The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



THE IMPRESSION generally gained by a stranger from first acquaintance with the clan system is: reserve, self-sufficiency, every man against his neighbor.

From a distance, one sees nothing but warriors fighting or prepared to fight, men who sleep with their axe ready to hand on the wall beside them, and who take it with them when they hang the seed-bag on their shoulder and set out for the fields. The very emphasis of the unity among them seems to presuppose uncertainty as the dominant note of life. How mighty then must have been the pressure from without which created such a seamless unanimity – that is the argument nowadays.

Often enough, the distant view is a great help in reducing to order the confusing multiplicity which existence – in sorriest conflict with all sound scientific principles – suffers from; but the observer is in danger of forgetting, in his contemplation of the pure lines, that there are certain features which from their nature are foreordained to show up from a distance, and others which perhaps have equal right to contribute to the total impression, yet cannot penetrate so far. But the correctness of the impression depends on due regard to all factors concerned. Peaceable, perhaps, we cannot say our forefathers were, seeing that it never occurred to them to set peace before all else, but they were something more; they have in their culture and their social life raised a monument to the will to peace, and a mighty will to peace must have prevailed amongst them, forcing all [6] self-assertion into forms that served the unity of the people no less than personal satisfaction. Nor is their daily life and action less marked by intercourse and amenity; hands are outstretched from the clan to every side, after union and alliance.

The most prominent place in Germanic social life is occupied by the “bargain”, the great symbol of intercourse and mutual goodwill. When clans allied by marriage are united in frith, so that one can always reckon with the support of one's new kin in one's efforts at self-assertion, when the woman can rightly bear her name of friðu-sibb, the woman who joins two clans in frith, it is because a bargain has been made between two clans, an exchange of gifts has taken place.

Marriage is the great exchange of gifts, the gift-alliance before all others. In the modern Danish word for marriage, giftermål, the idea of giving – gipt – has been handed down to later generations; in the Anglo-Saxon, the same word – gift – is used chiefly to denote a bridal gift, and in the plural, it signifies, without further addition, nuptials. But in the ultimate essence of the matter, the bridal bargain did not differ from friendship, which was also a bargain, and likewise brought about by gifts.

In the gift, the door is opened to the Germanic will to peace; but at the same time, a host of psychological mysteries pour in.

When Blundketil had been burned in his house, and his son's well-wishers cast about for something upon which to base a hope, they could find nothing better than a marriage between the youth and a daughter of Thord Gellir's sister. Thord was a powerful man, but Thord was by no means eager for the match. “Nay”, he says, “there is naught but good between Ketil and myself; once in foul weather he took me in, and gave me a present of good stud horses; and yet I do not think I have anything to reproach myself if I leave this marriage unmade.” The full and considered weight of the words is lost unless the greater emphasis of this “and yet” is noted. The gift carries with it an obligation; under whatsoever circumstances it is given, it is binding nevertheless, and that with an obligation [7] the force of which, in justice to itself, demands such strong words as these: the receiver is in the giver's power.

It is seen when Einar rides up to his brother Gudmund the Mighty, the fox of Modruvellir, and flings him back his cloak; he has realised whither Gudmund's plans tend. But Gudmund calmly opines that it is unseemly enough if kinship should not compel the one to take up the other's cause, and here he has accepted a gift of value. It is useless for Einar to strain at the bond, and allege that the gift was given deceitfully; he may be right in saying that the words fell more softly when Gudmund brought out the cloak for him to better their friendship – mercilessly comes his brother's retort: “What fault is it of mine that you make yourself a fool, a thing of scorn!” And Einar takes the cloak and rides home. – Gudmund is perhaps of all the Icelandic saga chieftains the one who has advanced farthest beyond the ancient culture into a modern world, but all that is modern fades beside the power of the old custom of exchanging gifts to cow a man.

