The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


as negotiating parties promising with one mouth everything that is to be promised, at the same time singling out one person, called the director of the bargain, to act on behalf of his party.

And now, in the matter which most of all moved the soul of the clan, the matter of loss of life and revenge, the whole is moulded into one as far as frith has yet any hold upon men's minds. In the everyday pictures of Icelandic life, the living sense is still effective before our eyes; the individual feels called upon to grasp a favourable moment as it comes, without thought of wasting time in reckoning out degrees of kinship near or far. Here and there we find mention of family councils, where a leader of vengeance is invested with the full combined will of the clan as a proxy to take the responsibility for bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion; and whether such custom in early times was general throughout, or merely a form among others, it arises directly out of the clan feeling. On the other hand, under normal conditions the choice always fell upon the one who was nearest by birth to the right and duty in question, he who stood to the slain man in the relation of son to father, father to son, or brother to brother. The responsibility of the kinsmen increases in weight the nearer they stand that centre where the slain man lies. However difficult it may be to combine a common, unconditional obligation with foremost rank in responsibility for a single individual or a small group, when considering the world from the point of individualism or from the circle of communism; for a man who lives his life in a hamingja and under social conditions shaped under its power, the two facts coincide well enough.

In matters of such moment to the clan as marrying or guardianship or revenge, a fixed definition was needed excluding all save those concerned, and this definition is everywhere among the Teutons contained in one single word: kinsmen, nothing more and nothing less. No other words howsoever precisely circumscribed could express more concisely which persons were concerned or which persons felt the responsibility, because the qualification depended on an inner solidarity and not on a reckoning up of degrees. Life itself would in any actual


case point out the men who were kinsmen of the deceased or of the orphan.

When we pass on to discuss the structure of the clan in particular we cannot probably do better than take the rules for payment and recaption of the weregild for our guide. In Norway, the fine for homicide consisted chiefly of three ,,rings”. The first ring was paid by the slayer to the nearest of kin of the slain: son and father; the second was called the brother's ring, and with this the slain man's brother was indemnified; the procuring of it was also a matter for a brother in the attacking circle; in the third, the two cousin-circles, father's brother's sons, paid each other. The terms still suggest a time when rings were the usual forms of valuables. Lack of representative for one or another group did not affect the fine; the right to receive and the obligation to pay would in such case vest in one of the others, so that, to put an extreme case, the slayer himself paid all three rings, and the heir received the entire fine. Payment of the three rings, however, was not sufficient to acquit the slayer and his nearest of kin from their obligation; before them were still three further classes of kinsmen, each of which demanded a fine for the slain kinsman; from the degrees above cousins and below brothers — uncles and nephews on the male side — they thinned out through mother's brother and sister's sons to distant relatives on both sides. And when all these have taken the greater or smaller fines due to them from the ring men, they have still to reckon with some gifts from the corresponding circles in the clan of the slayer. Not until the whole of this network of fines has been drawn through the clans is frith declared from one side to the other.

In Denmark, the slayer and the slain man's son stand face to face, with their paternal and maternal kinsmen as a compact host on right and left. The fine is divided into three equal parts, and of these, the slayer pays, or his nearest of kin pays for him, one part, the two others pass from and to the two sides of the clan, and at the assembly of kinsmen, the obligations are divided into smaller and smaller claims, according as the kinship ebbs farther and farther out. The two sides answer


each for itself; as long as a single man is left on the paternal side the maternal kinsmen have no duty to pay more than their own share of the blood money; but if the branch be altogether withered, then the others must bear the double burden. And if it so happen, says Eric's Law in sure, oldfashioned speech, that no kin are to be found on the mother's side, and he who was begotten of the slain should be slave-born or out of the country so that none knows his kin, and if the father's kin have taken one part, and another thereto, then their kinsman shall not be unpaid if he were a free man, for in full he shall be paid — and the kinsmen on the father's side take all the fines. At the final peace meeting, where the slayer paid down the total amount of the fine in the presence of his kinsmen and of the slain man's family, the head man with twelve of his family promised him full frith and security.

