The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


solidarity in frith is their strong attachment to the past, and the cultural worth of this partisan spirit is revealed by the fact that it lies behind the reform movements of the Middle Ages as their driving force. As the brethren here in the guilds, so kinsmen also were filled to such a degree with "love", so eager to help, that they could not well find any energy left for judging of right and wrong. They were not by nature and principle unjust, partisan; faith and the sense of justice can well thrive together; but they belong, to use a phrase already used before, to different strata of the soul and thus miss contact with each other.

The uncompromising character of frith is strikingly illustrated by the last appearance of grand old Egil at the moot-place. It happened one day, when Egil was grown old and somewhat set aside, that a quarrel arose between his son Thorstein and Onund Sjoni's son Steinar, about a piece of land. Steinar defiantly sent his herd to graze there; Thorstein faithfully cut down his herdsmen. Steinar summoned Thorstein, and now the parties were at the law-thing. Then the assembly perceives a party riding up, led by a man in full amour; it is old Egil with a following of eighty men. He dismounts calmly by the booths, makes the needful arrangements, then goes up to the mound where the court is held and calls to his old friend Onund: "Is it your doing that my son is summoned for breaking the peace" "No indeed,'' says Onund, "it was not by my will, I am more careful of our ancient friendship than to do so; it was well you came..." "Well, let us see now if you mean anything by what you say; let us two rather take the matter in hand than that those two fighting cocks should suffer themselves to be egged on against each other by their own youth and the counsels of other." And when then the matter is submitted to Egil's arbitration, he calmly decides that Steinar shall receive no indemnity for the slaves killed; his homestead is confiscated, and he himself shall leave the district before flitting day.

There is a touch of nobility about Egil's last public appearance, the nobility of a greatly simple character. He accepts the office of arbitrator, and decides the case – as we can see, against all reasonable, likely, justified expectation – as if only his own


side existed, and does so with a cool superiority, which leaves no sort of doubt that he acts with the full approval of his conscience. Here again Egil stands as a monumental expression of a dying age.

The same naïveté is seen directly in another oldfashioned character, Hallfred, called the Wayward Scald. On one occasion, when his father with rare impartiality has judged against him, he says: "Whom can I trust, when my father fails me?"

The straightforward simplicity, taking one view as a matter of course, places Hallfred, as it does Egil, outside all comparison with great or small examples of selfishness or injustice, and makes them types; more than types of their age, they are types of a form of culture itself. So thought, so acted – not the exceptions, the marked individualities, not the men who were somewhat apart from the common – but men generally. The idea of frith is set so deeply beneath all personal marks of character and all individual inclination, that it affects them only from below, not as one inclination or one feeling may affect another. The characters may be widely different, but the breach in character does not reach down to this prime centre of the soul. Egil was a stiff-necked man, hard to deal with at home and abroad, he would be master in his house, and a treaty of peace in which he did not himself dictate the terms he would not be disposed to recognise. Another man might be more easy-going, peaceable, ready to find a settlement, quick to avoid collision, and eager to remove causes of conflict, – but he could never be so save on the basis of frith and kinship.

Askel, the right-minded, peace-making chieftain of the Reykdale, is perhaps rather too modern a character to go well in company with Egil; but his story, as we find it in the saga of the Reykdale men, gives us at any rate a graphic picture of the principles of reconciliation. Askel is so unfortunate as to have a sister's son whose character is such that strife seems a necessity to him, and Askel's task in life is to follow on the heels of this Vemund and put matters right again after him. He carries out his task faithfully, is ever on the spot as soon as Vemund has had one of his great days, to effect a reconciliation,


