An Island in the Middle of An Island. On cult, laws and authority in Viking Age Gotland

An Island in the Middle of An Island. On cult, laws and authority in Viking Age Gotland

By Nanouschka Myrberg Burström

From Ephesos to Dalecarlia. Refections on Body, Space and Time in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (The Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm, 2009)

Introduction: The present-day small village of Roma on Gotland in the Baltic Sea was the physical and symbolic centre of the island in the Iron Age and into Medieval times. The Cistercian monastery and the meeting place of the island’s assembly, the all-thing, two well-known features of medieval Roma, have often been taken as indications of an egalitarian and non-stratified society on Gotland during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. It is here proposed, however, that an older Iron Age cult site at Roma eventually came under the control of a chieftain or major landowner who introduced Christianity, founded a monastery and inaugurated the thing in Roma in Viking or early medieval times, just as his equals did elsewhere in Scandinavia. While the later medieval thing was probably located near the monastery, an alternative site is suggested for the older all-thing.

In Medieval times (i.e. from c. 1100 onwards in local terms) Gotland was organised into 20 thing districts. These legal entities are mentioned in the Guta Lagh (Gotlandic Law) and Guta Saga, which were written down at the beginning of the 13th century (but may contain older strata). It is not certain whether the things were prehistoric or belonged to an early medieval re-organisation off the island, but they served as means of organizing both societal relations and the physical space. Lag means ‘law’, but was also used for the community of people who lived by a given law, and for the physical area in which this community lived. As the judicial entities in that sense also constituted social and territorial boundaries, they thus defined much of the human movement that took place within the local society.

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