The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


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Wealth was requisite for winning respect, as long as lack of wealth indicated lack of virtue. In an age of fist-law, when everyone had a right to take other people's property if only he had the might, lack of property was proof of cowardice, weakness, or shiftlessness; and poverty rightfully merited scorn and shame. As Herbert Buttke states, when a man's possessions diminished, so did his esteem and honor, for the Teuton knew neither pity nor compassion.1 In the sagas it was considered better for impoverished warriors to go into voluntary exile rather than to bring shame upon their kinsmen.

The importance of wealth as a fitting goal for ambition is indicated by the frequency of the word for wealth as a component in personal names. By adding another element to the root ead or euða (wealth, treasure) we get Edgar, Edith, Edmund, Edward, Edwin, Odo, Otto, Odoardo, etc.

Whereas wealth was a definite prerequisite for êre, it could also be its enemy if amassed at the cost of largess. In other words, a miser won no êre, as poets have attested throughout the ages.2 This was true not only in theory, but also in practice. As we shall see, failure to dispense lavishly would cause a leader to lack followers, a lack of followers would bring defeat, and defeat would bring a loss of honor and wealth. Thus expenditures were as indispensable as the proverbial horseshoe. This process is illustrated in the Gesta Danorum of the Danish poet Saxo Grammaticus, a thirteenth century cleric who recorded many ancient legends of his country. In one of them a hero named Hjalte tells of an avaricious king named Rorik, who has accumulated wealth instead of friends and then tries, unsuccessfully, to bribe his enemies to spare him. Because he has been unwilling to give arm rings to his friends, his enemies finally take all his treasure and his life too.3 Elsewhere Saxo tells of an ideal king named Frode who shared all his booty with his soldiers, being free of greed and hungering only for the reward of glory.4

1 "Mit dem Zurückgehen des Besitzes gingen auch das Ansehen und die Ehre zurück; denn Nachsicht und Mitleid kannte der Germane nicht" (Buttke, p. 9). See story of Thorbjörn ( Thule, II, 31).

2 Somewhat later a didactic poet named Spervogel said, "swem daz guot ze herzen gât der gwinnet niemer êre " (Minnesangs Fr ü hling, 22, 5).

3 Gesta Danorum, p. 62, vv. 4-24. Thomas Hobbes expressed this truth in Chapter X of his Leviathan as, "Riches joined with liberality, is Power; because it procureth friends, and servants: Without liberality, not so: because in this case they defend not; but expose men to Envy, as a Prey."

4 Gesta Danorum, p. 169, vv. 18 ff.

Of the rank-wealth-power-dignitas complex, power was most manifestly important in an era of fist-law, when it decided all questions of right. The Suebic chieftain Ariovistus expressed this legal concept when Julius Caesar obstructed his invasion of Gaul : ''It is the law of war that the victors command the vanquished in whatever way they wish."1 Needless to say, the property of the conquered, as well as his life, became the rightful possession of the conqueror. According to Hans Kuhn, trials by combat were not originally concerned with moral reward or punishment.2 Might did not make right, it was right. This view is suggested in the Lay of Hildebrand. Forced by honor to accept his son's challenge, the father bewails the fact that either he must slay his son or his son must slay him and take his armor, "if he has any right to it";3 and in this case his words mean no more than "if he has the power to take it." Because the Christian Church upheld the belief in reward and punish­ment, it had to accept, even if reluctantly, the assumption that God would stand by the righteous contestant in a duel; and in Germany a trial by combat was called a Gottesurteil, i.e., God's ordeal or judgment.

The symbol of wealth and power in many old stories is the hoard, the uncanny treasure for which heroes fight and die, a sinister and curse-laden force spelling doom to all possessors. In early times the hoard consisted of arm bands, often worn by the chieftain; in the Lay of Hildebrand the old warrior tries to placate the younger one by offering him arm bands.4 Such arm bands were the conventional currency with which leaders rewarded their faithful followers:

Beowulf calls a treasure a beaghord (ringhoard) and calls a lord a beaggiefa (ring-giver). Later, in the hyperbolic style of the popular epics, the hoard often reached fabulous size and included all the gold and jewels of Araby.

