The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 4

As Friedrich Maurer has observed, disgrace or dishonor had to be a public matter.1 This explains why oaths, to be binding, had to be made ceremoniously before many witnesses. One could almost say that an oath owed its validity to the number and rank of the witness­es, for the oath-giver would hesitate to break his word and thus lose the respect of so many people. A fine example of a well-witnessed treaty was the oath of Strassburg, which was made in 842 by two of the heirs of Louis the Pious and was witnessed by two whole armies.

Like the Greeks and Romans before them, the ancient Teutons believed that their military renown lived after them as a sort of worldly immortality. This sentiment appears often in Germanic poetry. Beowulf comforts the grieving king Hrothgar with the words, "Don't sorrow, wise man. It is better for us to avenge a kinsman than to sorrow greatly for him, each of us will see the end of his life in this world. Let him, who can, win renown before his death. That is the greatest joy for the deceased warrior."2 Likewise, in the Heliand, St. Thomas says to his fellow heroes, "It is a hero's choice to stand steadfast with his lord and to die with him at the day of decision (an duome). Let us all do so, let us follow him on his journey nor let us consider our lives of any value, if only we die with our lord in the host. Then at least our fame (duom) will live for us afterward as good words before men." When St. Thomas says that it is good to die with one's lord, he is following scripture.3 When he refers to the fame they will win thereby, he reveals Germanic reasoning.

1 Maurer, Leid, p. 120.

2 "Ne sorga, snotor guma! Sêlre bið æghwæm, þæt hê his frêond wrece, þonne hê tela murne. " Ûre æghwylc sceal elide gebîdan worolde lîfes; wyrce sê þe môte dômes ær dêaþe; þæt bid drihtguman unlifgendum æfter sêlest" (Beowulf, vv. 1384-89).

3 "that ist thegnes cust, that hie mid is frâhon samad fasto gistande, dôie mid im thar an duom. Duan ûs alla sô, folgon im te thero ferdi: ni lâtan ûse fera uuið thiu uuihtes uuirdig, neba uui an them uuerode mid im, dôian mid ûson drohtine. Than lêbot ûs thoh duom after, guod uuord for gumon" (Heliand, vv. 3996-4002). In the biblical source of this passage, John 11 : 16, Thomas had declared his willingness to die with Jesus. It was the Germanic poet who motivated such loyalty by alluding to the fame which would be won.

Medieval statements about honor often show classical influences; yet they still expressed feelings native to medieval man. In most cases, the feeling or attitude was deeply rooted, and only the means of expression was new. As we have seen, when the poet of Beowulf says that death with honor is better than a life of shame, he is expressing the same thought already used by Tacitus in quoting Agricola. Still, we know that such sentiments were dear to the Germanic warriors. That they were dear to the Germanic women, too, was shown by the female survivors of the Cimbri, who, when refused permission to become Vestal Virgins, killed their children and themselves rather than suffer the disgrace of captivity. Roman and Christian civilization would not have influenced the northern barbarians as it did if they had lacked the necessary predisposition. When the same civilization, in a somewhat altered form, was presented centuries later to the Aztecs, Pueblo Indians, and Philipinos, the results were very different.

One of the poems of the Edda states that "possessions die, kinships die, you yourself will die as they. One thing I know that lives forever: the dead man's renown."1 Strangely enough, this pagan sentiment was inscribed during World War II as an epitaph on the wall of St. Mary's Church in Lübeck. Hans Kuhn summarizes the Germanic belief by writing, "the greatest possession of the Teuton and the decisive yardstick for everything he did and left undone was his good name (Ehre) and the fame (Ruhm) which was to survive him."2 This belief in the immortality of fame was still very much alive during the Renaissance. Shakespeare's Cassio was no exception when he cried out to Iago, "I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial"3

A man concerned with his good name would brook no slur upon it; and much medieval fiction relates efforts made to avenge injured honor. Modern man distinguishes between insult and injury; and perfectly respectable people can say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me." The ancient Teutons and their medieval descendants, on the other hand, viewed the two offenses as almost identical.4 Among primitive peoples a word is usually more than a mere sound or symbol; it is a living spirit or power capable of bringing irreparable harm to the person against whom it is spoken.

