The European Tribe That Inspired Thomas Jefferson
Imagine this scenario; The year is 625. A rural European tribe gathers in green fields surrounded by mountains. A cloudless sky. The crowd look dressed in their best clothes. From behind the nearest mountain, a procession of what appear to be dignitaries approaches. A Duke heads the line up, leading a spotted bull with one hand and with the other a black and a white war horse. On arriving, the Duke starts to prepare for an elaborate ceremony… Is this a hyper imaginative new media game? Absolutely not. This is a historically documented ceremony that took place somewhere in Austria among a people that lived in what’s likely to have been the world’s eldest democracy.
The visible remnants of this community can be found in a town in the Carantania region of what is now Austria. Their society even served as a model for Thomas Jefferson’s effort with the US constitution. So who were these people? Historic records are sparse. The Carantanians were a Slave people, living in the the Eastern Alps. They arose after the decline of the Roman Empire in 476 in territory of the Roman province of Inner Noricum. During the early Middle Ages, the tribe managed to live for over 100 years without being invaded, which was pretty unique for the time. Out of sheer happiness, they invented a democratic system of rule. They did not call it a democracy but the word invented later was a direct description of the Carantanian example, historians assert.
An important historic document at the local authorities of a town called Krnski grad (Karnsburg) reveals very close insights into the ancient civilization. It also also outlines in precise detail all the proceedings for the installation of a democratically elected Duke. The tribe had a pretty elaborate procedure whereby the people elected a Duke who ruled them in what today would be considered an utterly romantic way.
His rule was not automatically passed on to his offspring, but every time a new Duke was needed, he was put forward by popular choice in its most basic form. The Carantanians were an incredibly proud people and were not shy about showing their Duke off. The ritual around his installation was at the time said to be unrivalled in the world. The installation took place in the open air, at a huge stone, was said to be among the greatest ceremonies ever witnessed even by high ranking outsiders. The Duke ruled entirely by consent of the people and they could also do away with him if they so pleased.
It is due to a pope that the system received fame around the world. The Carantanian example was described in glowing terms by Pope Piccolomini (II) and apart from their fame being spread all over Europe, they also were noticed by people further afield, including the US President Thomas Jefferson a few millennia later when he studied the words Jean Bodin wrote about them as sample material for the US constitution.
It is not only the political theorists who are said to have found inspiration in Carantania, which pretty much showed it was possible for a people to live relatively peaceful together without an overt autocratic ruler -something that was pretty much the standard elsewhere, where rulers brutally enslaved the people they ruled. The installation ceremony around the stone is incredibly similar to ceremonial installations of kings and rulers throughout Europe.
The most famous of them is the coronation stone that ‘s found in England, the fabled yellow sandstone ‘stone of Scone’ (named after the Scottish monastery where the stone originally was found) which in 1296 was placed under the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. It is associated with the crowning of all historic Scottish Kings and its older name is indicative of almost religious sentiment, ‘stone of Destiny’, or ‘Liag Fail’ in Scottish Gaelic. Its transfer from Scotland to England was to be the symbol that the kings of England would be crowned as kings of Scotland also.
Ironically, after the initial fame that the Carantanians enjoyed in the international world, their story later was pretty much hidden, because of the political situation, and political repression by jealous Serbs. The belated intrigue is however all the more interesting. It is likely that there is even some substance to claims that the stone was used for similar purposes as other stones in Europe on which kings and queens used to be and are still installed.
Some people say that there are links between the stone ceremonies. The stone that used to be in Scotland and that lies now beneath the chair in London’s Westminster Abbey is subject to similar romantic stories as the Carantanian stone. One such story claims that this is actually the very same stone that Jacob in the Bible rested his head on and that was apparently dragged around by Moses.
There is no real clarity around the Carantanian stone’s use prior to the installation ceremony, yet it’s conceivable that the tribe was inspired by the Celts.
The installation of the Duke took place on a hill named Krnski grad in Carinthia, on a meadow where the Duke ‘s Stone still lies. The historic document at the local authorities reveal this to have been the word-for-word format of the installation ceremony:
"The new Duke, accompanied with the banner of the country, surrounded by nobles and knights, walks up to the hill. With one hand he leads a spotted bull and with the other, a black and white war horse. He puts aside his precious vestments, and then they dress him in a gray coat and gird him with a red belt from which hangs a big red hunting bag, such as it is suitable for the master of the hunts. Into it he has to put cheese, bread and other food. They give him a hunting horn firmly bound with red straps. Besides this, they put two shoes wrapped with red thongs on his feet. They wrap him in a gray cloak and then place on his head a gray Slovenian hat with a gray cord.A free peasant mounts the prince’ Stone. This office belongs to him by right of succession and is hereditary in his family. The Duke carries in his hand a stick and comes forward. Alongside him are walking the Count Palatine, the landgrave, and other nobles.
The peasant sitting on the Stone proclaims in Slovene language: "Who is he that comes forward?" And those sitting around him answer: "He is the prince of the land. "After this, he asks: "Is he an upright judge seeking the well-being of the country, is he freeborn and deserving? Is he a foster and defender of the Christian faith?" All answer: "He is and he will be." The peasant then asks: "By what right can he displace me from this my seat? "The people reply: "He will pay you sixty denari, and he will give you your home free and without tribute." Whereupon the peasant, after giving the Duke a gentle stroke on his cheek, proffers him the place. The Duke mounts on the Stone and, drawing his sward, turns in all directions in order to show that he will be a righteous judge to all. And it is narrated that the Duke then takes a drink of cold water out of a rustic hat, so that the people, seeing this, may not crave for wine, but may be content with what the native soil produces to sustain life. Finally, they lift him onto a horse and conduct him around the Stone three times. At the same time all of them sing their Slovenian Kirie-Eleison, praising God, because they have been given a new ruler in accordance with His will."
If only these people knew we’d confuse them with game characters!