The Thing is ...
The heart of western democracies is the joint assembly of parliament and cabinet. 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 the Faroes Løgting, of Greenland Landsting, of Iceland Alþingi, and of Norway Storting. The oldest attestation of the thing is of 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, criticism of our modern assemblies and their effectiveness in representative consensus-building is growing.
According to the THING project, an international cooperation funded by, among other, the European Union, the story of the thing is a reminder of an age-old need for robust legal systems and open debate. And a reminder of 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 will formulate five advices for the thing of today. How to strengthen its function and performance in our democracies. Before we do that and look at the future of the contemporary thing, we first look back. Understandably, and with good reason, with a special interest concerning early-medieval 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. Roman historian Tacitus documented how the assemblies functioned, especially in the central river area of the Netherlands. In his book Historiae, dated 100-110, Tacitus described the uprising of the Batavii, in the year 69. A people living in the central river area of the Netherlands. Their leader Julius Civilis gathered the nobles and the most fierce men of his people in a sacred wood.
When he saw that darkness and merriment had inflamed their hearts, he [Julius Civilis] addressed them. Starting with a reference to the glory and renown of their nation, he went on to catalogue the wrongs, the depredations and all the other woes of slavery. The alliance, he said, was no longer observed on the old terms: they were treated as chattels. (…) He received wide support for his words. Barbaric rites and ancestral oaths followed which bounded everyone together (Historiae, Tacitus).
By the way, the Cananefates, a tribe that lived in the area of current The Hague, and the Frisians from north of the River Rhine, joined this uprising against the Romans. The Frisians attacked the fortresses of the limes along the River Rhine with a naval fleet. A band of Frisian and Chauci operated even high up-stream the River Rhine at the town of Tolbiacum, current Zülpich in Germany. Not far from Bonn. Here they were defeated by the people of Tolbiacum. They had offered the Chauci and Frisians a banquet with a lot of wine. After the Chauci and Frisians had fallen asleep drunk, the doors were closed and the building set afire.
Tacitus did not mention, or did not know, the name of the assembly of Germanic tribes. Luckily, as mentioned in the introduction of this post, Frisians did. In the third century, an auxiliary unit of the Roman Army with Frisian mercenaries, deployed at Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia near modern Housesteads, erected a stone pillar and wrote the following legendary words:
DEO MARTI THINCSO ET DUABUS ALAISIAGIS BEDE ET FIMMILENE ET N AUG GERM CIVES TUIHANTI VSLM
“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 historians 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. 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 also recorded in Old Frisian codices from around 1100 onward. Indeed, 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 also makes us curious 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, and 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.
Besides Tacitus' record, 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 in which we explain how this social 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.
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 thing site could be a dangerous place as well. A central place of gift-giving where authority was either consolidated or challenged (Tys 2018). Indeed, politics.
The class of freemen, although there were regional variations as to who were allowed to participate in the thing and who were not, belonged to the higher social class of Germanic society. We may assume that the social class of 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, functions 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 under oath, as we still do, took place in open-air and was witnessed by the public, as we partly still do, and was approved by the ancestors and the gods. It was sacred. Dutch laws are still signed with the phrase ’by the Grace of God’. Members of parliaments of many countries take an oath or a solemn affirmation, to this day.
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 sites regularly were (re)located near residences of the (local) powerful men, or vice versa. No longer these assembly sites were neutral, but a way to exercise royal control over the gatherings.
However, in Mid Frisia and East Frisia, which was 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 until 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 where power concentrated with the few. Where 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 at a 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 region Ostfriesland the toponym Rabbelsberg or Radbodsberg ‘Radbod’s mound’ exists. This handmade hill or tumulus, supposedly the burial mound of king Radbod, is as old as between 2400-2000 BC. Who knows this 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, Þingvellir ('Assembly Plains') on Iceland, and Tingwal on 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.
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 the Netherlands the speaker is called voorzitter, which is a word related to the medieval Frisian god Fo(r)seti meaning presiding. Son of the righteous Baldr, and god of law and justice.
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 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. An expert of justice and of procedings during the thing. Also, the asega led the gathering of the thing. The Fivelgoer Handschrift 'Fivelgo Manuscript' dated ca. 1450, contains the so-called Asega Law. These are the standard formulas how the thing gathering commenced, written in Old Frisian language. The first formula for the thing to start, sounded as follows:
Asega, ist thingtid? Alsa hit is.
Law-speaker, is it thing time? So it is.
Interestingly, according to Old Frisian codices, Widukin was the first asega of the Frisians (Vries 2007). Widukind was the late eighth-century leader of the Saxons who revolted against the Franks. This uprise was joined by the neighboring Frisians.