1 In his The Saga of the Jómsvikings ( Austin, 1955), p. 21, L. M. Hollander renders this as, "Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself eke soon wilt die: but fair fame will fade never, I ween, for him who wins it." F. Niedner, in his Havamal-Spruche der Edda (Thule Sammlung, II, p. 121 ff.) renders it as, "Besitz stirbt, Sippen sterben, Du selbst stirbst wie sie, Doch Nachruhm stirbt nimmermehr, Den der Wackere gewinnet."

2 "Der höchste Besitz des Germanen und der entscheidende Massstab für alles, was er tat und liess, war seine Ehre und der Ruhm, der ihn übeleben sollte" (Schneider, p. 215). Andreas Heusler expresses the idea as, "DerRuhm, die 'guteNachrede nach dem Tode,' ist dem Heiden, was dem Christen die ewige Seligkeit: das höchste gute" (Heusler, Germanentum, p. 103).

3 Othello, II, 3, vv. 263-265.

4 Friedrich Maurer, in his Leid ( Bern, 1951), shows that MHG leid could mean both insult and injury, both Beleidigung and Leiden.

In the ancient Teutons' exaggerated attitude toward insults we find all the ingredients of the "point of honor", a curse destined to plague the upper classes of Europe for centuries to come. The "point of honor" is now so foreign to most Americans that the term has recently taken on a new and moral meaning.1 According to Schopenhauer,2 the "point of honor" was unknown to the ancients, who thought a slap from a man less objectionable than a kick from a horse. In this he was right, in so far as the Greeks and Romans did not require their peers to avenge insults in order to be considered men of honor. In fact they thought it more commendable to ignore an insult as if it had not occurred: for the offender, rather than the offended, had compromised his good name. According to Cicero, an insult has a sting that a wise man and good man can bear only with difficulty.3 Perhaps Tacitus, being no "man of honor", was unable to see that the Teutons' shameful after-dinner brawls were actually "affairs of honor", at least in the eyes of the participants. Like the Northwest Indians, the Teutons enjoyed enhancing their own prestige by reviling their fellows in eloquent "flitings", or compe­titions in abusive railing. These often ended in violence, insults being erased only by worse insults or by bloodshed.

1 Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Harpers, New York, n.d., p. 466) explains the term to mean, "An obligation which is binding because its violation would offend some conscientious scruple or notion of self-respect".

2 Schopenhauer, IV, pp. 417-419.

3 "Habet quendam aculeum contumelia, quam pati prudentes ac viri boni difficillime possunt" (cited from Eckstein, p. 99).

Schopenhauer was wrong in claiming that the "point of honor" is an unnatural drive, a custom based on tradition rather than on human nature. Such an attitude appears in any lawless society and is still evident today in the intercourse between sovereign nations. Concern for one's relative status and fear of aggression are inborn, as can be seen in the similar mores of the henyard and the schoolyard,

where each new arrival must assert himself against all aggressions, either actual or potential. The apparently irrational behavior of "men of honor" must be based on some definite, even though inscrutable, logic; for striking similarities appear in family feuds in such remote areas as Montenegro, Corsica, Iceland, and the Tennessee mountains.

An insult to one's honor could be wiped out only if the offender or some other member of his vridu was killed by the offended or by one of his clan, and such vengeance furnished the motivation for many Norse sagas. Insults were also used as challenges. When hostile forces met in the field, they called their opponents cowards and thus compelled them to start the fray. This custom is illustrated in the Lay of Hildebrand, in which the father must fight his own son rather than have his army think him a coward, since reputation was even more important than ties of blood. Such vituperative challenges, which are now called Hohnreden, served to enhance the morale and confidence of the offender as well as to precipitate the struggle, for the offended party forfeited all his honor until he cleared himself of the ignominy. A good example of a Hohnrede, recorded at a somewhat later date, is found in the Lay of the Nibelungs when Hagen reproaches Hildebrand for fleeing from the hall and Hilde­brand retaliates by asking why Hagen stood by and let Waltharius kill so many of his friends.1

A man of honor was obliged to avenge every insult, and anyone who failed to gain satisfaction was branded as a shirker as well as a coward. In an age of club-law the only deterrent to insult or injury from outside the clan was threat of reprisal: if one turned his other cheek, his kith lost not only their good name but also their only safeguard against further aggressions. Consequently, as Tacitus mentions in his Germania (c. 21), a man was obliged to take up the enmities as well as the friendships of his father or kinsmen. Failure to avenge an insult naturally diminished a man's status, that is to say, his dignitas or dignatio. Consequently an insult was an "in­dignity" and caused great "indignation". Saxo tells of two Danish youths who are moved with indignation (indignacione permoti) because King Athisl of Sweden has killed their father.2 Until they have avenged their father, they cannot enjoy the dignatio due to Germanic chieftains. They are moved not so much by anger, or even by righteous indignation in its present sense, as by a desire to regain their public esteem.

