The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


For a noble man death is better than a shameful life. - Beowulf, VV. 2890-2891.

Because our earliest informants about the Germanic barbarians were Greeks or Romans or else Hellenized or Latinized barbarians, it is fitting to investigate the meaning of honor as it was understood in the Greco-Roman world. A good definition of honor (timê), as understood by the Greeks in their Golden Age, appears in Xenophon's Hiero, in which the lyric poet Simonides of Ceos is quoted as saying to Hiero I, tyrant of Syracuse :

"O Hiero, there is a potent force, it would appear, the name of which is honour, so attractive that human beings strain to grasp it, and in the effort they will undergo all pains, endure all perils. It would further seem that even you, you tyrants, in spite of all that sea of trouble which a tyranny involves, rush headlong in pursuit of it. You must be honoured. All the world shall be your ministers; they shall carry out your every injunction with unhesitating zeal. You shall be the cynosure of neighboring eyes; men shall rise from their seats at your approach; they shall step aside to yield you passage in the streets. All present shall at all times magnify you, and shall pay homage to you both with words and deeds. Those, I take it, are ever the kind of things which subjects do to please the monarch, and thus they treat each hero of the moment, whom they strive to honour.

"Yes Hiero, and herein precisely lies the difference between a man and other animals,in this outstretching after honour. Since, it would seem, all living things alike take pleasure in meats and drinks, in sleep and sexual joys. Only love of honour is implanted neither in unreasoning brutes nor universally in man. But they in whose hearts the passion for honour and fair fame has fallen like a seed, these unmistakably are separated most widely from the brutes. These may be called men, not human beings merely. So that, in my poor judgment, it is but reasonable you should submit to bear the pains and penalties of royalty, since you are honoured far beyond all other mortal men. And indeed no pleasure known to man would seem to be nearer that of the gods than the delight which centres in proud attributes."1

1 The Works of Xenophon, trans. D. H. Dakyns, London, 1897, III, 375-376.

Although Hiero denies that kings enjoy such pleasures, most of his contemporaries would have agreed with Simonides's definition of honour, which was somewhat like that of Aristotle and not unlike that of Haman, as told in the Old Testament story of Esther.l To be sure, philosophers like Plato regretted that honor was shown primarily to rank and wealth instead of to qualities of the soul as it would be in the ideal Republic,2 but they could not deny that it was. With his absolute or transcendental standards of goodness, Plato disparaged public opinion as a criterion of virtue; but in this he and the Stoics, who followed him in this view, were exceptions and stood somewhat apart from the general stream of Greek thought.

Aristotle, who was more representative of his age, fully endorsed honor as the greatest of external goods, since it is the prize of virtue.3 "People of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honour; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of the political life. But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honour rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something proper to a man and not easily taken from him. Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practical wisdom that they seek to be honoured, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue; clearly, then, according to them,

at any rate, virtue is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honour, the end of the political life."4

1 Cf. "The elements of honour are - sacrifices; records in verse or prose; privileges; grants of domain; chief seats; public funerals; statues; mainte­nance at the public cost; barbaric homage, such as salaams and giving place; and the gifts honourable among each people" (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1161a, 9, trans. R. C. Jebb). Esther, 6.

2 "We declare, then, that a state which is to endure, and to be as happy as it is possible for man to be, must of necessity dispense honours rightly. And the right ways is this: it shall be laid down that the goods of the soul are the highest in honour and come first, provided that the soul possesses temperance; second come the good and fair things of the body; and third the so-called goods of substance and property" (Plato, Laws, 697-B-C, trans. R. G. Bury).

3 Aristotle, Ethics, IV, 3 (trans. Ross).

4 op. cit., I, 5.

Because Plato and the Stoics held a negative view toward honor, which accorded with the Christian concept of otherworldliness, their ideas were quickly adopted by the Christian writers; but

Aristotle's views on this subject were not fully appreciated until revived in the Renaissance, even though they appear to have influenced the thirteenth-century poets to some degree. The ideas of the Greek Stoics reached Rome at least a half century before the Teutones and Cimbri clashed with the Romans.1 A decade after Caesar had driven the Suebi back across the Rhine, Cicero wrote several works championing the view that honor and fame were of no real value.2

In his De Finibus, Cicero summarized the views of some of his predecessors as follows: "About good fame (that term being a better translation in this context than 'glory' of the Stoic expression eudoxiâ) Chrysippus and Diogenes used to aver that, apart from any practical value it may possess, it is not worth stretching out a finger for; and I strongly agree with them. On the other hand their successors, finding themselves unable to resist the attacks of Carneades, declared that good fame, as I have called it, was pre­ferred and desirable for its own sake, and that a man of good breeding and liberal education would desire to have the good opinion of his parents and relatives and of good men in general, and that for its own sake and not for any practical advantage; and they argue that just as we study the welfare of our children, even of such as may be born after we are dead, for their own sake, so a man ought to study his reputation even after death, for itself, even apart from any advantage."3

