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Total War: Shogun 2 Heaven » Forums » Total War History » The Germanic Thing: Precursor to Modern Democracy?
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Topic Subject:The Germanic Thing: Precursor to Modern Democracy?
Zardozhotep
Ashigaru
(id: Kahotep)
posted 01-08-12 01:50 AM EDT (US)         
Historians have traditionally attributed the origin of modern Western democracies to classical Athens and Republican Rome, but recently I've read about a widespread Germanic institution called the thing, which was essentially the governing assembly of all free people in a Germanic community. The Wikipedia article on the subject has something I found especially captivating to say about it:
The thing met at regular intervals, legislated, elected chieftains and kings, and judged according to the law, which was memorized and recited by the "law speaker" (the judge). The thing's negotiations were presided over by the law speaker and the chieftain or the king. In reality the thing was of course dominated by the most influential members of the community, the heads of clans and wealthy families, but in theory one-man one-vote was the rule.
The part about the community's leaders being elected reminded me of a modern Western-style representative democracy. Earlier in the article, it's claimed that the Anglo-Saxon variant of the thing evolved into the modern British Parliament, which supposedly was in turn a major influence on the modern American government's design (or so my dad, a major American history enthusiast, claims). In other words, the Germanic thing may be a good candidate for the ancestor to modern Western democracy; better, perhaps, than the short-lived and ultimately conquered Athenian democracy.

Traditionally historiographers have attributed the better aspects of Western civilization to classical Greece and Rome while vilifying pre-Christian northern Europeans as primitive barbarians. However, it appears that one of the most fundamental characteristics of the modern West, representative democracy, may in fact be indigenous to inner Europe rather than a Mediterranean imposition. I say it's time to give the so-called "barbarians" more credit.

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AuthorReplies:
ShieldWall
Ashigaru
posted 01-08-12 05:05 AM EDT (US)     1 / 18       
I'm all in favour of giving the barbarians more credit. Anyone who has a mind to should read Terry Jones' "Barbarians", most enlightening, showing just how advanced they really were in terms of science and law, and how intellectually redundant the Romans actually were other than what they borrowed from conquered people. It makes you wonder just who the real barbarians actually were.

There are still "things" in existance, the Althing is the parliament in Iceland, and the Tynwald on the Isle of Man still meets and is believed to be the oldest continuous parliament in the world.

I think it's fair to say that Athenian democracy has contributed only its name to what we have today. Their citizens, for a brief few years, voted directly on a course of action, but we elect people to make those decisions on our behalf - it's not the same thing. So I think it's more accurate to say that our "democracy" has evolved, and in Britain where I am, this has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times. The Germanic peoples of the Dark Ages saw themselves as the heirs to Rome and copied a little of what the Romans did, but the underlying bedrock of their society was still Germanic. And over time their laws and practices have evolved into what we have today, obviously via the Norman Conquest, Peasants Revolt and the Civil War, but the original template has its origins in Germanic tradition.
Thompsoncs
Ashigaru
posted 01-08-12 05:38 AM EDT (US)     2 / 18       
Caesar also describes the Gauls as having tribe assemblies, with elected 'magistrates'. In any case, we don't have the true athenian democracy today. That's good, because it wouldn't work to have over 16 million dutch people vote over every problem.
Terikel Grayhair
Imperator
(id: Terikel706)
posted 01-08-12 05:58 AM EDT (US)     3 / 18       
The Norwegian parliament, Stortinget, actually translates as "The Big Thing" or "The Great Thing".

Just adding in a bit of trivia...

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Zardozhotep
Ashigaru
(id: Kahotep)
posted 01-08-12 06:47 AM EDT (US)     4 / 18       
Anyone who has a mind to should read Terry Jones' "Barbarians", most enlightening, showing just how advanced they really were in terms of science and law, and how intellectually redundant the Romans actually were other than what they borrowed from conquered people. It makes you wonder just who the real barbarians actually were.
I've seen some intriguing episodes from a documentary with the same name. I didn't know he wrote a book about the topic too.
Caesar also describes the Gauls as having tribe assemblies, with elected 'magistrates'.
That would mean a form of democracy was widespread throughout northern Europe as a whole rather than just the Germanic domain. I wonder if all these assemblies originate from a common European cultural substratum?

