Administrative Organisation and State Formation: A Case Study of Assembly Sites in Södermanland, Sweden
By Alexandra Sanmark
Medieval Archaeology, Vol.53 (2009)
Abstract: This is the first multi-disciplinary study of Swedish local thing (assembly) sites of the Viking Age through to the late Middle Ages. Previous studies ignored the larger body of evidence, producing models that are too generalising and often one-dimensional. A systematic overview of the location, features and landscape characteristics of things in the county of Södermanland enables exploration of wider questions, such as the development of the thing organisation and the beginnings of state formation in Sweden. This suggests late-Viking thing sites, mainly created in 11th century, are Christian sites, established by local magnates in response to the growing central power. The similarities and conformity of sites, together with a reorganisation of the defensive systems from inland lakes to coastal areas, suggest there was a sense of growing unity and unifi cation within Sweden at this time.
Introduction: Viking-Age things were the public assemblies of the free men and functioned as both parliaments and courts. There were things at different levels of society — local, regional and supra-regional — and meetings were held at regular intervals as well as on an ad hoc basis when the need arose. The significance of these things for the functioning of Viking society is under-appreciated, with feuding seen as the most common way of regulating society and solving conflicts. Certainly feuding is a regular theme in the sagas, perhaps because it serves as an exciting literary theme, but the things’ role as arenas for conflict resolution, marriage alliances, power display, honour and inheritance settlements, etc also comes across very clearly.
In the Viking Age (AD 790–1050) and until the mid-13th century, local farmers seem to have been rather influential at the things, with authority increasing according to wealth. As the central royal power grew stronger the king and his allies took control over the assemblies and, as part of this process, the things lost most of their political role. In the later Middle Ages they mainly functioned as courts.