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Thread: Germanic Government Systems

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    Lightbulb Germanic Government Systems

    Government systems:

    "A politician thinks about the next elections, a statesman about the future." (Winston Churchill)


    Germanic society was build on a system which was similar to that of the Celtic clans, though the Germanic equivalent of the clan was called "Sibbe" (plural:"Sibben"), in Old Norse the sibbe was called "Sifja", in Old Saxon:"Sibbia", in Anglo-Saxon:"Sib", and in Proto-Germanic:"sebjo".

    Blood relationships were very important in Germanic society and most people could easily sum up no less than seven generations of their ancestors, the importance of family and kinship can also be seen in many sagas in which the bloodlines of the heroes are often described in a very thorough way, the hero Siegfried (or Sigurd) for instance was a member of the Walsungen (or Völsungar); an important sibbe that even had bloodlinks with the high god Wodan (Odin).

    A powerful Ostrogothic sibbe were the Amalen of which many nobles and kings originated, including king Theodorik the Great, in Middle High German sagas the Goths were even called "Amelungen" after this Sibbe. Traces of Germanic sibben can also be found in Scotland; Scottisch clans which are missing the "Mac-" or "Mc-" element in front of their name are not Celtic but of Viking or Anglo-Saxon origin.

    An average sibbe consisted of around 10 families; the entire families from both the man and womans' side belonged to the sibbe, the members of a sibbe were called "magen" (=relatives), a maag (or "magaz" in Proto-Germanic) was often a family member, though friends of the family and sometimes even thralls (slaves or servants working for the family) were also considered to be members of the sibbe, another word that was used for members of a sibbe was "siblings", in English the word "sibling" is still used to refer to relatives.
    In the Germanic lawsystem all members of the sibbe were equal and had the same rights, children in the sibbe had the same rights as adults from the time they learned how to speak and express their wishes.

    The way in which religion was expressed could differ in every sibbe; a sibbe sometimes had its own Gođi's or Gyđja's (Priests or Priestesses) and sometimes an own patron god, who was believed to protect the sibbe that was dedicated to him or her, there were even sibben who were thought to have a bloodrelationship with a certain god.

    Customs could also vary in a sibbe, for instance in some sibben it was forbidden to have sex with someone else than your partner while in others it was accepted to have extramarital sex as long as one did not forget that sex could be shared while love was only for the real partner.

    Hospitality was also a very important virtue, a sibbe who was very friendly towards guests and treated its visitors well was often more respected than others.

    Unlike the Celtic clans, the sibben did not often fight eachother; most "civil wars" were fought between tribes, not sibben; during a war the members of a sibbe often fought together on the battlefield, this had many advantages because this men had a very close bond and would never leave the battlefield without eachother.

    Not every family formed a separate sibbe, only powerful or noble families were considered a sibbe; most families joined the sibbe of another family because they were on friendly terms with an important member of that sibbe or simply to receive its protection.
    Most sibben consisted of a noble family and other families who were on friendly terms with that noble family, the influence of a sibbe was often limited to a few families within a community though the more powerful sibben were sometimes even represented throughout an entire province or even a country.

    A sibbe did officially not posess much power, but in reality they were often in a position in which they could severely influence the decisions of the local rulers, the interests of the most powerful sibbe(n) in the community weighed heavily on the decisions that were taken, and many leaders also favoured the sibbe to which they belonged.

    A group of 100 sibben was called a "Hundredship" (German: Hundertschaft, Dutch: Honderdschap, Proto-Germanic: Hundaskapiz) and a gau (Germanic province) consisted of multiple Hundredships, the Hundredship had its own leader who was chosen by its members, this was often a powerful man of noble birth.


    A tribe consisted of multiple sibben, a small tribe only controlled a small area with some villages while a bigger tribe could control entire provinces or even countries.

    Every tribe had its own culture and religion (though tightly linked to the common one) and they often had an own patron god for whom they sometimes even had an alternative name; the Saxons for instance had Sahsnôte (Tiwaz) and the Goths had Gaut (Wodan).
    Multiple tribes could form a coalition and create a new tribe, coalition tribes could become very powerful and often controlled large areas of land, good examples of coalition tribes are the Suebians, Franconians, and Saxons.

    Tribes were mostly lead by a tribal chief or king, though the members of a tribe also had considerable influence, tribes who were part of a coalition tribe were also lead by their own kings but the coalition as a whole was mostly lead by the king of the most powerful tribe, unless the people had a better choice of course.

