The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


among the offender's kin. This tendency to take vengeance on a kinsman of the offender who was counted “worthier” as an object of revenge dies late in the North.

In the introduction to the Norwegian law-book of the Frostathing, we find “Hakon the King, son of King Hakon, son's son of King Sverri” still mournfully bewailing “the ill mis-custom, which long hath been in the land, that where a man hath been put to death, his kinsmen will take such of the slayer's kin as is counted best, even though the killing were done without his knowledge, will, or nearness to the deed, and will not take vengeance upon the slayer, even though it might be easily come by,” whence evil men flourish, and the good have no reward of their peaceable life; “and we see ourselves robbed of our best subjects in the land”, sighs this father of his country.

 The bitterness of tone is in itself a token that comfort is yet far to seek. True, the peasant freeholders would gladly live in safety in the country, and if the king could help them to such peace, then an edict or so were welcome enough; but sure as it was that peace might be furthered by refraining from killing of men, it was no less sure that man could not live by not being killed. And when a man now suffered need, what could the king do for him? The surplus of healing for a wounded honour which the king's good subjects gained for themselves in ancient wise was not to be replaced by anything the king had to offer in new ways of law. And as long as honour stood as a fundamental factor in the moral self-estimation of the people, stood, indeed, as the very aim of justice, there could be no lopping an end off by a sharp rescript. Prohibitions and law reforms from above are at best only the precursors, heralds of a change of mind that takes centuries to effect; and as long as “law” and “right” had not found one another in a new unity, so long would the “abuse” among the people, their misunderstanding of their own good, be stronger than both kingly power and prudence. “No man in all the land had such brave vengeance taken for him as this one; for no other man were so many taken in payment” — this was, and continued to be the best proof that the fallen man had been among the greatest of his time.


Vengeance, then, consists in taking something from the other party. One procures honour from him. One will have one's honour back.

An injury done occasions a loss to the sufferer. He has been bereft of some part of his honour. But this honour is not a thing he can do without in case of need, not a thing he requires only for luxury, and which the frugal mind can manage without. He cannot even console himself with the part that remains; for the injury he has suffered may be likened to a wound which will never close up of itself, but bleed unceasingly until his life runs out. If he cannot fill the empty space, he will never be himself again. The emptiness may be called shame; it is a suffering, a painful state of sickness.

Njal, peaceable, peace-making Njal, has not many words about the matter; but the human feelings are as unspoiled in him as in the doughty warrior Egil. He looked at his aged body and said: “I cannot avenge my sons, and in shame I will not live” and thereupon laid himself down on his bed in the midst of the flames. In a character such as Kveldulf, the suffering displayed itself in violent convulsions. His son Thorolf had fallen in something approaching open feud with no less a man than King Harald himself; it seemed hopeless for a simple yeoman to crave honourable amends from the mighty King of Norway. He himself was old and past his time; but the hunger for honour turned in his body to a stimulant, calling up the last remains of strength to strike down a man or so “whom Harald will count it ill to lose”. Different as the two men are by nature — representing, one might say, the two opposite poles of Icelandic culture — they yet think and feel alike, and act on the same principle: that honour is a thing indispensable, and vengeance inevitable. As long as men still lived the old life, irrespective of whether the outward forms were pagan or Christian, a man could not, under any circumstances, let his vengeance lie; there was no ignoring the claims of honour, for this was a thing that came from within, manifesting itself as a painful sense of fear.

There was once an Icelander who did a great thing, all but


superhuman. After the general battle at the Al-thing in the year 1012 when the prospects of reconciliation were dark, and everything pointed to a fatal breaking up of the free state itself, the great chieftain Hall of Sida stood up and said: “All men know what sorrow has stricken me in that my son Ljot is fallen. One or another of you may perhaps think that he would be among the dearest of those fallen here” (i. e. one of those whose death would cost most in reparation). “But this I will do, that men may be agreed again; I will let my son lie unavenged, and yet give my enemies full peace and accord. Therefore I ask of you, Snorri Godi, and with you the best of those here, that you bring about peace between us.” Thereupon Hall sat down. And at his words rose a loud murmur of approval, all greatly praising his goodwill. “And of this, that Hall was willing to leave his son unavenged, and did so much to bring about peace, it is now to be said that all those present at the law-thing laid money together for payment to him. And the count of it all together was not less than eight hundred in silver; but that was four times the fine for killing of one man.”

