Creating Kingdoms in the Middle Ages

Jelling, Denmark

The Royal Site of Jelling, Denmark

This project focused on how supra-regional royal power established solid administrative systems in new subordinated provinces and conquered kingdoms. The work was carried out by Frode Iversen and PhD students Marie Ødegaard and Halldis Hobæk.

Frode Iversen: Creating Kingdoms in the Middle Ages – Rethinking the Role of Assembly Sites 

Iversen’s research offers an overarching study that seeks to model emergent complex power systems in proto-states in Northern Europe. It will establish, via eight case studies in Scandinavia and medieval Germany, the role of the thing institution as a stimulus and propagator of supra-regional royal power systems in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages.

The project will focus on the two kinds of proto-governmental structures: (1) the areas dominated by the kings’ dynastic property and (2) the areas with a high density of property belonging to royal office. Assembly locations will be compared with cultural key features in the landscape, e.g. boundaries, burial sites, and farmsteads, as well as topographic features.

Halldis Hobæk: Borders, assemblies and power. The administrative landscapes of Western Norway 800-1400 AD

The PhD project has had two main goals: first, to identify assembly sites, and second to map medieval administrative units and investigate the development of these so as to provide a context for the assembly site.

The research area in Central Western Norway, showing three medieval fylkir, the location of the regional Gulathing and an example of a local medieval thing site.

The research area in Central Western Norway, showing three medieval fylkir, the location of the regional Gulathing-site and an example of a local medieval thing site.

Particular emphasis has been laid on the local level, both with  regard to administrative landscape and assembly sites, since there are large gaps in knowledge in these areas. Before this project was undertaken nine assembly sites were known within the research area, whereas an estimate of the sites that can have been expected to have been active in the medieval period suggests c. 80 sites as a minimum.

The project has focused on a research area corresponding to today’s counties of Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane. This area constituted the core area of the medieval Gulathing law province, and consisted of three medieval fylkir, each subdivided into quarters (fjórðungar).  In addition there were units called skipreiður, 63 of them within the research area.

These units originally belonged to the naval defence system, but gained important administrative functions and came to constitute the local judicial units with individual assembly sites. This outline is the general view on administrative organization in Central Western Norway.

The detailed study undertaken in this PhD project suggests modifications to the model at central points. First, the three medieval fylkir subdivided into quarters are argued to belong to the early and High Medieval periods, with a re-organization of the fylkir evidenced in sources from the first decades of the 14th century resulting in seven late Medieval fylkir.

Tingvikjo at the island of Føyno in Sunnhordland is a documented medieval local assembly site (thing site for Føyno skipreiða). The photo shows the bay of Tingvikjo and Tingholmen.

Tingvikjo at the island of Føyno in Sunnhordland is a documented medieval local assembly site (thing site for Føyno skipreiða). The photo shows the bay of Tingvikjo and Tingholmen.

 Second, the general view of the skipreiður as territorial units introduced in the 10th century is challenged. Instead it is suggested that skipreiður originally denoted groups, not territories, with obligations to the naval defence, and that they were transformed to defined geographical units during the 13th century – in some areas even later.

As for the identification of assembly sites, the project has applied an inter-disciplinary approach, drawing information from both historical sources and toponymic material. 17 sites have been identified from historical sources, representing documented assembly sites. Further, a total of 127 minor names have been identified, distributed on 84 sites.

For 11 of the sites the evidence gained from historical sources concur with the toponymic material, so that the total number of sites identified is 91. These sites range from ‘documented’ via ‘probable’ to ‘possible’, and represent significant new knowledge about assemblies in Western Norway.

 

Marie Kjærnet Ødegaard: Thing sites and administrative districts in Viken, Norway

The PhD-project’s purpose was to study the thing organisation in the medieval Borgarthing law province of southeast Norway, as far back in time as possible and up to c. 1600. The aim was to identify and discuss thing sites in relation to social organisation and regionalisation processes related to power structures and the emerging supra-regional kingdom.

Figure 1 - The Borgarthing Law Province, not including the fjorðungar from the modern Swedish province of Bohuslän

Figure 1 – The Borgarthing Law Province, not including the fjorðungar from the modern Swedish province of Bohuslän

The sources to the oldest organisational structure of the law province are sparse and mainly include sagas and provincial laws. According to the Saga of Olaf the Holy (ch. 61), King Olaf II Haraldsson unified the law province at the beginning of the 11th century and founded a lawthing at Borg, modern Sarpsborg. Four geographical and hierarchical levels have been identified for the medieval period. At the highest level was the law province with the lawthing, divided in Old Norse sýslur with syslur-things. Each sýsla contained a number of skipreiður, which again were further divided into fjorðungar or quarters, however, not including fjorðungar from the present Swedish area, Bohuslän (Figure 1).

Each skipreiður most likely had four thing sites related to the fjorðungar, of which one also functioned as a skipreiður thing. According to the will of King Magnus the Law-Mender from 1277 (DN IV nb. 3), the coastal Viken area was divided in 48 skipreiður. I have identified 51 possible skipreiður from the 13th century, suggesting changes through time. After the 13th century, more written sources, like diplomas from the 13th to 17th centuries, shed light on the thing organisation on the lower levels. I have identified 52 certain thing sites and 20 possible sites, however, not including material from the present Swedish area, Bohuslän (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - 'Certain' and 'Possible' Thing sites

Figure 2 – ‘Certain’ and ‘Possible’ Thing sites

I have done a detailed analysis of nine skipreiður in Borgarsýsla, present Østfold county, in the eastern Borgarthing law province. Here, with only a few exceptions, all thing sites are located close to medieval roads and/or navigable river/waters. Some are found close to junctions, crossroads and/or where water routes and land based communication meet. It seems that very few thing sites were constructed sites with standing posts, large mounds and rune stones, as seen in e.g. Sweden and England (Brink 2004; Sanmark and Semple 2010).

About 2/3 of the thing sites in Borgarsýsla were located next to or on the neighbouring farm of a medieval church, suggesting a close connection. The question is if this represents continuity or if the thing function were added to the church sites later as they became important meeting places in the late Middle Ages. In six of the skipreiður, thing sites were located next to a medieval church and places/farms with cultic or judicial names, such as –thing, –hov,- leikr– (i.e. competition) and –gallow.

The pattern might indicate continuity in the location of gathering sites. Some names are lost today, like Þingbærghom (i.e. Thing hill) in Heggen skipreiða, and some sites were moved, which indicates changes in the organisation over time.