The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


father would have looked askance at so unreasonable an accusation as that he had carried out a living being; and if the matter were touched upon at a moment when he chanced to be inclined to discuss it, he would undoubtedly have set the phrase-maker's errant wits to rights with a blow of his axe. He knew well enough what life was worth. If the child had had the least share in frith, then its separation must have caused a breach that demanded careful and precise attention.

So effective a part is that of the father in making a human being of the newly born, that one might be tempted to regard the consecration as itself the real birth. What can be the value of simply being born, when the child, until adopted by the father or male kin, is after all but a thing one does not even need to kill, but can merely thrust out as not belonging to humanity at all? It may be difficult enough for us to harmonise the father's absolute veto with the ancients' praise of noble origin, and their frowning suspicion of men who had to cry aloud their father's name that their mother should not be mentioned.

For the Northmen, high birth was the only qualification for honour and respect, or in a deeper sense, the sole condition which enabled a man to possess the skill and self-assurance which honour and respect presupposed. No false pretender could remain long undiscovered; the changeling could not hide the fact that he lacked a soul, as witness Queen Hagny's vain attempt to exchange her two ugly, black sons for a fair slave child. The two spurious slave children lay one day playing in the straw upon the floor, while Leif, the changeling, sat in the high seat playing with a finger ring; then said one of the brothers: “Let us go and take the ring away from him;” the other black mite was ready enough to try, but Leif only cried. In this little scene, Bragi the Scald finds sufficient indication of the real state of things; he tells the queen: “Two are in here, they please me, Hamund and Geirmund, King Hjor's sons, but that boy Leif is the slave woman's son, not yours, woman, — a wretch beyond most".

In this story, we find that which was the silent foundation for the Northmen's judgement of men emphasised with polemic


force; in everyday life, it is apparent in the scorn of the low-born, wonder at the ability of an upstart, and most of all, in the unconditional respect paid by free men to one with tradition behind him. This much is certain: no man could be brave and skilful unless he came of a brave and skilful stock. He who was born of a great luck, had a guarantee for his life which one who saw the light in poorer circumstances never could have, he could grasp with fuller hands, without fear of letting fall. He was sure of having such and such qualities of luck — those which pertained to the hamingja of his race and he would always choose with unfailing certainty the one decision which was the only right and only possible one in any matter.

Glum, the old man of luck, had once an experience which taught him that a fault of birth, even though well hidden, can always break out at the critical moment and upset one's thoughts. In the Thvera clan, which traced its descent right back to Viking Kari, one of the great commencements in the genealogy of Norway, and was connected on the distaff side with Norway's kings, there had come a strain of slave blood; a man whom Glum had given his freedom, and who had somehow or other managed to raise himself to a position of wealth, had married a kinswoman — her name is not stated — of the man who had freed him. Their son, Ogmund, was a promising young man, whom Glum took into his house and regarded as the equal of his own sons. When the time came, Ogmund also went abroad, on board his own ship, as fitted the cadet of a great house; and in fitting wise also, he announced his arrival in the Norway fjords by ramming a longship and sending it to the bottom. The ship belonged, to Earl Hakon, who was naturally incensed at the news, and did not exhort the survivors from the wreck to deal gently with the offender. Ogmund received a blow that kept him to his bed the greater part of the winter. And now it seemed as if he had suddenly lost all his nobility. He saw his kinsman Vigfus Glumson as one of Hakon's retainers, and knew the earl would take vengeance on him if anything happened to one of the Norsemen; and he could hardly reconcile it with his duty to Glum to bring


misfortune upon Vigfus. So he argued, and left the blow unavenged. Vigfus, however, thought otherwise; his retort shears through Ogmund's justification right down to the diseased spot: “Neither I nor my father care to have you looking after me if I do not do so myself; it is other things that teach you to be so cautious; as might be expected, you take after the thrall stock rather than after the men of Thvera.” And Glum's bitter outburst against Ogmund after his return is a stronger antistrophe to this: “What call have you to guard him if he did not guard himself; rather had I seen you both dead, and you avenged.” And he calls to mind the old truth that unfree race is ever short of manhood. — It was the mark of birth of the thrall's descendant, that he saw the lesser thing first, and it grew in his eyes, whereas men of the true Thvera stock saw only the thing that mattered.

