The Thing is…

The heart of western democracies is the assembly, the parliament. Its Germanic origin is the thing, also called ting, ding or þing in other languages. Today, national assemblies in Scandinavian countries still refer to this ancient tradition. For example, the parliament of Åland (autonomous region in Sweden) is called Lagting, of Faroe Løgting, of Greenland Landsting, of Iceland Alþingi, and of Norway Storting. The oldest written documentation of the thing is produced by a bunch of Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army, fighting in Britannia. This was in the third century, almost 2,000 years ago. Hence, these assemblies can boast of an old and successful tradition. The thing is, however, that today’s criticism on the effectiveness of these assemblies in representative consensus-building is still growing.

We are not suggesting the things of Northwest Europe are in such a low state that they can already be compared with the (regional and national) assemblies of Afghanistan, the jirgas and the Loya Jirga. These assemblies clearly did not deliver peace and prosperity for the communities they represent. Instead, tragically, half the country might empty-out the months and years to come. No, the erosion of the thing is not that worrisome. Not yet anyway. But trust in the stately democratic institutions is waning for quite some while.

According to the THING project, an international cooperation funded by among other the European Union, the thing story is a reminder of an age-old need for robust legal systems and open debate, and the importance of trying to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Especially relevant at a time of increasing internationalisation and globalisation.

In line with this plea, we formulate five advices for the thing of today how to strengthen its function. But before we do that and look at the future of the thing, we first look back. Understandably and with good reason, with a special interest concerning Frisia.

1. Matter of Things

Frisians introduce the thing

The Romans, when arriving in the northwest of continental Europe around the beginning of the common era, described how the tribes of this area governed themselves. Historian Tacitus documented how the assemblies functioned, especially in the central river area of the Netherlands, without telling or knowing the Germanic name of these assemblies. As said, the Frisians did. In the third century, an auxiliary unit of the Roman Army with Frisian mercenaries deployed at Hadrian’s Wall near modern Housesteads in Britain, erected a stone pillar and wrote the following famous Latin words:

DEO MARTI THINCSO ET DUABUS ALAISIAGIS BEDE ET FIMMILENE ET N AUG GERM CIVES TUIHANTI VSLM

stone pillar AD 43-410

“to the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germanics, being tribesmen of Tuihanti, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow”

The name Tuihanti refers to the region Twente in the east of modern the Netherlands. However, these Tuihanti tribesmen have been interpreted by different scholars as Frisians (Nijdam 2021). Furthermore, Deo Mars Thincsus means ‘god Mars of the Thing’. Mars of the Thing must be interpreted as Tiwas of the Thing. The god Tiwas, also named Tíwes or Tiwaz, is the same as the god Tuw. This was, in early Germanic times, a supreme idol. In Scandinavia it was known as Tyr.

The idol names Beda and Fimmilena of the same pillar inscription refer to bodthing and fimelthing, both of which are recorded in Old Frisian codices from around 1100 onward. A stunning nine centuries later. These were specific types of assemblies. Perhaps the distinction was: the ‘fixed thing’ was protected by the god Thincsus, the ‘extra-ordinary thing’ was protected by the god Beda, and the ‘informative thing’ was protected by the god Fimmilena (Iversen 2013).

It is interesting to note, this pillar therefore not only testifies of Frisian presence in Roman Britain, but also happens to be the oldest written evidence of the (word) thing. Hear! Hear! Something in the pocket of the Frisians. Indeed, such democratic dudes those mercenaries. And, time for peripherical Frisia to join the THING project too, we say. It makes us curious also whether these thing-worshiping soldiers ever reached consensus before going into battle, and whether that was the true historic reason why Hadrian’s Wall did not hold against the wild Scots at the end. See for more background on the soldiers of fortune our post Frisian Mercenaries in the Roman Army.

