, Author Jonathunder, released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
In the Middle Ages the Isle of Moster, located in Western Norway had its own Thing, called Mostrathing. According to current knowledge, the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason (960s – 1000) who is said to have been the first Christian King in the north, ‘introduced’ Christianity to his people at the Mostrathing in a speech in 995. The Ágrip, a short synoptic history of the kings of Norway loosely reports:
It was there that the heathens adopted Christianity and Olav his kingdom.
Usually this is considered a myth, in reality, in many cases it may be spoken of a forcible conversion of the Norse.
Olaf Tryggvesson at the Mostrathing. Source: The Story of Norway, by Hjalmar H. Boyesen, New York, 1886, chapter 10.
Free translation of an article from January 2012….
On January 11th 2012 on the bee-farm Mandl in the town Schwechat in Austria, a gathering of over 200 beekeepers and farmers was held, using as a model the assemblies of the ancestors.
Every Thing participant could stand up and speak freely about pertinent problems and concerns. The main theme was the intensive use of pesticides and the effects on humans and bees. To the topics of the matters discussed, belonged the possible causes of the so called ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. The participants reported their own experiences with this phenomenon, about relevant test results and their evaluations, as well as the costs associated with the bee population problems in the first place for the bees but ultimately for the people.
At the beginning of the meeting the ‘Thing peace’ was proclaimed: no one was allowed to attack others because of their words, any ‘fight’ was prohibited. That made it possible to discuss for several hours and reach decisions in the end.
A pub called Thing
In Augsburg, a city in the south of Germany a pub called ‘Thing’ exists. In 1974 a club was formed which had as aim to present children and teenagers from a sink estate a meeting place. A few months later a pub with the name ‘Thing’ was started in which quite some activities for the kids were organized. Later a beer-garden was added too. The club does not exist anymore, but the pub does and even has its own website: http://www.thing-augsburg.de
The ca. 5000 year old megalith tomb containing two dolmen in the south east of the Danish isle of Ærø is called Tingstedet, which means Thing-place. Obviously in Viking times that place was used to hold local Things. But the word is also used for many known Thing-places in other areas in Denmark.
The Mader Heath
The webpage of the German city Gudensberg in the north of the German state of Hesse tells about history of their city district of Maden (free translation):
The Mader Heath was a cult place of the tribe of the Chatti and in the Carolingian times (or: time of the Carolingians), a gathering place, and for many centuries in the Middle Ages a Thing site and assembly place of Hessian estates. There were burial sites and flint axes from that time found there. It cannot be ascertained beyond doubt whether it here concerned Mattium, the capital city of the Chatti, which is mentioned by Tacitus. At least since 1121, starting with the noble family of the presiding Gisones who were district counts, Thing and district courts were held. From a small hill tax decrees were declared and the levy performed.
In the upper-north of Germany, in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, in the region called Angeln (the assumed territory of the early people of the Angles, Latin: ANGLII), lies a historical Thing-place which is called today “Guly-Thing“, likely named after the near village Gulde. Since the 15th Century in their village-thing the villagers regulated jurisdiction matters and any controversial issue. This village Thing existed until the 19th Century.
The stone circle is dated the 3rd Century CE, the time the ANGLII (the English) or perhaps the Aviones lived there. It implies that the people at that time had build that place. Hence, such an early gathering place is likely. The actual place is a reconstruction from 2003, the original place was somewhere else nearby.
Whether the people in that time called their assembly or court a ‘Thing’ is completely unknown, most likely that is not the case. At any case, the place name Gulde was recorded for the first time in 1497.
Stoltebüll, an ancient court Square (Thing-place) in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Source:
Wikimedia commons, picture and copyright: Clemensfranz. Released under GNU Free
Documentation License’, Version 1.2.