The Northmen had a keen eye for psychological signs of mixed race; a saying often on their lips was: “Who is it you take after?” And we have no grounds for supposing that it was only the one side that counted. Thorolf's opponents, the Sons of Hilderid already mentioned, never got over the disability in their birth, that their mother was of an inferior stock to their father's; it was a fault plainly seen in every word they spoke, when they stole into the hall from behind as soon as Thorolf had strode out of the front, and explained and interpreted the action of their enemy, while Thorolf let his act carry its own interpretation. The sagas also have an argument, to the effect that a man's rascality is due to the mother's blood.

Among the other Germanic peoples it may be difficult perhaps to find any testimony directly showing the judgement of the day in regard to the half-breed. Even in King Gunnthram's day, however, a bishop, Sagittarius, whose eyes had been opened by adversity and loss of office, can realise that the disregard of birth was a factor in the moral decline of the people: “How should a king's Sons ever come to rule when their mother came straight from the thralls' bench into, the king's bed?” This was his everlasting theme when the talk turned on matter of serious import. The experiences of poor


Sagittarius were just of the very sort which generally gives the sufferer the most unprejudiced view of his adversary; he had been deprived of his office without having any righteousness of his own to set up against unrighteousness. Gregory, on the other hand, who has found a place for his eccentric brother-prelate in his panorama of Frankish society, looks more historically at the matter: “Sagittarius did not reflect that nowadays all who can call the king father are reckoned king's sons, whatever their mother's birth.” But even if we had not the opportunity of hearing judgement passed in definite words, we can read it in the practical behaviour of men. It does not take long to perceive the importance of birth, outside Scandinavia as well. This refinement of feeling would naturally appear in its strongest form as public illwill against marriage with inferiors. And we are told, indeed, of the Saxons, that they made equality of birth a legally indispensable condition between parties entering into matrimony; no marriage was suffered to bridge the gulf between noble and free, any more than between free-born and freedman, or freedman and thrall. Our authority here, a clerical biography from the ninth century, compiled by a monk whose ethnographical knowledge is restricted to a good page of excerpts, is one of those sources whose sentences are not to be estimated word by word, but taken en bloc at discretion; whether the words refer to a written or an unwritten law, whether they apply to many of the Saxons or only a little clique at some given time, must be left open. At all events, such pedantry of class is not a general Teuton characteristic, but the Saxon caste feeling may probably point indirectly to a marked regard in our forefathers for the importance of blood. And the Saxons elsewhere show themselves as finicking formalists who would doubtless be the first to make a sound dogma out of refinement.

There are two things in which all good Germanic stock is agreed: that a free woman surrendering herself to a slave becomes a prey to the unreality of slave existence and loses her soul, and that an unfree woman gives her children spirit of her slave spirit. In Sweden, the church, with its hate of adultery and its disapproval of slavery, had entered protest against the prevailing


view. Then the law may run, that true marriage always ensures freedom of the child. But on all sides of the paragraph extends the old conception of the man as the one who is borne by and has his validity from a clan and the honour of a clan. The words happen to stand in the same chapter with an old sentence in which an earlier age expressed its condemnation of the woman: the woman who enters into matrimony with a slave shall go backwards, or rather back foremost, out of her clan; the word backwards indicates an unlucky mode of exit involving disgrace and loss of human status.

A free man has of course the right to use his slave woman as he pleases, but children begotten in the slaves' corner will be unfree, without right to walk, sit or inherit with the children of a free woman. That child sits in the corner and eats from its bowl among the thralls, as is said in the law of Norway; the same thing may be expressed as in Denmark: If a man have begotten a child with his woman thrall, and the child not freed, then the father shall not pay more in fine for his deeds than for those of any other thrall. It is the woman who stamps her child; we find this also in the words wherewith the Lombards have rendered the idea of a man's right to marry his own female slave; he must first give her her freedom, and raise her to the standing of a rightful wife; then her children will be legitimate and free to inherit; the word used by the laws to indicate her new standing, whether it be virdibora, noble born, or viderbora, re-born, plainly embodies the thought of her moving from one existence into another, into one that is really life.