When Njal's sons come home and boast of the rich gifts with which Mord has honoured them at the feast he had made for them, Njal says with meaning: “He has surely seen his own gain in the bargain; take care now that you do not pay for them in the way he would wish.” But the advice is powerless in face of the fateful strength of the gifts; from these spring Njal's sons' attack upon their foster-brother Hoskuld and their own death by fire. – A prudent man would not accept a gift until he had mingled mind with the giver, and knew his plans. Once a man had persuaded another to accept the gage of friendship, then he could be sure of his powerful support. The fact of his saying thank you without further comment would mean, either that he understood the giver's purpose, or that he was ready for anything himself – or, of course, that he trusted the giver never to abuse his right.

The obligation implied by accepting a gift is powerfully manifested in the Germanic ideas of law. As a legal formula, the position is stated as for instance in paragraph 73 of Liutprand's Lombard edict: “A gift not confirmed by gift in return [8] or by thingatio, is not legally valid.” In other words, the giver could take it back, and if necessary, hale the objecting recipient before the courts. In Sweden, a disputed claim was proved by swearing the formula; “he gave and I rewarded.” Iceland also has its paragraph anent this question: “Where a gift to the value of 12 ounces or more is not recompensed by at least half its value, the giver can demand the return of his gift, on the death of the receiver, unless the gift in itself could be properly regarded as recompense or requital.” The precise delimitation of value and term in the Icelandic law book Grágás had no reliable foundation in the mind of ordinary men; there, a gift was a gift, whether small or great, and no lifelong consideration was admitted. When Ingolf's kinswoman Steinun came to Iceland, he offered her land from that he had taken up on settlement, but she preferred to give a cloak in return and call it a bargain, thinking that thus there would be less danger of any subsequent attempt to dispute her title.

We have innumerable illustrations to Liutprand's edicts in the legal documents of the period, showing clearly that the effect of a gift made in return for a gift was not dependent on its mercantile value. Thus we find (anno 792): According to the customs among us Lombards I have for greater surety accepted from you in return a glove, to the end that this gift of mine may stand unchallenged for you and for your descendants. Those who spoke thus were familiar with disputes arising between two parties who had exchanged friendly gifts, where a doubt as to ownership was met by the answer: you gave me the land yourself, -- and the answer was waved aside by the retort: Indeed? And did you give me anything in return?

Later, when the impersonal institution of trade had grown out of personal chaffering and barter, it was naturally the gift relationship which not only provided the etiquette and forms, but also the effectively binding formalities. The so-called arrha, or God's penny, is a legal adaptation of the sense of obligation on receiving a gift. He who accepts arrha undertakes to complete the bargain under discussion as soon as the would-be purchaser [9] appears with the sum demanded; he cannot meantime accept any offer from another party, however tempting.

A gift without return, without obligation, is inconceivable to the Germanic mind. If a man accepted a proof of friendship, and went his way as if nothing had happened, then the chattel received was not to be reckoned as a possession, but came almost under the heading of stolen goods. The obligation incurred by acceptance was more of an ideal than of a commercial nature, it went too deep to be measured in material values. In practical life, the amount of return would depend on the generosity of the receiver, and even more upon his position and standing. A king would not get off lightly in the matter of acknowledging the friendly offices of others. The whole psychology of generosity is given in a little humorous anecdote of a fellow, who raised himself from poverty to wealth and rank by his genius for exploiting the gift system as a rational speculation. There was once a young man with the promising name of Refr (fox) – thus the Gautrek saga. His youth was, according to the usual fairy tale conception, promising in itself, for he was one of those exceptional types of genius that never trouble to work, but simply lie on the hearth and feel themselves getting dirtier and dirtier. One fine day, his father turned him out of the house, and when he had realised all his resources, he stood on there on the road with a whetstone in his hand – his sole asset. With this he set out and made his way to King Gautrek. He had heard that the king, since the death of the queen, was sick in his mind, and did nothing all day long but sit on her grave and pass the time watching his hawk fly up, now and then encouraging the wearied by throwing stones at it. Who could say, now, but that natural stones might fail, and a whetstone be a welcome gift to the pensive king? And thus it proved. Refr took up his post behind the king, and then, when the king fumbled behind him in search of a stone, Refr thrust his sole treasure into the king's hand and went his way with a ring by way of recompense. The ring was then offered as a gift to King Ella, and Refer did not fail to mention the fact that King Gautrek gave rings for whetstones. Whereafter, a [10] king of England could hardly give less than a ship with men and a dog. The dog was the item Refr found easiest to dispense with, he gave it to King Hrolf, duly mentioning its origin; and after this fashion did Refr lay up a store of ships and weapons, until one day he was able to present himself again with a fleet and a following, to King Gautrek, as an eligible suitor. Thus he had well deserved the addition to his former name – Gjafa-Refr (Gift-fox).