The Old Germanic form of thing is þingsō which derives from the word þengaz, which means ‘certain time’. In Gothic it is þeihs meaning time. It was therefore a specific time the people gathered and that is how the word thing received the meaning of convention and assembly, and of justice. In German and Dutch language the day of the week Tuesday is called after the thing, namely Dienstag and dinsdag, in other words thing-day. In Dutch the expressions in geding zijn ‘being disputed’ or een geding aanspannen ‘starting a court case’ are still being used in daily life. English, Frisian and Scandinavian speeches refer with respectively Tuesday (Old English Tíwes dæg), tiisdei and ti(r)sdag to the god of the thing being Tiwas or Tyr.

We have not much information on how the thing functioned during the Roman period. The origin of assemblies might be in the Late Iron Age, a period of major social transformation. Check our post It all began with piracy that explains how this transformation process went and how important large-scale sea raiding was part of it. It is in this period that in the central river area of the Netherlands regional cult places emerge, indicating the manifestation of ethnic groups. Archaeological research at Empel and Elst in the Netherlands has proven ritual feasting at these cult places. These were sanctuaries where the community gathered in public space, and where the members of the community took part in a fundamental activity for the social and biological reproduction of the group (Fernández & Roymans 2015). From this development the thing evolved. Also explaining why thing sites regularly can be found at ancient cult sites.

Medieval thing

From the Early Middle Ages we do know a bit more about the thing because the first codices of Germanic societies were being written by then. The medieval thing was an assembly during which delegates, mostly so-called freemen, from the concerning area discussed legal, military, political and religious matters. In this way, the thing fulfilled an important role in conflict resolution, and in avoiding long-term feuds and wars (Sanmark 2009).

The class of freemen, although there are regional variations who were allowed to participate in the thing, belonged to the higher social class of Germanic society. We may assume that the social class nobiles participated as well and had the right to vote, and that of the serves or thralls obviously not. Furthermore, women were not allowed either. Actually, it took modern democracies only until recently to give women the right to be elected for parliament. The freemen were not only allowed but also obligated to participate in the thing. Maybe, in today’s world we can compare the freemen with the elite of regents at first, and later with the elite of politicians. When you come to think of it, the British House of Lords and, to a lesser extent, the Dutch Senate still have features of grey, distinguished-looking freemen at the thing. Admittedly, less warrior-like.

Of course, Montesquieu would turn over in his grave if he would hear of the thing combining all government functions at the same time, like administering justice, making laws ánd executing them too. The fact that this was possible for the Germanic peoples, was because they regarded the thing, its time and place, as something sacred, and therefore considered checks and balances through separation of powers not necessary (Corthals 2014). The conviction of statesman and Grand Pensionary of Holland, Johan de Witt, in the never-ending gathering and commonwealth though consensus (Panhuysen 2005), during the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century already, might mirror this old cultural tradition of this region. Decision making at the thing was (1) under oath, as we still do, (2) took place in open-air and was witnessed by the public, as we partly still do, and (3) was approved by the ancestors and the gods. It was sacred. Dutch laws are still signed with the phrase ’by the Grace of God’.

Notwithstanding the sacral status, the thing was often located at boundaries between districts, and at some distance from residences of lawmen and local big men (Sanmark 2009). This to guarantee the neutrality of the thing. With the introduction of feudalism, thing site actually were regularly (re)located near residences of the (local) powerful men, or vice versa. No longer they were neutral, but a way to exercise royal control over the gatherings. However, in Mid Frisia and East Frisia, which is the coastal zone of northern Netherlands and of northwest Germany, feudalism completely crumbled during the High Middle Ages, and the thing continued to function without (central) rulers till more or less the end of the fifteenth century. Quite unique in Western history. The thing, part of a formal legal feud and honour society which Frisia continued to be until the Early Modern Period, remained the arena for law making, court ruling, political affairs, etc all this time. Whereas in Scandinavia, in most of the Continent, and on the British Isles, feudal structures grew and turned into centrally-led states and where power concentrated with the few, the thing became subordinate to kings.

