The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



The term Germanic is ordinarily used to denote the racial stem of which the Scandinavians, the modern Germans, and the English, are ramifications. The name itself is probably of extraneous origin, given us by strangers.

We do not know what it means. Presumably, it was first intended to denote but a small fraction of these peoples, the fringe adjoining the Celts ; in course of time, however, it came to be accepted as a general designation for the whole. The Romans, having learned to distinguish between the inhabitants of Gallia and their eastern neighbours, called the latter Germani, thus rightly emphasising the close friendship which from the earliest times united the northern and southern inhabitants of the Baltic regions and the riparian and forest-dwelling peoples of North Germany, a kinship evident, not only in language, but fully as much in culture, even to its innermost corners.

The Teutons make their entry suddenly upon the stage of history. Their appearance falls at the time when Rome was working out the result of its long and active life; crystallising the striving and achievements of the classical world into the form in which the culture of antiquity was to be handed down to posterity. Into this light they come, and it must be admitted that its brilliance shows them poor and coarse by comparison.

There is little splendour to be found here, it would seem.

We see them first from without, with Roman eyes, looking in upon them as into a strange country. And the eye's first


impression is of a foaming flood of men, a wave of warriors, pouring in with the elemental fury of the sea over eastern Gaul, to break upon the front of Cæsar's legions, and be smoothed away in a mighty backwash of recoil. Thus, roughly, Cæsar's first encounter with these barbarians appears in the description of the great Roman himself.

And beyond this flood we look into a land, dark, barren and forbidding, bristling with unfriendly forests and spread with marshes. In it we are shown groups of men who, in the intervals of their wars and forays, lie idling on couches of skins or sit carousing noisily by daylight, and for sheer lack of occupation gamble away their few possessions; horses and women, even their very lives and freedom, down to the pelt upon their back.

And between the groups go tall, sturdy women with ungentle eyes and scornful mien. In among all this shouting and raving sounds here and there a voice of mystery; an old crone making prophecy to an awed stillness round; a vague suggestion that these riotous men at moments give themselves up in breathless silence to the worship of their gods. But what are they busied with in the gloom of their sacred groves? Some slaughtering of men, no doubt: horrible sacrifice and drinking, for shouting and screaming can be heard far off.

To the peoples of the South, these dwellers in the northern wastes were simply barbarians. The Romans and the Greeks regarded their existence as the mere negation of civilized life.

They lay stress upon the unpretentious character of Germanic life. The little needs of these poor people were easily satisfied.

A covering of skins for the body, perhaps a touch of paint about the face, some sort of weapon in the hand – and the external apparition is practically complete. They look magnificent, it must be granted, in their semi-nakedness; for what human art neglects is here provided for by nature, that has given them beautiful muscles. and splendid red or blond hair that would not shame the loveliest lady in Rome. The German is a piece of nature's work, and his place is in a natural environment, among the forests of the mountain slopes. There he lives, whether


in the excitement of the chase or in some fierce warlike raid.

At home, he spends his time in a somnolent state of idleness and intoxication; he lies amid the dirt and soot and smoke in a place that he may call his house, but which is really nothing better than a shed, a stable where man and beast are equally at home. The need of shaping his surroundings according to a personality of his own, that might well be called the instinct of nobility in civilization, is something he has clearly never felt.

He lives in the wilds, and a house, for him, is merely a shelter from the violence of wind and weather, a refuge easily built, and as easily dismantled for removal to another place.

Living thus in a state of nature, and existing on what nature provides, he has in himself the wildness of that nature. True, he was credited by the fastidious on-lookers of the South also with a certain greatness. He is capable of great devotion; he will risk his life for the sake of a chance guest whose only claim upon him is the fact that he came last evening to the dwelling of his host, and spent the night upon his couch. The women often exhibit an instinctive horror of anything that could in any way degrade them. But in reality, the barbarian knows absolutely nothing of such qualities as faithfulness and keeping to a given word. The power of distinction, which is the mark of true humanity, is something he entirely lacks. It never occurs to him that anything could be good by eternal law. He has no laws, and when he does what is good, his action is dictated solely by natural instinct.

These Germanic peoples live and move in hordes, or tribes, or whatever we may call them. They have some sort of kings, and something in the nature of a general assembly, which all men capable of bearing arms attend. But we should be chary of supposing anything properly answering to a state institution as understood among civilized people. The king has no real authority; the warriors obey him to-day, and turn their back on him defiantly to-morrow; one day, their kings may lead them forth on any reckless enterprise; the next, they may be scattering, despite his orders, and in defiance of all political prudence, to


their separate homes. And in their assembly, the method of procedure is simply that he who can use the most persuasive words wins over all the rest. The warriors clash their weapons, and the matter is decided. They are like children in regard to coaxing and gifts, but fickle and ungovernable in regard to anything like obligation, indisposed to recognize any definite rule and order.