Before the sixth century, in the regions of Austrasia (i.e. Frankish kingdom), Frisia and Saxony, there existed three levels of assembly. These were: (1) the centena, also called herað or hundred, (2) the pagus, also called 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 to this day the Dutch speak of gauw. With the emergence of the big European 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, locating thing sites in the territory of former Frisia is troublesome too. The things was an occasional, short open-air venue, with probably only temporarily shelters for the participants, like huts and tents. As a cnsequence, the ting almost left 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 and Iceland (Sanmark 2009). Thing sites in these countries had more solid ‘shelter 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. Besides archaeology, some thing sites can be assumend based on toponyms, like evidently with the components ding, ting or, in Middle-Dutch speech, dijs. Might Tating on the peninsula Eiderstedt in region Nordfriesland be a thing site too?
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 the inhabitants 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 post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders. In the southern coastal zone of Norway, district assemblies also 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 into centena thing sites at Skåne in Sweden, 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. Cash on the barrel.
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.
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 The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders for more information about the southern sway of the Frisians. For more information about pagus Nifterlake, i.e. the area of the River Stichtse Vecht, 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 too. Evidence of thing sites in Frisia is basically circumstantial but the following six sites are quite probable (Dijkstra 2011, Nijdam 2021). From south to north these are: 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 sites to go.
Another thing site might have been at Bruges, of the pagus Flandrensis. From the late tenth century it is known a placitum generale ‘everyone’s gathering’ or gouwding took place here (Henderikx 2021). Another thing site, that of the pagus Scheldeland, must have been at the Walcheren Island. From the Vita sancti Willibrordi written by Abbot Thiofrid of the Abbey of Echternach in 1103, we know that at least early in the twelfth century gouwding meetings were held. Where exactly, we do not know. Maybe near the modern town of Domburg or near portus ‘port town’ Middelburg. Lastly, local folklore has it that at Mertsel in Antwerp a thing was located too, 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:
We have put the things sites of Frisia in a map:
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 of three regions. 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;
the part of Frisia inter Laubachi et Flehum, i.e. Mid Frisia (also Central 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 of Frisia in the Early Middle Ages, thus covering the three civitates West Frisia, Mid Frisia and East Frisia, remains unanswered.
A candidate for the pan-Frisia thing might be Fositesland. Earlier, we already mentioned the god Foseti, meaning the god that presides. Fositesland is mentioned in the Vita sancti Willibrordi Traiectensis episcopi ‘Life of Saint Willibrord bishop of Utrecht’ written by the clergyman from Northumberland, Alcuin of York (ca. 735-804). Alcuin described an encounter between Saint Willibrord, the Apostle of the Frisians, and the heathen king Radbod of Frisia at Fositesland. Fositesland was an island located between Frisia and Denmark, according to Alcuin. The island was of great reiligous importance to the Frisians. Commonly, Fositesland is identified with the North-Frisian red-rock island Hellgeland or Heligoland in the German Bight at the North Sea, but this is not certain. Its location quit central within Frisia of the Early Middle Ages. That a pan-Frisia thing would take place there, remains speculation since no reference to assemblies is made in the historic texts. An imaginative site it is for sure.
Gatherings of modest numbers of Frisians from the various Frisian lands, including from Land Würsten and Land Wurden, do take place at Heligoland every three year. At first these folkloric gatherings were named Sternfahrt der Friesen ‘rally of the Frisians’ but since 1998 the event is known as Friesen-droapen ‘Gathering of Frisians’.
It is only in the High Middle Ages we are certain 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. Not too far from island Heligoland, in a way. This thing cannot be much older than 1200, because it is located in peatlands, 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. Whilst 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 thingies
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?
The fact that thing sites, churches, religious activities, trade and games happened together, might also give a different perspective for the high-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, 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. Therefore, 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, Ministers and Undersecretaries.
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, local 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 of meetings drastically anyway.
Remind the members of the thing of the fact that they work under oath and have, or at least 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.
Essential for the thing was the meeting and the debates 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!
The thing was an important institute to prevent that too much power would accumulate with few. This has derailed completely, as everyone knows today. Consider therefore to formulate rules concerning the maximum number of terms for the members to participate in the thing.
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 – 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, 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? The Netherlands as birthplace of the thing. A tradition of public consensus building through gathering, historical and archaeological traceable in the central river area from the Late Antiquity, and continuing throughout the Middle Ages in former Frisia. How much better than all the statues of former statesmen placed on socles, too. And, why did we have to come up with this idea anyway?
Note 2 – 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 we chose the superhero out of the three.
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