The spot of the assembly itself also amplified the sacral nature. Often the thing was located near water, and often on a natural slope, mound or pre-Christian cult sites. Research into mound toponyms in Britain showed that Old Norse haugr predominates in the Danelaw region, Old English hlāw is common in the Midlands, and Old English beorg is specific for the thing sites in southern England (Tudor Skinner & Semple 2016). In the Netherlands the component beorg or berg can also be found in the toponyms Sommeltjesberg and Schepelenberg which are thought to have been thing sites (see further below). Near Dunum in Ostfriesland exists Rabbelsberg ‘Radbod’s mound’, and who knows it might refer to an old thing site as well. Some Scandinavian thing sites simply carry a mythical or magical atmosphere, like those of Gulating in Norway, Thingvellir at Iceland, and Tingwal at Orkney. Stressing the sacred proceedings at the thing. The thing site itself was often enclosed. This could be an enclosure shaped by natural boundaries, whether or not completed with handmade earthen structures. The thing site could also be marked by stringing a rope or a fence.

Tingwall, Orkney by Thing Sites

The thing always took place on Tuesdays under a new moon or fool moon. Contrary to today, the thing only gathered a few times a year. Furthermore, the thing was moderated by a law-speaker or, later, a priest. Law-speakers were wise men capable of memorizing and reciting the laws (Ahlness 2020). Tasks of the law-speakers during the thing were guiding the ruling in legal disputes, the administration and the execution of decisions, and to speak on behalf of peoples and communities. The law-speaker developed in Scandinavia into the office of lagmän (Finland), lagmann (Norway), laghman (Denmark) and løgmaður (Faroe). Of course, the United Kingdom has still a Speaker of the House of Commons.

In medieval Frisia the law-speaker was called asega. The component a means law and the component sega means to say. In the late-eighth-century Lex Frisionum also reference is made to this office, called iudex or sapientes (Nijdam 2021). The asega is not in any way a judge but an authority of law. Interestingly, according to Old Frisian codices, Widukin was the first asega of the Frisians (Vries 2007). Also the asega led the gathering of the thing.

Before the sixth century, in the historic regions of Austrasia (i.e. Frankish kingdom), Frisia and Saxony there existed three levels of assembly. These were: (1) the centena, also herað or hundred, (2) the pagus, also þriðjungr or fjórðungr, and (3) the civitas, also fylki. Between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, similar tripartite systems are found in Scandinavia and Iceland (Iversen 2013). The level of the centena was the lowest level. The mid-level was that of the pagus, in Germanic speech called gau. In province Friesland gau evolved into go, and till this day the Dutch speak of gauw. With the emergence of the big kingdoms, the pagi and its thing transformed into comitati, i.e. shires and counties. The highest level of the thing was that of the civitas.

As is the case in Scandinavia (Sanmark 2009), locating thing sites in former Frisia is troublesome too. The thing was an occasional, short open-air venue, with probably only temporarily shelters for the participants like huts and tents. The ting therefore almost leaves no traces in the soil to be found through archaeological research today. Nevertheless, a few thing sites have been located and excavated, like the ones in Greenland (Sanmark 2009) and Iceland. Thing sites in these countries had more solid ‘facilities’ recognizable for archaeologists, because travel distances for participants to the thing might have been greater and the weather harsher. For historians too it is difficult, since historical sources almost make no reference to thing assemblies, let alone that old texts give away the coordinates. Based on toponyms some thing sites can be assumed, like evidently with the components ding, ting or, in Middle-Dutch speech, dijs. And, might Tating on the peninsula Eiderstedt in region Nordfriesland be a thing site too?

centena thing

In the case of Frisia, there is almost nothing known about the thing at the centena level. For West Frisia, the coastal zone from, let’s say, the town of Knokke-Heist in West Flanders to the island Texel in province Noord Holland, it might be possible these local things were combined with the early-medieval cogge districts and thus the institute of the heercogge. The heercogge was a kind of conscription for citizens of a cogge district who had the obligation to provide a boat with warriors annex oarsmen in case of seaborn threats (Van der Tuuk 2007, 2012). For more facts worth knowing concerning heercogge, consult the intermezzo ‘Conscription in the Early Middle Ages’ in our blog post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders. In the southern coastal zone of Norway, district assemblies dealing with the coastal defence, called skipreiða and which was the successor of the herað, dealt also with other matters relevant for the community (Ødegaard 2013).

