I came across this lovely word yesterday, for the very first time in my life. Wapentake. It sounds like something out of the old TV game ‘Call My Bluff’ in which different players suggest meanings for a word. Only one is correct, of course:

  1. African animal related to the antelope: “We went on safari and saw three springboks and a wapentake.”
  2. Australian aboriginal instrument: “He plays the digeridoo and the wapentake.”
  3. Japanese dish, speciality of Kyoto: “I’ll have the wa-pen-také with tempura.”
  4. Old English administrative district: “Yorkshire was divided into Ridings, and the Ridings into Wapentakes.”
  5. The head of a division in the Viking army, similar to the Roman centurion: “Seeing the enemy approaching, the wapentake ordered his men to charge.”
  6. Indian weapon: “The arsenal includes several extremely valuable wapentakes.”
  7. Native American public dwelling or holy place: “Every settlement was centred around a wapentake.”

(I think that covers all the continents so I can’t be accused of racism here!)

Which did you choose?
Any idea?
A clue: it’s the equivalent of hundreds.
And if you thought of the etymology as “weapon taking” you would be on the right track. And it does come from the Old Norse language.

In fact, the answer is 4.

What could sound more romantic than The Wapentake of Skyrack?  A title taken straight out of Lord of the Rings. It makes me want to start writing on the novel straight away!

“The following information is taken from Basic Facts about Family History in Yorkshire, by Pauline M. Litton, and recommended as an absolute must-have to anyone researching Yorkshire Ancestry. It is published by the Federation of Family History Societies, price £1.70 UK, £2.00 O/s surface, £2.60 O/S air, from the FFHS Publications Dept, 2-4 Killer Street, Ramsbottom, Bury, Lancs BL0 9BZ.”

(I am amused by the fact that a book indispensable to research on Yorkshire ancestry is published in Lancashire. And even more amused by the address! This is genuine, by the way. So much for the War of the Roses.)

“Besides being divided into three Ridings, East, North and West (a Riding being derived from the Norse word “thriding,” meaning a third part) Yorkshire was further sub-divided into administrative areas called Wapentakes – the Danelaw equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Hundred in most other counties. The word derived from an assembly or meeting place, usually at a cross-roads or near a river, where literally one’s presence or a vote was taken by a show of weapons.” 

This information aroused my interest for more than one reason. Like most people, I had vaguely heard of “hundreds” – especially the Chiltern Hundreds (no, I’m not going into that here, look it up for yourself) – without really being aware of what they were.

Wapentakes of the West Riding of Yorkshire

Wapentakes of the West Riding of Yorkshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have now discovered that originally, a hundred was a district with 100 households, or capable of raising 100 fighting men if the feudal lord decided he wanted to raid one of his neighbours. This was on the Anglo-Saxon side of Watling Street, a Roman road that divided England roughly down the middle in the ninth century AD (there was a trackway there even before the Romans arrived and most of it still exists today). The Anglo-Saxons governed the area to the west and Danelaw was enforced on the eastern side. Where the Anglo-Saxons had hundreds, Danelaw had wapentakes. In other words, gatherings of those men able to bear arms in order to protect themselves and their feudal lord, where showing their weapons gave them the right to vote.

This particular fact caught my attention because it corresponds almost exactly to the Swiss Landsgemeinde in the half-cantons of Appenzell, where I lived for many years.

Deutsch: Die traditionelle „Zutrittskarte“ zum...

The traditional “ballot card” allowing access to the Ring of the Landsgemeinde in Appenzell: the sword (Der Degen). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up until approximately 20 years ago – when women were given the vote for the first time on a cantonal level – the men assembled for the cantonal parliament on the last Sunday of April to vote on matters of local interest. They didn’t have a ballot card for this. Each proved his eligibility to vote by showing his sword, the proof of his ability to defend his family and home. These were often family heirlooms, passed on from father to son, and it was the privilege of the eldest son to carry his father’s sword or Degen on the day of the Landsgemeinde. It was also tradition to walk to the assembly, and you would see all the men dressed in their Sunday best, leaving their farms and homes, and converging on the Landsgemeindeplatz.

Voting was by show of hands, and – what seems very un-Swiss – nobody ever bothered to count exactly how many were in favour and how many against: an official would simply cast his eye over the sea of hands and pronounce the motion carried or defeated. This provided yet another reason for discontent on the occasion when the motion to give women the vote was carried in Appenzell Ausserrhoden (the other half-canton) – many people refused to believe that the majority were truly in favour. And it marked the end of the open air parliament (Landsgemeinde) in that half-canton.

However, the Innerrhoden Landsgemeinde is still held out in the open air on the last Sunday in April, with all the traditional trappings, but – and it goes totally against my grain as an emancipated woman to admit this – it isn’t the same since women have been voting too. To the amazement and amusement of the rest of the world, the question of whether to grant votes to women at the Landsgemeinde was hotly debated at the time, and few people outside the canton really understood the issues involved. It wasn’t really about equality and women’s rights; it was about century-old traditions and a way of life that appeared anachronous to the outside world. Sadly, what used to be an authentic expression of that way of life is now little more than a tourist attraction.

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell Innerrhoden

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell Innerrhoden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am curious to know how widespread is the idea of deciding the right of suffrage by a person’s ability to use a weapon. From Wapentake to Landsgemeinde, Yorkshire via Scandinavia to Appenzell – that is quite a large area of Europe. And how instrumental is it in the concept of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution?

7 thoughts on “Wapentake

    • Scratch the surface and what treasures emerge! I love the word wapentake, and some of the names of places that were wapentakes in Yorkshire are wonderful – Laughton-en-le-Morthen for instance! I’d love to know how the locals pronounce it.

    • Isn’t it! One to roll around your mouth – only it might be sharp so be careful! I know some of the older parts of the USA had hundreds – do you have wapentakes as well anywhere?

    • I hesitated about giving hints – then thought I’d give a slightly misleading clue, that seems to have tripped most people up! But I had fun inventing definitions.

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