Road Trip Through History: The Althing, or Medieval Democracy (More Or Less) In Action

We visited the national park at Thingvellir, aka the Assembly Plains, on what our Icelandic hosts assured us was a rare perfect day: sunny and warm enough that we peeled off not only our rain coats but our heavy sweaters.

Located in a geologically unstable rift valley where the American and European tectonic plates meet,* Thingvellir has been described as the heart of Iceland. It was the site at which the 36 chieftains of Iceland, accompanied by their families and followers, met each year for the Althing, or General Assembly, to settle disputes and debate the law. The gathering centered around Iceland’s only elected official, the lawspeaker, who recited one-third of Iceland’s law code each year in a natural amphitheater known as the Law Rock. But the Althing was more than just a legal gathering, it was a two-week-long market, fair, sporting event, and nationwide party. Sometimes it was a nationwide brawl. Anyone who could come did: thousands of them.

The Law Rock at Thingvellir

The Law Rock at Thingvellir

The Althing was a political force from 930 CE to the thirteenth century. As chieftaincies merged through inheritance, purchase, trickery and outright seizure, power between the chieftains became increasingly unbalanced; the gathering became less an exercise of democracy and more an exercise of law by battleaxe. In 1262, hoping for greater stability, the chieftains of the Althing gave away their independence and swore allegiance to King Hakon of Norway. The original Icelanders who fled Norway to avoid the rule of the first Norwegian king were no doubt cursing and kicking the walls in Valhalla.

In the nineteenth century, when Iceland** was caught up in the same Romantic nationalism that swept through Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire,*** young Icelanders took up the Althing and the Sagas as a symbol of Iceland’s heroic and independent past. Thingvellir became the site for nationalist debates and on June 14, 1944, half the country traveled there to hear Iceland’s declaration of independence from Denmark.****

Today,the Icelandic parliament is known as the Althing and Thingvellir is the site of Iceland’s national celebrations. It is a place of incredible beauty, with a few discreet historic markers for those interested in its past and well laid out trails for those interested in a long walk. Just don’t count on a warm dry day, even in July. Sweaters and rain gear are recommended.

*And are now parting company at the rate of 1/4 inch a year, suggesting that eventually Iceland will be torn in two by its own geology. (Interestingly, Kenya’s Great Rift Valley is not technically a rift valley in geological terms. The things you learn when you go a-roving!)

**Then part of Denmark rather than Norway. Scandinavia’s political history is complicated.

***Note to self: write the dang post on Romantic nationalism.

****Which was occupied by the Nazis at the time and in no position to fight to keep control of a rocky island the size of Kentucky.

Image courtesy of Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0

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