We cannot at once discern from this story what it was in it flourishing period. Even the comic element which goes deepest into the foundations of human nature must purchase its power over laughter by a perilous dependence upon the external side of life, and it forfeits its power of directly raising a laugh when the social forms upon which it flourished disappear. But having once got the significance of a gift into the foreground of our consciousness, we can at least understand that the story of Prince Refr the Gift-sly once had power to make men's lungs shake and the tears roll down their cheeks, from the very fact of his idea being so entirely reasonable; and perhaps, by sharing their laugh, we may attain to some degree of intimacy with those people.

The gift is a social factor. Passing from man to man and to man again, it draws through society a mesh of obligations so strong that the whole state is moved if but one or another point of chain be properly grasped.

To many a one it may perhaps seem that he has fallen among chafferers, bargain-makers of the keenest lust and ability. “A gift always looks for its return,” the proverb fits excellently in the mouth of these clever bargainers. But going round to the other side, and regarding their conscientiousness in finding the due proportion between gift and return, one is tempted perhaps to set up gratitude as the grand principle in their ethics and jurisprudence.

Our forefathers themselves can teach us better. They take gratitude and calculation for what they are, without feeling ashamed themselves of either. They pass by all that is accidental, [11] and go straight in to the object itself. It is not the giving that acts, they say, but the gift. None can, we learn, free himself from the influence of things about him, such as are in his own guardianship, and such as lie near enough to be entangled in his acts.

The Northmen admit openly that they are slaves of gold and silver – and of iron. And then they raise a hymn to the metals, that must grate upon all pecuniary sense of decency. They make the greatest poems frankly in praise of gold, and teach us, with the irresistible logic of life, that the gold-road in to human kind does not end blindly in the lower passions, but cuts into the sublimest centres of spirit and feeling. The figure which civilization has rendered comic, by reducing his brain to a straight line, that of the miser, is set up by the ancient culture simply as the pathetic symbol of the thousand devious windings of the human soul.

Rejoicing over gold rings out broad and strong through all Germanic poetry. A poem such as the Beowulf is illuminated by the yellow gleam. The poem tells, we should say of the dire straits of the Danes, when night after night they are doomed to suffer the visits of the monster from the marshes, and of the heroic deeds of the strange hero, when he waits for the beast in the hall, and afterwards meets its mother in combat in the depth of the swamp, and thus delivers the land from plague. Yes, the monster is there, and the Danish king, and Beowulf and the fight and the deliverance, and much besides. And the poem really tells of the hero and the monster and their coming to grips, of agony and relief – but taking the epic as a whole and letting it unfold itself again in memory, one may arrive at a totally difference view of its contents. First of all an echo of laughter and play in the most splendid of all kingly halls; then suddenly the rejoicing dies away in an ill-boding silence, when the beast has made its first visit; it rises again with drinking and song and the dealing out of gold on the arrival of the stranger, falls silent a while in expectation of the result of the battle, and then bursts forth in the hall, where the king proffers gifts of price to the victor, and Beowulf

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