From research at Skåne in Sweden into centena thing sites, we know these were generally located near old roads, in-sight of execution places, i.e. the gallows, close to but never within the premises of villages, and often on the boundaries of church parishes (Svensson 2015). The centena thing had mandate to decide on capital crimes, explaining the visual proximity of the gallows.

pagus thing

The pagus is considered the oldest building block in the ‘administrative organisation’ of Frisia. The pagi of early-medieval Frisia have been firmly established through historic research, and it shows that its boundaries were often defined by rivers (Nijdam 2021). In total sixteen pagi have been identified (De Langen & Mol 2021). These are from south to north along the North Sea coast the pagi: Scheldeland (i.e. mouth River Scheldt), Maasland (i.e. mouth River Meuse), Rijnland (i.e. mouth River Rhine), Kennemerland, Wieringen, Texel, Westergo, Oostergo, Hunsingo, Fivelingo, Norderland, Federgo, Eemsgo, Harlingerland, Östringen, and Rustringen.

(most of) the pagi of early-medieval Frisia by J.A. Mol

Beside these sixteen pagi, also the four pagi Nifterlake, Flandrenis, Rodanensis and, perhaps, Wasia (Land van Waas) should be included as being part of early-medieval Frisia. In the latter, at least the area of Vier Ambachten in current Zeelandic Flanders, also early-medieval Frisian law was being practiced. Read our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders for more information about the southern sway of the Frisians. For more about pagus Nifterlake, check our post Attingahem Bridge. Therefore, twenty pagi in total and a same number of thing sites existed in Frisia in the Early Middle Ages.

The thing of the pagus level gathered three times a year. In Scandinavian countries the regional thing is commonly called alting ‘everyone’s gathering’. Of course, always on a Tuesday. Evidence of thing sites in Frisia is basically circumstantial but the following six are quite probable (Dijkstra 2011, Nijdam 2021). From south to north again: Naaldwijk for pagus Maasland, Luttige Geest at Katwijk for pagus Rijnland, Schepelenberg at Heemskerk for pagus Kennemerland, Sommeltjesberg at De Waal for pagus Texel, Franeker for pagus Westergo and Dokkum for pagus Oostergo. So, six down and fourteen to go. Local folklore has it that at Mertsel in Antwerp a thing was located, but we have not found any scholary support for it. The location could be fitting, though, next to the River Scheldt and near the border of two parishes.

We have put the things sites of Frisia in a map:

civitas thing

The thing of the civitas level, the high level, is obscure as well. Nevertheless, based on the late-eighth-century administrative distinction of the Lex Frisionum, it is assumed there was a civitas thing for the part of Frisia inter Flehi et Sincfalam (i.e. West Frisia between the River Vlie and Sincfala which is the coastal plain of West Flanders), for the part of Frisia inter Laubachi et Flehum (i.e. Mid Frisia between the River Lauwers and the River Vlie), and for the part of Frisia inter Laubachi et Wisaram (i.e. East Frisia between the River Lauwers and the River Weser). Most laws of these three civitas jurisdictions were similar, but with some differences, especially on the height of tariffs for compensation. Check our post You killed a man? That’ll be 1 weregeld, please to understand how compensation for committed crimes was organized in the feud-society of medieval Frisia.

The question whether there was even an over-arching thing for the whole Frisia in the Early Middle Ages, thus covering the three civitates West Frisia, Mid Frisia and East Frisia, remains unanswered. It is only in the High Middle Ages that a thing for pan-Frisia is established. Probably somewhere around the year 1200. This imaginative thing site was near the modern town of Aurich in region Ostfriesland and called Upstalsboom. This thing cannot be much older than this, because it is in the peatlands of Frisia, which were only commercially exploited during the High Middle Ages. Too young therefore (Nijdam 2021).

