Kingship in the Viking Age

An essay on whether scholars are 'reading in' Anglo-Saxon values when they study the Norse sagas.


Lars Walker said...

As I understand it, the idea of the king as giver of gifts springs from the basic Scandinavian/Germanic political system -- a democracy of free men whose kings ruled by consent of the governed. The king has to keep his followers happy, through hosting feasts and giving gifts, in order to maintain his position. You'll be able to read more about this system in the book "Viking Legacy" by Torgrim Titlestad, translated by me. It seems to only be available on their Norwegian site at this point: But they assure me it will be available from American sources very soon.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Germanics have a much stronger tradition of freely allying themselves with a capable leader than is found in other places. It is more usual, even in many places today, for warriors to have allegiance to clan leaders rather than seeing themselves as independent contractors. Kinship is still a strong motivator in Beowulf and the sagas, but only in comparison to our own day, not to other cultures at the time.

Ties of kinship provide a floor of support for getting food, being avenged, eligibility for mates and the like. To keep warriors who were not kinsmen, a king would have to compensate for that somehow. Gift-giving is a possible solution to that problem.

This article, noting the commonality of this idea in cultures that have been separated for a few centuries, suggests that this unusual custom of declaring fealty to an unrelated king extends quite a ways back in time, perhaps even before the common era. I don't think gift-giving shows up in other Indo-European cultures, and so does not likely precede Proto-Germanic.