The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

162

understand what sort of ancestors were his, men who every summer went out on forays and subjugated the eastern lands: the earthen strongholds they raised over in Finland, Esthonia and Courland are still to be seen; these heroes, he goes on, were not too proud to listen to the advice of other men. Thorgny is perfectly right. But if the miserable Olaf of Sweden had taken after his ancestors, he could safely have asked for advice from other men, without fear of being forced into a peace that went against his will. Unfortunately, we know hardly more about these forefathers of Olaf's than Thorgny here tells us; thus much, however, is fairly certain: it was not the peasants who planned those forays and ravagings outside the country; it was the king. Eric the Victorious, Bjorn, and these conquering rulers of Sweden whatever they were called, gained both honour and advantage from the wars; the peasants no doubt got their share of honour, and possibly also their share of the booty, but the advantages of territorial acquisitions can never be so fully exploited in the work of a farm as they can at the king's court. The king neglected nothing of his work at home by being away on expeditions, but the peasants might well have work enough of their own to keep them busy during the summer. It might be, then, that other men listened well enough and willingly enough to what those kings said.

This trial of strength between the peasants' spokesman and the Upsala king rises to the position of a symbol of the Germanic kingship, in which its peculiar strength and its peculiar weakness are each sharply defined. Here, as everywhere among the peoples. of the North, it is the king's initiative that furnishes under takings for the people. He stands, and not to the eye of the alien chronicler alone, as the conqueror, from whom plans emanate,. and emanate in the form of commands. He commands, but he has nothing beyond what we should call his personality to rely upon for the enforcement of his commands. There are no statutes, no royal prerogatives to support him when he begins to show himself “redeless”. All his power lies in the firm grip of superior luck; if that fail but a moment, then the people come forward with their: “we will not suffer injustice at your hands”,

163

and there is little then that the king can do that will not naturally be included under the heading of injustice. But as long as the king's plans are put forward 'with the effectiveness of luck, men will follow his call, carry out his plans, submit without audible protest to arbitrary acts and interference with their liberties. Then there is little that cannot be included under the heading of “law” or justice.

At a hasty glance, it might seem as if the kingly power were something floating loosely over the life of the people. And yet the truth is, that kingship is an institution which no revolutions, let alone momentary fancies, can shake. He who sits in the king's seat has it in his power to make himself the state, and on the other hand, he can make himself a powerless shadow of the state; but he cannot efface himself. While rights may wax and wane, the chieftainship stands fast, because the one family represented by the king or the chieftain, possesses a luck of altogether egregious character, not only stronger and more manifold, but in its essence fundamentally different from that of all others.

When the people sweep the king aside, then the reason is that they feel the decline of his “speed”, his power to victory, but the luck itself, that family luck from which his personal influence wells up, is a thing they cannot do without. They know there is danger in thrusting him out: he has something peculiar in him that is not to be found anywhere else in the land, a luck to which they trust, and that with a faith rooted deep down in the lower strata where lie not only vital courage but vital fear. The individual holder of the title may degenerate — but the people of the land will keep to his stock nevertheless. They must have a representative of the superlative hamingja with them in the fight, or all their courage will be in vain. A child could accomplish more than a host of courageous and skilful warriors. Little King Ingi, poor child, was at the age of two wrapped in a fold of Thjostolf Mason's cloak, and carried under the banner in the forefront of that battle which was to decide his right to Norway. Luck was evidently in him, for the men carrying him in their midst won the day; but it was too

164

frail to stand all the hard knocks; his legs and back were never sound thereafter.

In the same way the Frankish queen Fredegunde used her little son Chlotar as a shield against misfortune. She had had her husband Chilperich killed in order to set her son in his stead. Now the avenger comes upon her, in the person of Chilperich's nephew with numerous allies. Fredegunde staked all on a single throw, ventured an attack at dawn, and gained the victory; but indeed she had herself carried little Chlotar on her arm in the midst of the army throughout the battle.

