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Manx Camp Info

By James A. Howell

Note: this article was originally posted on the Yahoo! Groups Manx Camp email list.

The Isle of Man in 950 AD

The Island

The Isle of Man is an island in the middle of the Irish Sea, 26 miles long and twelve miles wide. It is approximately equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, all of which are visible from the top of Snaefells, the tallest mountain on the Island. The Island has been occupied since Neolithic times. Just prior to our period Christian Celts of possibly Irish extraction populated the island.

The island was first raided by the Norse in 798 AD. The Danes raided it in 853, at which time it may already have been colonized by the Norwegians. The Norse came to Man more than likely by way of the Hebrides or Ireland. By 950 the island has been occupied by Scandinavians and descendants of the original Celtic population for approximately 100 years. They speak Norse with Celtic influences, and there is much evidence of intermarriage. The Pagan Lady of Peel burial shows evidence of this mixing of cultures. She is buried in pagan fashion with grave goods, but she does NOT appear to be wearing Norse-style clothing.

Man politically has ties to both Dublin and Jorvik. At times it is part of the Kingdom of the Isles (Hebrides) and at others it is an independent kingdom. By 973 it is part of the Kingdom of the Isles under Magnus Haroldsson.

In 950 AD Eadred is king of England. Owen is king of Strathclyde. Malcolm I is king of Scotland. Hakon (the Good) Athelstanfostri is king of Norway. Gorm the Old is king of Denmark. Olaf Cuaran Sygtrygsson is king of the Dublin Norse and of Jorvik at this time. Constantine Porphyrogenitus is the Emperor of Byzantium. Svyatoslav is Prince of Novgorod. At about this time Gautr Bjornsson is carving monument slabs with runic inscriptions on Man. He may have come to Man by way of the Hebrides. Through him comes most of what we know about Man during this era. His monuments contain ring headed Celtic crosses as well as scenes from the Norse myths. It is probable that the Manx at this time practice both Norse and Christian religions, some possibly concurrently (the phenomenon was noted in Iceland). Runic inscriptions give us evidence of Norwegian, Irish, Danish, Anglo-Saxon and possibly even Pictish names.

The Thyng

The Thyng was the joint legislative/judicial body of the Scandinavian peoples. In some cases it was the only ruling body. It appears to have met once or twice a year depending on the region.
The Manx Thyng is called Tynwald from Thyngvollur, "thing plain", originally the name of the meeting place. Tynwald still meets every July 5, corresponding to Old Midsummer Day. It is the oldest continuously functioning parliamentary body in Europe.

Thyngs were where laws were created and trials and lawsuits heard. They were also social gatherings where people from outlying areas could get reacquainted with friends and neighbors, trade goods and gossip, and talk business. Brewers, tanners, sword cutlers, and jugglers are all recorded as having attended the Icelandic Althyng.

Local assemblies were held first in the spring where business within the locality was dealt with, including court cases and settling debts. These local assemblies, along with the larger regional ones, were overseen by 36 judges (originally) appointed by the local chieftains and equally divided amongst them. These chieftains or Godi were originally lay priests (seemingly there were no other kind) of the Old Norse religion and maintained temples on their land. There is good evidence to believe that Thyng sites were originally considered sacred.

After the local things, regional assemblies were held around mid-summer to handle issues not settled at the local level or involving people from two or more different localities. These regional things (or national in the case of Iceland) were also where laws were created and in older times where kings were chosen. In Iceland, the local sessions lasted for one week, followed by the Althyng which lasted two weeks, which was in turn followed by a brief one or two day session in the autumn where laws were announced, as well as notices such as of outlawry, and in Christian times the church schedule of saint's days.

In Iceland the Althyng was overseen by the Lawspeaker, among whose duties was the recitation of 1/3 of the laws each year of his three-year term. Because of this he was considered the final arbiter on questions of law. Today, all new laws are still recited from Tynwald, where a mound has been sculpted into terraces on top of which the lawspeaker stands.

Cases were tried by very complex formulae. Failure to strictly adhere to them could doom a case even though the person in question was clearly in the right. Penalties issued by the court would take one of two forms, either a monetary fine or outlawry. Fines were predesignated; so much for a maiming, so much for killing a servant, so much for killing a freeman, etc. Outlawry was divided into two classes, lesser outlawry and greater outlawry. Lesser outlawry would be for a set period of time, and would consist of banishment from the district or country, depending on the level of thyng. Greater outlawry cast the guilty outside the protection of the law. His goods were forfeit, and he could be killed without fear of penalty of law. The thyng could pronounce sentence, but had no mechanism for enforcement, so it was up to the claimant, or the victim's family in the case of murder, to carry out the sentence.


James Graham-Campbell and others, ed. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World, Andromeda Oxford Limited, 1994, 0-8160-3004-9.

Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, Penguin Books, 1995, 0-14-0-51328-0.

Jones, Gwynn. A History of the Vikings, Oxford University Press, 1985, 0-19-215882-1.

Nordal, Sigurður. Icelandic Culture, Cornell University Library, 1990.

Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society Vol. X No., April 1995-March 1997, "The Chronology of the Viking Age in the Isle of Man", David M. Wilson, 0951914103

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