The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons



“It was an unforgivable misfortune that this sword should go out of our family,” says the hero of a legendary saga despairingly, on seeing the ancient weapon of his clan turned against him; and at that moment, he speaks on behalf of his forefathers and all his kin. Men watched over their treasures, lest they should be lost by any incautious action; as a matter of fact, every transfer of property, even when most well-considered, had some slight element of risk. Modern peasants, at any rate those from isolated parts, have still their misgivings in matters of buying and selling. They would not challenge Providence by refusing the aid of a loan to one in need, when need comes to their door, but they would not, on the other hand, give Providence's opposite their little finger by shaking off their own good possessions, at the risk of never being able to make them cling on properly again. In order that the receiver shall not be able to filch the luck out of their hands, they carefully take three grains of corn from the bushel they lend, three hairs of the head .of cattle sold, thus retaining the luck of the farmstead themselves. They give the receiver to understand: “The seed-corn you may have, the seed-luck I will keep.” But if the one acts thus with anxious care, the purchaser is no less on tenterhooks for fear lest overmuch rethain behind; it is no pleasant thought that the seller should stand behind him, gloating over the sight of a man solemnly walking off with an empty halter, the steps he hears at his back being merely those of a sham cow, with no more milk-soul in it than the hempen cord. And [78] if he come home with the assurance that everything possible has been done to secure the personality of the animal, he is careful to incorporate his new acquisition into the luck of the house, and see that it can be assimilated into the new sphere of action. He takes it with him into the room that it can see the fire on the hearth and take a wisp of hay of the lap of the housewife, so that it may not feel any longing for its former home. Or the cow is led three times round a stone set firm in the earth, that it may thrive, and feel no wish to run away.

The same thing was done in the old days. It was demanded that the owner should lay his whole mind in the transfer, and give the soul as well as the externals; care was take to prevent his sucking up the luck himself, before handing over the property. We know the Nordic form for transfer of land, skeyting, as it was called: the owner led the purchaser out into the lot, bade him be seated, and poured some of the soil from the field into the tail -- skant – of his cloak; a later age found it more convenient to let the ceremony take place at the law-thing, or in the house, but always with the necessary condition that the soil be taken from the piece of land to be sold. In Norway, transfers of house and home and property were effected by taking earth from the four corners of the hearth, the high seat, and the place where field and meadow, woodland and grazing land met. In all essentials, the southern forms agree with those of the North; somewhat fuller, perhaps, but no less tangible or indispensable. There, one had to hand over a branch cut off on the spot, and the knife with which it was cut, a piece of turf of handful of mould from the soil, in order to ensure the buyer full enjoyment of the property – invest him with the ownership; and on handing over house and home, the bargain was fixed “by hinge and door” presumably by the owner taking the other party's hand and leading it to grasp the doorpost. Even then the buyer was not content, until the other had demonstratively left the place, throwing something of his own – generally perhaps a stick – behind him, and therewith his luck in the place. [79]

The buyer was concerned to see that the thing in its entirely left its former owner and attached itself to the new. The test would be seen when he commenced to use what he had bought, it would then become apparent whether it willingly served him to the full of its power. There might come a day when his honour depended on whether the property was for him; for he would be little better than a thief if it did not declare itself one with his luck. If for instance, he had bought a piece of land, and the former owner would force him out of possession by simply denying his right of purchase, then the matter can be decided by a single combat; the two men meet, each first thrusts his sword into the earth, or into a turf from the land, and the result of the battle will then show which of the two has succeeded in assimilating the luck of the land into himself and his strength.

The right of the Saxons to their land was created on the day one of the immigrants sold his gold to a Thuringian for as much of the soil as would cover a strip of his cloak. For a brief while the Thuringians went about deriding these vikings who sat on the shore starving their wits away; but the Saxons spread the soil carefully around to enclose the space of a camp, and from that day forward their luck changed. Hitherto they had fought in van, in constant peril of being driven into the sea, but from now onwards they drove the Thuringians ever farther and farther inland.

That the party relinquishing gives his “whole” mind means that he gives a gracious mind, not turning his evil thoughts toward the recipient and letting him carry them away with the goods. Men would have things so that nothing was “laid upon them”, so that they were not inspired with a prejudice fatal to the user. When Hreidmar in his simplicity accepted payment from the gods for the killing of his son, and the, after being promised peace, was surprised by Loki's words: “The gold is taken, a rich ransom for my head, but there waits your son no luck of it; it shall be your bane and his,” too late he complains: “You gave gifts, but not gifts of goodwill; you gave not with a whole mind; for your life had been forfeit to me here had I guessed your crafty plan.” [80]

The giver was expected to add his significant utterance: “I will give you the sword, and may you enjoy it.” In the Beowulf, the gift scene is again and again brought before our eyes: “Weapons and horses gave he Beowulf to have, and bade him use them well,” or, “Beowulf, dear one, use this ring and this byrnie with luck, have joy of these gifts and thriving go with them.” Even though this “enjoy it well” may perhaps at a pinch be interpreted as meaning “use it well”, it is but a poor rendering of the ancient word neótan. Used of a weapon, it means to assimilate its power and move it from within through mastery of its luck and soul – and then to wield it with force. The same lies in the words wherewith a Norse king confirmed his gift: “Here is a sword, and with it goes my friendship,” or with the further addition: “I think that luck goes with it, and therewith goes my friendship.”

One might wish for a still safer assurance of the other party's goodwill, and would then ask him for an independent proof. It lies in the nature of the gift itself, that such a gift also had legal significance, it contained a proof that the deal was honest, and it might serve as a proof of ownership. In the south, a glove or mitten was a traditional addition to a deal, so that it either figures beside mould and brand and turf in a sale of land, or independently, as a means of transfer, testifying to the buyer that the land is his, and shall be made over to him in due form.

