The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 3

Germanic attitudes are even more vividly expressed in the Anglo-­Saxon version of this same story. In the so-called Genesis A, Cain is cursed and must live in exile (wræc) and wander from home without honor (arleas). As a fugitive (flêma) he must wander (wrecan) loathed by his kinsmen (winemâgum lâð). He realizes that he cannot hope for honor (âre) in this world because he has lost the Heavenly King's favor (hyldo), love (lufan) and friendship (freoðe). Never­theless, even though he must wander far from his kinsmen, he does not lack God's protection; for God puts a mark (freoðobeacen) on him so that no one will kill him. Without such a mark, he could be killed with impunity.1

The word triuwe was often used for the contract or bond between war-lord and follower. As Caesar vouches in his Gallic War, this promise was ethically unbreakable after a campaign had been announced, and woe to him who failed his chief in battle. This concept of dependability lingers in the English cognates trust and troth and also in the Late-Latin derivative antrustio, which desig­nated a member of a military retinue. It is also suggested in the Old Saxon words gitrost (a following) and helm-gitrosteon (heroes). The English word loyalty should not be used to translate triuwe in the old epics, as it so often is, because it implies a sentiment not always present in the Germanic term. Perhaps a better rendition is "allegiance", which stresses the objectivity of the obligation; for triuwe was a temporary relationship which could be severed by either party at will and which lasted only as long as both parties kept their word. In this way it differed from vridu, which was automatic among kinsmen and, in theory, almost insoluble.

It is not at all unusual for exemplary heroes to terminate their allegiance with their lord when they hear of another one who rewards more generously. In the Heliand, an old Low German poem which will be discussed, the toll collector Matthew is quite content with his generous employers until he hears that Christ gives even greater rewards, whereupon he returns the gifts received from his past employers and goes into the service of Jesus.2 The same incident occurs in the Ruodlieb, an eleventh-century German adventure story in Latin hexameters. The very model of a young hero serves a distant lord for some time; but he finally leaves his service because he is not receiving his just deserts.3

In such changes of allegiance, it is usually made clear that the vassal has served due notice and has returned previously received gifts. Triuwe, in the sense of truce, could also be terminated by either party as long as he notified the other before attacking, as Liudeger and Liudegast do in the Lay of the Nibelungs.4

1 Genesis, p. 15, v. 393 - p. 16, v. 428.

2 Heliand, vv. 1189-1202.

3 Ruodlieb,I,11-17.

4 Nibelungenlied, 143-146; 877.

Of course, if no triuwe had been declared, no declaration of war was demanded, war being the normal condition between strangers. Treacherous ambushes, like Arminius's surprising of the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest, were considered praiseworthy if successful. The Fetial Code of the Romans, on the other hand, required that war be declared before being waged;1 and this novel view spread, in theory at least, throughout the Middle Ages.2 The custom of declaring war lingers in the Western world, where governments officially declare war before (even if only a few hours before) attacking their neighbors. Whenever a nation outside this cultural society attacks without notice, it is considered a "day of infamy". Even though the ancient Teutons approved of surprise attacks, they nevertheless scrupled against killing sleeping men, for that was the way of a neiding or coward. Instead, praiseworthy Norse heroes always wakened their victims before killing them. An echo of the old contempt for those who attack sleeping men is seen in the Lay of the Nibelungs, when Volker reviles the Huns as cowards because they tried to kill the Burgundians in their sleep.3 Although this epic was not written in its present form until the thirteenth century, it preserves many values and motifs from remote antiquity.

1 "Ac belli quidem aequitas sanctissime fetiali populi Romani iure perscripta, est. Ex quo intellegi potest nullum bellum esse iustum, nisi quod aut rebus repetitis geratur aut denuntiatum ante sit et indictum" (De Officiis, I, xii).

2 In Conrad of Wurzburg 's Trojan War, a hero says that, in order to avoid reproach, he will declare war before attacking (Trojanerkrieg, 17,956-60). In Hartmann's Iwein (vv. 712-714), Askalon upbraids Kalogreant as triuwelos because he has not defied him (widerseit) before disturbing his well. Henry Wittenwiler wrote, about 1400, that it was the law of war (des streites reckt) that, "man den veinten send ein knecht In einem rosenvarwen tuoch Mit swert und auch mit hantschuoch, Gesprenget ser mit rotem pluot. Daz ist ze einem zaichen guot, Daz man vechten mit in well. Dar zuo widersait der gesell Irem leib und irem guot Daz sell sich dester bas in huot Haben schullen" (Ring, vv. 7546-56).

3 "pfî, ir zagen boese,... walt ir slâfende uns ermordet hân?" (Nibelungenlied, 1847,2-3).

