The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Honour... the spurr of vertue - (ROBERT ASHLEY, On Honour, IV).

When we read references to honor, like the one above, we usually agree or disagree with them; but we seldom ask just what the authors meant by the word. To the question: "What is honour?", Falstaff replied, "A word... a mere scutcheon"; and Thomas Hobbes said that honor is "the opinion of Power". George Stanhope said it is "a greatness of mind which scorns to descend to an ill and base thing"; and William Wordsworth said it is "the finest sense of justice which the human mind can frame". 1 All these thinkers would have agreed with Ashley's maxim, which was borrowed from Ovid, 2 but they would not have agreed as to the nature of this spur. The first two would have understood the maxim to mean that virtuous deeds are done in the hope of fame, whereas the second two would have thought them the result of a noble sentiment.

1 King Henry IV, Part I, V, i, vv. 135-14:3; Leviathan, X; George Stanhope, A Paraphrase and Comment upon the Epistles and Gospels, London, 1705, II, 94; The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. T. Hutchinson, Oxford, 1923, p. 316.

2 "inmensum gloria calcar habet" (Epistulae ex Ponto, IV, ii, 36). Cf. "Fame is the spur, that the clear spirit doth raise (That last infirmity of noble mind) To scorn delights and live laborious days" (Milton, Lycidas, 70).

We smile when we read of chivalric knights jousting before the walls of Troy in medieval epics or when we see cannons in early illustrations of Old Testament battlefields; and we laugh when Samson and Delilah appear as prosperously plump Dutch burghers in Rembrandt's paintings. On the other hand, we tend to be less critical of the thoughts and values attributed to historical characters by modern novelists. Being so deeply rooted in our culture, we find it difficult to realize that people can experience life through a completely different set of terms and values, unless by chance we have read recent anthropological studies of primitive civilizations. And when, in their literature, people far from us in time or place express what appear to be sentiments like our own, we seldom ask if the familiar words meant the same to them as to us. Etymological similarities may cover a multitude of differences. If someone familiar with the customs of the ancient Germanic tribes reads Ruth Benedict's popular Patterns of Culture, he can easily see that the ancient Teutons' mode and code of life was more similar to that of the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island than to that of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwestern United States . On the other hand he may find it difficult to believe that the Teutons were in many ways closer to the Kwakiutl Indians than to their own present-day descendants.1

As Claudius von Schwerin once remarked about the study of Germanic legal history, "the task is to enter the spirit of the time and place represented by the source, to adjust one's own thinking to that of the source."2 It is a difficult task to enter the spirit of a past time, as Goethe's Faust complains to Wagner: bygone days are a book with seven seals, and what we call the spirit of the times is basically our own spirit, in which the times are reflected. This task is particularly difficult in the study of old Germanic civilization, especially for German-speaking people, who are often misled by linguistic habits as well as by national pride. Nearly a century ago Karl Müllenhoff warned thus against the dangers involved: "Our New High German deceives us time and again, and uninterrupted attention is necessary to avoid this deception. It takes much exercise and practice to understand the Middle High German correctly, especially when the distinctions are very fine."3

1 This is especially apparent with regard to honor and status. Dr. Benedict states: "The object of all Kwakiutl enterprise was to show oneself superior to one's rivals" (p. 175). "All the motivations they recognized centered around the will to superiority. Their social organization, their economic institutions their religion, birth and death, were all channels for its expression. As they understood triumph, it involved ridicule and scorn heaped publicly upon one's opponent..." (p. 177). "The Kwakiutl stressed equally the fear of ridicule, and the interpretation of experience in terms of insults. They recognized only one gamut of emotions, that which swings between victory and shame"

(p. 198). As this study will show, these and many other of Dr. Benedict's statements about the Kwakiutls' sense of honor would hold equally well of the early Teutons. Largess among the Kwakiutls, as among the Teutons, was motivated chiefly by a desire for prestige (p. 180); and grief was associated with shame and insult (p. 222). Mentor Books, New York, 1936.

