Society and the StateWhile the peoples in the Mediterranean regions obeyed the Roman emperor, his officials, the Roman laws, and while they had to pay taxes, the Germanic tribes lived in remarkable freedom:
Most Germanic individuals were free peasants. Nobody could issue orders to them, nobody could demand dues from them, nobody could tell them what to do. They could only be punished by their tribal fellow men in case they had committed deeds directed against the community.
They could bear arms. They also had full voting rights at the popular assembly, the so-called 'Thing', where decisions were made about issues pertaining to the local settlement or the entire tribe.
There were no taxes. Of course, tribes that were subdued had to pay tribute to the victor. However, the ones that were free could keep the fruits of their labor to themselves and their families.
This was possible because among the Germanic tribes, all tasks - taken over by the state in more civilized societies - were a matter of the individual and his kinship: protecting life and possessions, seeking revenge for acts of wrongdoing, providing help in emergencies, parenting and training, taking care of the old, assisting the weak. The state's only function really was to join in for warfare - everything else, each family managed for themselves.
Elected gau chieftains were to mediate conflicts and speak the law, but their power did not so much rest on actual law-enforcing authority as on their reputation. In principle, every man could - and was expected to - protect his own rights and those of his wife, his children, and his slaves. In doing so, he could seek help with his kinship.
It wasn't 'prohibited' to slay another man - there simply existed no state in Germania that could have prohibited that, or started an investigation, or caught the wrongdoer so as to sentence, punish (or acquit) him. Only the relatives of the slain person had the right and the moral obligation to seek revenge for him - by either killing the killer himself or one of the killer's relatives.
Monarchy as a form of government was not known to most Germanic tribes. But where kings reigned they were elected by the popular assembly. They didn't have unlimited authority. Rather, they were responsible for warfare and jurisdiction - and they had more responsibilities than they had rights. (Automatic succession of the eldest son to the throne would only establish itself during the 5th century A.D., in the empire of the Franks, by a time Germanic kings no longer ruled only their own tribes, but reigned over peoples they had subdued by conquest. Hence the notion that subjects owe dues to the king, since according to the Germanic view, actually, it is the king who owes generous gifts to his followers for their loyalty.)
Not even the king was allowed to execute a free man, take hold of him, or beat him - the king himself, like any other, would have then become the subject of revenge sought by the victim's relatives. The priests alone had the right to judge over life and death if they had reason to believe they were acting on command of their god. However, this only happened in exceptional cases.
In case of war it was customary to appoint army leaders - and to dismiss them promptly in case they were not successful or courageous enough. Even the army leaders could not issue orders but had to lead by example - after all the warriors were free men, and when an 'order' seemed unreasonable or dispirited, they did whatever they wanted.
The heads of rich and powerful families held meetings about all tribal matters, but the decisions were made by the popular assembly:
Once a month, mostly at half moon or full moon, all men of a gau came together. (Women didn't have political rights - and this didn't change with virtually any nations until the 20th century). Because the Germanic people didn't know 'sense of time' and 'hurry', it usually took two to three days until they were fully assembled for the meeting to start. Then the priests looked after quietness and order; the armed men sat down. Depending on their title or assertiveness, the king or the chieftains held speeches, then aristocrats, renowned individuals, eloquent individuals. If the men disapproved of a proposal, they rejected it with hostile-sounding mutter; if they wanted to agree, they banged their weapons against their shields.
Now decisions were made about war and peace, army leaders or gau chieftains were selected, young men solemnly received their first weapons from their fathers, disputes were smoothed out, negotiations were held because of acts that concerned the community - there was accusing, defending, voting. Treason, cowardice in the battle, and arson could be subject to capital punishment by priests.
The assembly, however, only dealt with with cases where damage had been done to the community. Controversy between individuals was a matter dealt with by the ones involved or their kinship, and no one else would have interfered in such a case.
By the way, it can be assumed that crimes such as thefts, murders or rape were relatively infrequent during times of peace. The settlements were so small that everyone knew everyone else. Also, on each homestead, many people lived together so closely that somebody was hardly ever alone or that an object would remain unsupervised. All of that made it virtually impossible to strike and at the same time get off incognito.
And open acts of violence such as robbery or homicide were risky, for such acts were a declaration of war to the kinship of the victim. The relatives of the victim would not rest until they had killed the perpetrator or one of his kinship members - ideally their most efficient man, so as to damage the hostile kinship most strongly. Because of these bloody consequences (narratives even from the era of the Vikings still tell of this), such no-goods and pugnacious minds were often monitored by their own relatives. The relatives tried to keep them from committing crimes - unless the victim would be really defenseless and without kinship members capable of bearing arms.
The weak ones and underdogs could ask an aristocrat for assistance, who then would claim a part of the robbed goods in return for his efforts. The unfree were not allowed at all to defend themselves or seek revenge; instead, they always had to call their master as a mediator.
Probably most frequent were rural possession disputes: Whom did a runaway cattle belong to, who was owner of a spring running nearby a property? Was someone entitled to droving his cattle over somebody else's land, etc.? In such cases both parties often agreed to call a reputable man as a conciliator.