But blood need not be shed to endanger life. Honour might ooze out as fatally from the wound made by a blow from a stick, or by a sharp word, or even by a scornful neglect. And the medicine is in all cases the same.

When a man sits talking among others, and emphasises his words with a stick in such fashion that he chances to strike his neighbour's nose, the neighbour ought perhaps to take into consideration the fact that the striker was short-sighted, and had talked himself into a state of excitement. Nor can it be called quite good manners to jump up on the instant and endeavour to drive one's axe into the nose of the other; but should the eager and short-sighted speaker chance to be found dead in his bed a few months after, it would be understood that someone had been there “to avenge that blow from a stick”. No one would on principle deny the name of vengeance to the deed. And if the man so struck were a man of honour, no outsider would deny his right to act as he had done; on the contrary, they would immediately realise that the blow to his nose might


prove as fatal to him as the loss of an arm or a leg. Unless honour were taken for the injury, the little sore would, so to speak, lead to blood-poisoning.

It happened thus with the Icelander Thorleif Kimbi. While voyaging abroad on a Norwegian ship, he had the misfortune to act in a somewhat hot-headed fashion towards his countryman Arnbjorn, while they were preparing a meal. Arnbjorn started up and dealt Thorleif a blow on the neck with his hot spoon. Thorleif swallowed the insult: “Nay, the Norsemen shall not make game of us two Icelanders, and haul us apart hike a couple of curs; but I will remember this when we meet in Iceland.” Thorleif's memory, however, seems to have been weak. But when one day he sets out to ask the hand of a girl in marriage, her brother answers him as follows: “I will tell you my mind: before I give you my sister in marriage, you must find healing for those gruel-scars on your neck, that you got three years ago in Norway”. And that blow of a spoon and the refusal based on the scars brought two whole districts into feud, and led to deep and lasting dissension between the families concerned. From the point of view of the age, there is nothing disproportionate in the cause and its effects.

If a man were called thief or coward — which he was not —or beardless — which perhaps the fact forbade him to deny — he would in any case have to win full and complete indemnity for the assertion, if he wished to retain his dignity. Njal had the disability that no hair grew on his face. Gunnar's wife, Hallgerd, saw it, and was not silent about the matter. “So wise a man, that knows a way for everything; that he should not have hit upon the plan of carting manure where it was most needed; he shall be called the beardless old man, and his sons be hight Muckbeards. And you, Sigmund, you ought to put that into verse; come, let us have some gain of your art.” Sigmund does all in his power to win fair Hallgerd's admiration and her applause: “You are a pearl, to pleasure me so.” The insults have power, not only over the young, hot-blooded sons, but equally so over Njal himself. The verses come to Bergthora's ears. And when they were sitting at meat, she said: “You have been


honoured with gifts, both you, father, and your sons; there will be little fame for you if you give nothing in return.” “What gifts are these” asked Skarphedin. “You, boys, have one gift to share between you, you have been called Muckbeards, and the master here is called the beardless old man.” “We are not womanly minded, to be angered at everything” said Skarphedin. “Then Gunnar was angered on your behalf, and if you do not seek your right here, you will never avenge any shame.” “The old woman takes pleasure, it seems, in baiting us,” said Skarphedin, and smiled; but the sweat stood out on his forehead, and red spots showed in his cheeks, and this was an unusual thing. Grim was silent, and bit his lip; and Helgi showed no sign. Hoskuld followed Bergthora when she went out. She came in again, foaming with rage. Njal says: “There, there, wife, it can be managed well enough, even though one takes one's time. And it is thus with many matters, however trying they may be, that even though vengeance be taken, it is not sure that all mouths can be made to say alike.” But in the evening, Njal heard an axe rattle against the wall. “Who has taken down our shields?” “Your sons went out with them” said Bergtora. Njal thrust his feet into a pair of shoes, and went out, round the house; there he saw them on their way up over the slope. “Whither away?” “After sheep” answered Skarphedin. “You need no weapons for them; it would seem you were going on some other errand.” “Then we will fish for salmon, father, if we do not come across the sheep.” “If that is so, it is to be hoped that you do not miss your catch.” When he came in to bed, he said to Bergthora: “All your sons have gone out armed; it would seem that your sharp words have given them something to go out for.” “I will give them my best thanks if they come and tell me of Sigmund's fall.” — They come home with the good news and tell Njal. And — he answers: “Well done!”