2 Cited from G. Kisch, The Jewry-Law of the Medieval German Law-Books, New York, 1937, p. 86.

3 Cited from A. Leitzmann, Der kleine Benecke, Halle, 1934, p. v.

Four score years later Jan de Vries similarly explained a modern German's difficulty in understanding the thoughts of his Germanic forefathers: "One speaks the same language, even if at another stage of its development; but it seems that strangers are talking to each other. Even if we say faith, honor, holiness, gift, or marriage, we mean something essentially different by these words from that which our heathen ancestors meant. In any case, their concept has an entirely different nuance. We must even be ready to expect that the similarity of the language will sometimes hinder us more than help us, because we are all too inclined to overlook the gulf between the old and the new meaning of the words."1

Vera Vollmer had previously commented on the difficulty caused by the apparent similarity of the old and new languages. "Nothing makes the understanding of Middle High German poets more difficult for the modern reader than the numerous abstract words like güete, kiusche, êre, riuwe, genâde, zuht, mâze, triuwe, stæte, and reine, valsch, sælic. To be sure, most of these expressions still exist in the language of today; but the difficulty lies precisely therein. Instead of investigating the meaning of the expressions in Middle High German thoroughly in order to find the New High German word corresponding most closely (as one would do if the words no longer existed today), one is tempted merely to use the present linguistic form."2 Because this study is being written in English, it should avoid some of the pitfalls against which these scholars have warned.

To illustrate this we can take an example from the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in which the Knight in the pilgrim­age "loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie."3 At first glance we see a Victorian gentleman dedicated to chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy; yet Chaucer's own meaning was perhaps more like "he loved mounted warfare and tournaments, fealty, fame, liberality, and courtly behavior." Similarly, generations of schoolboys have thought that the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready, unlike a good Boy Scout, was not prepared. Since Modern English is not Anglo-Saxon, this epithet should now be rendered as "the Ill-advised", or perhaps "of Ill-counsel", since the word ræd could mean advice from without or wisdom from within, or even plan or resolve.4

1 Die geistige Welt der Germanen, Halle, 1945, pp. 2-3. Cf. "Es bricht ja überhaupt die Erkenntnis immer mehr Bahn, dass sich der Bedeutungsinhalt vieler Wörter nur bei genauer Kenntnis der Kultur der betreffenden Periode feststellen l ä sst" (Vera Vollmer, Die Begriffe der Triuwe.. ., p. 1).

2 Vollmer, p. 1.

3 Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, C.T. I, vv. 45-46.

4 See NED Unrede and Rede.

As this study will demonstrate, an understanding of honor in the old German literary works depends upon an understanding of precisely the terms previously mentioned by Vera Vollmer. These terms have subsequently developed into the New High German words Güte (goodness), Keuschheit (chastity), Ehre (honor), Reue (repentance), Gnade (mercy), Zucht (breeding, discipline, or propriety), Mässigkeit (moderation), Treue (loyalty), Stetigkeit (con­stancy), rein (clean or pure), falsch (false), and selig (blessed or blissful); and thus they appear in many allegedly "modernized" versions of old literary works, thereby corrupting their meaning and confusing their motivation.1 To her list we might add the MHG words prîs, wirde, werdecheit, tugent, biderbe, vrum, tühtic, and wacker, which will be discussed.

Above all, êre should not be rendered as Ehre, except in certain specific contexts, such as in "show honor to" or "in honor of". Well more than a century ago Adolf Ziemann grasped the true meaning of the word êre, which he defined as "splendor, glory, the higher standing, partly that which arises from power and wealth (high position, superior feudal rank), partly that which arises from courage and bravery."2 A century later Albert Bachmann explained the word similarly but added the additional meaning edle Gesinnung (noble sentiment),3 which would approach our term "sense of honor". As we shall see, there are some passages in courtly and clerical literature during the High Middle Ages where this meaning seems to attach to the word êre, but they are relatively few. The modern reader should be on his guard not to intuit this meaning unless the context explicitly demands it.

There is controversy over the origin of the term ê ra, as the word was written in earliest times. Until recently scholars usually agreed with Friedrich Kluge in relating it to the Latin word aestumâre (to value or estimate).4 On the other hand, Professor Elisabeth Karg-­Gasterstädt, who is editing the new Old High German lexicon, traces it to a root meaning "awe before the gods".5 Regardless of its ultimate origin, scholars are fairly well agreed that ê ra was an objective value, a good of fortune without ethical overtones. Karg-­Gasterstädt defines it thus: "On the part of the person doing the honoring, it is an action through which an inner attitude finds visual and audible expression. For the one honored it is a passive acceptance, a desirable possession. Êra is external honor, the position, respect, or rating that one receives from the surrounding world and that one enjoys in public life. In so far as it is given, it is the object of to bear, to bring, to give, to show, to offer; in so far as it is received, it is the object of to have, to win, to merit, or to seek."6

1 I have indicated the danger of translating the word êre in too modern a sense in my review of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven: Lanzelet, trans. K.G.T. Webster, in Modern Language Notes, 69, 1954, pp. 537-540.