But in thus emphasising the peculiar position of the king's luck, we moderns, whose thoughts always group themselves in categories, invariably lump the Teuton kings together as a species, and register the king's luck as an item in Germanic culture, and thus we lose sight of the true secret that every king's luck was a thing apart from all else, and owed its influence to individual powers of its own.

The history of the Norwegian kingship, its centuries of conflict with the old chieftainship, as represented by the “hersirs” or petty kings, may serve as a grand illustration of the individuality of king's luck. The kings of Norway were famed for their power and authority. Olaf Tryggvason ruled, apparently, as a sell-constituted despot: he “forced Norway to Christianity”; those who would not as he willed, he mutilated, killed, or sent headlong out of the country; be could set out upon the strange expedition against the Vends followed by the chieftains of Norway and their fleets. But in the sagas, Olaf by no means always appears as triumphing over the will of the people and their leaders.

As soon as the king ventures into countries not in the strictest sense his by inheritance, the local chiefs come out against him as his equals, and offer terms. When Olaf Tryggvason appears in the Gula-thing with his proposal for conversion, he is given this answer by Olmod the Old: “If it is your mind to force us, and encroach upon our law (i. e. the state of law we live in) and make us subject to you, then we will resist with all our might, and let victory decide. But if you will make it worth

165

while for us kinsmen, then you might gain our services.” They price their loyalty at nothing less than a matrimonial alliance with the house of Norway, and demand the king's sister for their kinsman Erling Skjalgson. And the king at once sees the honour of such a proposal. Olaf then holds another meeting with the peasants to discuss the question of religion, and when Olmod and Erling Skjalgson, Olaf's new brother-in-law, with all the circle of their kin, support the king's proposal, “no man dared to speak against it, and all the people were made Christians.” It was on this occasion that Erling Skjalgson declined the offer of an earldom with the famous words: “My kinsmen have been hersirs.” — Later, Olaf the Saint was similarly obliged to come to an agreement with Erling, and what this agreement meant appears as plainly as could be desired on a later occasion, when Erling actually raises an army and comes at the head of a couple of thousand men to claim his rights.

What we here see is the trial of strength between the old petty kingships and the new sovereignty of the country as a whole. And the minor princes are, where they stand on their own ground, the stronger. The people followed them, as it would seem, blindly, “wishing no other thing than they said”, setting their shoulders firmly to the demands put forward by the chieftain, and often actually maintaining them — for the men did what they did in full confidence in the luck that inspired their chief. The yeomen trusted to his luck, because they had felt its force in themselves. These princes belonged to a race that had for generation after generation formed the centre of the life of their district; the family had had luck, and wealth enough to take up solitary adventurers and give them a place at its board, and inspire them with strength to fight its battles; it had had power enough to radiate luck over those who tilled the soil and herded cattle on their own account. Fertility and ripening oozed from its fields to those of the others, in the wake of these kinsmen others could sail with a full wind, in the strength of these highborn men they conquered, in their luck and wisdom they were agreed. The hersir was no more a despotic ruler than was the king of the country, perhaps even less so;

166

he had but little power to command. But actually, he was more powerful than a despot. The luck of his race was interwoven with the most commonplace actions of the other families, in their peaceful occupations and their internal bickerings. He judged between them, and he could do so, because the traditional word of the law and its spirit were a living force within him. He was the personification of the social spirit, as we might say; but we feel now distinctly that this modern formula is too fiat to embrace the whole of his influence; it must be replaced by the old saying: he had law-speed in him. He was the object of a dependence so deep that it lay rooted in the sell-reliance of his dependants.

Harald Fairhair had made Norway one kingdom, and conquered the local princes. But to crush them was more than he or his successors could do; the luck of the usurpers did not even succeed in piercing through that of the hersirs, so as to find root in the people itself. The old relationship between the villagers and their chieftains was a thing the successors of Harald had to leave untouched, so that in reality, as far as regarded a great part of Norway, they ruled only indirectly. For a long while Norway continued to be an assembly of lands, and the “peoples” retained the old intercourse with their chiefs, and only through them did they come into contact with the sovereign. Again and again we find a touch of something foreign, even of indifference, in their attitude towards the “outland” king. What was he to the peasants? They could not feel his luck moving the ground beneath them, whereas the luck of their hersir manifested itself in their harvests.