Although Cicero "strongly agreed" with the Stoic view in this work and, even more so, in passages of his De Officiis, his other writings do not indicate that he really questioned the value of fame. As M. L. Clarke says, "The longing for glory, the desire to leave a name to posterity, was a marked feature of the Roman temperament and was present to an abnormal degree in Cicero himself."4 In his De Officiis, Cicero tells of having composed two books De Gloria, but these are now lost, after being extant as late as Petrarch's time.5

1 Professor P. R. Coleman-Norton of Princeton has kindly advised me that Diogenes the Stoic visited Rome in 156 B.C. as a member of a Greek embassy and lectured to the Romans until forbidden to do so.

2 Ariovistus was defeated in 58 B.C. Most of Cicero 's philosophical writings appeared between 46 and 43 B.C.

3 "De bona autem fama (quam enim appellant eudoxiâ aptius est bonam famam hoc loco appellare quam gloriam), Chrysippus quidem et Diogenes detracta utilitate ne digitum quidem eius causa porrigendum esse dicebant, quibus ego vehementer assentior. Qui autem post eos fuerunt, cum Carneadem sustinere non possent, hanc quam dixi bonam famam ipsam propter se praepositam et sumendam esse dixerunt, esseque hominis ingenui et liber­aliter educati velle bene audire a parentibus, a propinquis, a bonis etiam viris, idque propter rem ipsam, non propter usum; dicuntque, ut liberis consultum velimus etiamsi postumi futuri sint propter ipsos, sic futurae post mortem famae tamen esse propter rem etiam detracto usn consulendum" (Cicero, De Finibus, III, 17, 57, Loeb).

4 Clarke, p. 63.

5 De Officiis, II, ix, 31. See P. R. Coleman-Norton, "The Fragmentary Philosophical Treatises of Cicero", (The Classical journal, 34, 1939, p. 223).

Cicero's many speeches suggest that both he and his audience never seriously doubted the importance of reputation; and it is safe to say that, while the Teutons were first under their influence, most Romans judged the pursuit of fame and honor to be a noble virtue. However, during the Middle Ages, when learning was largely a monopoly of the clerics, Cicero was quoted most often as a Stoic, most frequently from his De Officiis. Known as "Tullius", he was an important factor in training young clerics not only in style, rhetoric, and composition, but also in evaluating the world. Seneca too was usually quoted as a Stoic philosopher, as he appears in his Moral Essays.

Although Roman thinkers like Cicero and Seneca sometimes deprecated external honor, it is safe to say that Roman civilization was predominantly a "shame culture". That is to say, men avoided evil deeds mainly to escape public disgrace or disapproval, or, to express the same idea in reverse, they performed good ones to gain public honor. This was also true of the ancient Teutons, as is so often the case among primitive peoples. Like many books about the Germanic peoples, this investigation of German honor will begin with the Germania of the Roman historian Tacitus. This concise little area-study, which was written about 98 A.D., is an admirable work. Although it contains many literary commonplaces, mostly from Greek authors who had been writing about the Egyptians, Thracians, and other exotic peoples, they nevertheless seem to have been chosen with great care and to have been employed only where applicable.1 Also, even though Tacitus seems to write as a Romantic and to idealize his noble savages, he says enough derogatory things about them to show that this was not his purpose. Many passages from later German literature, some of which are cited in this study, confirm the accuracy of the Germania .

Tacitus does not discuss the Germanic code of honor as such; yet he mentions it occasionally and illustrates it often. According to him,2 the Teutons chose their kings for their noble birth (nobilitas, chapter 7); noble birth, as well as military distinction and eloquence, gained attention at the council (c. 11); and distinguished nobility could win the rank of chief for adolescent boys (c. 13). Although the sons of masters and slaves grew up together, the innate spirit of courage eventually separated the free from the unfree (c. 20). Masters usually treated their slaves kindly; yet they were free to kill them at will in a fit of passion (c. 25), and slaves were freely used for human sacrifices (c. 40).

1 For a concise and convincing defense of the Germania, see Cornelii Taciti de Origine et Situ Germanorum, ed. J. G. C. Anderson, Oxford, 1938, xxvi­ - xxxvii.

2 All references to Germania from above-mentioned edition.

Wealth resulted from birth and reputation, since the tribe dis­tributed lands among its members according to their relative rank (dignatio, c. 26). Wealth was usually measured in numbers of cattle rather than in gold and silver, although these metals were used for trading purposes by the neighbors of the Romans (c. 5).

