What is a Thing?
- Tinganes, Faroe Islands
- Tynwald Hill, Isle of Man
- Dingwall, Scotland
- Tingwall, Orkney
- Tingwall, Shetland
- Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
- Gulatinget, Norway © Knut Bry
Things, from the Old Norse þing, are the early assemblies found throughout Northern Europe as a result of our shared Norse heritage.
They have been described as the Viking cradle of democracy because their establishment was an early attempt to introduce a representative system, allowing disputes to be settled in a neutral forum rather than by blood feud and violence alone.
The importance and success of the system led to it being transported from the Scandinavian homelands to Viking colonies throughout Northern Europe. We can identify many sites by their thing, ting, ding or fing place names. Some examples include Gulating (Norway), Tingwalla (Sweden), Þingvellir (Iceland), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall (Shetland and Orkney), Dingwall (Scotland), Tynwald (Isle of Man) and Fingay Hill (England).
When the Vikings and early Norse settlers arrived in a new place they brought with them their customs and legal systems. Political decisions were made at the thing, laws upheld and disputes settled. Proceedings were overseen by the local ruler and the law-speaker (judge), whose job was to memorise and recite the law. At some things, known as Althings, any free man was entitled to vote. At others - Lawthings - the crown and local communities acted together to interpret the law.
The thing was also a focus for religious activity, as well as trade and exchange. At Thingvellir in Iceland you can still see the remains of the booths, or huts, where traders came to do business with people attending the meeting.
The thing system for sharing and legislating power can still be recognised today. Several things continue to be active. The Icelandic parliament is still known as the Althing, the Norwegian parliament is called the Storting and the Faroese parliament goes by the name of Løgting. The Manx parliament, known as Tynwald, still holds a midsummer court on the thing mound at Tynwald Hill every year.
Today, at a time of increasing internationalisation and globalisation, 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.