It is not easy to exaggerate the feeling of independence in the lands and the peoples under Harald and his dynasty, right down to the period of the great struggles for the throne. But the more we emphasise it, the keener the light we throw thereby on the power of a king like Olaf Tryggvason. His victorious march through Norway and his expedition to Vendland to secure the dowry of his queen appear in their true magnificence against such a background. Differently, but no less conspicuously, the puissance of the monarch reveals itself in the battle of Stikle-

167

stad, in which the sovereignty, despite the fall of the king, despite the victory of the peasants, celebrates its apotheosis. Comparing this meeting between chieftains and king with that other scene between Olaf Tryggvason and Erling at the Gulathing, we cannot but see that the political status of Norway is changing; the great event is not to be understood without regard to the growth of the royal power under the influence of European history. But Olaf's superiority is of far greater weight than any generation can build up, even though, with the haste of a period of transition, it heap revolution upon revolution. To be firmly established, the historical interpretation of these years must be based on a sympathetic understanding of the people's instinctive veneration for the luck of the sovereign, and the sovereign's unreflecting confidence in his own luck. Through the interaction between these tendencies and religious and political ideas coming from abroad, Norway. grows from a Teutonic kingdom into a mediæval and Christian state. The death of Olaf constitutes a turning point in Norwegian history, because all the currents of the time, national as well as cosmo-political, find their confluence in Olaf and lift him into royal saintship.

Snorri Sturluson's description of the conflict between Olaf and the peasants is a worthy counterpart to his picture of the scene at Westfold. The words and the events of those memorable days have a weight that reaches far out beyond the moment, as if the great powers that carry history onward were here finding expression through men and masses of men. The description combines inner truth, such as could only be prompted by spiritual intimacy, with correctness in external facts, such as only a faithful report can preserve. The first thing that strikes us is the complete helplessness of the peasants and their leaders; the men run hither and thither, questioning, fumbling, none of the chieftains dares take the lead, one thrusts the responsibility upon the other. Olaf's party, on the other band, bears throughout the stamp of calm, confident waiting, order, and sense of unity. Olaf possesses that unifying inspiration which carries the whole army in an elastic grip, the opposing chieftains are lacking in

168

assurance, and feel their weakness acutely. In the peasants' army, the flow of luck threatens every moment to come to an end. Individually, each of the petty chiefs might be stronger than the king, but together, they cannot prevail against him. At home in their districts they are equal to anything, but they count for very little outside. Here the secret of Olaf's descent comes to light; the luck of the sovereign had such an extensive character that it could radiate out over the whole of Norway and could be distributed among a whole army without ebbing. The luck of Olaf was not dependent on a certain soil or an individual body of men, but could be victorious wherever the king showed himself.

It seems a contradiction that the king's luck should embrace the whole of Norway, but suddenly lose its force when applied to a limited district. But the contradiction exists only for us, who judge the two lucks according to strength, and do not see that the decisive difference lies in their character. The luck of the 'local chieftain was absolute, but could only answer to the soul of the valley, the district, and the people; it might, of course, also extend to the fishing grounds outside the village territory, or seafaring expeditions undertaken by the villagers themselves; but in order to cover other lands and other communities it had first to undergo a transformation by drawing up the alien power into itself and assimilating it. Every luck is of its own sort. To go out fishing with a cattle-breeder's particular luck would give the same result as if one tried to catch cod with a ploughshare; to rule and give fertility in the East with a luck that pertained to the West was no less topsy-turvy; to defend or conquer Norway called for the luck of a Harald. Earl Hakon, of a powerful stock residing at Hladi, near Drontheim, at the end of the tenth century, had, when Harald's dynasty was on the wane, succeeded in usurping the kingship of Norway, and he used his power with a great deal of insolence and overbearing, which exasperated the people. His grip on Norway was insecure, because it depended on his personal shrewdness and force of character; but despite all inclination to revolt, the Norwegians were nevertheless practically forced

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page