Everything is better with dinosaurs.
Thompsoncs
Ashigaru
posted 01-08-12 07:18 AM EDT (US)     5 / 18       
On the other hand, there were also tribes with more monarchal rulers and other tribes that were being led by one strong warlord without official power. But Caesar does use words like senate, assemblies and tribe elders for most of the governments of the tribes, IIRC. Like in rome, it was however still a rule of the nobles over the common people.
ShieldWall
Ashigaru
posted 01-08-12 10:19 AM EDT (US)     6 / 18       
Yes there's a book for the Barbarian TV series. It contains a lot more than was shown on TV, including the rather surprising news that the Parthians developed what could possibly be batteries...

If we assume that ideas such as farming and tribal units spread across Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, turning us from hunter-gatherers into early civilisations, then it's not a stretch to imagine that some early idea of politics could have developed too and all European practices are descended from it. On a smaller scale it would make sense and be easy to consult the tribe on decisions, though this obviously gets problematic with more and more people, and then a ruling elite comes along and tells us all what we ought to be thinking.
Agrippa 271
Ashigaru
posted 01-08-12 05:09 PM EDT (US)     7 / 18       
I love how it sounds to us in English. It's stupid I know, but I keep thinking its like the book/movie, "The Thing", about this shape shifting alien my dad told me about. And it does sound kind of cool. The thing...

Anyway, back to more serious discussion, I wouldn't say that the Germanic thing has had anymore influence on the American government than the Roman Republic, but that's just saying that it was one of the major influences, alongside the Republic. It may be that most small tribal hunter-gather groups were democratic in this fashion. As Shield-Wall said, operating in a democratic fashion becomes more and more difficult as the population gets larger, possibly leading to governments with power concentrated in the hands of a few individuals or a single individual, like in monarchies and oligarchies. So, it may be that the thing was a hold-over from these times that had managed to reorganize successfully to be able to continue governing effectively with a larger population.

As for the barbarians, it may be that their organization and, ah, hygiene habits was what made them "barbarians".

Death is a (vastly) preferable alternative to communism.
"Idiocy knows no national or cultural borders. Stupidity can strike anyone, anywhere." -- Terikel
Pitt
Daimyo
posted 01-08-12 11:00 PM EDT (US)     8 / 18       
The tribes with elected magistrates were those closest to Rome and Massilia, whereas the tribes with very little social intercourse or trade with Romans or Greeks were monarchical, such as the Belgians. This leads to the obvious conclusion that the closer tribes were absorbing cultural and political ideas from their neighbours. The evolution of the Gauls' political institutions was aborted by their integration into the Roman empire, though at a local level, consistent with the rest of the empire, local magistracies were filled by election.

The English Parliament owes very little to Athens or Rome. Indeed, the Athenian example, as relayed through Thucydides and Plato, served more as a warning of the dangers of democracy.

Parliament was, basically, aristocratic for almost all of its history. 'Democracy' was a bit of a dirty word, associated with radicals and subversives even up until the mid-nineteenth century. Chartist demands for universal adult male suffrage were rejected out of hand. Property qualifications for voting weren't removed until after the First World War.
the modern British Parliament, which supposedly was in turn a major influence on the modern American government's design (or so my dad, a major American history enthusiast, claims). In other words, the Germanic thing may be a good candidate for the ancestor to modern Western democracy; better, perhaps, than the short-lived and ultimately conquered Athenian democracy.
Athenian democracy was actually quite resilient, but, yes, modern representative democracy owes far more to the barbarians than it does to the Greeks. You can't take it too far, however, because an institution like Parliament didn't evolve everywhere Germanic tribes settled and established themselves.

The evolving structure of a representative legislature was driven more or less by practical grounds, and in fits and starts, and owes little to theory based on classical democracy.