and make good the damage done by his kinsman. Vemund's achievements in the greater style begin with his joining company with a wealthy but bad man, Hanef of Othveginstunga, whom he knits closer to himself by accepting an offer of fostering a child. Hanef naturally makes use of these good connections to carry on his rascally tricks to a greater extent than before. He steals cattle. In spite of earnest representations from Askel, Vemund takes up his friend's cause, and even craftily exploits his uncle's respected name to gather men on his side. The result is a battle in which Hanef and two good men fall on the one side, and on the other, a free man and a slave. Askel comes up and makes peace between the parties, judging Hanef and the slave as equal, likewise man for man of the others slain, leaving the opponents to pay a fine for the remaining one. Thus judges the most impartial man in Iceland, when it is a question of making good what his kinsman has done ill. Vemund's next achievement of note is cheating a Norwegian skipper to sell him a shipload of wood already sold to Steingrim of Eyja fiord. Steingrim retaliates by having Vemund's slaves killed, and his part of the wood brought home to himself. Askel has to go out and settle matters again, and when Vemund finds that this intervention has not procured him reparation for the slaves, Askel offers him full payment for them out of his own purse. This Vemund refuses to accept, tacitly reserving to himself the right to settle accounts in his own fashion when opportunity offers. He tries in vain to make things balance by stealing a couple of oxen Steingrim has bought – his disinterestedness in the affair is shown by his offering them to Askel as a gift – but he gets no real result out of this either, only a couple of killings and a settlement, the last, of course, being Askel's work. The only objection Vemund has to this settlement is, that Askel has once more left the killing of the slaves in the earlier affair out of consideration. He now tries another way, hiring a wretch to insult Steingrim in a peculiarly obnoxious fashion, and this time Askel's attempt at peacemaking fails owing to the bitter resentment of the other party; not until an attempt at vengeance has led to the killing of Vemund's brother, Herjolf does


the right-minded chieftain succeed in effecting a settlement whereby – Herjolf is to be paid for, two of Steingrim's companions are to be exiled for ever, and two others for two years. Thus the game goes on, with acts of aggression on Vemund's part, – always as mischievous as ever – and intervention on the part of Askel – always in full agreement with the principles of frith, until at last the measure is full; and when Steingrim with his following place themselves in the way of Askel and Vemund and their men, Askel accepts the combat, without enthusiasm, but also without demur. And that was the end of Askel and Steingrim.

Smartness and diplomacy were not forbidden qualities according to the old usage. Any man was free to edge and elbow his way through the world, even in matters directly concerning his relationship to brothers and kin. He could take little liberties with the frith as long as he was careful not to effect any actual breach, however slight. But he must always be prepared to find it rising inflexibly before him. It was quite permissible to let one's kinsmen know that one personally preferred another way of life than that they had chosen to follow, and that one would be happier to see them adopt one's own principles – this at least could be done in Iceland at the period of the sagas, and I do not think this freedom was then of recent date – but frith stood firm as ever. As for disowning the action of one's kinsmen and taking up a personal, neutral standpoint, such a thing was out of the question.

A man is brought home, lifeless. The question of what he has done, of his antecedents generally, fades away into the dimmest background. There is the fact: he is our kinsman. The investigation has for its object: slain by the hand of man, or not? wounds? and of what sort? Who was the slayer? And thereupon the kinsmen choose their leader, or gather round the born avenger and promise him all assistance in prosecuting the case, whether by force of arms or at law. The kinsmen of the slayer, on their part, are well aware of what is now to be done; they know that vengeance is on their heels. So simple and straightforward is the idea of frith. It reckons with facts alone, taking


no count of personal considerations and causes which led to this violent conclusion.

Throughout the whole of the old Nordic literature, with its countless killings, justified or not, there is not a single instance of men willingly refraining from attempts at vengeance on account of the character of their kinsman deceased. They may be forced to let him lie as he lies, they may realise the hopelessness of any endeavour to obtain reparation; but in every case, we can apply the utterance occasionally found : "I would spare nothing could I be sure that vengeance was to be gained." It is certainly saying a great deal to assert that there is not a single instance; there might be, and probably were, cases of homicide, the further course of which we do not know. The positive testimony lies in the fact that the saga writer rarely fails to emphasise the bitterness of despair which fell to the lot of men forced to relinquish their revenge. And the bitterness of this enforced self-denial is also apparent in the prohibitions which had occasionally to be issued in the southern as well as in the northern parts of Teutonic territory, against taking vengeance for an offender lawfully judged and lawfully hanged.

On the other hand, the slayer comes home and states, simply and briefly, that so-and-so has been killed "and his kinsmen will hardly judge me free of all blame in the matter." The immediate effect of these words is that his kinsmen prepare for defence, to safeguard themselves and their man. It in the course of their preparations, they let fall a word or so anent the undesirability of acting as he has just done, it is merely an aside, an utterance apart from the action, and without any tendency to affect it; it serves only to enhance the effect of determination.

