The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER IV

EXCHANGE OF GIFTS

When an article of value is passed across the boundary of frith and grasped by alien hands, a fusion of life takes place, which binds men one to another with an obligation of the same character as that of frith itself. The great “bargain” beyond all others is that of alliance by marriage, and its seriousness is apparent in the reciprocal interest of the relatives on both sides, a feeling of unity which is not dependent on the mood of the moment. They could not sit still and see each other beaten either in combat or at law, for the defeat of their brothers-in-law would jeopardise their own good fame; either part considered it impossible to maintain their own honour without helping the other, as the Icelanders would express it. It was indeed frith that was woven when a woman passed from clan to clan as friðu-síbb, “kinswoman in frith”.

Frith lay in the mundr, bridal sum or bridal gift, which forms the centre of that bargain which was formed between two circles of kin. The persons acting are on both sides the clan as a whole, through its personifications; the bridegroom's spokesman and the maiden's guardian act on behalf of all their respective kin. In historical times, the bridal sum had come to be the right of the father or guardian, an increase of fortune accrueing to the happy procreator of daughters; even now, however, there still remained something of the ancient solidarity which demanded that the gift should percolate through the whole clan. The ancient customs held in extraordinary cases; as for instance when the bride's father and brother were lacking, and a more [55] distant kinsman stood guardian; then, the rights of the kinsmen reasserted themselves.

In the Germanic system, it is not the wife who brings a dowry, says Tacitus, but the husband who offers gifts to the wife. “The parents and relations are present to approve these gifts — gifts not devised for ministering to female fads, nor for the adornment of the person of the bride, but oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield and spear or sword; by these gifts the bride is won, and she herself, in turn, brings some piece of armour to her husband.” And Tacitus is substantially correct, though not in the romantic sense he imagined, when he adds: “Here is the gist of the bond between them, here in their eyes its mysterious sacrament, the divinity which hedges it.”

Exchange of gifts is the only way to friendship and alliance. “They gave each other gifts, and parted as friends”, “they exchanged gifts and made a pact of friendship together”, such phrases occur again and again in the Icelandic sagas, and the best commentary upon the relation between the two things lies in the identification of language: “there was between them a warm friendship and exchange of gifts”.

The ancients could not define kinship better than they have done in the formula of adopting into the clan: to sitting and seat, to full inheritance, to fine and rings, to gift and return — that is to say, the kinsman is known by the fact that he has a seat in the hail, a right to inherit, to share in fines and vengeance, and to make friends.

It makes no difference then, either way, in the unanimity between men, whether the one side or the other have precedence in the words; for when the gift is mentioned, friendship sits down beside it, and if friendship be invited in, the door must be held open for the gift. The normal order of life is for him who seeks friendship to hold forth his gift and thus declare his inclination. Or he goes to his neighbour and opens negotiations with the words: “There has for many reasons been a coldness between us; now I would enter into friendship with you, and you shall have as a gift from me the best stud horse in the district.” Even though perhaps a sharp ear may discern here [56] and there a somewhat business-like ring in the voice of these Icelandic chieftains offering gifts, there is nothing in the words themselves to betray them. The words come glibly to the tongue of the English poet when he lets his beloved apostle Andreas speak to the “creator of the world” in the guise of a sailor. Andreas was, according to the decree of the highest, on his way to the distant anthropophagous Mermedons in order to declare the good tidings unto them, when he was ferried across the sea by an unknown ship's captain; during the voyage, the experienced fisherman sat watching with ever-widening eyes the stranger's skill in seamanship, until at last he burst out delightedly: “Never met I steersman stronger, quicker of wit or wiser in words; hear me now that' I ask another boon: though I am poor in rings and hammered treasures to give in exchange, yet. I would gladly have your friendship.” The poet who created these verses, had experienced a new age and new customs, the wealth of which lay in emancipating itself from the mammon of unrighteousness; he had learned to imagine foster-brotherhood between men whose only wealth was the word; but in order to express this experience, he must first come to terms with the language at his disposal.

When ancient enemies could settle their differences out of hand, and establish lasting agreement between themselves and those near to them, it was because they could exchange gifts and enter into a bargain. Gregory the clerk tells of an amicable ending to the disputes between Leuvigild, king of the Goths, and Theodomer, king of the Suevi, in terms which can be matched almost word for word from the sagas dealing with reconciliation of enemies in the North: “they exchanged gifts, and returned, each to his home.”

