The Culture of the Teutons
In externals, the Northmen seem to have something of the same elemental, unreflecting violence, the same uneasy restlessness that led the cultured world to stamp their southern kinsmen as barbarians. Reckless and impulsive, not to say obstinate, in their self-assertion, acting on the spur of the moment, shifting from one plan to another the cool political mind might find considerable resemblance between the German brigands and the pirates of the North. But our more intimate knowledge enables us to discern the presence of a controlling and uniting will beneath the restless exterior. What at the first glance appears but aimless flickering shows, on closer inspection, as a steadier light. In reality, these vikings have but little of that aimlessness which can be characterised as natural. There is more of calculating economy in them than of mere spendthrift force. The men are clear in their minds both as to end and means, will and power. While they may seem to be drifting toward no definite goal, they have yet within themselves an aim undeviating as the compass, unaltering however they may turn.
The old idea of the vikings as sweeping like a storm across the lands they touched, destroying the wealth they found, and leaving themselves as poor as ever, has, in our time, had to give way to a breathless wonder at their craving for enrichment.
The gold they found has disappeared. But we have learned now, that there was gathered
together in the North a treasury of knowledge and thought, poetry and dreams,
that must have been brought home from abroad, despite the fact that such spiritual
values are far more difficult to find and steal and carry safely home than precious
stones or precious metals. The Northmen seem to have been insatiable in the matter
of such spiritual treasures. They have even, in the present day, been accused
of having annexed the entire sum of pagan and Christian knowledge possessed by
the Middle Ages; and looking at the Norse literature of the viking age, we find
some difficulty in refuting this charge, though it may seem too sweeping as it
is urged by Bugge and his disciples. Others, again, ask scornfully, if we are
really expected to believe that our Northmen sat over their lessons
like schoolboys in the Irish monasteries, studying classical authors and mediæval encyclopedias. This would no doubt be the most natural explanation for modern minds who suck all their nourishment from book and lectures ; but we must probably assume that they gained their learning in some less formal fashion. On the other hand, if they had not the advantage of a systematic education, it is the more incomprehensible that they should in such a degree have gained access to the art and science of the age. They had not only a passionate craving to convert the elements of foreign culture to their own enrichment, but they had also a mysterious power of stirring up culture and forcing it to yield what lay beneath its surface.
Even this thirst for knowledge, however, is not the most surprising thing about them. That they did learn and copy to a great extent is plain to see; but even now we may speculate without result, or hope of any result, upon what it was they learned and how much they may have added thereto of their own. There exists no magic formula whereby the culture of viking times, as a whole, can be resolved into its original component parts. So thoroughly have they re-fashioned what they took, until its thought and spirit are their own.
The two sides must throughout be seen together. The Northman has not only a powerful tendency to extend and enrich his mental sphere, but this craving for expansion is counterpoised by a spiritual self-assertion no less marked, that holds him stubbornly faithful to the half-unconscious ideal that constitutes his character.
He does not face
the world with open arms; far from it, he is all suspicion and reserve toward
strange gods and ways and values, that he feels incongruous with his own self-estimation.
All that is alien he holds aloof, until he has probed its secret, or wrung from
it a secret satisfying to himself. All that cannot be so dealt with he shuts out
and away from him; is hardly aware of it, in fact. But wherever he can, by adapting
himself at first to an alien atmosphere, extract its essence for his own particular
use, there he will draw in greedily all he can, and let it work in him.
He has that firmness that depends upon a structure in the soul, and that elasticity which , comes from the structure's perfect harmony with its surroundings, enabling him spiritually to conform to the need of his environment. He is master of the world about him, by virtue of a self-control more deeply rooted even than the will, identical with the soul-structure itself.
In the innermost of his being there is a central will, passing judgement upon all that penetrates from without; a purpose that seizes upon every new acquisition, seals and enslaves it to one particular service, forcing it to work in the spirit of its new master, and stamping it with his image; where this cannot be done, the alien matter is rejected and ignored. All that it takes to itself is transmuted into power, all power subjected to discipline, and flung out then as a collective force. Thus violence, here, is not a mere extravagance of power. The central will gives to each action such an impetus that it overshoots the mark in every case, setting a new one beyond. Thus man's whole life is lived at such a pressure of power that he himself is ever being urged on toward ever farther goals. But the scale and measure of his doing is a thing outside himself. The ultimate standards whereby his life is judged are the verdict of his fellows and the verdict of posterity; standards unqualified and absolute.
The violence is organised from the depths
of the soul. It is energy, that keeps the spiritual life awake and athirst, and
thus creates the single-minded, firm-set personality of the Northman. These men
are not each but an inspired moment, fading vaguely away into past an future;
they are present, future and past in one. A man fixes himself in the past, by
firm attachment to past generations. Such an attachment is found more or less
among all peoples; but the Northman makes the past a living and guiding force
by constant historic remembrance and historic speculation in which he traces out
his connection with former generations and his dependence on their deeds. His
future is linked up with the present by aim and honour and the judgement of posterity.