An Icelander greets his kinsman in the doorway with the earnest wish that he would either turn over a new leaf and live decently, or else find some other place to stay – which said, the two go indoors and discuss what measures are now to be taken in regard to the visitor's latest killing. Or the offender may answer, as Thorvald Krok – who was guilty of simple murder – answers the reproach of his kinsman Thorarin: "It is little use to bewail what is now done; you will only bring further


trouble on yourself if you refuse to help us; if you take up the matter, it will not be hard to find others who will aid." And Thorarin replies: "It is my counsel that you move hither with all of yours; and that we gather others to us...."

A crude, but not altogether unique instance of the compelling power of frith is found in the story of Hrolleif of the Vatsdoela. This ne'er-do-well ships to Iceland with his witch of a mother, makes his appearance at the farm of his uncle Sæmund and claims to be received there in accordance with the bond of kinship between them. Sæmund shrewdly observes that he seems regrettably nearer in character to his mother than to his father's stock, but Hrolleif brushes the reproach away with the simple answer: "I cannot live on ill foretellings." When life with Hrolleif in the homestead becomes unendurable, and Sæmund's son Geirmund complains of him as intolerable, Hrolleif opines that it is shameful thus to rail over trifles, and discredit one's kin. He is given a holding, kills a man, for which killing Sæmund has to pay the fine, and when at last he has crowned his record by killing Ingimund, Sæmund's foster-brother, who on the strength of their friendship had given Hrolleif land of his own, he rides straight to Geirmund and forces the latter to protect him, by the words: "Here I will suffer myself to be slain, to your disgrace." We find it hardly remarkable that Sæmund, when a neighbour calls with well-founded complaints against his nephew's doings in the district, should give vent to a sigh: "It were but good if such men were put out of the world," – but what does the neighbour say: "You would very surely think otherwise if any should attempt it in earnest." Here lies the great difficulty: Sæmund is obliged to hold by Hrolleif as far as ever possible; not merely to cover him, but further, to maintain his cause in face of his opponents.

Here is a scene from Vallaljot's saga, where Ljot's words are particularly characteristic. There have been killing and other matters between Ljot and his kinsmen on the one hand, and the two sons of Sigmund, Hrolf and Halli, on the other. All dissension has now been buried by a fair reconciliation, thanks to the right-minded intervention of Gudmund the


Mighty. Bodvar, a third son of Sigmund, has been abroad during these doings; he now returns, and is forced to seek shelter during a storm in the house of Thorgrim, Ljot's brother. Against Thorgrim's will, and in spite of his endeavours to prevent any of the household from leaving the place while the guests are there, one man, Sigmund, slips away and hurries off to make trouble. Ljot will not kill an inoffending man and break the peace agreed on, nor will he raise hand against his brother's guests. But there are others who still bear a grudge, and Bodvar is killed as he goes on his way from Thorgrim's house. What can the eager avengers do now but come to Ljot, the best man of the family. "It may cost a few hard words, but we shall be safe with him," one of them suggests. "It was he who counselled against vengeance," another points out, but he meets with the retort: "The more we are in need of him, the more stoutly will he help." They then inform Ljot that they have taken vengeance for their kinsman, and the saga goes on: Ljot: "It is ill to have evil kinsmen who only lead one into trouble; what is now to be done?" They set out to find Thorgrim, – and of course the saga has no need to state that Ljot is one of the party. Ljot says: "Why did you house our unfriends, Thorgrim?" He answers: "What else could I do? I did my best, though it did not avail. Sigmund did his best; and when all is said and done, it fell out otherwise than I had wished." Ljot: "Better had it been if your plans had been followed, but... now it is best that we do not stay apart... it can hardly be otherwise now than that I should help, and I will take the lead; I have little wish for great undertakings, but I will not lose what is mine for any man." Thorgrim asks what is to become of Eyjolf, who of his own will had taken an eager part in the act of vengeance; Ljot will undertake to protect him, and get him away out of the country. "But Bjorn" says Ljot, "is to stay with me, and his fate shall be mine." Bjorn was Ljot's sister's son, and had been the leader of the party who had killed Bodvar.

There is a sounding echo of the active character of this frith in the old German's paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount; in germanising Christ's command as to unreserved self-

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