The Upstalsboom thing gathered once a year on the Tuesday after Pentecost, with delegates from all the so-called Seven Sealands. The Seven Sealands were divided into four fardingdela. The thing of the fardingdela was called liodthing, and extra-ordinary things were called a bothing mentioned earlier. Bothing derives from ‘(ge)boden ding’ meaning the commanded thing. The four quarters had twice a year a thing called the lantding.

The Upstalsboom assembly was primarily an effort to combine forces against the surrounding feudal powers that were a growing threat. Frisia was in essence just a loose collection of small, lord-free, farmer republics and therefore had a hard time organizing their guerilla, militia defence. Their surroundings possessed a knighthood and professional mercenary armies. Read more about this history in our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective and why the whole Upstalsboom treaty failed.

2. Other Thing things

There are indications thing gatherings were also moments for religious festivals, regional market and circuses or games, although some scholars doubt whether markets were that prominent (Mehler 2015). On the other hand, close links can be observed between thing sites, pre-Christian cult sites, medieval churches, games and markets. The Þingvellir at Iceland is the biggest market of the year. Furthermore, horse races and horse fights were popular everywhere during the thing in the Viking Age (Ødegaard 2018). In Norway a seasonal meeting called skeid or skeið survived well into the seventeenth century, and horse racing and fighting without saddles was still popular (Loftsgarden, et al 2019). In other words, thing gatherings were also important for creating collective memories and for social cohesion. Therefore, be suspicious when it comes to so-called medieval seend churches ‘ecclesiastical courts’ within a parish because they are strong candidates for being a former thing site. Within Frisia, the boundaries of parishes show likeness with those of the pagi. Like the pagi, parishes are often situated in river basins as well (De Langen & Mol 2021). An old and important settlement of former West Frisia is Medemblik where also a seend church was located. Might there have been a former thing site?

early-fourteenth-century mural, church Den Andel, province Groningen

The fact that thing sites, churches, religious activities, trade and games happened together, might also give a different perspective for the medieval church murals of fighters in the churches of Stedum, Westerwijtwerd, and Woldendorp, and the horse-fighters in the church of Den Andel, all in province Groningen, former East Frisia. Were it impressions of games and circuses during the thing near the church perhaps?

3. Things that Matter

During most of the Middle Ages, Frisia did not have any lord or ruler. Nevertheless, the pagi and its thing were stable and kept functioning all the way through from the Early to the Late Middle Ages. Even during times when Danish and Frankish rulers stirred things up temporarily, the thing kept doing its thing. These assemblies, to put it differently, proved to be the core of the community (Nijdam 2021). In West Frisia, i.e. the western coast of current the Netherlands, where counts did gain control over the area in the course of the Middle Ages, it was for long practice that a new count would be present at the thing to receive the trust of the people (Dijkstra 2011).

Today, however, parliaments are being portrayed as stamping machines of ruling parties. As promised we would not only observe but also make some recommendations. Learning from an at least 2,000-years-old tradition of the thing, after those Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army wrote about it, the following five advices are given to the members of the present thing, who are: Members of Parliament, Speakers, and Ministers.

  1. Limit the number of thing meetings per year, and, of course, only on Tuesdays. It helps the thing to focus on broad outlines and less on what is on the news the evening before. It also helps to limit unnecessary legislation which partially is born out of political profile desire. Appreciate the little things too. Realize there are namely things at the local level too capable of taking care of issues. If the traditional three times per year feels as if the stretch is too large, reduce the number drastically anyway.
  2. Remind the members of the thing of the fact that they work under oath and ought to have some personal honour. Reconsider whether violating oaths should not have more attention and greater consequences. We understand, many members often cannot recall events in their memory, but it is worth a try.
  3. Essential for the thing was the meeting occured in open-air. Of course, this is still practice because people can watch the meetings on the web or on the public tribunes. However, much debate that should take place during the thing, takes places in back rooms instead, combined with a dominant party discipline. Current initiatives for a more open and transparent government are praiseworthy, but they should also be developed by the thing for the thing. Limit yourself!
  4. The thing was an important institute to prevent that too much power would accumulate with few. This has derailed completely, as everyone knows. Consider therefore to formulate rules concerning the maximum number of terms for the members to participate in the thing.
  5. Study on a different interpretation of the concept ‘The Internet of Things’. It might open new ways in concensus building through gathering. It might help the thing!

