The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Soli Deo honor et gloria in saecula - I Timothy 1,17

As we have seen, the shame culture of the ancient Teutons was largely anthropocentric: man was the ultimate purpose of his own existence and the measure of all things. Consequently, a man's success depended more upon his own worth than upon fate or divine grace. Wealth or poverty, power or weakness, honor or shame, these were his to win, provided of course that he was of fitting birth and kinship. Fate played some part to be sure; yet the individual relied upon his own efforts and fought defiantly to a heroic death even against insuperable odds. The rewards for his courage and effort were of this world: wealth, power, and prestige during his life and lasting renown after his death. The penalty for cowardice and other faults was shame, scorn, and oblivion.

As a substitute for this anthropocentric shame culture, the Christian missionaries introduced a theocentric view of life, the belief that man was created for God's own ends and that he could avail nothing without divine grace. This theocentric view is superimposed, rather superficially, to be sure, upon the heroic action of Beowulf, in which the author occasionally attributes the hero's virtues and successes to divine aid.1 Man being but a sinful exile in this vale of tears, most clerical writers declared the rewards of this world not true rewards, but merely distractions or obstacles on the road to salvation. Fame, wealth, and power in this world were not proper incentives: eternal reward in heaven was the only worthwhile goal.

1 Beowulf, vv. 1658, 1725, 2184. 38

In contrast to the pagans' shame culture, the Christian way of life can be considered a "guilt culture". Society was still based on a system of service and reward, but man was rewarded with glory in heaven rather than with acclaim on earth. Likewise, he was pun­ished by the torments of hell rather than by the scorn of his peers. To understand the term "guilt culture" as applied to the early converts, we must free ourselves of modern concepts of guilt in the sense of an inner feeling of remorse or self-reproach for what we have done, a remorse independent of any fear of punishment. Having no such sense of guilt, the early converts could understand the term only in its basic meaning of liability to punishment. When we scold a naughty dog and reach for a switch, his face usually registers extreme guilt; yet it is clear that he is more concerned with the whipping he will get than with any infringement of divine or human law. And thus it was with the new converts.

As we have seen, if one Teuton killed another, he was in danger of retaliation until he paid a blood-money. Until he paid this debt, or schult, he was guilty, or schuldic; but once he had paid his indemnity, or buoze (related to English booty), he was no longer guilty. Although Busse, the modern German derivative of this latter word, now means both penance and penitence, this was not originally the case. When a pagan killed another man, he gloated in his triumph. When an early convert killed another man, he sometimes felt regret (riuwe), provided he really believed the missionaries' stories about hell's fire. Whereas Reue, the modern German word derived from riuwe, connotes remorse, its ancestor may have meant no more than regret; for there is no evidence that the Teutons were burdened with guilty consciences.

The origin and development of Western man's guilty conscience is somewhat reflected in the etymology of the word conscience, which literally meant common or shared knowledge (cum, with; scientia, knowledge). The early missionaries may have had some inkling of this etymology; for they rendered conscientia literally as giwizzanî (from ge, a collective prefix related to cum, and wizzan, to know).1 l In other words, giwizzanî was the individual's awareness that someone else (i.e., God) knew what he was thinking. God's omnisci­ence was stressed by all missionaries and preachers. He was a

speculator cordis, a spy of men's hearts, an all-seeing and all-­knowing deity from whom no deed or thought could be hidden,2 a deity who punished not only the wrong-doer but also his children and children's children to the third and fourth generation.

1 Perhaps the early converts understood the prefix of giwizzanî to be a perfective prefix, which would make the word mean "that which is known, consciousness, recognition (of sin)". This is suggested by its frequent use in the meaning of sapientia, for example in the Heliand, where it appears often in the Old Saxon form gewit. Wulfila based his word miÞwissei on the Greek word suneidesis, which also meant "common knowledge".

2 A typical expression of such a belief appears in the story of Pope Gregory, as told in the Gesta Romanorum (cap. 170). When the king makes improper advances to his sister, she says; "Absit a me tale peccatum in conspectu dei perpetrare!"