Whereas the Teutons chose their kings for their noble birth, they chose their military leaders for their courage (virtus), and a chief owed his leadership more to the example of courage he set than to his authority (c. 7). Young men took service in the following (comitatus) of a renowned chief and vied with other youths for a place beside the chief. Likewise, the chiefs competed for the largest and most courageous following, since their status (dignitas) and power depended upon the number and quality of their following, which determined their glory (decus) in time of peace and their security (praesidium) in time of war (c. 13).

A chief was disgraced if surpassed in valor by his followers, and his followers were disgraced if they did not equal the chief. Leaving the battle field alive after the chief had fallen brought lifelong ignominy and shame, for true allegiance (sacramentum) meant defending and protecting the chief and giving him credit for one's own exploits. The chief fought for victory, the followers fought for their chief (c. 14).

If a tribe was at peace, its youths sought out tribes engaged in war; for peace was a distasteful condition. War was necessary for winning renown and plunder and for maintaining a following. The Teutons considered it spiritless to gain by sweat what could be purchased with blood (c. 14). They recovered the bodies of their slain even when the battle was still in doubt. It was the greatest disgrace to throwaway one's shield; the guilty party was banned from sacrifice and council, and survivors of battles often ended their disgrace with the noose (c. 6). Deserters and traitors, when convicted, were likewise hanged on trees; and shirkers and cowards were drowned in the bogs (c. 12).

Courage in battle was increased by mustering troops according to family and kinship; for a man looks to his family for the highest praise (c. 7). Women were known to restore broken battle lines by urging the warriors to greater effort with the reminder that defeat would mean the enslavement of the women. Women were also honored for being endowed with an element of holiness or prophecy (c. 8).

Teutonic warriors loved indolence but hated peace. When not fighting they spent their time in sloth and gluttony (c. 15), and drinking bouts lasting a day and a night were not considered disgraceful even when they resulted in bloody quarrels (c. 22). All productive effort was scorned and relegated to the women, old men, and weaklings (c. 15). Although youths performed sword dances to show their skill and to entertain their friends, they did not accept compensation (c. 24). It was accounted wrong (nefas)1 to refuse hospitality to friend or stranger, and the host always conducted his guest to his next quarters (c. 21).

To understand Tacitus's description, we must understand his use of the words dignitas and dignatio. According to Friedrich Klose, the word honos (honor) represented an "objective condition, the means of achieving a certain goal. Dignitas, on the other hand, is the final result, a personal possession that is composed of honos and honores."2 This meaning is the same as that of the MHG word wirde or werdekeit, which meant the status or condition of a person who received honors. This thought was sometimes included in the term êre itself, which extended its meaning to include not only the signs and tokens of respect, but also the high status resulting from their enjoyment. Thus it had about the same meaning as our word "dignity" in expressions such as "That is beneath my dignity", or in Shakespeare's remark that the Montagues and Capulets were "alike in dignity". The words dignitas and wirde could also connote elevated rank or else an office or position of honor and trust. Although it may sometimes have suggested worthy character, this connotation cannot be assumed for the word, since high titles and offices were often held by unworthy incumbents.

1 Since the Teutons had a shame culture, perhaps nefas here means shameful. Virgil once used the word to refer to the shame felt at losing a boat race (Aeneid, V, 197).

2 Klose, p. 19.

Honor is traditionally shown by the weak to the strong, by the subordinate to his superior. In Germanic society that meant from warrior to leader, from vassal to liege. Although there have always been some men of simple birth who succeeded through their own virtues (or vices), Germanic poets conventionally attributed superiority to good birth. As in the fairy tale, if a man of apparently humble origins succeeded in life, his success proved that he was actually of good birth. As Tacitus mentions in his Germania, some tribes had hereditary kings and others elected their chiefs; but in either case the leader was supposed to come from the most illustrious and powerful family of the tribe. Rank was thus equated with good birth; and good birth, when fortified by the virtues incumbent upon it, demanded respect or êre.

Because he enjoyed a higher degree of honor, a wellborn man did not have to risk his honor by accepting the challenge of a social inferior; and it may be for this reason that the heroes of ancient songs often asked the identity of their opponents. This fact is illustrated in the Lay of Hildebrand, the earliest extant German lay, which was written down at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century but may have originated not long after the reign of the East Gothic emperor Theoderic the Great, who is mentioned in it. This song, which has survived only as a fragment, tells of a combat between father and son. The father, Hildebrand, who is returning at the head of an army after thirty years of exile, is confronted by his son Hadubrand, whom he does not at once recognize. Before offering battle, the older man demands to know who his opponent is and who his father was.1

