Viking Army Councils

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The other day, I started writing my Östergötland book in earnest, and I’m really enjoying myself. Here’s a snippet of today’s work.

The oldest known territorial unit in Östergötland is the härad district (etymologically, “army council”), of which the province originally had eighteen. This division is generally taken to have been established at a single event in the Viking Period. There is little evidence to allow us to date that event closer, and it may have taken place after AD 1000 [the end-point of the period under study]. Most likely the härad division event had something to do with the military duties of the Östgötar to a king — of Östergötland, of Sweden, even of Denmark, we cannot tell.

The division follows a neat baseline down the middle of the plains belt and generally does not correlate with natural features. It is thus unlikely to preserve vestiges of earlier territorial divisions. When parishes were laid out across the province in the 13th century, they were not made congruent with the härad system, though the judicial organisation continued to use it (with some modifications) as an organisational backbone throughout the Middle Ages and later. Thus, all in all, it seems that the härad system was used as originally intended only for a rather short period after its establishment, and that it is not relevant to earlier periods.

Each härad had a central judicial assembly site in the High Middle Ages, though in some cases there is evidence for assembly sites moving or competing. Whether these sites also had Viking Period pedigree is unknown.

Map from here.

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15 thoughts on “Viking Army Councils

  1. Trivia #1: probably, the most common use of the word “härad” in Sweden today is in the expression “i samma härad”, in the way Americans would use the expression “in the same ballpark”.

    Trivia #2: I was actually born in “Finsponga”…

    Finally, a question, based on your text: is there any kind of relationship between a “fylking” and a “härad”?


  2. Another fairly common use of the word is in the expression häradsbetäckare, originally referring to a frisky and fertile bull employed to impregnate cows across an entire härad. Nowadays it is more often used about people who behave similarly.

    Fylking means “battle formation”. I don’t think that a Viking Period fylking would necessarily have consisted of troops from a single härad. After all, most of Scandinavia wasn’t divided into härad.

    SAOB just taught me that although fylking is found in the Medieval Swedish vocabulary, it then died out and was lent anew into modern Swedish from the Icelandic about 1700.


  3. Hej Martin

    Where does the idea of härads beeing an viking age invention come from? I really don’t see any reason why they could not be older. Is not this assumption based in some extend on the fact that the Hundare in Svealand might have been influenced from England in the late Viking period. I am a bit paranoid about the current “danish school”, implying that a lot of what we see is a function of some kind of Danish supremacy all over the Nordic region in the late Viking period. And how about the “Kind”? Don’t you think it’s a bit intriguing that so many of the härad-names have Kind “stuck” to them, in Östergötland and to some extent in Västergötland. Could the härads have replaced an older division into Kinds at some period? Any thoughts about the Gothic Kindins (lawmen) and division into Kinds?

    Best regards/Martin S


  4. Why Härad could be older..
    Looking at Finnestorp (bog deposits) in Västergötland which was in use until maybe around 500AD; it is located exactly on the border between neighbouring härads. Maybe they were not called härads at 500AD but they were probably well organized and the border was the same when they were called härads at some point in time. I wonder how Skedemosse on Öland is situated in relationship to the härad-borders?
    Best regards
    Martin S


  5. Being an archaeologist, I’m not about to question the consensus opinion of historians and philologists unless I find some really heavy new source material.

    In my view, since the names of the härad generally aren’t attested until the 14th century, it would be useless speculation to try to project them down into the Vendel Period or earlier.

    Kind and kindins and kindred are of course related words. But they all simply denote “people”. I don’t see any reason to believe in a formal kind division just because people called themselves people.

    I’m sorry, I’m just the kind of scholar who sees speculation as a task for fiction writers. Including ideas of prehistoric Danish overlordship. It’s in the realm of the possible but untestable.


  6. The question that comes to my mind is whether or not a härad (or the danish herred), is equivalent to the svealand hundare (or the english hundred). It would make sense since they seem to be of similar extent, although ethymologlically they seem to be unrelated.
    One way of establishing the age and origin of territorial divisions has been to relate them to population density at various historical moments. How does this relate to Östergötland, is there a time when each of the härads has had a similar number of farmsteads? Östergötland is also interesting because of the division between the western (inland) fertile plains and the costal areas, which may indicate that what we now know as Östergötland is a creation of a relatively late period, perhaps post-viking.


  7. is there a time when each of the härads has had a similar number of farmsteads?

    No good records before the 16th century.

    Place-name scholars have suggested that Östergötlands eastern group of härads with names ending in -kind together with the erstwhile “little land” of Kinda would once have formed a unit separate from Östergötland, tentatively named “Greater Kind”. This is in my opinion untestable speculation.


  8. According to SAOB (the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) härad and hird are not related. Här has its root in Proto-Norse haria, meaning “army”. Hird is rooted in a word meaning “family”, cf. Gothic heiwa.

    I also discover that the second element of härad is controversial. It may not have meant “council”, but rather “to equip”, “group of people”, “riding group”, “area one can ride about in a certain time”.


  9. But Svenskt ortnamnslexikon (2003) states that “The etymology of the word h�rad has long been controversial, but now it is almost universally understood as a composite of h�r [army] and r�d [council]. … RÃ¥d in this context means ‘power’.”


  10. You could probably say that hird and härad stands for two very different kinds of military concepts. The hird was a chiefs or noblemans paid personal soldiers, while the härad in some way relates to the popular defense of an area, more or less a militia.
    I am still very curious about the relation between the härad and the hundare of Svealand (and England), which in the early medeival period was an area which supplied 100 troops. Was the hundare a concept that was brought in from England, together with so much other things, in the Sigtuna-statelet after 995? In that case the härads could indicate areas where the Sigtuna king did not have direct control.


  11. It’s pretty straightforward if you look at the map. Denmark and Götaland has härad, Svealand has hundare (in the 12th and 13th centuries, before everything is homogenised to härad). But the date of either unit is lost in prehistory. All we know is that they are “probably Viking Period”.

    Also, not everyone agrees that the hundred in hundare refers to a number of armed men. Hyenstrand has argued at great length that it refers to the number of Viking Period farmsteads in each unit. I don’t really have an opinion, it’s all too speculative for me.


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