His punishment was a very real thing too: eternal fire and brimstone, more painful than any agony known on earth and many times longer than life itself. Guilt was not just a pang of remorse felt after disappointing a loving Father, but rather the immediate fear of very real punishment. And yet, despite all clerical admonitions, most laymen continued for centuries to obey God's commandments only in so far as they did not conflict with the demands of their traditional shame culture.

Each Teutonic tribe had its own law; and a vassal obeyed the law of his own lord. After conversion, the Germanic peoples were supposed to obey God's law, which was a single law for all believers.1 To understand their difficulty in comprehending the new law, we might recall a story told about an African youth who left his native village and went down to the coast to learn the white men's magic. When he asked the missionaries if he could learn their magic, they were delighted at the chance to save his heathen soul and assured him that he could learn their "magic" if only he would study for several years. With great diligence he memorized their prayers, creed, catechism, beatitudes, good works, and other Christian teachings. Finally he was released with the assurance that he had now mastered the Christians' magic and could return to his native village and share his knowledge with his people. The next night he returned to the mission and cut the throats of all the missionaries. That day he had assembled his clan, announced his new power, and publicly put a fatal curse on them. When it failed, he felt humiliated and realized that the missionaries had deceived him. There is no evidence that anything such as this happened among the Germanic converts; but there is evidence that they remained ignorant of the inner meaning of Christianity long after they had accepted its external paraphernalia. This was certainly true of Thranbrand, the first Christian missionary to Iceland, who proved the value of Christianity by winning trials by combat.2

1 "Eadem lex erit indiginae et colono qui peregrinatur apud vos" (Exodus, 12, 49); "Aequum iudicium sit inter vos, sive peregrinus sive civis peccaverit" (Leviticus, 24, 22).

2 See Brennu-Njálssaga, C-CV.

Being fighters rather than philosophers, the Teutons never formulated a definite moral dogma; yet their literature and actions made it clear that they had a universally accepted value system. If we permit ourselves the medieval license of parody, we could codify their values as follows:

Blessed are the rich, for they possess the earth and its glory.
Blessed are the strong, for they can conquer kingdoms.
Blessed are they with strong kinsmen, for they shall find help.
Blessed are the warlike, for they shall win wealth and renown.
Blessed are they who keep their faith, for they shall be honored.
Blessed are they who are open handed, for they shall have friends and fame.
Blessed are they who wreak vengeance, for they shall be offended no more, and they shall have honor and glory all the days of their life and eternal fame in ages to come.

Thus there was not much to which the missionaries could appeal. As we shall see, they could accept the values of courage, triuwe, and milte by giving them new significance.

The missionaries accepted the heathens' respect for courage; but, except in the case of holy wars, they usually stressed the virtue of passive or moral courage, such as that praised by the Stoics and shown by martyrs and ascetics. This new meaning gradually replaced the older meaning of fortitudo, which had formerly meant bravery combined with strength.1 The clergy traditionally looked upon themselves as soldiers of the cross.

1 In 1400 Henry Wittenwiler distinguished between the two kinds of courage as "Die sterkeu nimpt man zwifaltkleich: Die erste macht den leibe reich; Die schol man schätzen für kain tugend, Wan oft ein schalk hat die ver­mugend" (Ring, vv. 4744-47).

We have seen that triuwe was owed to the immediate kinship automatically and without oath or contract. The resulting bond, called a vridu, was ethically binding for all kinsmen or vriunde; and an offense against one's kinsman was judged a blow against the very pillars of society and brought lifelong reproach. Germanic indig­nation appears in the exceptionally strong language used in relating Cain's fratricide in the previously mentioned Old Saxon and Anglo-­Saxon versions of the Book of Genesis. The most insidious thing about slaying a kinsman was that it could not be properly avenged: revenge was a family affair which could not be properly invoked against a member of the family. After the Teutons had accepted Christianity, or God's law, a crime against a kinsman was an affront against God. One of the most serious sins mentioned in the Muspilli, which will be discussed later, was boundary disputes between kinsmen.

It is interesting to note that the word vriunde meant both friend and relative, thus showing that kith and kin or Bekanntschaft and Verwandschaft were once almost synonymous. In fact, the Heliand uses the words friund and mag (kinsman) as synonyms.2 It is also of interest that the words king, koning and König are related to the words kith and kin and thus show that the largest political unit was once the kinship.

2 Heliand, vv. 1493-1502.

The ancient Hebrews had also stressed the family as the foundation of right and justice and had required children to honor their parents. The New Testament, on the other hand, minimized this bond and tried to extend the in-group to include all the faithful. Jesus seldom mentioned ties of blood, except, for example, when he said that a man should not call his brother a fool and should become reconciled with his brother before making his offering.1 On the other hand, he told James and John to leave their father Zebedee in his boat and told another of his disciples to leave his father unburied and follow him.2 He also denied his family when he heard that Mary and his brothers were waiting outside. "Who is my mother?", he asked, "and who are my brothers?.. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, is my brother, and sister, and mother."3

Although most missionaries had abandoned kith and kin in the Lord's service, they nevertheless recognized the family as the basic social and moral unit, just as the heathens did. This fact is revealed in the prominence they placed upon Cain's fratricide in their treatment of the Old Testament story. Nevertheless, they were gradually able, at least in theory, to extend the loyalty owed to the kinship to include a larger segment of humanity: namely, that of all true believers. As vassals of a single celestial liege lord, Christians had to include all fellow believers in God's vridu. The Heliand states that we should hate no one, since all men are brothers joined in one kinship.'4

As subsequent history proved, the Church was never able to enforce this view in practice, even after it resigned itself to certain closed seasons, or trèves de Dieu, when it was unlawful to wage war against fellow Christians. None the less, the seeds of a Christian fellowship were sown and a crop eventually began to grow. During campaigns against the infidels this brotherhood was actually of some significance; yet it naturally bound only true believers, as long as heathens, heretics, and dissidents remained beyond the pale. Religious bigotry is beautifully expressed in the Chanson de Roland in the words, "Pagans are wrong, and Christians are right."5


1 "Ego autem dico vobis, quia omnis, qui irascitur fratri suo, reus erit iudicio; qui autem dixerit fratri suo: Raca, reus erit concilio; qui autem dixerit: Fatue, reus erit gehennae ignis. Si ergo offers munus tuum ad altare et ibi recordatus fueris quia frater tuus habet aliquid adversum te, relinque ibi munus tuum ante altare et vade prius reconciliari fratri tue et tunc veniens offeres munus tuum" (Matthew, 5, 22-24).

2 "Et procedens inde vidit alios duos fratres, Iacobum Zebedaei et Ioannem fratrem eius, in navi cum Zebedaeo patre eorum reficientes retia sua et vocavit eos" (Matthew, 4, 21). See Luke, 9, 59-60; 9, 61-62.

3 "Adhuc eo loquente ad turbas, ecce mater eius et fratres stabant foris quaerentes loqui ei. Dixit autem ei quidam: Ecce mater tua et fratres tui foris stant quaerentes te. At ipse respondens dicenti sibi ait: Quae est mater mea et qui glint fratres mei? Et extendens manum in discipulos suos, dixit: Ecce mater mea et fratres mei. Quicumque enim fecerit voluntatem Patris mei qui in caelis est, ipse meus frater et soror et mater est" (Matthew, 12,46-50).

4 "huuand sie alle gebrôðar sint, sâlig folc godes, sibbeon bitengea, man mid mâgskepi" (Heliand, vv. 1439-1441).

5 "Peien unt tort et chrestiens unt dreit" (Chanson de Roland, v. 1015).

In Crusade literature, no justice or mercy is owed to the unbeliever; and, as late as John Huss's betrayal, oaths did not have to be kept to heretics. Exceptions to this rule appeared in some thirteenth ­century court epics, which presented noble Saracens. However, these benighted heathens usually saw the error of their ways and accepted Christianity.

The gradual disintegration of the clan can also be seen in the new attitude toward oaths. In compurgations, or trials by oath, people had naturally sworn by their kinsmen, regardless of the merits of the case. The Christians, on the other hand, brought the novel idea that absolute truth was more important than friendship. St. Martin of Braga, a bishop of the Suebi in Spain, expressed the idea with the words, "Bear witness of truth, not of friendship."1 Nevertheless, men were still shamed if they did not stand up for their kinsmen. In the Chanson de Roland Pinabel volunteers to give oath and to fight for his kinsman Ganelon, who is clearly guilty of treason. When Thierry, the champion against him, tries to persuade him not to fight, Pinabel answers that he wishes to support his kinsman, for he would rather die than be reproached.2

The Heliand says you should not follow your kinsman when he beckons you into sin, even if he is closely related, but reject him and show him no love so that you can ascend to heaven alone.3 This is the exact opposite of the view expressed in the sagas. Here the honor of the vridu is being sacrificed for the salvation of the individual.

Whereas Germanic society demanded respect for birth and wealth, the Christians taught that God was no respecter of persons and that one should respect all men, not only the rich and strong. As it is commanded in Leviticus, "Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty." The Benedictine Rule, which was the guide for all monastic life, followed the First Epistle General of St. Peter in saying that you should honor all men, and the Heliand said you should honor poor men.4

1 "Testimonimum veritati, non amicitiae reddas" (Martin, Formula, 2,35).

2 "Ne placet Damnedeu! Sustenir voeill trestut mun parentet; N'en recrerrai pur nul hume mortel; Mielz voeill murir qu'il me seit reprovet" (Chanson de Roland, vv. 3906-3909).

3 Heliand, vv. 1492-1502.

4 "Non consideres personam pauperis nee honores vultum potentis" (Leviticus, 19, 15). "eeren alle man - honorare omnes homines" (Benediktinerregel, cited from Karg-Gasterstädt, p. 312). "Omnes honorate, fraternitatem diligite, Deum timete, regem honorificate" (I Peter, 2, 17). "Êrod gi arme man" (Heliand, v. 1540).

The General Epistle of St. James states, "For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, 'Have a seat here, please: while you say to the poor man, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?"1 As we shall see, this view ran counter to Germanic values, which ruled supreme until almost modern times. As long as it was the right of gay clothing to receive ere, it would have been disrespectful to refuse it its due.

Just as the missionaries tried to give a new meaning to triuwe, they also sought to give a new meaning to milte. Instead of an ostentatious dispensing of wealth in return for service and renown, it should be a sacrifice to God in return for his future rewards. Instead of giving to the strong and wealthy, who can repay in this world with service or goods, one should give to the poor and needy and receive far greater rewards in heaven. In other words, gift-giving was still strictly a matter of do ut des, the difference being only in the time, place, and value of the returns.

Whereas Jesus had said that one should give in secret, such a policy would have brought meager revenues from the new converts; and therefore the Church also appealed to those who gave "that they may have glory of men." St. Augustine had already prepared the way in his City of God by reconciling the statements, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them" with "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Naturally he stressed the fact that you should do your alms to win glory, not for yourself, but for God.2 Men were admired if they did good works in return for both salvation and worldly fame simultaneously, nor was it necessary to distinguish between the relative weight of the two incentives. The Venerable Bede claimed that Edwin of North­umbria's conversion to Christianity had given him the possibility of winning the kingdom of heaven and also of increasing his kingdom on earth.3 Even as late as the twelfth century a satire against the clergy could rebuke clergymen for not giving hospitality "for the sake of God or the sake of ere,"4 Both of these incentives were still approved at that late date, even for clergymen.

1. "Etenim, si introierit in conventum vestrum vir, aureum anulum habens, in veste candida, introierit autem et pauper in sordido habitu, et intendatis in eum qui indutus est veste praec1ara et dixeritis ei: Tu sede hic bene: pauperi autem dictatis: Tu sta illic aut sede sub scabello pedum meorum; nonne iudicatis apud vosmetipsos et facti estis iudices cogitationum iniquarum?" (James, 2, 2-4).

2. "Non ergo ut uideamini ab eis, id est hac intentione, ut eos ad uos conuerti uelitis, quia non per uos aliquid estis, sed ut glorificent patrem uestrum, qui in caelis est, ad quem conuersi fiant quod estis" (City at God, V, 14).

3. Bede, XII, p. 281.

4. "durch got noch durch ere" (Priesterleben, v. 88).

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page