Germanic chieftains had to maintain a ready supply of treasure to assure themselves of honor in time of peace and of support in time of war; and, lest enemies think them weak, they had to display their treasures at all times. Because wealth and power were so mutually dependent, poets often linked them together as if they were almost synonymous.5 This fact is indicated in the expression "power of wealth" for "wealth" and in the almost tautological pair "king's hoard and emperor's might".6 Even today the German word Vermögen, like the English word means, can mean either ability or wealth.

1 Gallic War, I, 36.

2 "Er (trial by combat) hat in der germanischen Zeit nichts mit dem sittlichen Lohngedanken zu tun gehabt. Er war ein Mittelding zwischen Fehde und Prozess, eine Austragung des Streites mit Waffengewalt, jedoch in öffentlich geregelten Formen. Erst die Christliche Zeit hat aus ihm ein Gottesurteil gemacht" (Schneider, p. 178).

3 "ibu du dar enic reht habes" (Hildebrandslied, v. 57).

4 "wuntane bauga" (Hildebrandslied, v. 33).

5 Typical is the pair gewalde ende rîchdoem or rîchdoem ende gewalt, which appears often in Henry of Veldeke's Eneide (vv. 2380, 2645, et passim). König Rother, a minstrel epic, links them by saying, "golt unde schaz, des ein michil mânkraft... da mid stent d î n êre." (v.v. 590-597).

6 "künges hard und kaisers macht" (Ring, v. 6062). Cf. "guotes die kraft" (Gregorius, v. 1168).

It was not only the right of a powerful ruler to seize a weaker neighbor's lands, but even his duty, since his followers deserved an opportunity for plunder and self-assertion. Without warfare a youth could not prove himself in battle and thereby win renown, the only positive value that made life worth living. Honor was an invidious thing. No one could enjoy honor unless someone else suffered disgrace, the two being judged by a relative rather than an absolute standard. As Goethe explained so many centuries later, "If we give honor to others, we debase ourselves."1 A successful king reflected honor upon his kinship, and an unsuccessful one brought shame and was in danger of assassination or exile. As Saxo Grammaticus states, fame was an indispensable attribute for a king.2

Defeat in battle always brought dishonor, as is illustrated in the Gesta Danorum, which, although not written until the turn of the thirteenth century, preserves much of the flavor of the ancient Germanic legends that it records. In one of these stories a youth is about to fight a Slavic champion in single combat in hope of winning a six-fold arm band from his lord. Before beginning the fray he says that the loser must win "bitter death or grave ignominy".3 It was unthinkable that a loser could win honor, no matter how courageously he fought. The Chanson de Roland could use a single word (hunie) to mean either scorned or defeated.4

Captivity was the greatest disgrace, as the English word caitiff and the French word chetif suggest. These words, derived from Latin captivus, meant not only miserable but also contemptible or bad. The same development can be seen in the word wretch, which origi­nally designated an exile. From the Germanic point of view, captives and exiles should be scorned; but, from the Christian point of view, they should be pitied. Thus each of these words acquired two contradictory meanings.

Admiration for power is suggested in the selection of certain names, even in those of women. Matilda or Machthilda, for example, is combined of words meaning might and battle and Mildred means largess and strength. The animals most respected by the Teutons were the bear, wolf, and wild boar, and later the lion, but not the lamb. Therefore we find names like Bernard, Wolfgang, Wolfram, Wolfdietrich, Rudolph, Rolf, Ralph, Adolf, Eberhard, and Leonard, but not Agnes. Likewise, the rapacious eagle was preferred to the gentle dove, as we see in the popularity of names like Arno, Arnold, and Arnolf and the lack of names like Columba. Power in the sense of authority or rule is suggested in the names Gerald, Henry, Harold, Dietrich, Thierry, Walter, Frederick, Goodridge, and a host of others.

1 "Wenn wir Andern Ehre geben, Müssen wir uns selbst entadeln" (West­Ostlicher Divan, Book V, str. 7).

2 "nihil enim in rege celebrius fama" (Gesta Danorum, p. 142, v. 14).

3 op. cit., p. 84, v. 5.

