From the most ancient times we find that the people in assembly, called Thing, exercised their judicial and legislative power. There they deliberated, not only on the questions concerning their small communities, but also on the internal or external affairs of the whole country. There were smaller and larger Things, classified under the different names of Thing, Mót, and Hús-thing, the latter being a private meeting to which the chief summoned his own men.
In order to preserve freedom of deliberation and the individual liberty of each person who came, the most stringent laws and regulations were laid down.
"With laws shall our land be built, and not be laid waste by lawlessness. But he who will not allow others the laws shall not enjoy them himself" (Frostath., i. 6).
The Herad-things were apparently held very often, and were only attended by the people belonging to the Herad; every one who wished a question to be settled, and required a Thing, had the right to summon one.
There were general Things, or Fylkis-things, in which several herads were represented, under the leadership of the hersir or king.
Every Herad was independent of the Fylki in its local affairs, and every Fylki was independent one from the other, each having self-government. When the affairs of the country required the presence of all the people, then the bœndr of the Herads and Fylki met together at a general Thing called Allsherjar-thing (Thing of all the hosts), and all had to abide by the decision taken. In fact the country was a union of states bound together for mutual protection; but they felt that a general government was not able in all things to attend to the affairs of each Herad or Fylki, and could not know the wants of the people, as the majority of those who would have had the management of affairs lived far from them, and many had never seen other Herads or Fylki than their own. The nearest approach to this ancient form of government is that of the United States.
When we say that the Thing was the assembly of the people, we must qualify the expression, for only bœndr (or free men) who owned land had a voice in the deliberations. The sons and other relations of these bœndr, or free men, who did not own land had no voice whatever in the affairs of the country. The Thingmen were followed by a more or less large retinue, according to their rank or wealth.
All the bœndr of the Herad were bound to appear at the Herads-thing on pain of fine, unless a bondi had such a small farm as to be einvirki (sole worker). These latter were not obliged to appear at any other Thing than (1) Konungs-thing, i.e. a Thing summoned by the king himself; (2) Manndráps-thing, i.e. a Thing in consequence of a murder; (3) Manntals-thing, i.e. a Thing for the equalization of the tax; and (4) Vápna-thing, i.e. a Thing to examine if every man possessed the weapons prescribed by law. All members of the Thing according to law had an equal vote.
The summons was by sending out a Thingbod (Thing-summons), or, in case of murder, an ör (arrow) throughout the whole Thing-district; the summons or arrow was sent from farm to farm, and called upon all Thing-men to meet at the usual Thing-place, generally the fifth day after the issue of the summons.
The thing was held in an open place called Thingvöll (Thing-place), in earlier times near a temple. On the Thing-brekka, or thing-hill, from which all announcements were made.
The Thing-plain was a sacred place, which must not be sullied by bloodshed arising from blood-feud (heiptarblód) or any other impurity. The Thing, from the time it was opened until it was dissolved, was under pagan times under the protection of the gods. It was opened with certain religious ceremonies, which included a solemn peace declaration (grida setning) over the assembly, which in earlier times was pronounced by the Hersir near whose temple the Thing took place. Every breach of the peace at a Thing was a sacrilege which put the guilty one out of the pale of the law—he was like the violator of the temple peace—a varg í veum (wolf in the sanctuary), an outlaw in all holy or inhabited places, and an útlagi (outlaw) for all until he had made reparation for his crime.
On the journey to and from the Thing, and during its duration, all the men were peace-holy.
In Iceland Things were held regularly twice a year, namely, before and after the Althing (Thing for the whole land). The one taking place in the springtime lasted at least four days, or at most a week. The other, called Leid, at the end of summer, lasted not more than two days.
The country was divided into four quarters, and each of these into three Thing-districts, except the northern quarter, which was divided into four. Every Thing-district was divided into three parts, each of which was ruled by a godi who was temple-priest. At the Quarter-thing all the bœndr of the quarter assisted.
The Althing, which was held once a year, took place between the two other Things. This was natural, as at the Spring-thing they prepared for the Althing, and at the Thing held at the end of summer it was usual to make known what had taken place at the Althing.
The appeal of a cause from a lower Thing to the higher one was expressed in the Gulathing's Law, which probably had the greatest authority over the larger part of the country; every dispute had first to be treated at the smaller Thing of the Herad, and only when it could not be satisfactorily settled there was it to go before the Fylkisthing. A Thing from two Fylki had less power than one of four, and one from four less than one from eight.
To this Thing as well as to lesser Things, every bondi who was a working man had to come. In later times, if the king was not present, his representatives the lendir men were bound to be there. Among these lesser Things were those which dealt with questions relating to paupers.
In the course of time and towards the latter part of the pagan era there arose from the Herad towns proper (Kaup-stad=trading-places), and the people formed a separate class who interests were not identical with those of the bondi, and who required a special government and Thing. The common law of the towns is known under the name of Bjarkeyjar-rétt (town law). Each town had its mót, formed by all house-holders (húsfastir).
There were also meetings of people of the Hrepp, which was a tract of country consisting of least 20 bœndr, who were able to give pay to Thingmen. Their meetings were ordinary or extraordinary. For extraordinary meetings they had to send the cross (or in early times the war-arrow) around. At the meeting the affairs of the poor and other burdens of the community, and the regulations concerning order, were settled. Five men were chosen, who were the representatives or executive power of the community. These men had not necessarily to be landowners. Their duty was to prosecute vagabonds or criminals, and to be present at oath-taking.
The resolutions taken at the Thing were finally confirmed by the vápnatak (weapon-taking), for, as we know, the thingmen during the deliberations put away their weapons, and by again taking them up and shaking them they declared matters settled and the Thing dissolved.
Between sessions of the Thing amusements took place, among them that of saga-telling; and the people who attended were often finely dressed.
In Iceland we find the kvid (a law term which may mean both the witnesses and the jury). The men who were in the kvid did not need to be eye-witnesses; but had to be men who were impartial, and who could form the best judgement from the circumstances of the case. They had to give a verdict under oath. The number of the men of the kvid, and the manner of choosing them, varied according to the matter to be considered. In some important cases, recourse was had to the Tylftarkvid (a body of twelve men) summoned at the instance of the plaintiff by the godi of the district, who with him named or chose eleven of his Thingmen.
The second kind of kvid was Búakvid (bondi kvid), which was used in cases of murder and other crimes, consisting of five or nine neighbours chosen by the plaintiff.
The third kind or Bjargkvid (saving kvid) consisted of five men, also chosen by the plaintiff and of the same place. The defendant had the right to challenge jurors out of the kvid, but only for lawful reasons, and the places had to be filled up. If the kvid after deliberation could not agree, the majority ruled; and if in the Tylftarkvid the votes were equal, the godi had the casting vote; but the verdict was nevertheless to be given unanimously, though the minority were not responsible if the verdict was found to be wrong.
In the earliest times the same practice seems to have held in Norway, till Christianity coming in brought with it the purification oath.
"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 515-523