It should be remembered that our actual knowledge about ancient languages like Proto-Germanic is based on attempts at (re)construction by linguists, on which agreement exists among other scholars in the same field of study. Nevertheless, these things also change. Modern linguists reject much of what was still commonly accepted several decades ago concerning those old Germanic languages. Knowing that and also all uncertainties described above, a critical attitude towards the many loosely uttered statements like “We know the Thing already existed since the Germanics from Roman times” and similar, is highly recommended!
Surely, and not least, that same kind of attitude is suggested concerning this whole contribution.
Additionally, here is one more time remembered the remark in the foreword, that sources were used from quite divergent quality. So please, before accepting things you’ve just read, critically check the quality yourself first.
Here ends this outline of random findings and thoughts about a court of justice respectively, an assembly called Thing.
It ends with a list sources used for this ‘Thing’ contribution.
Books and articles
Many of the above information was gathered over the years and saved either digitally in short notes or on many ‘sticky notes’. Most of them I used to write the above and the sources below were consulted additionally.
Anz, Christoph, Gilden im mittelalterlichen Skandinavien, Göttingen, 1998.
Beck, Wenskus, Sveaas Andersen, Schledermann, Stefánsson, Dahlbäck: Thing. In: Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde Band 5: p. 443–465, Berlin 1984.
Brink, Stefan, Comments on Inger Storli: ‘Court Sites of Arctic Norway: Remains of Thing Sites and Representations of Political Consolidation Processes in the Northern Germanic World during the First Millennium AD?’ (Norwegian Archaeological Review 43(2). In: Norwegian Archaeological Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, 2011.
Gamillscheg, Ernst, Romania Germanica, Band 1: Zu den ältesten Berührungen zwischen Römern und Germanen. Die Franken, Berlin, 1970.
Gomme, George Laurence, Primitive folk-moots or open-air assemblies in Britain, London, 1880.
Hardt, M., Volksversammlung. In: Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde Band XXXII: Vä-Vulgarrecht, p. 589-591, Berlin, 2006.
Höfler, Otto, Der Sakralcharacter des germanischen Königtums. In: Kleine Schriften: ausgewählte Arbeiten zur germanischen Altertumskunde und Religionsgeschichte, zur Literatur des Mittelalters,zur germanischen Sprachwissenschaft sowie zurKulturphilosophie und -morphologie, Hamburg, 1992.
Irby-Massie, Georgia L., Military Religion in Roman Britain, Leiden, 1999.
Iversen, Tore, Ragnar Myking, John, Thoma, Gertrud, (/Ed.), Bauern zwischen Herrschaft und Genossenschaft, Peasant relations to Lords and Government, Trondheim, 2007.
Köbler, Gerhard, Altsächsisches Wörterbuch, 3. Auflage, 2000ff.
Lenzing, Anette: Gerichtslinden und Thingplätze in Deutschland. Königstein im. Taunuss. 2005.
Meister, Aloys, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte von den Anfängen bis ins 15. Jahrhundert, Paderborn, 2011.
Neumann, Günter, Namenstudien zum Altgemanischen, Berlin, 2008.
Polomé, Edgar, C., Götternamen der Germanen (Divine names of the Germanic Peoples / Les noms des dieux germaniques), in: Namensforschung: ein internationales Handbuch zur Onomastik, p.1838, Berlin, 1996.
Rives, J. B., (Transl, and comm.), Tacitus Germania, Clarendon Ancient History Series, Oxford, (1999), 2002.
Sanmark, Alexandra, The Case of the Greenlandic Assembly Sites, in: Norse Greenland: Selected Papers from the Hvalsey Conference 2008, Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 2:178–192, 2010.
Udolph, Jürgen, Namenkundliche Studien zum Germanenproblem, Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, Ergänzungsband Band 9, Berlin – New York, 1994.
Weigand, H., Tecklenburg, A., Deutsche Geschichte. Nach’ den Forderungen der Gegenwart für Schule und Haus, Hannover 1896.
An unsorted overview of visited webpages: