The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


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Instead of a laudable virtue, the desire for fame was a dangerous fault in the eyes of the monks, who called it gloriae cupiditas and considered it the root of much evil. St. John had long since asked, "How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?"1 While ac­knowledging that the Romans had suppressed covetousness and other vices through their love of praise, St. Augustine nevertheless considered love of praise to be a vice.2 Boethius had expressed the nothingness of fame in his Consolation of Philosophy by saying of other men's praises: "And if they are justly won by merits, what can they add to the pleasure of a wise man's conscience? For he measures his happiness not by popular talk, but by the truth of his conscience."3 St. Martin of Braga expressed this view by saying that, if you wish to practice temperance as a means to an honorable life, you should be contemptuous of vain glory.4 He also wrote a treatise on how to repel vainglory, or iactantia as he called it, since glory can be rightly shown to God alone.5 As we shall see, this idea appeared often in monastic writings. In view of the Germanic values that survive in the Waltharius, it comes as a surprise during the gruesome battle when Hagen suddenly begins to declaim against fame and wealth.6

Whereas most clergymen viewed the desire for honor as a worldly and distracting evil, some saw in it a tool for Christian purpose, just as triuwe and milte were. Like Aristotle before him, St. Paul had believed the desire for glory to be a virtue; for his Epistle to the Romans claims that God will render eternal life to "them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality."7

1 "Quomodo vos potestis credere, qui gloriam ab invicem accipitis et gloriam quae a solo Deo est, non queritis?" (John, 5, 44).

2 " Nam sanius uidet, qui et amorem laudis vitium esse cognoscit" (City of God V, 13).

3 "Quae si etiam meritis conquisita sit, quid tandem sapientis adiecerit conscientiae qui bonum suum non populari rumore, sed conscientiae veritate metitur?" (De Consolatione, III, Prose, VI).

4 "vanae gloriae contemptor" (Martin, Formula, 4, 66).

5 "Id autem est inane laudis studium, quod Graeci cenodoxiam, Latini vanam gloriam vel iactantiam vocant" (Martin, Pro Repellenda Iactantia, 1, 16). "Atque ita dum singuli se plus volunt videri quam glint, gloriam laudis quae soli Deo veraciter debetur hostiliter depraedantur" (op. cit., 2, 37-38). Cf. I Timothy, 1, 17.

6 "vili pro laude cupit descend ere ad umbras" (Waltharius, v. 871).

7 "iis quidem, qui secundum patientiam boni operis gloriam et honorem et incorruptionem quaerunt" (Romans, 2, 7).

The desire for a good reputation could be justified by Scripture; the Book of Proverbs says that "a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches"; Ecclesiastes says that "a good name is better than precious ointment", and Sirach says that you "should bring no stain upon your honor."1 Some medieval clerics followed writers like Cicero and Seneca in using the word honestum to mean that which should be honored, in other words, moral rectitude. This may be the way in which Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, understood the word when he said that the Saxons did not consider it inhonestum to besmirch or transgress divine or human laws.2 On the other hand, he may have meant that they did not think that it brought ill-repute to do so. The Stoic meaning seems more probable when Godfrey of Winchester said that Lady Edith, Edward the Confessor's widow, had as companions Cultus honestatis and sobrietas.3 The Moralium Dogma, a popular twelfth-century compilation of ancient wisdom, even follows the Stoics in believing honestum to be a virtue, in contrast to gloria, which is a good of fortune.4 As we shall see, the word êre served for centuries to come as the usual translation of gloria, but not for honestum.5

Perhaps the best presentation of the Stoic definition of honestum was in St. Martin 's Formula Vitae Honestae. This was probably copied directly from Seneca; its style is so like that of Seneca that it was usually attributed to him, for example by Chaucer in his Tale of Melibee.6 It is noteworthy that St. Martin 's work teaches a purely pagan-Stoic moral with no reference to Christian dogma. For him the way to achieve an honorable life is to practice the four cardinal virtues of prudence, magnanimity, continence, and justice, while observing moderation.7 Such values may have brought acclaim to a monk, but they would not have brought it to a layman. The Stoic ideal of moderation was foreign to the Teutons, whose early literature usually extolled extremes of deed and passion.

1 "Melius est nomen bonum quam divitiae multae" (Proverbs, 22, 1); "Melius est nomen bonum quam unguenta pretiosa" (Ecclesiastes, 7, 2); "ne dederis maculam in gloria tua" (Ecclesiasticus, 33, 22).

2 "neque divina neque humana iura vel polluere vel transgredi inhonestum arbitrantur" (Vita Caroli Magni, VII, cited from Mittellateinisches Lesebuch, ed. P. Alpers, Gotha, 1929, p. 1).

3 Cited from British Latin Selections, ed. R. A. Browne, Oxford, 1954, p. 40.

4 "Virtus et honestum nomina diuersa sunt, res autem subiecta prorsus eadem" (Moralium Dogma, p. 7, line 12). Cf. "de honesto, id est de virtute cardinali" (p. 79, line 23).

5 See Maurer, "Das ritterliche Tugendsystem" and "Zum ritterlichen Tugend­system" .

6 Chaucer, ed. Robinson, The Tale of Melibee, v. 1067.

7 Martin, p. 204. If by continentia St. Martin implied sexual continence, this was a Christian substitute for the Stoic ideal of temperantia.

Even though some scholars followed the Stoics in using the word honestum in an ethical sense, there is no positive evidence that most medieval laymen or even clergymen clearly understood by the word anything more than that which would bring respect or admiration. The word was most frequently used in its original meaning of respect, or else a token of respect, such as a salutation or benefice or political office. Even those who copied the word in Stoic writings may have understood it merely as the kind of behavior that earns admiration or respect. In Scripture, in which they most often con­fronted it, the word honestus has only objective meaning; and on one occasion the word honestas means riches.1 Whereas Cicero took the liberty of using the word honestum to mean the morally good, equi­valent to Greek tò kalón, he too realized that it really meant that which is popularly esteemed.2

The difficulty of interpreting honestus is well illustrated in the previously mentioned passage from Saxo Grammaticus, in which Ket and Wig avenge their father by killing the Swedish king Athisl.3

1 "Bona et mala, vita et mors, paupertas et honestas" (Ecclesiasticus, 11, 14)

2 "Ut enim consuetudo loquitur, id solum dicitur honestum quod est popular fama gloriosum" (De Finibus, II, xv, 48).

3 Gesta Danorum, pp. 110-113.

By a ruse they succeed in accosting Athisl while he is walking alone fully armed. When the youths announce their purpose and Ket challenges the king, the latter warns them against their greed for fame (laudis cupido) and advises them to accept an in­demnity and to consider it a great honor (ingens gloria) to have forced it from so great a king. Ket refuses compensation and insists upon fighting alone, lest it appear that an inglorious battle was fought unequally (ne manu impari pugna conseri videretur infamis), for the ancients considered it unequal or unfair (iniquum) and without honor (probrosum) for two to fight against one. A victory in such a battle was not considered laudable (laudibilior) because more infamy (dedecus) than glory (gloria) seemed attached to it. In fact, for two to beat one was no great accomplishment, but the greatest shame (maximus rubor).

When Athisl, noting their youth, offers to fight both brothers at the same time, Ket fears that this would win him reproach (vicium). After fighting gently for some time, the king loses patience, fights in earnest, and forces Ket to his knees. Thereupon Wig, ignoring public usage (publica consuetudo) lets his shame give way to brotherly love (pietas) and aids his brother; and thus they kill the king. By this act Wig wins more opprobrium than praise (laus), because he has broken the established laws of dueling; and his assistance seems more useful (utilius) than honorable (honestius). On the one hand, he favors shame (indecus) and, on the other hand, brotherly love (pietas); and they both know that Athisl's death has been more swift (prompcius) than glorious (speciosius).

When they return home, they receive high honors (primi honores) from their king, who thinks that they have performed a most useful (utilissimus) task and prefers to see the glory (gloria) in the death of a rival than the ill-repute (fama) of the inglorious deed (admissum obprobrium). However, the Danes' bad reputation lasted for years until finally a king's son named Uffe killed two Saxons in a duel. He chose to fight against two simultaneously so that a fresh example of courage might end the Danes' disgrace (opprobrium); for fresh fame (recens fama litura) would wipe out the accusation (crimen) of ancient infamy (infamia).

The difficulty of this passage clearly lies in the present ambiguity of the Latin words, for many of its key terms can be interpreted either amorally or morally. Among these are infamis, bringing ill-­repute - infamous; iniquus, unequal- unfair; probrosus, bringing ill repute - vicious; dedecus, disgrace - shameful deed; vitium, reproach - vice; honestus, bringing acclaim - honorable; and crimen, accusation - crime. If we read the story with only the amoral meanings of these terms, the action is logically motivated and accords with what other Germanic sagas say about honor and revenge. On the other hand, it could be argued that Saxo tried to write modern motivation into the old story. Writing as he did at the turn of the thirteenth century, he could well have been influenced by the School of Chartres ; a center of learning which will be discussed. In view of his extensive knowledge of the classics, it is likely that he himself studied in France ; yet, except for numerous pious and rhetorical outbursts against sloth, gluttony, and lechery, he generally retains the old Germanic value system intact and praises revenge as a means to worldly approval. The older values are especially well expressed in the eloquent song by Starkad, an old time hero.1 Our passage obviously concerns reputation rather than moral rectitude, since Uffe can remove all reproach.

This contrast of honestum and utile, which was derived from Cicero's De Officiis, was popular throughout the Middle Ages; yet there is no proof that people understood precisely what Cicero had meant. Most writers seem to have believed an action profitable only if it brought public approval as well as immediate material advantages. This interpretation is suggested by the way that a Swiss poet named Henry Wittenwiler expressed the commonplace at the beginning of the fifteenth century. When one of the peasants in his Ring suggests a certain strategy for defeating a hostile village, another spokesman reminds his colleagues that nothing is useful unless it has the appear­ance of honor.2 Wittenwiler is here following a passage from the Moralium Dogma, which borrowed it from the De Officiis. It is most significant that, for the purpose of the rime, he can render honestum as "the appearance of honor" (der eren schein).

1 Op. cit., pp. 204-212.

2 "Was nicht enhat der eren schein, Daz mag auch nimer nütz gesein" (Ring, vv. 6800-6802). Cf. "Itaque Athenienses, quod honestum non esset, id ne utile quidem putaverunt" (De Officiis, III, 11). By the time of Aristides the Just, the Greeks had progressed from a shame culture to a guilt culture, yet this topos could still be interpreted on either level. When MHG authors distinguish between frum und êre or nutz und êre, they are not distinguishing between the expedient and the moral, but rather between two worldly values. This is illustrated in the thirteenth-century tale Meier Helbrecht: "swer volget guoter lêre, der gewinnet frum und êre; swelch kint sînes vater rât ze allen zîten übergât, daz stât ze jüngest an der scham und an clem schaden recht alsam" (Helmbrecht, vv. 331-336).

In monastic society all offenses against God naturally brought disgrace upon their perpetrators. Therefore disgrace (schande) could easily be equated with sin (sünde). In fact the two words, which were etymologically related, were often associated in later clerical writings. At first this made little sense to laymen in view of the fact that God approved of numerous causes of schande, such as poverty, humility, and failure to take revenge. In Barlaam and Josaphat, a somewhat later religious epic, a king loses his êre by showing respect to two beggars;l and thus we see that humility was a Christian virtue but a secular vice. Although the missionaries disapproved of the Teutons' belligerence, they agreed with them that activity was better than idleness, activity being understood in terms of prayer, church service, and study for the greater glory of God. Realizing that idleness is an invitation to the devil, they joined native tra­dition in deprecating sloth, which, as desidia, became one of the deadly sins. Like many others, St. Martin thought it imprudent to indulge in leisure.2

Because their value system opposed that of the heathens, the Christian missionaries often had to compromise. St. Gregory the Great had advised them to adopt as many heathen customs as possible, and consequently they adapted many items of Yuletide and spring fertility rites to Christian use. Far more important, from a cultural, standpoint, were the many heathen values absorbed at the same time. This accommodation was not always intentional, for many of the missionaries were of Germanic descent and came from areas only recently converted and were still imbued with older heathen values. St. Boniface, the "Apostle to the Germans", came from a part of England that had been converted scarcely a half century before his birth. It should be remembered that even the Gallo­Romans, by whom most of the Germans were converted, had only a hazy notion of Christian ethics. Many of their bishops, who were almost invariably of the higher nobility, had little understanding of Christian love or fellowship.3

1. His vassals say, "ez missezimt, daz unser herre alsus benimt der krône sô grôz ere: daz swachet in vil sêre!" (Barlaam, 44, 19-20). The king may have been mindful of St. Paul 's advice to the Philippians (2, 3), "In humilitate superiores sibi invicem arbitrantes".

2. " Nam prudens numquam otio marcet" (Martin, Formula, 2, 43).

3. According to Nora Chadwick (p. 275), the Gallo-Roman Churchmen of the fifth century still belonged at heart to the classical world. "Christianity was a new and important spiritual concern; but one feels that for these men it was almost more a profession than a vocation, certainly not an all-pervading spiritual revolution. There is no sign of spiritual clash or conflict, or read­justment. The new religion was blended and harmonized with the standards already set by a classical training, and a balance was maintained." C. E. Stevens (p. 133) says of the most prominent prelate of that century: "When we find Sidonius supporting such a savagely retributive theory of punishment as leads him to say that the death of a murderer at least affords the satis­faction of revenge to the survivors of the murdered, one begins to wonder whether he understood the lessons of the New Testament at all; such lan­guage becomes an old Roman rather than a Christian bishop."

In the Mediterranean world Christianity first reached the lowly and downtrodden, who found solace in its egalitarian teaching. Thus the early Church Fathers could stress the ethics of humility (or Sklavenmoral, to use Nietzsche's term). Because of the feudal society of Northern Europe, the missionaries there first had to win the allegiance of the rulers, who set the policies for their people. Conse­quently, the missionaries could not come as apostles of an egalitarian religion, which would have had little appeal to those in power. Instead they had to appeal to the tastes of the ruling class and to omit what would offend them, at least until they had established themselves and won ascendancy. As a result of their accommodation, they produced a hybrid ethos that tried to reconcile two dia­metrically opposed value codes, a code based on honor and shame before men, and a code based on humility before God.

Because the Teutons admired power and success, the missionaries tried to impress them with the power of their God, whom they explained as a mighty and generous liege lord, a rich rewarder of those in his service. The Teutons believed in a magic quality found in certain trees, springs, and other objects of nature that brought health, wealth, or fertility. This quality, which was of divine origin, was also found in people, especially in certain successful dynasties, whose reigning members could heal by their touch or by their mere presence. This belief lasted until modern times in the "king's touch", the royal ability to cure scrofula. Because this power could heal people and animals or make them hale or whole and thus bring health, Heil, or prosperity, people or objects imbued with it were holy or heilig, that is to say, health- or prosperity-bringing. In order to make the Christian God palatable to the practical and this­-worldly Teutons, the missionaries had to convince them that he was useful, prosperity-bringing, or holy; and thus "holy" became their way of translating sanctus. Consequently, the Spiritus Sanctus became the Holy Ghost or "prosperity-bringing spirit." The Germans on the Continent had at first translated Spiritus Sanctus as "Holy Breath" (uuiho atum) but later switched to heiliger Geist, probably under the influence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

Because of the higher civilization of the Christian missionaries, the heathens were ready to believe that the Christians' one God must be superior to their own many gods. Besides that, he could give everlasting life, a goal which their own gods could not achieve even for themselves, being doomed, as they were, to perish in the Gotterdammerung. It is a moot question whether or not the Teutons could immediately grasp the meaning of everlasting life. A mission­ary who tried to translate the Bible into an African dialect once found that he could come no closer than "long health".

A series of political events helped prove the superiority of the Christian god; for instance, the conversion of the Franks was followed by great military and political success. The Venerable Bede tells how a pagan high priest in Northumbria advised his king to accept Christianity, when he saw how much better the Christians were favored at court than he; for, if the old gods had stood by their champion so poorly, they could not be considered very dependable.1 In his life of St. Boniface, Willibald tells how, after the pagans killed the saint, the Christians attacked them and despoiled them of their wives and children and servants, with the result that the pagans were convinced of God's strength and embraced Christianity.2 Some Germanic tribes accepted Christianity upon seeing the successes of their converted neighbors, others accepted it upon being defeated in battle and forced to give allegiance to a Christian ruler and thereby indirectly to his heavenly liege lord too. According to the feudal system, a vassal continued his allegiance to his lord even if his lord changed allegiance from one ruler to another. Thus, when a chieftain acknowledged fealty to the God of the Christians, all his retainers were ipso facto Christians, whether or not they had been personally convinced or even informed of the merits of the new order. It is not hard to believe Jan de Vries when he says. "During the first centuries after the conversions, customs were not essentially changed, and the new Christian faith had scarcely exerted any influence on the Germanic soul".3

1 Bede, pp. 102-103. Cf. "Et cum ipsi, id est christiani, fertiles terras vinique et olei feraces ceterisque opidus abundantes possident provincias, ipsis autem, id est paganis, frigore semper rigentes terras cum eorum diis relinquerunt", Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullius, ed. M. Tangl, 1916, p. 40.

2 Talbot, p. 58.

3 "... die Sitten haben sich in den ersten Jahrhunderten nach der Bekehrung nicht wesentlich geändert, und der neue christliche Glaube hatte auf die germanische Seele noch kaum Einfluss ausgeübt" (Vries, p. 5).

Because of the limited experiences of the Teutons, the missionaries could explain the relation between God and man only through recourse to feudal terminology. God was the powerful and generous troop leader (druhtin) who granted his favor (huld) to his faithful followers on earth. The new convert acknowledged his homage (triuwe) by the act of baptism and was thereafter God's man. The thought of a feudal pact or triuwe appears already in the works of St. Martin of Braga. About the year 572, St. Martin, who came from Pannonia and may have been of Germanic origin, referred to con­version as a pactum with God, pactum being a word often used for the act of homage.1 The idea of homage is also implied in various baptismal oaths written in the vernacular for new converts, in which the converts had to forswear all service to other gods or demons (unholden), as they were called.2 This concept of God was actually very close to that of the Old Testament, in which Jehovah was a lord of hosts who had made a covenant with his chosen people.

Clovis himself had struck a profitable bargain with God in promis­ing service in return for victory; and he and his descendants remained God's chosen vassals forever after the resulting victory over the Alemanni. Clovis felt this allegiance strongly. Seeing the rich fields of Aquitaine in the possession of the Goths, he was grieved that they belonged to Arian heretics who did not serve the true God of Rome. As God's faithful vassal, he waged a holy war and annexed the province to his own lands, which he held in fief from heaven.

We should not look upon such motivation as hypocritical. Clovis was acting as honestly as was possible with the beliefs and values available to him (or perhaps we should say "correctly", since "honest" is still a controversial word). Centuries after his death the Church still extolled his war as godly and righteous, and nearly four centuries later a poet explained the victory of another Frankish king of the same name in similar terms: God first sends the North­men against the Franks to punish them for their sins. Then, after the Franks have suffered sufficiently, he calls upon young King Louis to come to his assistance and expel the invaders. God is still pictured as the warlike Jehovah of the Old Testament, who talks directly with his earthly champion. With God's help, Louis saves his people.3 Five centuries later God again led the Franks, or at least their French namesakes, to victory, this time with the assistance of a mere peasant maid.

1. "considerate quale in ipso baptismo pactum cum deo fecistis" (Martin, De Correctione, 15, 2-3).

2. "Farsakis thu unholden? Forsaku. Forsakis thu unholdon uuerkon endi uuillion? Forsaku..." (Braune, XLVI, vv, 1-4).

3. Braune, XXXVI.

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