The origin of the social classes was explained in the Lay of Rig, a Norse poem included in the Poetic Edda. Once the god Rig came down to earth and spent three nights with a poor couple who could give him only coarse bread and broth. Nine months later the woman bore a son, Thraell, who developed into an ugly laborer. He then visits another couple in better circumstances, who serve him veal. In due time they are blessed with a son, Karl, who has a flashing face and flashing eyes and develops into a skilled craftsman and husband­man. At last Rig visits a wealthy couple who give him white bread, meat, fowl, and wine. The outcome of this hospitality is Jarl, who has blond hair, bright cheeks, and eyes that glow like those of a snake. Jarl occupies himself only with weapons, horses, hounds, swimming, and runes.2 Most Germanic and medieval German poems are concerned only with Jarl's leisure-class descendants.

1 "hwer sin fater wari... eddo hwelihhes cnuosles du, sis" (Hildebrandslied, vv.9-11).

2 Edda, trans. Bellows, pp. 203 ff. Although the name Rig is of Celtic origin, there is no evidence that this tale is not Norse. In any case, it was acceptable to the Norsemen.

Many peoples are accustomed to name their children for the virtues they are to acquire, and so it was with the Teutons. Like their Indo-European ancestors, they usually chose names composed of two meaningful elements. The elements were often logically related, as in Bernhard (strong as a bear) or Edward (keeper of the treasure); but sometimes they were not, as in the case of Fredegar (peace-spear) or Brunhild (byrnie-battle). It is to be noted, however, that these names give an insight only into the period in which they were formed, since succeeding generations did not always understand the names they transmitted.1 It is significant that many "Christian" names of Germanic origin referred to noble status. By adding another root to aethel or adel (noble), we get Adelbert, Adelheit, Adelaide, Adolf, Albert, Alfred, Alice, Alonzo, Alphonse, Aubrey, Audrey, Elmer, Ethel, Ethelbert, Etheldred, Ethelred, and numerous other names in all Western languages. The ancient Teutons were less impressed by the age of a family than by its current power. In periods of decadence men take pride in their remote ancestors and in ancient titles, even if the family has since decayed. That would have helped a Teuton but little. To be respected and honored he needed to be feared, and for that he needed a strong kinship imbued with family solidarity. Even the modern German word for respect (Ehrfurcht) includes the words for both honor and fear.

1 Scholars like Hrabanus Maurus explained Friedrich as "ulciscere pacem", Ratmund as "consilium oris", and Richmunt as "potens bucca" (Deutsche Namenkunde, ed. Edward Schröder, Göttingen, 1944, p. 7). On the other hand, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim explained her name as clamor validus.

Like the ancient Greeks before them,l the Teutons showed honor not only to good birth but also to wealth and power. As we shall see, the early Teutons hardly distinguished between these qualities. The Germania explains how land was distributed to the chiefs according to their dignatio, which depended upon their strength, which depended upon the size of their following. A chief's following in turn depended upon his largess; and this in turn depended upon his own material resources, be they inherited or acquired. Thus the snake has its tail in its mouth. In other words: rank, wealth, power, and dignatio were only different aspects of one's relative importance in society.

For the purpose of this study we shall arbitrarily distinguish among rank, wealth, and power, as later generations have tended to do. Of these, wealth may be considered the most immediate source of êre ; for the whole system of vassalage was ultimately based upon property. The contract between liege and vassal, like that between husband and wife,2 was sealed and legally validated only by the giving of gifts. The importance of property in feudal relation­ships is also suggested by the derivation of the word "feudal" from the Late-Latin word feudum (fief), which in turn was derived from the OHG fehu (cattle, wages, property). Naturally the war-lord, as the giver of gifts, had to be wealthier than his followers, it being unnatural for rich men to serve poor ones. Wealth was essential for heroes in Germanic literature, except for a few wellborn ones who are momentarily in exile but will surely recover their wealth, and other people's too, before the epic ends. Some scholars seem to doubt the importance of landholding as a requisite for nobility;3 yet the very words adel (nobility) and edel (noble) are derived from the Germanic word whence come OHG uodal and Late-Latin allodium, both of which mean inheritable property. We shall see that it was as dishonorable to lack property as it was to lack kinsmen.

1 E. R. Dodds notes that wealth is a sign of virtue in all shame cultures, such as that of Homeric Greece (The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley, 1951, p. 60, note 95).

2 Note the relationship between Heirat and Hausrat and between wedding and gage.

3 "Der Adel der alten Deutschen beruht auch nicht auf besonderem Land­besitz, wie überhaupt die Beschaffenheit des Grundbesitzes, den er hat, von keinem Belang für seine Stellung gewesen ist" (Christian Meyer, Kultur­geschichtliche Studien, Berlin, 1903, p. 78).

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