The old Germanic ideal of service unto death, but only as long as the payments are prompt, lasted until modern times in the ethics of the Swiss mercenaries. As Racine states in the first scene of his Les Plaideurs, "Point d'argent, point de Suisse". Whereas a vassal was permitted to terminate his service at will in peace time, he could not do so once hostilities had begun. What Tacitus said about duty unto death was no exaggeration, and history has furnished many actual examples since the annihilation of the Teutones and Cimbri. This fanatic allegiance should not be confused with a selfless devotion; because, as the poets so often attested, the real deterrent to flight was public reproach. As both Caesar and Tacitus said of the Teutonic volunteers, fear of disgrace was the true disciplinary factor. This fact is evident in Beowulf when Wiglaf reproaches those who deserted their leader in his hour of need. "Now all treasure-sharing and sword-giving and all pride of ownership will be lost to your kinships," he says, "Every member of your families will have to wander bereft of the law of the land as soon as noblemen far and wide have heard of your flight, your infamous deed. For a noble man, death is better than a shameful life."1 It is interesting that he ends with a thought attributed to Agricola in Britain some seven or eight centuries earlier.2 Most poets do not bother to list the social, economic, and political consequences of such a disgrace. It is enough to warn that troth-breakers will lose their honor, it being inevitable that the other dire penalties will follow such a loss.

Oath-keeping was the basis of the whole feudal system. In justifying William's conquest of England, the monk Odericus Vitalis tells of Harold's many physical virtues, such as stature, elegance, physical strength, courage, and eloquence; then he adds, "But what did so many gifts do for him without faith (fides), which is the foundation of all good things? For, to be sure, when he returned to his country, he broke his faith to his lord through his desire to reign."3 The irony was, if we may believe other accounts, that Harold's oath was made under compulsion and was therefore not binding, even though made over a chest of saints' bones. It is to be noted that Odericus used the word fides, just as Caesar had done a millennium earlier. This Germanic concept of oath-keeping took some strange forms. In his Germania (c. 24) Tacitus tells how a Germanic man will gamble away his wealth, family, and even his freedom, and then voluntarily allow himself to be bound and taken into slavery. "And that they call fides." As we shall see, this was the origin of the" debt of honor".

Like vridu, fealty or allegiance could require a man to act against his own inclination; and such compulsion furnished tragic conflicts in many medieval epics. In the Waltharius, a ninth-century poem in Latin hexameters, King Gunther commands his vassal Hagen to fight with him against his former friend and fellow hostage,4 even though it was a shameful thing for two to fight against one, as Saxo Grammaticus attests.5

1 "Nû sceal sincþego and swyrdgifu, eall êðelwyn êowrum cynne, lufen âlicgean; londrihtes môt þære mægburge monna æghwylc îdel hweorfan, syððan æðelingas feorran gefricgean flêarm êowerne, dômlêasan dæd. Deað bið sêlla eorla gehwy1cum þonne edwîtlîf!" (Beowulf, VV. 2884- 91).

2 See Introduction, note. 26.

3 "Sed quid ei tanta dona sine fide, que bonorum omnium fundamentum est, contulerunt? In patriam nempe suam ut regressus est, pro cupiditate regni Domino suo fidem mentitus est" (Oderici Vitalis, Historiae Ecclesiasticae, ed. A. LePrévost, Paris, 1838-55, III, p. 11).

4 Waltharius, vv. 1075-1129.

5 Gesta Danorum, p. 112, vv. 1-2.

At first Hagen disobeys Gunther and refuses to break his triuwe to Waltharius; but he is released from his triuwe as soon as Waltharius kills his nephew, because that was a particular­ly grievous insult to the ancient Germans. Saxo Grammaticus tells about a king who must turn against his own son-in-law in order to avenge a friend with whom he has made a vengeance pact.1 This son-in-law, Amleth, is better known by the name of Hamlet, as he is called in Shakespeare's play.

For women, triuwe consisted mainly in marital fidelity. As Tacitus attested, marriage in Germany was chaste in comparison with that in Rome ; yet marital fidelity was not required of men, and un­married women's sex life was of little concern as long as they did not overstep class barriers. Sex played a minor role in the older literature and women served primarily as objects to be stolen, like cattle and other wealth. As Tacitus mentioned, a man who caught his wife in adultery could clip her hair, beat her naked through the streets in returning her to her family, and thus publicly deprive her of her honor for breaking her troth. Because marital infidelity brought disgrace not only to the offender, but also to her entire kinship, the kinship was particularly strict in punishing its wayward daughters.2 If such women were not legally punished, they still might be lynched by their more virtuous sisters. In reproving an Anglo-Saxon king for fornication, St. Boniface claimed that in Northern Germany, "if a virgin defiles her father's house by adultery or if a married woman breaks the marriage tie and commits adultery, they some­times compel her to hang herself by her own hand, and then over the pyre on which she has been burned and cremated they hang the seducer. Sometimes a band of women get together and flog her through the village, beating her with rods, and, stripping her to the waist, they cut and pierce her whole body with knives and send her from house to house bloody and torn. Always new scourgers, zealous for the purity of marriage, are found to join in until they leave her dead, or half dead, that others may fear adultery and wantonness."3

