Pagan society – part I – ancient democracy


First of all a note: by the term “ancient democracy” I understand assemblies that were taking places in Europe beside greek and roman cultures. Here I will focus only on slavic veches and germanic things.

But firstly imagine this situation: you’re living in early middle-age village. A local community has a full independence, and is only combined with other ones with tribal ties. A social stratification is still very low, and a central authority has very limited control under lieges. There are no permament officials that could enforce decisions of central authority. So in what way worked a local law?
This phenomenon can be strange for a modern man, but people were enforcing a law by their own. Where an assembly decided to e.g. banish somebody and burn down his house, the whole community were taking part in it. If anybody hadn’t do that, he could be judged himself on another assembly. That’s how things worked. Of course the only ones who were taking part in assemblies were men.
Somebody can ask why people were so lawful back then, but it’s not a matter of being lawful or not. This is a matter of surviving – if community couldn’t enforce a law, it was divided. If it was divided – it was weak. If it was weak it was quickly dominated by the other community. So people had to cooperate for their own good.
A good example of how much those assemblies were strong can be shown by a concrete situation. There is a year 804, when frankish king Charlemagne eventually crushed the saxon tribes and forced them to convert into christianity (under his reign). One of his firsts orders were enforcing of his jurisdiction. It means that a local communities were supposed to be judged by his officials, and not by local assemblies. After a couple of years he surprisingly discovered that it wasn’t the best decision. His officials weren’t able to enforce royal law in every small community, due to the fact that their military capabilities weren’t sufficient (and they were already very expensive). Charlemagne was forced to abandon this activity. He decided that his officials will represent him only on bigger popular assemblies (where they were effective).


Althought I call this assemblies “ancient democracy” it’s very far from what modern democracy is, or even was in ancient Athenes. There were two kinds of assemblies – local (called in old scandinavian “thing”, and in old slavic “veche”) where different cases of single or few communities were being judged – and popular (“althing”), on which were being judged cases of a whole tribe, or even tribal federation.
Everyone who was a free man and were living in particular community could take a part in thing. Such gatherings were organized in sacred places – in slavic case it was always a sacred grove. A slavic term of such place – “gai” – is derived from an old slavic verb “gaiti” (“to inclose”). So a meeting place was a fenced area. Moreover it was devoted to a concrete god of law – in Scandinavia it was e.g. Thor, in Sclavia propably Perun or Svarog. It wasn’t a sign that all the new resolutions were blessed by gods – it was a sign that everyone taking part in assembly was obligated before gods that he won’t break thing’s decision (or he will be punished by gods and humans for his disloyalty).
The assembly were always beggining by prayers to gods. Later the men who was a law-speaker – a person who was able to recite all the traditional laws – were supposed to do it. After that the thing were able to make new decisions – choose a new chief, declare war to somebody etc.
Unlike in greek democracy where everybody could make a public speech, in slavic and germanic assemblies the only ones who were speaking had been nobles (and later local rulers). They were discussing all the important things before the thing started, and later announcing them to other free people (peasants). Freeman could reject them, or accept by hitting with their spears (or less often other weapons) into their shields as a sign of appreciation. The decision had to be taken unanimously. If anybody was opposing it he was firstly convinced to change his mind. If even after this he didn’t want to appreciate the resolution he was beaten by sticks.
Later anybody who has some compliment could represent his case to thing. The decision was taken again by all of freeman, but it had to be consistent with local law. Both of sides – accused and accusing were supported by their relatives. That’s why a kin was so important back then – without influencial kinsman nobody was able to win a case.
Relatives weren’t saying that somebody is wrong or not – they were just making a guarantee that their akin men is not guilty. If a thing decided that he was, all people related with accused had to pay a part of his chastisement. If somebody were banished from a community their duty was to protect him.
Banishing from a community was the worst punishment for people back then. That meant that outlaw hadn’t any tribe – and so he hadn’t any laws. Anybody could kill him and take or destroy his property without any consequences. The tribe, who normally had to defend such a man, could simply don’t care about him. Without a tribe an outlaw was in eyes of people nobody.
That’s how things and veches worked.

Learn more:
First of all a genius work of polish historian – Karol Modzelewski’s ” Barbarian Europe” (pol. “Barbarzyńska Europa”). It’s a really perfect and complex book about this topic.

You can always read these and other related arts on Wikipedia (which are quite good):

Vladyka 2013

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