The colonial legislatures had been set up along British lines, and the new American system of government was consciously modelled on that of Britain, with a few aesthetic touches reminiscent of ancient Rome. In fact, the founders had an imperfect understanding of British Parliamentary government, which is only natural, given even Montesquieu and people at the time misunderstood it.

The Americans ascribed too much power and responsibility for government to the role of the king, and thus created a presidential office that reflected that. Whereas, in reality, Parliament was far more important. Ministers in Parliament were the executive running the government, not the king (which is not to deny he still had a great deal of influence, which was however criticised heavily by many opposition MPs).

In strict terms, there was no separation of powers in the British political system. The King sat at the apex, with it being the King-in-Parliament which made the laws (the royal assent being necessary to make bills law), and the courts handing out the King's justice.

Parliament itself straddled the functions of legislature, executive and judiciary. Ministers sat in the Commons or in the Lords. Parliament was, legally, also the highest court in the land, though this had come to be exercised exclusively by whichever judges happened to have a peerage and thus be sitting in the House of Lords.

It's even more obvious in the person of the Lord High Chancellor. Amongst the last of the Great Officers of State still in practical use, the Lord Chancellor was the presiding officer of the House of Lords, a member of the executive and Cabinet, and the head of the judiciary. He was also the only judge in the Court of Chancery (responsible for equity, trusts, patents, guardianship law etc) until the nineteenth century. He was a member of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Needless to say, only lawyers were appointed to the position, and he was always overburdened with work.

"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French." - P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins
Kor
Busschof Happertesch
(id: Derfel Cadarn)
posted 01-09-12 09:06 AM EDT (US)     9 / 18       
The English Parliament owes very little to Athens or Rome.
This is true, but it also owes very little to the Thing. And parliament itself was far from democratic - the backdoor to semi-democratic concepts was the right to resistance, included in some constitutions/collections of privileges in the late middle ages, which was used as justification in some rebellions, such as the Dutch Revolt (not that the resulting government was particularly democratic).

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Ashigaru
posted 01-09-12 02:27 PM EDT (US)     10 / 18       
Ha would you look at that im actaully reading Terry jones book at the moment. Its good but some things are contradicting to what several other authors have said.

But back to the subject, Athenian democracy has really nothing to do with ours just as Sheildwall has said. Though I would like to see if we could pull it off.

Oh and Agrippa 271 "barbarians" is just another way of calling people foreign and weird.

"Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory"-Sun Tzu
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"Laws are silent in times of war"- Cicero
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Thompsoncs
Ashigaru
posted 01-09-12 04:04 PM EDT (US)     11 / 18       
Pitt, are you a historian/history student or just a hobby historian like me? You seem to know quite a lot.
Agrippa 271
Ashigaru
posted 01-09-12 08:03 PM EDT (US)     12 / 18       
I know that calling people barbarians meant "foreign and weird" to the Greeks. Today (and probably for a long time), however, I believe you will find it has evolved to mean anybody who is considered to be less advanced technologically, and culturally inferior.
The Americans ascribed too much power and responsibility for government to the role of the king, and thus created a presidential office that reflected that.
Do you mean that you think that the President has too much power, or that he just has more power than the king did when the US was formed? Sorry, but this phrase, in this context, confused me.

@Thompsoncs

I would think that Pitt has had at least some higher education on the matters of history. He does know quite a bit.

Death is a (vastly) preferable alternative to communism.
"Idiocy knows no national or cultural borders. Stupidity can strike anyone, anywhere." -- Terikel
Pitt
Daimyo
posted 01-10-12 04:27 AM EDT (US)     13 / 18       
I have studied history at tertiary level, though my primary focus was international relations and law.

And my high school history teacher set essays, nearly one essay a week on average, which wouldn't have been out of place in a second year university course.
The Americans ascribed too much power and responsibility for government to the role of the king, and thus created a presidential office that reflected that.
Do you mean that you think that the President has too much power, or that he just has more power than the king did when the US was formed? Sorry, but this phrase, in this context, confused me.
When it came to dividing up responsibilities and creating a constitutional structure for federal government, the drafters of the American constitution proceeded under a misapprehension as the extent of the king's actual (as opposed to theoretical) powers and active involvement in day-to-day government.