The vivid language of the above paragraph suggests that the pious priest endorsed the zealous guardians of the moral law. He seems confused about the cause of their righteous indignation, however, for the punishment seems to have been for infidelity rather than for lechery. The Mirror of the Saxons, echoing ancient laws, says that a woman who sullies her womanly honor through the inchastity of her body will lose neither her rights nor her inheritance.4

1 Op. cit., p. 101, VV. 15-34.

2 Claudius yon Schwerin says of the kinship: "Zu ihrem Schutze und zur Abwehr des 'Verwandtenschimpfs' handhabte die Sippe eine Strafgewalt, auf Grund deren sie insbesondere gegen sittliche Vergehen weiblicher Geschlechtsgenossen vorging, in schweren Fällen mit der Todesstrafe" (Schwerin, p. 22).

3 Talbot, p. 193.

4 "Wîph mach mit unkûscheit ires lîbis ir wîphlichen êre krenken; ir recht ne virlûsit se dar me de nicht noch ir erve" (Sachenspiegel, I, 5, 2b).

Schopenhauer, with more insight into human nature than Boniface could command, would have attributed the furies' violence to their fear of sexual competition.1 Perhaps they were more jealous than zealous. Almost as dishonorable as marital infidelity was marriage with a man of inferior rank, since that made a women lose her honor in the eyes of her peers, who could not tolerate such violation of the social hierarchy. Saxo Grammaticus seems to have been correct in stating that, among the ancient Danes, "If a free woman agreed to marry a slave, she had to take on his rank and lose the benefit of her liberty and accept the standing of a slave."2 The same held true of extra marital intimacies with socially inferior men.

The fourth on our arbitrary list of virtues is largess or milte. The purpose of milte was to win friends and influence people, that is, to obligate and impress, as the Poetic Edda says.3 Because the Germanic vassal fought for his liege in return for support in peace time and a share of the spoils in wartime, milte was one of the prime virtues of a feudal lord, without which there would have been no triuwe and consequently no social structure. Regardless of any emotional, sentimental, or spiritual values we may read into the liege-vassal relationship, the poets of the time never failed to stress its monetary basis. The author of Beowulf expresses the function of milte by saying, "Thus a young man shall do good works with rich money gifts among his father's friends so that afterward, when war comes in his later years, willing companions may stand by him and people may do him service." Later, after Beowulf's vassals have deserted him, Wiglaf reminds them of the gifts which they have received from their lord.4 In the Gesta Danorum the hero Hjalte says, "It is sweet for us to repay the gifts received from our lord, to grasp our swords and to devote our steel to glory."5

1 Schopenhauer, IV, pp. 345-446.

2 "At si libera consensisset in seruum, eius condicionem equaert, libertatisque beneficio spoliata, seruilis fortunae indueret" (Gesta Danorum, p. 152).

3 See Hovamol, 40-48, in Poetic Edda, trans Bellows, pp. 36-38.

4 "Swâ sceal (geong g) uma gôde gewyrcan, fromum feohgiftum on faeder (bea) rme, þat hine on ylde eft gewunigen wilgesîþas, þonne wîg cume, lêode gelæsten" (Beowulf, vv. 20-24). "Þaet, lâ, maeg secgan sê ðe wyle sôð specan, þaet se mondryhten, sê êow ðâ mâðmas geaf, êoredgeatwe, pê gê þær on standad, -þonne hê on ealubence cite gesealde healsittendum helm and byrnan þêoden his þegnum, swylce he þryðlicost ôwer fear oððe nêah findan meahte -" (Beowulf, vv. 2864-70).