4 The Chanson de Roland, v. 969, uses hunie (related to gehöhnt) to mean defeated.

Although the Germanic warrior could defy fate and resist heroically as an individual, his place in society, and therefore his êre too, depended largely upon the strength of his kinship (Sippe) ; for his kinsmen, bound by ties of blood to aid him, were his final defense against his enemies and the only force that would avenge him in case he were killed. The very existence of the kinship deterred outsiders from molesting him and his property; and woe to him who had lost or left his kinship. According to Claudius von Schwerin, a kinship had a common honor. The kinship was struck by the disrespect suffered by any of its members, and it participated in his fame.1

The inviolable bond decreeing harmony and alliance between kinsmen was called vridu. This word will appear here in its earlier spelling, since the MHG vride had somewhat changed its meaning,

even though the older meaning lingered into the thirteenth century.2 Although vridu is the source of the NHG word Frieden (peace), it should not be rendered as such, as it often is; for its basic meaning was "protection", as in a defensive or even offensive alliance.3 It is true that vridu enforced peace among the members of the kinship, but it also caused most revenge and all feuds, inasmuch as it required those bound by it to help avenge any insult to any other member. An insult was not considered an individual matter, even if only two individuals were directly involved. Rather it was considered an affront of one kinship against the other, even when the remaining members of both kinships had done all in their power to prevent the friction. Regardless of the merits of the case, all members of the vridu had to stand by their fellow to the death.

1 "Die Sippe hatte eine gemeinschaftliche Sippenehre. Sie wurde von der Missachtung mitbetroffen, die der einzelne erfuhr, wie sie andererseits an seinem Ruhm teilnahm" ( Schwerin, p.22). Franz Settegast sees the same attitude in France at the time of the chansons de geste.. "The honor or dishonor of the individual does not remain restricted to him but is imparted at once to the whole kinship. Thus the honor of the kinship forms a common treasure that is zealously guarded by its members, who endeavor diligently to increase it" (Settegast, p. 4).

2 E.g. in the Nibelungenlied, 1992, 2.

3 For a through discussion of this word, see Wilhelm Gronbech, Kultur und Religion der Germanen, Darmstadt, 1954, I, 33-73 . There was an English translation in 1931.

The greatest hardship and disgrace for a Teuton was to be vriundlôs (without kinsmen, not a member of a vridu), for that meant being without defense, influence, or êre. A man driven into exile and torn from his kinship was a wrekka, a word which later developed into the word wretch. According to the Lay of Hildebrand, Hildebrand's liege lord Dietrich was kinless when expelled by Odoacer.1 However, it seems that he was later able to recover his êre by taking service with Attila, who appeared in German epics as a gracious and hospitable ruler called Etzel.

Honor was won not only through the goods of fortune, but also through certain goods of the body and goods of the mind. The goods of the body, such as facial beauty and muscular strength, were believed inseparable from good birth; and many sagas tell how a prince disguised as a beggar is recognized by his physique, his beauty, and especially by the brilliance of his gaze.2 Because the Germanic peoples conquered many non-Germanic peoples, they associated non-Germanic features with slavery and scorned them accordingly. Not only in the Norse sagas, but even in the courtly literature of the High Middle Ages, almost all honorable people had blond hair.

Because Germanic chieftains actually led their warriors into combat, the chieftain's physical prowess was a decisive factor in winning the first shock action, which often decided the final outcome by demoralizing the side that first gave ground. Even late in the Middle Ages, when battles were decided mainly by logistic factors such as supply and relative numbers of mercenaries engaged, public fancy as well as literature conventionally attributed the victory to the personal prowess of the victorious prince. Because of the importance assigned to the ruler's physical fitness, Germanic legal codes usually prevented hunchbacks and other handicapped people from inheriting property.3

The goods of the mind meriting the greatest honor were courage, ambition, fealty, largess, vengefulness, and pride or shame, which was the font of all the rest. Courage is naturally a prime virtue in any military society. As Tacitus reported, both leader and followers vied in this quality. Courage being the greatest virtue, cowardice was the greatest vice, as Tacitus also stated. Germanic legal codes recognized the charge of cowardice as the most grievous insult4, and it is fear of such reproach that forces Hildebrand to kill his son. It is to be noted that the Norse term neiding designated not only coward but also traitor or treacherous person.