Briefly, in the view of the Roman citizen, these Germanic tribes are a people of strongly marked light and shade in character – for such words as virtue and vice, good and evil cannot be used of them by anyone with a linguistic conscience. The Roman may speak of their natural pride, their stubborn defiance, proof even against the chains of their conqueror's triumph; but such words as majesty, nobility , he will unconsciously reserve for himself and his equals.

Here and there, among the highest types of classical culture, we may find a half æsthetic, half humane sympathy for these children of the wild ; but even this is in its origin identical with the layman's mingled fear and hatred, inasmuch as it regards its object as a piece of wild nature itself. In the midst of their civilization, men could feel a spasm of wistful admiration in the face of nature, for the primeval force of life, the power that rushes on without knowing whither. Man at the pinnacle of his splendour might ponder in melancholy wise upon the happy lot of nature's children playing in the mire far below – a state which he himself for better or worse, could never reach.

Tacitus, the romantic, voiced the praises of the simple life in the personal style of the decadent period, with original twists and turns of phrase, and a vocabulary of the very rarest words that he could find. He does not beautify his savage artificially; makes no attempt to show him as wiser or better clad than he is in fact. On the contrary, he is at pains to point out how few and simple are the needs of savage life. His enthusiasm is expressed in the most delicate phrases. Among the Germani, he declares, good customs are of more avail than are good laws elsewhere : ''interest and usury are unknown to them, and thus they eschew the vice more fervently than if it were forbidden.''


In their customs, these savages find a naïve and simple form of expression for dumb primitive feelings: “It is not the wife who brings a dowry here, but the husband who comes with gifts to his bride...; and these gifts do not consist in women's fripperies... , no; cattle, a saddled horse, a shield, a sword, these are the bridal gifts. And she in return brings weapons for her husband's use. This they consider the strongest of bonds, the sacredness of the home, the gods of wedded life. To the end that a woman shall not feel herself apart from manly thoughts and the changing circumstance of war, she is reminded, in the marriage ceremony itself, that she there enters upon a sharing of her husband's work and peril...” And as between friends: “They rejoice in one another's gifts, giving and receiving freely, without thought of gain; friendly goodwill it is that unites them.” In other words, no sickly cast of thought, but pure spontaneous feeling.

Tacitus is concerned to show particularly how all, “virtue” and “vice” is a natural growth among the people he describes.

He depicts them with so affectionate hand, and at the same time with unvarnished truth in detail, because he views his object as a piece of unspoiled nature. So thoroughly is he filled with the sense of contrast between himself and his barbarians, that he fails to mark how every fact he brings forward infallibly tears the frail theory in which he tries to inweave it.

The thing that fills civilized man with horror and loathing of the barbarian is the feeling of being here face to face with a creature incalculable, man devoid of law. Heedlessly, unthinkingly the savage keeps his oath ; and will as heedlessly break oaths and promises; he can be brave and generous in his unruly fashion, and in that same unruly fashion brutal, bestial. Any act of cruelty, any breach of faith, is far more repulsive when it stands without relation to anything else than when it appears as the infringement of an accepted moral law, a lapse from grace.

The barbarian has no character – that is the essence of the Roman verdict. When a civilized man does wrong, he does so at worst because it is wrong; and this the villain's consciousness


of being wicked marks him as a human being with whom one can associate. But to receive a barbarian among one's circle of acquaintance is equivalent to building one's house in the immediate vicinity of a volcano. What if the barbarians do build some sort of houses, and till the soil – heaven knows their agriculture is but primitive at the best, the way they scratch at the surface of the earth and raise a miserable crop, only to seek fresh fields the following year; – what if they do keep cattle, and make war, and dispense some kind of justice among themselves? Or grant them even some degree of skill in forging weapons – they are not a civilized people for all that.

It was about the beginning of our era that the Germanic people first appeared in history; a thousand years later, the world saw the last glimpse of them. For a short period the Northmen hold the scene of Europe, working out their racial character and ideals with feverish haste, before they are transformed and merged in the mass of European civilization. Their going marks the disappearance of the Germanic culture as an independent type.

The Northmen, too, have been portrayed by strangers, from without, and the picture has marked points of similarity to that left by their anterior kinsmen in the records of the Roman historians. Wild, bloodthirsty, little amenable to human reason or to human reasoning, gifted with splendid vices, and for the rest devils – thus runs the character given them by mediæval chroniclers. The civilized men who now judged them were Christians who saw the world, not as divided in degrees of culture, but as divided between the powers of light and darkness ; whence the incalculable must necessarily be ascribed to some origin in the infernal regions. The barbarians of classical times answer to the demons of mediæval Christianity.

This time, however, the picture does not stand alone, without a foil. Here in the North, a people of Germanic race have set up their own monument to later times, showing themselves as they wished to be seen in history, revealing themselves, not with any thought of being seen by strangers, but yet urged by an impulse toward self-revelation.

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