The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


Lying so near to the centre of human life, a gift may have double-edged effect. It is a sign of honour or of dishonour, of subjugation as of submission. Now it calls forth boldness in the receiver, now it flings him back on his defence; a man may fear his neighbour's gold, or he may make use of it; but he never plays with it. For two men who cannot share the world between them in other wise than by the decision of arms, caution will be the normal attitude; Olaf Sigtryggson does not blindly challenge fate, by carrying away with him the gift of Æthelstan. Only he who feels in himself unshakable superiority and can safely call every stake his own beforehand, ventures upon such a game as Chlodevech, according to the story — or the legend — won over the Burgundians.

The effects produced by exchange of gifts will depend on the relation between the two lucks colliding. When a man resigns after long service, and the king gives him the sword he himself has long borne, with the words: “I think luck will go with it, and thereto you shall also have my friendship,” then the man has luck added to that he previously possessed, he gains era, honour, as the gift is actually called in early Saxon. But surely as alliance with an equal or a superior gives an increase of strength, so also union with a luck of inferior character will prove a hindrance. The refusal of a gift thus easily takes on a touch of affront; a plain and distinct: “my luck is too good,” and at the same time its equivalent: “I do not trust in your honour, your will.” This thought is clearly expressed in Hord's saga, when the hero declares his doubts anent the acceptance of a friendly gift by saying: “I do not quite know about this, for it seems to me likely that you will not keep your friendship with me.” The same thought underlies the dialogue between Einar Thambarskelfir, the Norwegian magnate, and Thorstein, the son of Siduhall, an Icelander of good standing who had made himself obnoxious to the king of Norway. Thorstein sought refuge with Einar and offered him a stately gift, but Einar was reluctant to bind himself to the outlaw, being loth to involve himself in any conflict with his king. When Einar gently draws back, Thorstein urges his gifts in these [73] words: “You can surely accept a gift from such a man as I.” Einar's son Eindridi, on the other hand, approves of the gift, and of the man as well. “There is good man's worth (mannkaup) in him,” he says to his father, meaning: he is a man with whom it is worth while to close a bargain (kaup), and when, in opposition to his father's wish, he has accepted the splendid horses, Einar is forced to urge the cause of the outlawed Thorstein before the king, even going to the length of threatening to renounce his allegiance and stand up in arms against his lord.

Where an inferior man is dealing with a greater, and especially one with king's luck, the effect can only be of one sort; that the greater luck will swallow up the less. The king's men, those who must have their centre of will and devotion in the king, are his “ring-takers”, and their power and good fortune are dependent upon his progress. As long as they accept his gifts and eat his bread, they fight only for him and for his honour, and only thereby for their own. The enormous superiority of his luck renders the position one-sided, amounting almost to submission. Between two who reckon themselves as equals, the gift must necessarily be reciprocal, lest one should by craft acquire the advantage; it is altogether different between warriors or subjects and their king, and therefore, a king's gifts are not requited, as were ordinary gifts. When the king of Norway gave one of his men a title and lands, the name and honour were confirmed with many honourable gifts. If the people conferred on a claimant to the throne the name of king, this was not confirmed by tribute from those conferring; here also the king was the giver. The manner in which a gift might serve to emphasise self-assertion and the feeling of equality is shown to all posterity by the peasants of the Telemark in their conflict with King Harald, when he would teach them to pay taxes. The King's endeavours to instil into the Morsemen the new and difficult art had gradually taken effect on the slow pupils, more especially after the more unruly elements had been removed; only in far off Telemark did the old benighted ignorance still prevail, with the principle that the king, albeit a mighty man enough, was no superman; again and again the king sent glib [74] spokesmen to the place, but despite all their efforts, the theory failed to penetrate into those thick skulls. “Nay,” says one of the great yeomen at last, Asgrim of Fiflavellir, “tribute we will not pay, but we are nowise unwilling to send the king our friendly gifts,” and they send him gifts of very stately worth. But Harald refuses to accept them: “Carry his gifts to him again; I am to be king over this land, and declare what is law and right; I, and not Asgrim.”

Another story from a far later time shows the power of a gift to teach the receiver his place. When Swein Estridson had been staying for some time at the court of Magnus the Good, the king one day offered him a cloak and a bowl of mead, with the words: “With these I give you the name of earl and power to rule in Denmark.” But Swein, instead of putting on the cloak, flushed fiery red and handed it to one of his men. And Einar Thambarskelfir's exclamation: “This earl is all too great,” shows how deeply all parties present realised the seriousness of the action.

But that which is in touch with men's innermost soul life has a certain elasticity, definite though it be. The king was not excluded from all exchange of gifts; he could accept a kindness, and could repay the gifts of good men, and that with a good heart. The giver was not necessarily, obliged to appear in humble guise for the king to accept his friendship without hesitation; as long as there was no possibility of official misconstruction, prince and noble could meet in equal assurance of goodwill. But the king must, of course, be careful not to accept unwittingly what might prove a claim to equality, for in such case, opposition would wax great upon his own hamingja. For the luck contained in a gift is not only a soul, but a disposition and a wish, the actual state of the soul, and it is this question: what dos he want, what does he mean? which leads a man to ask for time to consider the gift, and makes him loth to touch the honour sent to his door from afar. It was demanded that the goodwill should accompany the gift in open words; the receiver could trust the words because they were “laid upon” the gift, or entered into it, and passed with the object from [75] hand to hand. “Take this sword; therewith I give you my friendship,” or “See this sword, for that, ill-luck shall ever spring forth in your race,” such words are real; the sword is inspired with friendly feelings or with hate, just as the name and the father's prophecy are ratified in the gift that fixes the name of the child.

In the case of fines for killing, the old feelings must come forth to meet us in their full strength, partly crystalilsed into legal forms. At one time, the man bereft of his kinsman thrusts the gold from him in contempt, almost as a defilement, at another he welcomes the restitution with both hands, or says, as does Gunnar when Njal comes with the fine: “No man dashes honour from him when it is offered.” Both sides of the thought have here again been chiselled out by Egil; it is he who utters the contemptuous words of an age that has grown used to selling its kin for gold — “the striker-down of kinsmen” he calls one who accepts a fine, as if by so doing, the man with whom vengeance lay were depriving the dead of his last hope of rebirth, — and he it is again who sits in Æthelstan's hall and offers thanks for the gift with the words: “Now I have found one that could smooth the furrows of the forehead and raise the lowering brows.” It is of no avail to seek the explanation of Egil's varying judgement by analysing his moods in the two moments; his words are in both cases founded in the same ethical value of the weregild. The fine is not a payment intended to dull the sense of honour in the offended party, but on the contrary, is to add honour to honour. Therefore, it behoves a man to see exactly what sort of rings are thus brought into the family. The condition for acceptance of a peaceable settlement is that both parties feel themselves as equals; neither family must consider its luck so much better and nobler that the alliance impoverishes the receiver instead of enriching him. Legally, this fear of inequality in alliance finds its expression in the oath of equity, that is to say: the parties offering payment shall first swear that they themselves would have accepted such fine had they themselves been the injured party. In later times, when the old view of the spiritual value of property had faded, [76] and was replaced by a purely mercantile valuation, the fine took on a loathsome ring of coin, and men came to fear the accusation of “carrying kinsmen in their purse”, even though the feeling of the fine as a proof of honour shown never entirely disappeared.

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