As Claudius von Schwerin states, the dishonorable man who could not bear arms was excluded from the community.5

1 friuntlaos (Hildebrandslied, v. 24).

2 In the Lay of Rig, Jarl excels not only in physical and facial beauty, but in his glance, which is as fierce as that of a snake. In the Lay of the Nibelungs, Volker has such a fierce gaze that the Huns dare not attack him (Nibelungen­lied, 1794,4). In the Gesta Danorum (p. 43, vv. 21-37). Swanhard expresses the prevailing view that beauty of countenance proves noble birth, but this may reflect the author's classical heritage.

3 "Uppe altvile unde uppe dverge ne irstirft weder len noch erve, noch uppe kropelkind" (Sachsenspiegel, I, 4). Likewise lepers could not inherit property, although they could keep and transmit what they had (Sachsenspiegel, I, 4). This is the case in Armer Heinrich.

4 See Grimms Rechtsaltertümer, II, 206-208.

5"Aber der Ehrlose, der die Waffen nicht führen durfte, schied aus der Gemeinschaft der Staatsbürger aus" (Schwerin, p. 26).

Germanic literature seems to have associated power and prowess; in other words, courage was conventionally accompanied by physical strength and skill. Courage was seldom if ever found in a weak man, just as it was seldom found in a poor one. Courage was more often physical than spiritual; it was fortitude in its older rather than its later meaning. Many adjectives were used to describe the bold and skillful warrior, such as biderbe, t ü htic, tugenthaft, vrum, and wacker. Because a bold and skillful warrior was the most excellent man, these words were later used to refer merely to excellence in general. As we shall see, all of these words changed their meanings drastically under clerical and bourgeois influences, sometimes to the diametric­ally opposed value. The corresponding vice was weakness, and it is logical that swach and boese could mean either weak or bad. Courage is commemorated in names such as Baldwin, Conrad, Gerard, Goddard, Hartmann, Hartmut, Leopold, Theobald, Roswitha, Kunegunde, and many others.

The goods of fortune and the warlike virtues would have brought little honor to their possessor if he lacked "high spirits". This quality, which was later known as hôher muot (exalted disposition) or freude (joy), combined self-assurance, optimism, and an affir­mation of life. Its possession attested self-confidence and readiness to meet the challenge of life and strife. Since no one could have hôher muot without enjoying êre, the former served as evidence of the latter and was similarly praised by the poets. Hôher muot or freude was indispensable for the court of a successful liege; without

it no heroes would take service there. To achieve this atmosphere, the liege had to lead his men successfully in battle, share the booty with them lavishly, and regale them with the best food, drink, and entertainment.

The next virtue on our list after courage and high spirits is ambition or the active desire for superiority, leadership, power and fame. This desire must be compounded with a dynamic force or élan that makes men wish to compete, excel, and seek adventure and self-assertion regardless of danger or hardship. In a warlike society, in which all productive work was relegated to women and servants, such ambition and energy could naturally be expressed only in warfare. Enthusiasm for war, and later for tournaments, remained a primary ruling-class virtue throughout the Middle Ages.

Later, as the knights lost their dominance, equal sources of energy were tapped by the burghers in their pursuit of material gain and by scholars and thinkers in pursuit of knowledge and progress. The unbounded energy and optimism of the Germanic tribes astounded the world-weary Romans during their decline, and even Tacitus had marveled at their vigor. Be it due to custom, chance, or climate,

the vitality and dynamism of the North Europeans distinguished them from many peoples of the world and subsequently played an important role in colonial and economic expansion and scientific progress. A major source of this vigor was the desire for fame and honor.

In his Gallic War (VI, 23), Julius Caesar described the motives behind the Teutons' continuous strife. "Robbery brings no infamy if committed outside the boundaries of the tribe, and they claim that it is done in order to train their youth and to decrease sloth. If any chief has said in the council that he will be a leader and that those who wish to follow should speak up, those who approve both the cause and the man arise and promise their help and are praised by the assembly. Of these, those who do not follow are counted as deserters and traitors, and afterward confidence (fides) is denied them in all things." In actual practice, the Germanic will to war seems to have been motivated by desire for adventure, plunder, and self-assertion; yet the poets preached that it should be motivated solely by a greed for fame, which happens to be the literal translation of Ehrgeiz, the present German word for ambition. The last verse of Beowulf eulogizes the hero as having been lofgeornest, or most desirous of praise. This virtue was approximately that which the ancient Greeks designated as Philotimía.