And he fixes himself in the present by reproducing himself in an ideal type, such
a type for instance as that of the chieftain, generous, brave, fearless,
quick-witted, stern towards his enemies. faithful to his friends, and frank with all. The type is built up out of life and poetry together; first lived, and then transfused into poetry.
This firmness of spiritual organization which characterises the Northman as a personality is no less evident in his social life. Wherever he goes, he carries within himself a social structure which manifests itself in definite political forms as soon as he is thrown together with a crowd of others speaking the same tongue. He is not of that inarticulate type which forms kaleidoscopic tribal communities. However small his people may be, and however slight the degree of cohesion between its component molecules, the social consciousness is always present and active. He is a people in himself, and has no need of building up an artificial whole by the massing of numbers together. As soon as he has settled in a place, for a little while or for a length of time, a law-thing shoots up out of the ground, and about it grows a community. Whether his sense of social order finds scope to form a kingdom, or is constrained within narrower bounds, it is a tendency deep-rooted, part and parcel of his character itself.
Culture, in the truest sense of the word, means an elastic harmony between man's inner self and his surroundings, so that he is able not only to make his environment serve his material ends, but also to transfigure the impulses of the surrounding world into spiritual ideals and aspirations. The cultured man possesses an instinctive dignity, which springs from fearlessness and self-reliance, and manifests itself in sureness of aims and means alike in matters of formal behaviour and in undertakings of far-reaching consequence. In this sense these vikings are men of character; they posses themselves and their world in lordly right of determination. Their harmony may be poor in the measure of its actual content, but it is none the less powerful and deep.
What a difference between these two pictures; the portrait
southern pens have drawn of their Germanic contemporaries, and that which the
last of the Germanic race have themselves imprinted into history. Yet for all
that, we group them together
under one name, and we do so, moreover, advisedly, fully conscious of what it implies. It was early realised that the two are so closely related as not merely to justify, but to necessitate our treating them together. Such indications as we have of the primeval Germanic customs, laws and ethical values, prove that those earliest forbears of the race were one with their younger kinsmen in mode of thought, and in that which unites thoughts and feelings and makes them the bearers of personality.
In this light from the North we can see, then, that the Suevi and the Marcomanni and whatever they were called, were not mere creatures of the moment, devoid of character, as the Romans fondly imagined. With the aid of the Northmen we can interpret all, or nearly all the scattered notes that have been handed down, and find something human in what our authorities found meaningless. We can dimly perceive, for instance, that the alternating fealty and infidelity of the Germanic tribes, which so often led the Romans to harsh measures, had in reality its foundation in an ethical system. And we can plainly see that behind their actions, with such vices and such virtues, stood a character widely different from the Roman, but neither more natural nor unnatural, in principle just as consistent, just as rational, and no less bound by the consideration of preserving a certain unity in the personality. And a political genius like Cæsar recognised that if his plans concerning these barbarians were to be of any firmness in themselves, it was not enough that he thought them out in Latin. His eagerness to penetrate beneath the thought of these Germani, down to the habit of mind which determined their form of utterance, is in itself a testimony to the fact that these barbarians bore the stamp of culture and the mark of character.
We are better off than the Romans in that we have been guided to a view of the Germanic life from within. The Romans had excellent opportunities of observation, and were often keen observers; the great majority of what the Romans and the Greeks wrote about the Germanic people is right in its way.
But every single remark, great or small, reveals its derivation from
a sweeping glance across the frontier. We can always
notice that the narrator himself stood far outside; he has seen what these people did, but he has not understood why they did so. Their actions show, in his account, without perspective and without proportion; and the more precise his details are, the stranger seems the whole. Such descriptions leave with us, at best, the same grotesque impression one would have on watching from a distance men talking and gesticulating, but without any idea of what affected them.
There is a great difference between making the acquaintance of a people, as the Romans did, outside, following it home to stand without and gain perhaps a glance at its daily life, and on the other hand, being received into the midst of that people, seeing its men at home preparing for a campaign, and being there again to meet them on their return.
We are more fortunately situated than the southern writers in this respect, but are we so very much wiser? There may perhaps be some danger of arriving too easily at our understanding. The inability of the Romans to recognise the actions of the Germani as human may warn us against letting our own interpretation pass over what was really strange in our forefathers, erroneously attributing to them motives of our own.
The Northmen are a cultured people in the full sense of the word. We must recognise them as our equals. They lived as energetically as we do, found no less satisfaction in life, and felt themselves fully as much masters of life, masters who determined its aim and inflexibly had their way. But the recognition of this fact in itself emphasises the distance between us, because it brings out more pointedly the difference between ancient and modern modes of conquering and enjoying life.
The difference is evident the moment we compare the Teutons with the other North-European race of ancient times, the Celtic.
For all our Germanic descent, we are more nearly related to the Celts. They are a more modern type of people, we might say.
It needs not long acquaintance with them before one comes to intimacy. Here comes a man in whose face the whole world, of nature and of man, is reflected. The beauty of nature, the beauty of mankind, man's heroism, woman's love these