The corresponding system obtaining among the Franks is unfortunately not clearly expressed in the laws. What was done when all went off as it should, this was known well enough, and it was not found worth while to enter such common-places in the law book, but what was to be done in the case of a poor fellow who had not the wherewithal to pay, was a matter that called for writing down, — and this is consequently all we learn. Our position, then, is that of accidental spectators of an action reserved for extreme cases of necessity, forming their own conclusions as to the ordinary course of life by observing what people consider most urgent to do when matters have been brought to a dangerous pass. The paragraph of the law introduces us into the midst of a scene, where the slayer has thrown all he owns into the scale without being able to make up the amount of the fine; he then solemnly, in the presence of his kinsmen, enters his house, takes there a handful of earth, and throws it upon his nearest of kin, thereby casting the responsibility from himself upon one who can bear it, before he himself takes his staff in hand and leaps the fence, that all may see how denuded he is. If his father and brothers have already contributed all they could and this the law appears to take for granted that they would — then the handful of


earth falls upon the nearest of kin outside their circle, and can thus pass down the ranks; three kinsmen on the father's side and three on the mother's, each, of course, representing one branch of the family. If all have been obliged to let it lie, then the slayer shall be brought forward at the law-thing, to the end that any man feeling obligation towards him can step in, and not until he has been three times so received at the law-thing in silence has he forfeited his life as one who failed to produce his fine.

There we are left, wondering. Seeing that the ancient Franks did not play out their parts for our benefit, but were acting for their own poor selves, they have naturally left much in the dark, without so much as a single informative aside to the spectator. Whether the law here presumes that the slayer paid the whole of the fine, or if it be his own ring he could not manage to procure and had to leave to his kin, — as to this, the spectators can, if so inclined, find matter for discussion for the remainder of their lives. But we are told in one passage in plain words that the fine is divided into two equal parts, one going to the son, the other to the kinsmen, further that these kinsmen are represented by three on either side, father's and mother's, and that the three divided their share with decreasing parts according to the nearness of relationship. And a kinsman has no rights save as he has corresponding obligations — or once had such.

Between the Northman sitting with his kinsmen reckoning out sums in fractions of rings and fractions of kinship, and the Frank who makes his last leap over the threshold out of house and home stripped to his shirt, there is more than a difference of circumstance. But the national peculiarities cannot hide profound unity in essentials. And the first thing, perhaps, which strikes the spectator is the common responsibility. The Northmen's geometry in the matter of fines may denote sharp heads, - it certainly does mean also a pronounced need to see and feel family whole against family whole; in every imaginable way the degrees are intercrossed in fine and counterfine, class against class and man against man. The kinsmen are divided


into groups, and the obligation falls according to class, but above all division stands the common responsibility. The fine must be procured, and if one side fail, then the others must step in to fill the gap; if one link be lacking in the chain of kinship, then the burden falls upon the next; the entire weight can roll over upon the kinsmen if the culprit himself be unable to pay, and it can fall back from a vacant place among the kinsmen upon the principal himself. And as a single side may often have to make additional sacrifices, so also, as receivers, they take any part unclaimed, for the principal point is that the fallen man shall be fully and duly paid for; “for their kinsman shall not be unpaid for, if he were a free man, in full he shall be paid for”, to quote once more the weighty old-world phrase of the Danish law book. A remarkable indication of the honour due to a slain man from the slayer's kin is furnished by the law of Gothland. In this island, men had in Christian times set aside three churches as asylums, and “when it so happens that the devil is at work and a man kills another, the slayer shall flee with father, son and brother and take refuge in the sanctuary, but if they are not living their places must be filled by other kinsmen”. All must bear revenge as long as any portion of what is due remains unpaid, this is the fundamental principle among all Teutons, a principle that reveals its strength by forcing kings and prelates to contradict it in decrees and anathemas without end.

Only against the background of this elastic unity can the legal limitations which here and there occur be properly seen. There was often a need, at any rate in later times, for some rule as to where kinship might be held to cease, as also for a limit within which responsible men could always be found. When then three kinsmen on the father's and three on the mother's side were appointed as a permanent staff, or when “third degree” or seventh man were fixed as the extreme limit, the decision was naturally arrived at in the way life set it to be; the point chosen was where kinship generally ebbed out, or where it glided over into a wider personality, only to be felt by heavier pressure from without. An interesting hint is


given in a Danish law book: the share of the fine to be paid by each kinsman is continually halved for each degree the payer is removed from the slayer, but the share cannot fall to a lower amount than one ortug (one third of an ounce)

thus the question of the bounds of kinship is solved automatically by an ingenious device. A mere outline of the actual facts, this is all the law can be; and much that in reality left a more than superficial mark upon the life of the community finds but an imperfect utterance in the schematic average of the laws. By chance the Lombard edict includes foster-brothers among those entitled to make oath; probably the solidarity of friendship was brought forward into a prominent place to supplement the clan ties which were loosening among the Lombards; but if the decree is inspired by the anxiety of the lawgivers to uphold the ancient legal system which required compurgators, it will be no less weighty as evidence of the intimate union of sworn brothers with the clan in earlier times. In Iceland, we know that the aid of foster-brothers was invoked in matters of vengeance, and it is thus in accordance with the old spirit that certain Norse systems assign to them a right of receiving fines. In Christian times, when baptism created an intimate relationship between sponsor and godson, the spiritual affinity entered upon the rights and duty of the ancient institution; in England at least, the sponsor was entitled to blood money for his godchild. In reality, the limit was far too individually variable for any legal edict to deal with it without itself suffering dissolution.