In all Germanic law, as far as we have any evidence, distinction is made between children born in wedlock and the illegitimate, even though the latter be both free-born and recognised by the father. Among the Lombards, as among the Northmen, both Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, the rule for the illegitimate child runs: not as the others, not entitled to equal share of inheritance, or more strongly: let him have a gift from his father, and go content with that to his own. Whatever may have been the position of the free-born illegitimate in the clan among different peoples, there is a deeply rooted feeling that


he lacks something which the others have, or a fear lest he be not so strong as his kinsmen, not the rock that unconditional faith can build on without fear, or that an inheritance would not be safe in his hands. Possibly such feeling of difference was not always or everywhere suffered to make the decisive factor in the social arrangement of a bastard's position, but it has everywhere contributed to the judgement passed upon him, if not as fear, then at least as caution. There is in an Icelandic saga an everyday scene and a passage of words that point out the essential weakness in an illegitimate daughter viz, that she may possibly not be able to pass on to her husband the full frith and honour of her father. In the last battle between the two Helgis, Helgi Droplaugson and Helgi Asbjornson, the latter was faithfully supported by his son-in-law, Hjarrandi. The other Helgi tauntingly shouted to his young and lusty adversary: “Hey, how you would have laid about you, if it had been a free-born daughter of Helgi Asbjornson you had taken to wife.” The words surely had their sting, for they goaded Hjarrandi, so that he fell to still more violently. Though the speech is altogether Icelandic in its form and not to be drawn upon too indiscriminately, it plays upon an uncertainty which is present beneath the legal provisions which set the place of the bastard at the extreme limit of the line of kin. On this point, the church, in its endeavours to lower the status of the bastard in order to strengthen monogamy, had an ally in the old thoughts, and this moreover, a strong ally acting from strong, half-felt instincts and thus capable of effecting great and rapid changes.

Surely enough, a man is born to be what he is. Between marriage and the looser relations, between children whose parents were of equal rank and those whose mother was not a wife proper, between birth and half-birth is drawn one of the sharpest lines in Germanic thought, a limit never veiled. Whatever Tacitus may have imagined out of his own head as to the solemnity with which a barbarian woman took her bridegroom's hand and mentally reviewed the perils she was determined to share with him, his description of the marriage contract is at least in agreement with all later authorities in


emphasising the marriage ceremony as a principal act in the life of our forefathers. The contract was an event, the social and legal influence of which was emphasised by detailed ceremonial; it was concluded with the same thoughtful care as a treaty of peace, where the foundation was securely laid by welding together two whole clans and their luck; it was prepared with caution by a series of solemn acts, the formality of which was in proportion to the legal importance of the proceeding.

We cannot gain a real understanding by harmonising and squaring the facts. Again and again it will be found that our words are too narrow or that the ideas which the words call up in our minds are incongruous with the thoughts that bore the ancient institutions. We give the act of bringing forth an absolute validity that the moment did not possess in the old times, because our conception of life as something purely physical is totally different from the primitive idea of a human being. The modern word birth must be stretched to its utmost possibilities so as to embrace the whole weighty conception of race, breeding and family. Birth is not solely parturition and not solely the ceremony of naming, but something more extensive — it is the past breaking forth anew.

The child's social state depends on the complete process of its coming into the world, and into the world of its kin, a process that begins with the mother's birth-pangs and ends with the father's solemn recognition of the infant as admitted into the clan. It is impossible to conclude directly from the cry of a woman that a child is being born; but the distinction is not between delivery and giving soul, but between the double act of giving birth and naming whereby a human being is born, and the insignificant bringing forth which is no birth at all. The only place where one can see what takes place is in the clan itself, and standing there, as a kinsman among kin, we have, in the one case, the happiness of seeing a kinsman come into the world, in the other, we are merely spectators of a happening of no importance, whereby an individual passes before our eyes, out into nothingness, into the unreality of thraldom, or perhaps into a reality with which we have no concern.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page