If the handing out of a gift did not mean a declaration of friendship, then it was a promise. Gift shades into a pledge. The Anglo-Saxon ved contains an indication of the original value of handing over an object, meaning as it does both a gift and a pledge and further, in a derivative sense, a promise or covenant.

The soul surrendered in the thing was, as we have seen, an individual actual mind, or, as we should say, a psychological state, only backed up by the whole, past and present and future power and responsibility of the hamingja. And in handing over his pledge, the giver could and would state in words what were the attitude of his mind in giving, if only he understood the [81] by no means easy – art of guiding words aright and driving the right hamingja into them. All that is said and promised, reserved and required is “laid upon”, or as another expression runs in the north, “laud under” the thing and thus handed over to the opposite party. What the opponent took was the actual asseveration, the surrender of the will – the man gave his word literally. So obligation holds good through all; no tacit reservation, no circumstances occurring, no question of what is reasonable can break or even soften it. If, finally, the party promising ran from himself, then the effects would be very soon evident in him. Not until villainy had come to be a purely social misfortune was there any need to add: “that he shall be beyond the law.”

The ancient sense of right always imposes one condition for the recognition of legal validity, to wit, reality. It asked: did this really happen, and where is the sign of that transformation in you and in the thing, which must be the consequence of any bargain? Then came he whom the dispute concerned, and answered: See, here is my proof that he acted, and thereupon he hold up the other party's word and will. To the Teutonic mind, it was certainly true that a word is a word, but men understood thereby that the word must be alive, or simply must be the man himself; and then it is a consequence of the nature of the soul that it retained, down to the very smallest particles, its character of hamingja, and must answer for the tiniest fraction of a promise left in the keeping of other people. Hence the power of curses; they do not bully, they do not threaten, they describe a state of things which will come about as soon as one has, in the straightforward sense, suffered damage to one's soul, and their doomsday earnestness just depends on the words' containing a correct presentment of something actual.

If one could only be sure of getting hamingja directly, one could very well place one's trust in a man who had not the external word ready at the moment; the Northman took the other party by the hand and let him give his mind in the touch, the two thus building a bridge by which promise and will passed [82] from man to man. A man would give his kinswoman in betrothal to another by offering his hand to the other to take. An agreement was confirmed by “laying hands together”, and in northern legal procedure, we have the expressions to “fasten” or “fix” oath, witnesses, judgement, meaning that a man pledges himself to bring evidence or to abide by the decision of the court, without any indication that material addition was the first condition for recognition of the promise. A purchase, a right, a task, etc. would be “handselled”, that is to say, a grasp of the hand served to transmit to another either property or the conduct of a lawsuit or a responsibility. “We name us witnesses to the fact that you fasten me your kinswoman with lawful right, and handsel me the dowry – a whole rede and rede without reserve,” runs the ritual in the Grágás, and the words were at first understood literally, so that the right lay in the hand offered, passing thence to the receiver. Because the two parties understood the validity of the bargain, and both felt the change in themselves when the right or responsibility passed from one to the other, the grasp of the hand had legally binding force, so that the law can establish it as a criterion of what has power and what is powerless. A bargain agreed upon and no more may be broken upon payment of two ounces, as the Danish law of Scania expresses it, but after handsel, it would cost six. If the words promise and handsel take each at the extremity of their meaning, they come to stand as opposites; the greatest possible trust in a man's honesty is expressed by saying: “Your promises are as good as others' handsel.”

The hesitation of the ancients in buying and selling was no less strong than is that of the common people to-day – rather the contrary; but their character was determined by the fact that a deal in those days was a different thing from what it is now. A bargain was always an exchange of gifts, which again means: always alliance and brotherhood; it was impossible to sight at the thing itself and exclude the owner from the horizon. No one could buy a horse or weapons without at the same time purchasing the owner's friendship, and with that, the friendship of the whole clan; as long as the power of the sword and [83] the utility of a beast constituted luck, the one could not be conceived without the other. In order to utilise a thing at all, it was necessary to enter into relations with the whole circle of men in whose keeping it was. And this double acquisition of the bodily and the soul-part in once is just what the Germanic mind understood by a bargain; they bargain about a thing, as they bargain about friendship and marriage.

Long before the Germanic peoples come forth into the full light of history, they had to some extent changed barter and alliance into merchandising. The very word for a bargain, Nordic kaup, Anglo-Saxon ceap, derived from Latin caupo, contains evidence of an advance in mercantile experience, while at the same time the linguistic usage immortalises the temporary victory of the old thoughts. In the interval which lies between the very early century when the word was brought into Northern Europe, and the time when our law-books were made, a fateful chance has taken place in the estimation of things as regards their value to the owner; the gold ring has found its supreme court in the scale, with its weights running into one, two, three, and fractions; treasures have changed into capital yielding interest, the earth has come to be a sort of small change that can pass from hand to hand. From a people living on the soil and on their cattle, settling their accounts among themselves in cloaks and cows, the Germanic tribes have advanced to the rank of tradespeople, occupied with agriculture and stock-breeding, counting in yards of cloth or units of the value of a cow, and the effect of this change in the fundamental economical conditions forces its way irresistibly into all institutions – nowhere, perhaps, more victoriously than in the bargaining for a bride, where the payment of bride-money serves as the foundation of the wife's pecuniary security, or even to assure her a decent pension in the case of widowhood. Such a rearrangement of the world constitutes the irrevocable commencement of the emancipation of things, whereafter they must, sooner or later, break through the piety which tied them to clan and parish, and learn to trip it nimbly from land's end to land's end; and men have already begun to acquire the adroit fingers

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