The importance of renown as a personal goal is suggested in many names formed from the syllable mar (famous): for example, Dietmar, Hincmar, Marbod, Margot, and Reinmar. The same is true of names based on the syllable hrod, which meant about the same thing. Among these are Orgier, Orlando, Ralph, Robert, Roderick, Rodriguez, Roger, Roland, Rolf, Roswitha, Rowena, Rudlieb, Rudolf, Rupert, and many more. Warfare is suggested in names based on the syllables hadu, hild or wic (battle), gund, gunth, or guth (war), and hari (army). A small sample of these are Hadubrand, Brunhild, Kriemhild, Hilda, Ludwig, Ludovici, Lewis, Louis, Machthilda, Matilda, Herwig, Gudrun, Gunther, Kunigunde, Fredegunde, Walter, Werner, Warner, Harold, Heribrand. Love of weapons is suggested in names derived from gar (spear), helma (helmet), and brand (sword). Samples of these are Gerald, Gerard, Gerbert, Gerbold, Gertrude, Gervais, Edgar, Roger, Rüdeger, William, Wilhelm, Guillaume, Helmbrecht, Hildebrand, Hadubrand, and Heribrand.

Will to victory is indicated in the names Siegfried, Sieglind, Siegmar, Siegmund, Siegward, and a host of others. The name Siegfried does not connote peace in our sense of the word, but rather a vridu enforced by a victor. Likewise, the name Frederick means the master of a vridu. It is of interest that feminine as well as masculine names could refer to weapons, warfare, and victory. This would corroborate Tacitus's statement in his Germania (c. 18), that the wedding gifts exchanged by Germanic bride and groom consisted of a warhorse, shield, spear, and sword, and that the women accompanied their men into battle. Because we are accustomed to give women names suggesting soft, sweet, or gentle attributes, we often misinterpret feminine names of Germanic origin. Rosalind and Rosmund, for example, have nothing to do with roses: the former combines the words hros (horse) and lindi (serpent), and the latter combines hros and mund (protector). Roswitha does not mean Rose-white: it combines hrod (famous) and switha (swift, brave, strong).1 Mildred does not connote mildness; for milde meant largess and thryth meant power, the two being in causal relationship. Joyce is not related to joy, but is derived from the name of the Goths.

The virtue most praised by the Germanic poets was triuwe, which may be explained as fealty, oath-keeping, or allegiance, and which was perhaps the quality expressed by the word sacramentum in the Germania (c. 14). Although the term gradually assumed spiritual overtones, it originally meant an oath, promise, or contract. Its Indo-European cognates even indicate an earlier meaning of firm, safe, or strong.2 The early meaning of agreement or contract lingers in its English derivative truce and the French treve de Dieu. The word triuwe was sometimes used as a synonym of vridu, in the sense of protective truce. This occurs, for example, in the account of Cain's fratricide in the Old Saxon Genesis, a vernacular paraphrase of the Bible adapted to the understanding of a still primitive Germanic tribe. Because Germanic law declared an outcast to be an outlaw, Cain is afraid he will be killed until God sets his friðu on him and marks him in order that he may live in the world an treuuue without being slain, even though he is an outcast.3

1 Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim rendered her name as clamor validus.

2 "Es gibt eine Treue der Gesinnung, die sich also in der Festigkeit des Herzens und der Zuverlässigkeit des Characters zeigt; aber es gibt auch eine Treue mit Hinsicht auf einen geschlossenen Vertrag. Hier liegt eben die älteste Bedeutung des Wortes: gegebenes Wort, Gelübde, Versprechen. Die indogermanischen Verwandten weisen sogar auf eine ursprüngliche Bedeutung fest, sicher, stark hin" (Vries, p. 20).

3 In Heliand, p. 237, vv. 60-79.

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