But in the midst of the great circle we soon become aware of a smaller group of men who are always found to be more restless than their surroundings; on the one side the slayer and his house, on the other, the heirs. Even though of course the nearest of kin outside must step into the place of the culprit, and “take up his axe” if he himself, his father and his brothers should be lacking, the obligation of the proxy cannot efface the picture of a minor hamingja, which the kinsman first and foremost feels as his soul, in which he ordinarily lives and moves and has his being. In this soul-kernel are included those whom


we should call the nearest of kin, but even this inner circle was not always or everywhere the same. On this point, the rules for payment of fine cannot give more than a rough idea, and the only way of using the laws psychologically is to lay chief stress upon the discrepancies. In Denmark, and also, in the southern countries, as far as we can judge from the scanty indications, it is a sort of family group, father, son and brother, which occupies the central position; on Norse ground it seems rather as if the soul extended crosswise through the clan, the strongest light falling upon son, brother and cousins. The lawmen of the Frosta-thing even include father's brother and brother's son together with cousin and cousin's son in the narrowest community, thus reaching out a hand towards the Anglo-Saxons, who at any rate regarded the father's brother as a mainstay of the family. Or again it may happen that father and son overshadow the brother to a certain degree, while elsewhere, the brother stands out as a particularly near kinsman, responsible for the important second ring.

Within this narrow circle there seems some trace discernible of daily intercourse in the steam from the common fleshpot and the smoke of the common hearth. It would then give a pretty theory if the great family represented the group of houses that stood back to back the better to resist storms and hard weather. But we do not find anywhere in Germanic society a pattern of so broad and simple a design. The partners found one another in the battle and arranged themselves in order of clan and kinship, it is said, and who would not believe it? And that the kinsmen kept more or less together locally, in those restless times as well, when the people rather washed to and fro about the land than stayed firmly seated each group on its own plot, is also more than reasonable; Cæsar indeed, says of the Suevi that they changed their fields from year to year and their headmen portioned out annual holdings to the tribes and clans according to their superior wisdom. No one who can put himself in Cæsar's place as he stood looking at these human hordes, will, however, think of taking the words as sentences based on results he had arrived at by an investigation


of family relationship within the separate groups, or venture to conclude from such general statements that the local lines anywhere exactly coincided with the family figures.

Naturally the structure of the soul had its counterpart in the social order. There is no doubt that clan feeling normally presupposed neighbourly sympathy as a corroborating force, and certainly intercourse in the house during adolescence was also one co-operating factor and that a very strong one, but habitual companionship does not suffice to explain the soul unity that existed between kinsmen, nor is the force of frith dependent for its strength on acting in daily communion. When men entered a friendship of absolute solidarity, they might seal their covenant by promising “to act and avenge as were it son or brother”. This old and significant formula must be supplemented by another oldfashioned phrase about two friends who have shared all things bitter and sweet together “as if they were born of two brothers”; these words vibrate with an experience that does not necessarily coincide with the feeling of having been brought up together. But the innermost community of life was not restricted to descent from a common father. The rules for paying blood money show abundantly that some of the mother's kinsmen, especially perhaps her brothers but also her father and her brothers' and sisters' sons, formed a ring near the centre of the clan, and any supposition that the maternal kinsmen owed their place to later changes in the family runs counter to the collective evidence of life and laws. Everybody who is fairly well read in the history and literature of the Teutons will know how directly the invocation in case of need went out to the mother's kindred, and how readily her friends came forward to assist their kinsman. The solidarity is confirmed by one legend after another, when for instance the hero is sent to his mother's brother for good counsel, or when his taking vengeance for his mother's father is made the principal task of his life, the deed that shall set him up as a man of honour. It is indicated also in proverbs such as that to the effect that a man takes after his mother's brothers most, and Tacitus himself understood as much, since


he finds himself constrained to interpolate the observation that a particularly warm affection exists between uncles and sister's sons.

The clan is not an amplified family, but on the other hand, any theory that would square the facts by reducing the group of father and sons to insignificance is doomed at the start.

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