2 Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Adolf Ziemann, Quedlinburg and Leipzig, 1838, p. 78.

3 Mittelhochdeutsches Lesebuch, ed. Albert Bachmann, Zurich, 1936, p. 279.

4 Still explained thus in eleventh edition of Fr. Kluge-Alfred Götze, Etymolo­gisches Wörterbuch, Berlin and Leipzig, 1934, p. 122. The fifteenth edition (Berlin, 1951, p. 158) now agrees with Karg-Gasterstädt. See next note.

5 Karg-Gasterstädt, pp. 308-331.

6 op. cit., pp. 312-13.

Thus she defines the word ê ra in much the same way as Friedrich Klose defines the Latin term honos or honor, which became the usual rendering of the thought êra in medieval Latin writings. He says, "Honos never denotes an inner (moral) quality, the inner personal worth of a person; but rather, in so far as it is used as a personal possession, it denotes purely externally the esteem, the respected position, etc."1

To be sure, the word êra was also used later to render the Latin word honestum, even with its additional meaning of moral rectitude as found in the writings of the Stoic philosophers; yet, as we shall see, this new meaning never took firm root in the vernacular. In fact, because it seems to appear almost only in translation, it is even conceivable that the translators did not really appreciate the new value implied by the Stoic authors. In any case, I am not ready to believe that the vernacular word êra actually began to have a moral connotation at the time of Notker, the eleventh-century monk of St. Gall, as Theodor Frings and Elisabeth Karg-Gasterstadt suggest.2

My own findings lead me rather to agree with Friedrich Maurer, who feels that this development was considerably later, even later than the courtly poets of the High Middle Ages. He goes so far as to say, "Painstaking interpretation of all passages in which Hartmann, Walther, Wolfram, and Gottfried use the word êre shows that, with ever diminishing and uncertain exceptions, only 'external honor' is designated."3

1 Klose, pp. 133-134.

2 Frings, pp. 22-23; Karg-Gasterstadt, pp. 308-331. Both scholars seem to base their argument solely on the questionable passages in Notker. When Frings states: "Unter dem Einfluss des ciceronischen honestum und honestas beschreitet êra den Weg zum beherrschenden Wert des ritterlichen Tugend­und Pflichtsystems," we hear echoes of Ehrismann's inspiring but discredited theory (See page 114 below). Of some 77 cases listed in Notker-Wortschatz, ed. E. Sehrt and W. Legner, Halle, 1955, nearly all have clearly objective meaning. In almost every case it renders honor or honores, in expressions such as "in honor of": e.g. dir ze êron (in honore tuo); in gates êra (obsecro); "wealth and honor", and "glory and honor": scaz unde êra, ôtuuále unde êra (Opes, honores),' gûollichi unde êra (gloriam et honore). It is also used as the object of verbs of giving: êra geben, êra wellen, êra guunnen, or of taking away: êra geirren (honorem repellere). In a single case êra renders decus (adornment) where decus is used in a transferred sense to mean virtue: Neque enim aliena improbitas decerpit probis animis proprium decus (Nóh ánderro ú beli neinfûoret tiên gûotên nîomêr iro êra (Piper, I, 246, 31). On another occasion it renders honestum, which is contrasted with turpe (Piper, I, p. 605). In this case the usage is derived directly from Latin, not vernacular, custom. According to J. Knight Bostock, it "may be accepted as a general principle that the written word is always more probably founded on Latin than on a popular oral tradition" (J. Knight Bostock, A Handbook on Old High German Literature. Oxford, 1955, p. 1).

3 Maurer, "Zum ritterlichen Tugendsystem", p. 526.

But this controversy should be joined only after much material has been sifted. The evidence assembled in this study indicates that the new meanings of the word Ehre, particularly in the sense of personal integrity or inner voice, did not become widespread before the middle of the eighteenth century. In any case, throughout the Middle Ages the word êre usually designated the recognition, respect, reverence, or reputation which a person enjoyed among men, or else physical tokens thereof.