    More information about the tribal system can be found at tribes in the site menu.

    Gauen and Marken:

    Germanic tribes often divided their land into provinces that had around the same size as our modern ones, each of them had an amount of autonomy that can be compared a little to that of the modern American states.

    In Germany such provinces were called "gauen", on this site I shall only use the German word gau when refering to Germanic provinces in order to avoid confusion, though there were also other names for this provinces; gouw (Dutch), gâ (Old Frisian), gô (Old Saxon), gawi (Gothic), gawja (Proto-Germanic), this words all meant something like "province" or "district".

    The gau can be compared to a county or shire and it was lead by an earl; the English word "earl" is derived from Anglo-Saxon "eorl" (Proto-Germanic "erlaz" or "erilaz" (man, hero), Old Norse "jarl", Old Saxon "erl"), this earl lead the gau's army during times of war, collected tax and made sure that all matters in the gau went as planned, a gau also had its own țing.

    Multiple gauen formed a dukedom, the German word for dukedom is "herzogtum" and the Dutch word is "hertogdom".

    The dukedom was led by a duke (hertog), the words "herzog" (German), "hertog" (Dutch), and "hartog" (Nether-Saxon) are derived from Proto-Germanic "harjatugon" (army-leader), originally the hertog was chosen for the duration of a war but later it became a permanent function.

    Some examples of gauen in Europe (This list is not complete so please contact me if you can give me more information):

    # The low countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands):

    Eastergoa (Frisia, NL)
    Eemsland (Groningen, NL)
    Feluta (?)
    Fivelingo (Groningen, NL)
    Flehite (?)
    Gendt (area around Gent, Belgium)
    Hamaland (the area around Zutphen, NL)
    Haspengouw (?, Belgium)
    Hettergouw (?, Belgium)
    Humsterland (Groningen, NL)
    Hunsingo (Groningen, NL)
    IJsselgouw (?, NL)
    Lommegouw (?, Belgium)
    Maasgouw (?)
    Nardinclant (the Gooi, NL)
    Salland; named after the Salian Franconians (Overijssel, NL)
    Sawnwâlden (Frisia, NL)
    Testerbant (between the rivers Lek and Meuse, east of the Betuwe, NL)
    Tuvante (Twente, NL)
    Urkerland (area around Urk, NL)
    Westergoa (Frisia, NL)
    Wolvega (Frisia, NL)

    # Germany:

    # Austria:

    Pinzgau (the area around Salzburg)

    # Switzerland:
    Prätigau (the area around Schriers)

    A gau near the border was called "gaumark" or "mark" (which means "border province"), the leader (earl) of a mark had the duty to protect its borders against invaders and was often granted more rights than an average earl so that he could arrange defences and build fortifications, the names of some areas still refer to its former status as mark; the Austrian province of Steyermark for instance, Austria itself was originally called "Ostmark" and Denmark once was a Franconian border province ("Dane-mark" or "Border province of the Danes").

    After most tribes had been subjected by the Franconians the gauen were renamed into "grafschaften" (German) or "graafschappen" (Dutch), which can both be compared to the English county.


    Most tribes were ruled by a king, the Proto-Germanic word for king was Kuningaz ("One of the kin"), though other words were Waldandaz ("Ruling One"), Țeudanaz ("Leader of the people").

    After the Christianization the king of an empire could be crowned to "Kaisar", which was a loanword from Latin "Cesari", which means "emperor" and has been derived from the name of Julius Caesar.

    This king did not posess absolute power; he still had to respect the will of his people and a king who performed his own will against the wishes of the people was at risk of being deposed; the king was often advised by a council of wise men; the Anglo-Saxon kings for instance were advised by the "Witenagemot" (Meeting of the Wise) and they also had to respect the wishes of the țing, some tribes even had a constitutional cooperation between the king and the țing (folk assembly).

    The king (and most other nobles and high ranking persons) considered themselves to be servants of the gods, so they believed that they still had to take responsibility for their actions because they would be judged after them in the afterlife.

    Originally there was no etiquette at the king's court; so no exaggerated social rules, special ways of eating or clothing prescriptions, these were later introduced during the Middle Ages.

    Most kings were chosen by the people; they were often members of important families, nobles, brave warriors, or someone else who had done important things for their people, another rule was that they had to be of noble birth, though that may be a later addition.
    The king also played an important role in warfare and his influence increased during times of crisis, something which can nowadays also be seen in the United States where even the people who disagree with the president support him when things are getting rough.