Note 1 – The featured image of this post is from the movie The Fantastic Four (2005), with The Thing being the ‘rocky type’ superhero. In 1982 and 2011 movies were released called The Thing. In both movies horrible creatures that must be killed. Of course, this is exactly not what we propose to do. Therefore, out of the three we chose the superhero.

Note 2 – We suggest that the original or, at least, a replica of the pillar dedicated to the thing erected by the Frisians mercenaries at fort Housesteads at Hadrian’s Wall in the third century dedicated, is placed at Het Binnenhof in The Hague in the Netherlands. Het Binnenhof is the place where king, parliament and government gather the last four to five centuries. The 2,000-year-old stone pillar at this spot; how much greater do you want it?

Further reading

  • Ahlness, E.A., The legacy of the Ting: Viking Justice, Egalitarianism, and Modern Scandinavian Regional Governance (2020)
  • Corthals, J., De ‘Hoge Raad’ en de ‘Nederlanden’. Over straf, rechterschap en maatschappij (2014)
  • Couperus, L., Van oude menschen, de dingen, die voorbij gaan… (1904)
  • Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
  • Ehlers, C., Between Marklo and Merseburg: Assemblies and their Sites in Saxony from the Beginning of Christianization to the Time of the Ottonian Kings (2016)
  • Elzinga, D.J., Alle politieke bestuurders moeten na acht jaar opstappen (2021)
  • Fernández-Götz, M. & Roymans, N., The Politics of Identity: Late Iron Age Sanctuaries in the Rhineland (2015)
  • Iversen, F., Concilium and Pagus – Revisiting the Early Germanic Thing System of Northern Europe (2013)
  • Loftsgarden, K., Ramstad, M. & Stylegar, F.A., The skeid and other assemblies in the Norwegian ‘Mountain Land’ (2017)
  • Mehler, N., Þingvellir: A Place of Assembly and a Market? (2015)
  • Mol, J.A., Galgen in laatmiddeleeuws Friesland (2006)
  • Nijdam, H., Law and Political Organization of the Early Medieval Frisians (c. AD 600-800) (2021)
  • O’Grady, O.J.T., MacDonald, D. & MacDonald, S., Re-evaluating the Scottish Thing: Exploring A Late Norse Period and Medieval Assembly Mound at Dingwall (2016)
  • Ødegaard, M., State Formation, Administrative Areas, and Thing Sites in the Borgarthing Law Province, Southeast Norway (2013)
  • Ødegaard, M., Thing sites, cult, churches, games and markets in Viking and medieval southeast Norway, AD c.800–1600 (2018)
  • Panhuysen, L., De Ware Vrijheid. De levens van Johan en Cornelis de Witt (2005)
  • Renswoude, van O., Taaldacht (website)
  • Sanmark, A., The case of the Greenlandic assembly sites (2009)
  • Sanmark, A., Viking Law and Order. Places and Rituals of Assembly in the Medieval North (2017)
  • Savelkouls, J., Het Friese Paard (2016)
  • Svensson, O., Place Names, Landscape, and Assembly Sites in Skåne, Sweden (2015)
  • Things sites.com (website)
  • Tudor Skinner, A. & Semple, S., Assembly Mounds in the Danelaw: Place-name and Archaeological Evidence in the Historic Landscape (2016)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Deense heersers en de Friese kogge in de vroege Middeleeuwen. 2. De koggenorganisatie en de rol van de Deense heersers (2007)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Herekoge in Vredelant (2012)
  • Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)
  • Vries, O., Ferdban. Oudfriese oorkonden en hun verhaal (2021)

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