In this way êre was often the equivalent of dôm, the most prevalent word for fame in early Germanic days. As Hans Kuhn has observed, the word dôm, which happens to be related to the English verb deem, denoted a judgment; that is to say, it denoted not what a man had in him, but only what other people thought of him.1 Since êre, by definition, was also the approval or respect of other people, it would be incongruous to confuse it with "inner honor"; and honor con­tinued to be a worldly possession. As such, it was usually associated with wealth, the other great incentive to effort, in formulas like guot und êre, nutz und êre, vrum und êre, etc.,2 all of which mean wealth or profit and fame. Friedrich Maurer states that, "Honos et gloria, ruom und ere, lop unde prîs are utilia and belong to the bona corporis et fortunae, like beauty, strength, health, nobility, and possessions."3 Medieval writers are well aware of this fact too. Chaucer, to name but one, stated: "Goodes of fortune been richesse, hyghe degrees of lordshipes, preisynges of the peple."4 It will be observed that German poets often used prîs as a synonym for êre.

Because êre was a good of fortune, it was logical for Chaucer's Swiss contemporary, Henry Wittenwiler, to say that in a husband's absence a good wife will guard his "house and er and other goods."5 Luther used the word êre only in this external sense; for example, his hymn "A Mighty Fortress" associates "wealth, er, child, and wife."6 Goethe too seems to have used the word Ehre only in its external sense: his disillusioned Faust complains that he has neither Ehr nor splendor of the world; and, in his tale The Procurator, Goethe even distinguishes between a wife's virtue (Tugend) an her good name (Ehre).7

1 Schneider, p. 216.

2 These appear so often in NHG that it would be useless to illustrate. Many examples will appear in the following footnotes.

3 Maurer, "Zum ritterlichen Tugendsystem," p. 527.

4 Chaucer, ed. Robinson, X (I), 453 ("The Parson's Tale").

5 Ring, v. 2804.

6 "Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib, Lass fahren dahin."

7 Goethe (or Boccaccio?) distinguishes between a woman's Ehre and her Tugend. In the Procurator, a short story in Goethe's Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderter, a merchant husband warns his young wife against frivolous young men who "der Ehre noch mehr als der Tugend einer Frau gefährlich sind." This contrast need not go back to Boccaccio's original, since Schiller contrasts them likewise. In his Kabale und Liebe (II, 3), Ferdinand distin­guishes between Tugend and Ehre and says that the former often survives the latter. Lady Milford compares her own Ehre with Luise's Tugend (IV, 8). Paul Fischer's Goethe-Wortschatz ( Leipzig, 1929) lists no example of Ehre or its compounds in the moral sense of the word.

The problem of tracing the semantic development of the word êre presents many barriers, among which are chronological, geographic, and sociographic factors. Since honor was a progressive concept, one might argue that it is impossible to define honor as such, but only a first-century honor, a second-century honor, etc., which might be further divided into decades if sufficient sources were at hand. Secondly, dates have only relative significance in our study: the concept of honor in South Germany during the eighth century might appear more modern than that during the ninth century in North Germany, which was more remote from Roman and Christian influences. If sufficient material were at hand, it might be possible to distinguish between the concepts of honor found in the Germanic north, the Roman-Celtic south, and even the Slavic east of Germany.

Far more important is the sociographic factor; for the concept of honor is, in the final analysis, a matter of social class, each class having its own peculiar code. For our purpose we are primarily concerned with the honor-code professed by the social element culturally dominant at any given period, the caste that set the style and was envied and emulated by the others. In the earliest centuries it was clearly the military aristocracy that prevailed and later the bourgeoisie; and during most of the interim we find an irreconcilable dichotomy of aristocratic and monastic codes. Each of these terms will be defined when the occasion arises.

Henceforth the term "Germanic" will, by definition, refer to the values of the ruling classes and will generally coincide with "aristo­cratic". Except in Iceland, where political power lay in a landed peasantry, the Germanic literature that has survived was largely the monopoly of the leisure classes. Nevertheless, even if the upper-class code predominated in literature, it is probable that the lower classes had their own codes for judging their peers. The beauty of Germanic handicrafts suggests that their creators took pride in their work and won praise and esteem by means of it. The famous golden horn of Gallehus bears the runic inscription, "I, Hlewagast. . . made this horn." Obviously the maker inscribed his name on it in hope of winning acclaim. The same probably held true of the scops and bards, who no doubt created their ballads in hope of winning praise as well as remuneration; for the author of the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith shows definite pride in his work. Even though ancient artisans and singers took pride in their work, it scarcely affected literature until after the bourgeoisie became the bearers of culture.