The mistake was understandable, in that constitutional practice had changed considerably in the years after the accession of William and Mary in 1689, yet this hadn't percolated through to the popular consciousness yet. The exaggerated, even bordering on the hysterical sometimes, criticisms of the 'influence' of George III by opposition MPs at the time (and subsequently, by some of those with a Whiggish tendency) also tended to obscure the fact the monarch's role and practical powers had lessened over time.

As Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution (1867):

The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the sovereign. First, in its oldest form, at least, it considers him as an 'Estate of the Realm,' a separate co-ordinate with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills... But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death-warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her.... [the last time royal assent was refused to a bill passed by Parliament was 1708]

Secondly, the ancient theory holds that the Queen is the executive. The American Constitution was made upon a most careful argument, and most of that argument assumes the king to be the administrator of the English Constitution, and an unhereditary substitute for him - viz., a president - to be peremptorily necessary. Living across the Atlantic, and misled by accepted doctrines, the acute framers of the Federal Constitution, even after the keenest attention, did not perceive the Prime Minister to be the principal executive of the British Constitution, and the sovereign a cog in the mechanism.

"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French." - P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins
ShieldWall
Ashigaru
posted 01-10-12 04:28 AM EDT (US)     14 / 18       
Yes barbarian simply meant "foreigner", but it has come to be a derogatory term for someone who's a bit thick, savage, uncivilised and unwashed. Which is unfortunate because the barbarians of the ancient world were anything but, yet it's a legacy which infects some thoughts even today. Without the written word and pyramid-like structures to make their level of sophistication obvious, it's far too easy to think of them as primitive.

Re: contradictions in Terry Jones. You can apply the old saying - ask four historians a question and you'll get five answers!
Agrippa 271
Ashigaru
posted 01-10-12 08:07 PM EDT (US)     15 / 18       
Pitt, have you considered that the Founding Fathers may have understood the actual practical operation of the British Sovereign but may have decided that it would be better to have a single leader rather than two? Obviously, at that time, and now, the King/Queen would have been a big symbol of British power, and such. But the Prime Minister was the actual leader of government. So, it would make sense that the Americans, who already knew that they didn't want a King, would sort of combine the roles.

This is really just a suggestion, as I have no idea whether or not this is what happened. I would be inclined to think so, since many of the Founding Fathers were well-educated, but I digress.

Death is a (vastly) preferable alternative to communism.
"Idiocy knows no national or cultural borders. Stupidity can strike anyone, anywhere." -- Terikel
Pitt
Daimyo
posted 01-10-12 08:44 PM EDT (US)     16 / 18       
Then it's passing strange that they should have created a system that allowed total governmental deadlock and prevented ministers being accountable to the legislature. Also, that the defeated presidential candidate would become the winner's vice-president.

The Speaker of the House still has power, but no responsibility for administration because s/he's not a member of the government.

"Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French." - P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins
Agrippa 271
Ashigaru
posted 01-11-12 09:49 PM EDT (US)     17 / 18       
Like I said, I dunno. At least the system isn't oppressive like some other revolutionary governments I can think of...

Death is a (vastly) preferable alternative to communism.
"Idiocy knows no national or cultural borders. Stupidity can strike anyone, anywhere." -- Terikel
Alex_the_Bold
Ashigaru
posted 04-18-12 11:16 AM EDT (US)     18 / 18       
But as I recall, the Athenians also had representatives with varying responsibilities. Apart from the citizen assembly (Ecclesia tou demou) there were also the "Boule" (the Parliament) which consisted of five hundred citizens,fifty from each tribe, with legislative power, as the bills where first created there and then put for vote to the Assembly.

There were also the Ten Generals (deka strategoi) who where elected for one year and had the power of makng decisions concerning the army and the military operations during war.They were the equivalent of modern generals and admirals, but they were elected and not appointed.

Invincibility lies in defence, while the possibility of victory in the attack -Sun Tzu
Akouson me, pataxon de (hit me, but first listen to me)-Themistocles to Euribiadis prior to the battle of Salamis.
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