    It can be said that the Germanic governments were often an ingenious and semi-contradictory mix of democracy and dictatorship in which the king had a lot of power but was still subjected to the will of the people, during wars or other problems the king played the role of a stable leader who united his people against a common threat but he could never take over all the power because that would not be accepted by the other nobles and his people, so some decisions were made by the king, some were made by the people via the țing (folk assembly), and in some decisions both sides added their input; this strange two-way system allowed much personal freedom and a democratic way of living while at the same time the ability to react to threats in an uncomplicated and decisive way.

    Germanic society sometimes had meritocratical tendencies; those who had distincted themselves from the "common" people by doing great deeds often received the most respect and the highest rank within the community, it is even believed that the original Germanic nobility only consisted of persons who had gained their title by doing great deeds instead of inheriting it from their parents.

    Most tribes did not posess an organized professional army; armies were raised when there was a need for them and its warriors were mostly young men who temporarily joined it.

    This sounds like a very weak system but since Germanic society was very militaristic in nature most men were skilled in both their regular jobs as well as in the art of war, furthermore; in almost every tribe there were men who liked fighting so much that they became professional warriors, this warriors often worked for the king.

    The king had his own personal warriors who often functioned as his bodyguards, this system was used by both the Celtic and Germanic peoples; the warriors swore an oath to the king in which they promised that they would stay loyal to him and that they would protect him with their lives if needed, in return the king swore his warriors that he would support them and their families and that he would provide them with food, drink, horse, weapons and equipment in exchange for their service, later they were also given land.

    This custom can be compared to the later Medieval knights who were almost certainly descendants of this system. The warriors of a king were called "hirđ" in Old Norse (Proto-Germanic: herțaz (hearth) or herțra (inner circle, the initiated)), which means something like "those belonging to the hearth" (i.e. the trusted inner circle), the Roman writer Tacitus called them "comitatus", which means "commited" in Latin, in Anglo-Saxon the bodyguards of the king were named "huskarls", the word huskarl means something like "house-guy", so the guys who protected the home (hearth) of the king.

    During a war the king personally lead his army and joined them in battle, it was dishonourful for him to be surpassed by his warriors in bravery and it sometimes happened that a king was deposed because he had not shown enough courage during a battle, therefor most Germanic kings were also excellent warriors and most of them did not die of natural causes; the king had to give the good example to his warriors and they had to equal him in bravery, the king's knights (the hirđ) never left the battle without him and if he died in battle so would they in their efford to protect him, surviving the king in battle was a great dishonour for the hirđ.

    The people who were loyal to the king were called his followers, some theories say that the modern English word "folk" has been derived from this and in many Germanic languages there is indeed a connection between the word "followers" and "folk" like for instance in English: followers - folk, Dutch: gevolg - volk, and German: gefolg - volk, the word "folk" is derived from Proto-Germanic "fulka" (folk, multitude), which is a very old word that was already used in pre-Indo-European times, later the Indo-European word "teuta" (people) was introduced to northern Europe where it was Germanized into "țeudo" (people, tribe).

    The king's followers presented him with gifts to show their appreciation of him, this gifts often consisted of cattle, a part of the harvest, practical items for his household, etc. the value of the gifts depended upon what someone could afford, most of this gifts were given voluntarily as a token of honour, but sometimes also in the form of tax.

    During the Middle Ages this custom changed into an obligated tribute, but originally it served the purpose of showing one's gratitude to the king, this kind of gifts were also presented to warlords, earls, tribal chiefs, and other important people.

    In later times the influence of the kings increased which eventually lead to a new type of king; the Medieval despot, this type had nothing to do with the old Germanic system and was mainly based on the position of the former Roman emperors.


    The Germans called their warlords "Warconductor" (Proto-Germanic: Harjanaz) or "Army Leader" (Proto-Germanic: Harjatugon), a warlord could sometimes have the same power as a king and they were also often elected as king, but the difference is that not all of them were of noble birth; they were chosen by the people because of their bravery and did not directly work for the king, in times of war they performed his orders but they were more loyal towards their people than the king.

    A warlord was obeyed by his warriors because of his braveness, and not because his rank was higher than theirs; in battle he had to act as an example to his men and it was a disgrace for him to be surpassed by them in bravery, the warriors on their turn had to equal the bravery of their warlord.

