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Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: crime in Hedeby and Birka

Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: crime in Hedeby and Birka

Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: crime in Hedeby and Birka

By Sven Kalmring

Fornvännen: Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research, Vol.105:4 (2010)

Abstract: Material evidence of prehistoric crime is rare. A compilation of finds from Hedeby harbour however offers three case studies, where three different offences – thievery, counterfeiting and homicide – are likely. Evidence for the smuggling of arms is discussed on the basis of a fourth example from Hedeby’s flat-ground cemetery. Against this background the author argues for a review of finds and features from comparable emporia such as Birka.

Introduction: The source material for the study of Medieval crime is difficult to define. Archaeo-criminology faces some serious methodological problems: our cases should be related to empirically ascertainable phenomena, they must have been assessed as injustices worth punishing on the normative-social criteria of that time and – in spite of all differences – a connection to what we now consider to be criminal behaviour should remain. Another challenge is usually posed by the poor state of the source material. However, in Hedeby harbour the archaeological record offers a remarkably wide variety of evidence.

Medieval Scandinavian laws were not recorded until the Christian era between the 12th and 14th centuries. Increased royal power and the growing influence of the Church led to royal legislation and provincial laws mostly based upon Roman canonical law. Though in some respects they seem to have earlier roots, their significance for the legal framework of Late Iron Age Scandinavia is controversial. However, it is beyond doubt that Viking Period society was familiar with legal institutions such as assemblies, dedicated þing sites and judges, that is, socially high-ranking law speakers.

Our knowledge of legal practice is sparse. Viking Period society was based on kinship. As royal power at that time was comparatively weak, the legal protection of the individual was a matter for the head of each family. Crimes committed by women fell within the remit of their husbands while slaves’ actions were a liability of their owners. Assault committed against a member of a family was regarded as a crime against the family as a whole. It follows that vengeance could be directed both against the offender himself and against his relatives. The offended party obtained satisfaction through self-help either in terms of claiming fines or in blood feud. Public intervention only occurred in cases where the interests of a whole community were violated. The motive behind a criminal action was not punishable, only its observable consequences.

Judging from the various later Medieval provincial laws, negotiation of a fine was the most common way to settle an issue between two families in that era. However, homicide at a legal assembly, the violation of domestic peace, arson, rape and high treason were regarded as such severe crimes that they could not be atoned for with fines. Here, perpetrators were instead outlawed by legal verdict. Inability to pay an imposed fine as well as petty theft, robbery and illicit intercourse were punished by mutilation, whereas counterfeiting, bodily injury and insults were punished by flogging. Such corporal punishment was originally inflicted only on unfree members of society and were shameful punishments performed in public. The death penalty, when executed by public authorities, was however rather rare. As vengeance for a crime was generally a private matter, the killing of a member of the offender’s party eventually terminated the conflict. Nevertheless, Medieval Norwegian law prescribes that sorcery be punished by drowning, thievery by hanging and a slave caught stealing by beheading.


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