When a member of a kinship was killed, his kinsmen had to avenge him (unless first compensated by a wergild or blood ­money), even if he had merited his death. In matters of revenge and honor the Teutons drew no distinction between manslaughter and murder. In the Lay of Waltharius, Scaramundus must either die or kill Waltharius in order to avenge the death of his uncle Camalo,

even though he knows that Waltharius killed him reluctantly and purely in self-defense.3 As late as the fourteenth century the word indignatio was commonly used to mean "desire for vengeance."4

1 "'Jâ naeme ich ê die suone', sprach aber Hagene, 'ê ich sô lasterlîche ûz einem gademe flühe, meister Hildebrant, als ir hie habt getân. ich wânde daz ir kundet baz gein vianden stân'. Des antwurte Hildebrant: 'zwiu ver­wîzet ir mir daz? nu wer was der ûf einem schilde vor dem Waskensteine saz, dô im yon Spânje Walther sô vil der friunde sluoc? ouch habt ir noch ze zeigen an iu selben genuoc'" (Nibelungenlied, 2343-2344).

2 Gesta Danorum, p. 110, v. 23. In the Gesta Romanorum (cap. 141) Haman is indignatus when Mordecai refuses to worship him.

3 Waltharius, vv. 700-707.

4 Hans Schulz (p. 191) defines indignatio, as used by Peter of Dusburg in the early fourteenth century, as "ein Gefühl, das den Wünsch nach Rache auslöst".

Today revenge is somewhat pardoned, or at least the punishment and censure are somewhat mitigated, when it is perpetrated in heat of passion and immediately after the offense. The ancient Teutons believed that, to be truly praiseworthy, the desire for revenge should be cool, calculated, and protracted. Like the samurai of Japan, the Nordic heroes often spent years planning their revenge, which they would finally wreak perhaps not on the offender himself, but on some other and more important member of his kindred, or vridu. Vicarious revenge was necessary if the offender could not give satisfaction, or, as later Germans would have said, was not satis­faktionsfähig. As we shall see, revenge remained socially obligatory until almost modern times, particularly in military circles; and many societies used the word honor most often in connection with the vengeance of insults. Perhaps the best expression of offended honor is found in Shakespeare's Richard II (1,1), when Norfolk implores the king to let him defend his honor from Bolingbroke's accusations by meeting him in a trial by combat: "The purest treasure mortal times afford Is spotless reputation. That away, Men are but guilded loam or painted clay. A jewel in a ten times barr'd-up chest Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast. Mine honour is my life. Both grow in one; Take honour from me, and my life is done. Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try; In that I live, and for that will I die.'"

When Germanic heroes kill to avenge their kinsmen, we must not believe their acts motivated primarily by love or loyalty. The poets of the day usually made it clear that they killed to restore their own injured honor, concern for honor being more admirable than concern for friends and kinsmen. When Waltharius kills all Gunther's vassals, the king suffers more from shame than from the death of his friends. Therefore, letting his own sorrow at fighting his friend give way to the king's honor, Hagen joins the fight,l since vassals were duty bound to maintain their lieges' honor. When his nephew Roland is killed, Charlemagne's chief regret is that he will have no one to maintain his honor.2 The precedence of personal honor over ties of blood or friendship appears in both the Lay of Hildebrand and the previously mentioned tale of Hamlet's father-in-law. As we shall see, it explains why Rüdeger, a hero in the Lay of the Nibelungs, must fight his friends. On the other hand, because an individual's honor reflected upon the honor of his liege, his vassals, his family, and his descendants, his concern for honor was partly altruistic and was considered an ethical value. When Roland is about to blow his horn to summon assistance, Olivier tells him not to do it because it will be a disgrace and reproach to all his kinsmen which will last all their life.3

1 "propriusque honor succumbit honori regis" (Waltharius, vv. 1109-1110).

2 "N'en avrai ja ki sustienget m'onur" (Chanson de Roland, v. 2903).

3 "Vergoigne sereit grant E repruver a trestuz voz parents; Iceste hunte dureit al lur vivant" (Chanson de Roland, vv. 1705-1707).

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