Visible remnants of one of the world's eldest democracies can be seen in a town in the Carantania region in what is now Austria, where during the early Middle Ages, the tribal society of a Slav people managed to live for over 100 years without being invaded and out of sheer happiness invented a democratic system. They did not call it a democracy, but the word invented later was taken directly from their example.
The Carantanians, situated in the the Eastern Alps (present-day Austria), arose after the decline of the Roman Empire in 476 in territory of the Roman province of Inner Noricum. They had a pretty elaborate procedure whereby the people elected a Duke who ruled them in what today would be considered an utterly romantic way. The Duke ruled only by consent of the people. They could do away with him if they so pleased.
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.
In matter of fact, 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 examplary material for the US constitution.
Writers making note of them furthermore included M.A.C. Sabellicus (Eneades Rapsodiae Historicae, Opera Omnia, Basel 1560) and P. Mexia (Silva de Varia Lezion, Seville 1570). 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- but the installation ceremony around the stone has proven very similar to ideas throughout Europe regarding the ceremonial installations of kings and rulers.
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, is nevertheless inspiring. 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 Fáil' 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 Prince's 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 Westminster Abbey is subject to similar romantic stories as the Carantanian one. It is claimed -though not proven- 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 prince's stone's use prior to the installation ceremony that is conclusive, yet it's likely linked to Celts.
The installation of the Duke took place on a hill named Krnski grad (Karnburg) in Carinthia, on a meadow where the Prince`s Stone still lies. Historic records reveal this to have been the 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`s 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."
A truly splendid affair, ancient democracy.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance journalist who is involved in www.reporTwitters.com, a journalistic project that combines reporting with Twitter. She crowdsourced opinions on this issue on this site.