The Icelandic Althing: Dawn of Parliamentary Democracy
By Jesse Byock
Heritage and Identity: Shaping the Nations of the North, ed. J. M. Fladmark (The Heyerdahl Institute and Robert Gordon University. Donhead St. Mary, Shaftesbury: Donhead, 2002)
Introduction: It is an old idea, and one that reaches as far back as the nineteenth century, that Viking Age Iceland was democratic and much like an early republic. In the mid-twentieth century, however, this old idea became unpopular among researchers. Yet, we may ask ourselves if this outmoded concept is actually wrong? Is it possible that years of emphasis on class struggle and similar issues have skewed our perception of the political economy of early Iceland to the point that the baby may have been thrown out with the bath water? True enough, early Iceland from the tenth to the twelfth century was neither fully democratic in its processes nor fully republican in its structures. Yet, how are we to interpret the obvious egalitarian tendencies, personal freedoms, and political and legal enfranchisement so strikingly evident in historical, legal, and saga sources of medieval Iceland? As we enter the twenty-first century, perhaps it is time to rethink the matter.
Viking Age Iceland, if not fully democratic, was nevertheless a medieval society with unusually strong proto-democratic and republican tendencies. From the ninth to the thirteenth century it was a long-lived experiment in early western state formation, and early Iceland deserves a far more important place in the study of European and perhaps world society than it has until now received. In this paper, I direct my attention to the old Icelandic Althing, the parliament of Viking Age Iceland that was first established around the year 930. In considering the Althing, I explore the proto-democratic government that lasted in Iceland until the year 1264, when Iceland lost its medieval independence to the aggressive thirteenth- century Norwegian crown.
The Althing, as a governmental institution of an immigrant society, had its roots in the ninth-century settlement of Iceland. The seafarers who first settled Iceland at that time did not come as part of a planned migration, a political movement, or an organized conquest. Unlike many later European explorers and colonists, Norse explorers and settlers were not acquiring territory for sovereigns or for established religious hierarchies. Viking Age voyages into the far North Atlantic were independent undertakings, part of a 300-year epoch of seaborne expansion that saw Scandinavian peoples settle in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, parts of Scotland and Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Finland.