It is to be noted that the term "Germanic" will refer to all the mores of the Germanic peoples before their conversions, even if some of their concepts and values may have been recent importations from the Celts or Romans. At this late date it is particularly difficult to distinguish between Germanic and Latin thoughts, since nearly all our informants about the ancient Teutons wrote in Latin and therefore perceived the world through a Latin perspective, or Weltansicht, to use Wilhelm von Humboldt's brilliant, but sadly neglected, term. When the Roman historian Tacitus says that the Teutons preferred death in battle to a life of shame, he is expressing a Roman commonplace, one which he himself attributed to Agricola, his father-in-law.1 This sentiment was no doubt indigenous to the Teutons; yet they probably experienced it differently or would at least have expressed it in other terms.

From the founding of the Roman Empire until its fall, Latin language and civilization served as models for the Teutons across the Rhine. Many barbarians visited Rome and spoke Latin, among whom was Arminius, the German chieftain who defeated three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 A. D. Just as primitive people today are overwhelmed by what they see in Europe or America, so too the Germanic peoples were ready to absorb whatever they could from the Romans. In view of the great quantity of material skills which the Teutons learned, it is likely that they also learned some intangibles.

Roman thought probably influenced the Teutons' concept of honor, or at least their reflections about it. Word may have traveled back to Germania that the Roman general Marius had erected a temple to the deity Honor in commemoration of his and Catulus's victories of 102 and 101 B. C. over the fierce Teutones and Cimbri, the first Germanic tribes that fought against the Romans. On the other hand, Roman and Germanic codes of honor may have owed some of their similarities to their common Indo-European origin; and it is not surprising that the heroic concept of honor expressed in the Iliad is quite similar to that of the early Germanic epics. As we shall see, when the Teutons first became familiar with the words honos and honestus, these words still had completely amoral connotations.2 Most of the Teutonic visitors to Rome were mercenary troops, who naturally met more soldiers than philosophers.

1 "honesta mors turpi vita potior" (Cornelii Tacitii de Vita Agricolae, Oxford, 1922, Chap. 33).

2 Klose, pp. 47,133-134. See also Maurer, "Zum ritterlichen Tugendsystem", pp. 526-529.

In tracing the gradual development of the concept of honor, this study will discuss literary works largely in chronological order. Nevertheless, there will be occasional references to earlier or later works in order to show that the sentiments or attitudes under discussion were of long duration. There will also be occasional references to foreign cultures to show that these sentiments or attitudes were not limited to the Teutons or to the Germans.

Aware of all the problems involved, I shall first define the heathen­- aristocratic-Germanic code of honor, a code that prevailed before the conversions and continued long thereafter in varying degrees. As we shall see, some elements of this code have lasted almost unchanged to this day and others have persisted with only minor alterations. Even after an ideal takes an about-face, popular behavior often tends to follow the older code.

Secondly, I shall formulate the Christian code of honor, or rather code of ethics, since honor as originally understood was incompatible with Christian humility. In this regard it should be recalled that the so-called "Christian code of ethics" includes all new values brought by the missionaries to the heathen Teutons, including some pre-­Christian pagan values. Of prime importance were the theories of the Greek and Roman Stoics, who, incidentally, were often thought to have been Christians. According to J. H. Breasted, many of the Hebrews' concepts of justice and righteousness, which eventually became ingredients of honor, had been derived from much older Egyptian sources.1

Thirdly, this study will show how heathen-aristocratic and Christian-Stoic values were juxtaposed in the honor-code of the age of chivalry; and then it will explain how they were later adopted, with major changes, by the rising bourgeoisie. Next it will investigate the new ideal of honor which arose in the eighteenth century, partially as a result of the Reformation and the English and French Enlightenment. Lastly, it will show how traces of all these codes appear in the literature of the nineteenth century, by which time the ideal of honor had made a complete about-face.

1 J. H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience, New York, 1933

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