For everything there is but one form of vengeance; vengeance in blood. If it were only a question of retribution or self-assertion, payment could no doubt be made in the same coin. When men have such faith in the power of scornful words over honour, one might think they would also regard their own


taunts as of some effect. But to give ill words for ill words did not win honour back; the sting of the other's words remained, and one might lose one's revenge. A man would hardly dare to take his enemy prisoner and put him to scorn, instead of putting him to death at once; there was the fear of bringing degradation on oneself, instead of restitution, and thus it was reckoned unmanly to humiliate an enemy instead of killing him. Vengeance was too costly a matter to jest with.

Honour was a thing which forced men to take vengeance, not merely something that enabled them to do so. The guilds lived, like the old circles of kinsmen, in frith and honour, and in their statutes the principles underlying ancient society are reduced to paragraphs. A man is thrust out of the guild and pronounced a niding, if he break peace with his brother in any dispute arising between them, wherever they may meet, whether in the guild hall, in the streets of their town, or out in the world. He incurs the same sentence, if he fail to take up the cause of his brother, when he is in need of assistance in dealings with people outside the brotherhood. But no less does a brother sin, if he suffer dishonour without calling in the aid of his brethren; and if he do not thereafter avenge the wrong with the aid of his guild brethren, he is cast out from the brotherhood as a niding.

Though frith is not directly expressed in the codes of law, it was nevertheless manifest; its authority is so obvious, that the lawyers do not become conscious of it until they begin to find themselves in opposition. Honour, on the other hand, is amply recognised in the codices of the law-makers.

For partners in frith, vengeance is a duty; the law sanctions this duty as a right. The laws of Iceland allow of killing on the spot in return for attack or for a blow, even though they may leave no mark on the skin. In the case of more serious blows and wounds, and of insults of a graver character, the offender may be freely struck down when and where he is found before the next assembly of the Al-thing. Thus far, vengeance is valid.


But if a man goes home with the little insult still upon him, or lets autumn, winter, spring go by without settling up accounts for the greater offence, then he has forfeited his right to settle by his own hand, and can only bring suit against his opponent in law. — Thus runs a law divided against itself. The line of development tends towards a restriction of the right to vengeance; but so long as the necessity of vengeance is admitted in principle, the limits are drawn in purely external fashion. No wonder then, that these loosely built barriers prove too weak to hold back the pursuer.

In the laws of Norway, the process of restriction is carried a step farther. Vengeance is for the most part only recognised in cases of the very gravest injury. Authority must of necessity countenance the vengeance taken by a man for the killing of his kinsman or the dishonouring of his womenfolk; to include such vengeance under the head of crime, though it were of the mildest order, was, even in the early Middle Ages, out of the question. But here also, the laws of the Norwegian kings would seek to draw the limit for personal action. There is some hesitation, perhaps, in regard to abuse of the very worst kind; —can one deny a man's right to answer with the axe when addressed in such words as: “You old woman, you bitch, a jade like you, a slave that you are!”? — but a wound or a blow, a nudge, a jeer, a man should be able to carry to court.

Nevertheless, a stronger sub-stratum shows clearly through. Hakon Hakonson, in his great Novel from the middle of the thirteenth century, which serves as an introduction to the Frostathing's Law, cannot say otherwise than that vengeance for wounds and genuine insults must stand valid, when it is taken before the opposite party has offered to pay a fine. The vague arbitrariness of the addition: “save where the king and other men of judgement deem otherwise” is characteristic of all helpless reformatory movement from above; it is giving the old régime one's blessing, and tacking on an empty phrase to stand in the name of reform. And if the offender, trusting to his wealth and power, or to influential kinsmen, repeated his insolence,

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