    The warriors had to make sure that the warlord was not killed and the warlord had to make sure that victory was gained, or, to quote Tacitus; "The chiefs fight for victory, the followers for their chief".

    The Țing:

    The țing (Old Norse), "țengaz" in Proto-Germanic, "ding" in western Germanic, and local western Germanic variations like "dinc", or "dink", was an assembly of people in which crimes, conflicts between people, and other juridical matters were solved; if somebody had broken the law it was often the țing that decided how that person had to be punished.

    The țing also decided about other matters; whether or not war had to be declared on enemies, how to solve personal problems, determining who was speaking the truth and who wasn't, etc.

    It combined the functions of a city council, a court, a voting system, a distric council, etc.

    The țing was often held on a fixed date; shortly after the new moon or shortly before the full moon (or when a certain situation occured in which an assembly of the țing was needed) the whole village then assembled under the leadership of the old and wise people (often gođi's) and matters were discussed.

    The persons who were involved in the case told their side of the story and the most influential persons spoke and offered their advice or opinion, after that the rest of the people could shout their disapproval or clash their spears if they agreed, using your weapon to show your approval was considered to be very complimentary to the person you agreed with because of its strong symbolism.

    Originally every free man and woman had voting rights in the țing, they could express their approval of a plan by clashing spears, stamping on the ground, cheering, banging their weapons on the ground or on their shields, or raising their hands, in more delicate matters every person was individually asked his or her opinion.

    Big (coalition) tribes often planned a yearly meeting which resembled that of a țing, for instance the Saxon tribes met eachother every year on the "Landdag" (land-day), a day which was held every year to discuss the state of the land.

    The țing was one of the first democratic systems in the world, many people think that democracy is an invention of the Greeks but they started much later with it and their system was less democratic then the Germanic one; in the Greek system only the men with a noble background had voting rights while the Germanic system also included voting rights for the common people, women, and in some communities even older children.

    That does not say that the Germanic governmental system was purely democratic; slaves (thralls) had no voting rights and kings, warlords, nobles, and other powerful figures could abuse their power and esteem to influence the decision-making to their advantage, but the decision of the țing weighed heavily and most leaders accepted the decisions made by the țing because it reflected the will of the majority of the people.

    Besides the higher țing which ruled an entire land most villages also had a local țing which was held on fixed dates and there were also țings that dealt with an entire province (gau).

    In later times (especially after the Christianization) democracy and the amount of personal freedom became more limited; in 870AD many Vikings fled the opressive regimes of the Norwegian kings and settled in Iceland where they founded a country upon freedom, which they had lacked for so many years.

    Just like in the old Germanic system the new country was ruled by țings, which in their turn were ruled by a central government; the Alțing (all-thing) the Alțing soon became a parliament and all the Icelanders could vote about decisions that were to be made, nowadays the parliament of Iceland is still called the Alțing.

    Other traces of the Germanic țing can be found in the names of the Norwegian parliament; "Storting" (Great țing) and the Danish parliament; "Folketing" (Folk țing), the Dutch word "kort geding" (injunction lawsuit) is derived from the western Germanic word "ding".

    During the Middle Ages the țing became less democratic and voting rights were often limited to the (male) head of the family or they were not given at all, eventually the țing system slowly began to disappear because the opinion of the people was irrelevant to most Medieval despots, the first Germanic kings who broke with the old government system were the Franconians; after the establishment of their empire and the Christianization of most of Europe they began to behave like the Roman emperors they had always admired, and against whom their ancestors had fought so long and desperately to keep their freedom.

    The kings "followers" were no longer asked for their opinion and personal rights were limited to a minimum because the king did not wish to be bothered with the problems of lowly peasants, this practice was continued for many centuries to come until the Age of Enlightenment in which many people became fed up with their despot rulers and demanded more personal freedom, a courageous act that provided most of Europe with the freedom it can now enjoy, a sign that the spirit of our ancestors is still alive within us.


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    Another great post.

    Germanic society sometimes had meritocratical tendencies; those who had distincted themselves from the "common" people by doing great deeds often received the most respect and the highest rank within the community, it is even believed that the original Germanic nobility only consisted of persons who had gained their title by doing great deeds instead of inheriting it from their parents.
    This is something I strongly believe in. The lessons we can learn from our ancestors never ceases to amaze me.
    “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs-Jon Jay, Federalist Papers

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