The weregild carried with it a real reconciliation, which to later generations has become dimmed by the passing of value into coin. True, the paying of blood money might be, and often must be, humiliating, but at the innermost of its being there lies an idea of amending, or reparation, which sets minds straight again, and makes it impossible for the two clans thereafter to think crookedly of each other. The Anglo-Saxon and Scan- [57] dinavian word bót or fine means nothing more and nothing less than mending or restoring. The bargain produced frith, or, to express the same thing in another way, and make its full validity more plain: the bargain brings about a relationship between the two parties which implies the impossibility of a breach of frith in the sternest sense, and therefore, all members of the offended circle of kin must have a share in the payment, so that the minds of all might be affected in like manner. It is not intended to take effect for a little while only, but wholly and for all time: as long as “wind soughs from the cloud, grass grows, tree puts forth leaves, sun rises up and the world stands.” It is not intended merely to settle one matter, this particular one, but to make minds more willing to frith in case of further dispute arising. Even in Eric's Law of Sealand we still find the old idea, that men should be milder towards an enemy when he has paid his fine than towards any other, and even should he later give further cause of offence, one must not set off at once after vengeance, but first endeavour to obtain restitution at law. It was no mere empty phrase when the frith formula in Iceland called the parties reconciled by the most intimate name, and declared that they should “share knife and joint of meat and all between them as friends and not as enemies, and should cause of quarrel arise between them in after days, then goods shall pay for the wrong, and never spear let blood;” it must necessarily mean the words as they stand, since it can cold-bloodedly pass on to the conclusion that “the one of you who tramples on peace made, and strikes at frith once given, he shall wander aimlessly as a hunted wolf, as far as ever men hunt wolves to their farthest.”

It has been rightly said that the more drastic the decrees set up as a guard for peace and order, the gloomier prospect for peace present and to come; a threat is of its nature ineffective, since its guarantor is a future that men may always hope can be outwitted. But the solemnity of such a curse as this lies in the very fact that it is not a threat, and does not rely on a fickle future to make its words good, but proceeds out of a conviction that what is feared, far from being a thing [58] that may or may not take effect upon the trespasser, is actually at the moment taking its course within him, if the will to evil be there. The long series of anathemas is not a heaping up of terrifying effects calculated to hammer good will down into the soul stroke by stroke, — it is a description of the niding, with the addition that the peace here concluded has the same hardness as any other natural frith and no less than any other will serve as the test of whether a man is to belong to the world of humankind or not.

One might safely trust to the gift and give it full power to speak on one's behalf, for the soul in it would of itself reach in to the obligation, to honour, must bind luck and weave fate into fate, must produce will, or place a new element into it. Therefore, no power on earth can check the effect of a gift halfway, when it has once passed from hand to hand, and therefore, none can resist the spiritual effect of that which he has suffered to come too near.

On the day when the free state of Iceland was near breaking into two pieces over the conflict between the old religion and the faith of Christ, Thorgeir the Law-speaker saved his country, because be was old-fashioned enough to realise that one can become peaceable by an effort of will. The matter had gone so far that the old heathen party stood ready armed to drive the Christians from the thing-place, and the hosts of the Christians renounced the law-state of their countrymen, to form a Christian state beside the old; and the moment this new law had been proclaimed, Iceland would have been two peoples, territorially intermingled, like a body with its organs divided into two opposing groups. Siduhall, leader of the Christians, shrank from the responsibility, and took the remarkable step of buying over the old leader of the free state to formulate the Christian laws. After Thorgeir had lain a whole day with his cloak over his head pondering on things present and to come, he came forth, the old heathen, with a law that forced all in under the new regime and made Iceland a Christian country. In a speech he set forth peace and its opposite before his countrymen, and led them to the proper choice by a story of old times: Once, the [59]

kings of Norway and Denmark were at constant feud, until the people wearied of the unending war and forced the kings to peace against their will, by the simple means of exchanging gifts at some years' interval, and so their friendship lasted all their life. — Thorgeir could never have spoken so, still less could anyone later have let him speak so, if he and his hearers had not understood the point of the story, and the point was strong enough to convert a nation.

Men who could relate, and could understand, such a story as that of the kings of Denmark and Norway felt an instinctive unwillingness to have others' souls in their immediate neighbourhood. And they showed their uneasiness. On the evening before Æthelstan fought his decisive battle against the Northmen at Brunanburh, there came, according to William of Malmesbury, a strange harper into the camp, sat down at the entrance to the king's tent, and played so skilfully that the king asked him in, to delight the company at meat. After the meal, when a council of war was to be held, the harper was dismissed with a gift; but one of the men, having his own reasons for observing the stranger closely, saw that he hid the gold in the earth before he left; and he counselled King Æthelstan therefore to move his tent, for the guest was none other than Olaf Sigtryggson, the Northmen's king.

William of course, does not fathom the Norse king's motive — he considers the act due to his contempt for the gift — and Olaf himself would perhaps find it difficult to explain if questioned, but he felt that if he suffered the alien will to cling to him, he must be prepared to find it taking his own luck into service against himself; nay more, that his own will and insight would turn treacherously against him, and not only check his progress, but break him in his headlong career. A man like the crafty Frank Chiodevech knew well how to use the power of dead things as a means to bias people's will. The Frank had secretly sent gifts in offer of marriage to the Burgundian princess Chrotilde, but when later be made public announcement of his proposal, he was met with a curt refusal from the lady's uncle. Then the people cried: First see if there have not been gifts

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page