5 Gesta Danorum, p. 59, vv. 37-38.

The favor shown by a chieftain to his follower was generally known as huld. According to the feudal pact, the lord was "beholden" to protect his vassal and show him milte in return for his service. If the

chieftain failed to make good his huld, he was as miscreant as a vassal who failed to perform in battle. Being frankly a means to an end, milte should not be confused with the modern virtue of gener­osity, which is now supposed to be disinterested, that is, performed without hope of reward. It is not exactly clear what the old warrior in the Lay of Hildebrand means when he offers his son the arm bands bi huldi.1 Although huld usually referred to the favor shown by a superior to an inferior, it could also refer to the service performed by the inferior.2

Because chieftains could attract followers only through milte, they had to publicize their ability to bestow; and wealth had to be flaunted at all times. The hospitality so praised by Tacitus helped serve this purpose. Although a stranger was outside the in-group, a sort of international law allowed him to demand hospitality; and no man concerned with his good name could refuse it. The lavishness of Germanic entertainment seems to have served another purpose. Like the potlaches of the American northwest, such hospitality was given through a will to superiority and a desire to impress and to obligate. The recipient was always "beholden" to the donor and, if properly impressed, would spread word of the donor's largess and of the wealth and power it implied. This fact is abundantly clear in later literature. Today, when we say, "I am much obliged", we scarcely think of the literal meaning of the term.

Just as largess was a prime virtue, miserliness, or giticheit as it was later called, was a primary vice. Whereas the ancient Teutons considered stingyness a vice, they considered lust for other men's wealth a sign of virtue. The only vice connected with it was reluctance to share it lavishly. The noble nature of largess is suggested by the derivation of the word "generous" from generosus, meaning wellborn. The taint associated with miserliness can be seen in the fact that the M HG word arc could mean stingy as well as wicked or cowardly, and that MHG boese could mean stingy as well as wicked or weak.3 Likewise, the Middle English word wretch could mean either wretch or miser, perhaps through the influence of the parallel development of Latin miser (miserable) into miser.

Along with the virtues of courage, ambition, fealty, and largess was that of shame, which may be listed with them or may be considered the basic motivation behind all the others. As David Riesman says of a tradition-directed society, the "sanction for behavior tends to be the fear of being shamed."4

1 Hildebrandslied, v. 35.

2 Rudolf of Ems uses huld to mean favor of lord (Alexander, v. 13,594) and also duty to lord (v. 13,307).

3 The word boese will appear in this meaning in many later passages in this study. Cf. "der boesen (Frauen) lôn ist kleine" and "vil swache lônent boesiu wîp" (Moriz von Craun, vv. 403, 409).

4 Riesman, p. 40.

It is important to note that it is fear of being shamed, not of being ashamed, as it is in our post-Kantian world. In other words, scham was not fear of doing wrong, but fear of being publicly censured. Therefore scham must not be confused with its present-day English cognate shame, which, according to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, means "a painful emotion excited by a consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety." The word scham, a millennium ago, could better have been defined as the extreme discomfit or fear of being thought guilty, inadequate, or inferior by one's peers. In other words, scham was the discomfit or fear of being shamed, not ashamed.

The worst shame that can befall an "other-directed" man, to use another of Riesman's terms, is to be ridiculed by his peers. This is seen in the Chanson de Roland in the vengeance that Ganelon wreaks because Roland has ridiculed him.1 Aristotle had long since observed that ridicule is one of the chief causes of the desire to avenge.2

Laughter has not always connoted joviality: in the Middle Ages it more often expressed scornful superiority or group-solidarity against non-conformity.3 It is no coincidence that the MHG word schimpf (jest, game) has developed into the NHG word Schimpf (affront, insult), since laughter was most often directed at people.

The MHG word laster, which was related to the verb *lahan (to blame), originally meant "reproach", a meaning still found in its modern verbal derivative lästern (to slander or blaspheme). During the course of this study we shall see the semantic development of the word laster from its original meaning of reproach or calumny to its present meaning of vice or moral turpitude, a development almost identical with that of the word turpitude itself. The Teutons strove to avoid not only laster, but also tadel and hôn. Although the modern word Tadel means reproof or reproach, the MHG word tadd is usually translated as defect. This is quite unnecessary, since medieval man drew very little distinction between defect and censure.4 The German expression ohne Furcht und Tadel, like English without fear and without reproach, was based on the French sans peur et sans reproche. Today we would rather think of Bayard as irre­proachable rather than merely as unreproached, but even in the Renaissance the distinction was not generally felt. Germanic warriors feared not only rebuke for cowardice, but also scorn for defeat. Derivatives of the word hôn, especially honir, hontage, honte, and honteus played an important role in the chansons de geste, which express much Germanic spirit with regard to honor and shame.

1 Chanson de Roland, VV. 302-305.

2 Aristotle, Rhetoric, II, 2 (trans. Cooper, p. 97).

3 St. Martin of Braga said, "Odibilem quoque hominem facit risus aut superbus et clarus (loud) aut malignus et furtivus aut alienis malis evocatus" Martin, Formula 4,27).

4 When Wolfram says that a fur-lined coat is free of tadel (Parzival, 228,7), he can mean either. The word is related to Old English tæl, tâl, ridicule, calumny, and tælen, têlan, to declare defective.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page