The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons

CHAPTER VI

THE COMMON BOARD

When King Magnus, perhaps a little by surprise, sought to bind Swein Estridson to subjection as his vassal, he did not only offer him a cloak, but added thereto a bowl of mead. Swein did not put on the cloak, and probably did not taste the mead either; he feared the latter no less than the former.

All that a gift could do, food and drink could also bring about; it could mean honour or dishonour, could bind and loose, give good fortune and act as a cheek upon luck.

Men drank to each other, as the saying went in the olden days; just as one drank wedding to a woman and thus drew her into one's own circle, so also one drank to one's neighbor, in such wise as to reach him, obtain him, and draw him into one's frith. Therefore, an answer such as this: “I have enjoyed his hospitality,” is sufficient to justify a man in a flat refusal to join in an action against his quondam host, and the argument may perhaps force a man to take sides with the party opposed to that where his place would naturally be. Though it be but a single mouthful, it may, in a fateful moment, suffice to give a decisive turn to the future.

King Magnus was once sitting at meat on board his ship. A man came across the deck and up into the high poop where the king sat, broke off a piece of the bread and ate. The king looked at him, and asked his name. “I am called Thorfin.” “Are you Earl Thorfin?” – “Yes, so men call me in the west.” -- “True it is, Earl, I had in mind, if ever we should meet, to take care that you should say nothing to anyone of our meeting; [91] but after what has happened now, it would not become me to have you killed.” And there were no inconsiderable matters outstanding between the two: Thorfin had played an ugly joke upon the king's plans of sovereignty, killed his kinsman Rognvald, the tool of the king's political plans on the islands of the west, and very ungently swept the king's retainers off the board.

Food has the same power as a gift to reveal the heart's thought and rede. Out of the ale arise honour and dishonour, it can raise a man in his self-esteem, and let loose all the ill spirits of an affront in him. The king honours his guest by drinking to him in his good brew and letting the horn be carried to his place, and guests honour one another by drinking together from the cup; throughout the whole of the Middle Ages and right down to our own times, men have continued to respect the cup of honour. He who would avoid offending the bridal pair must needs drink of their “cup of honor”, as it is still called among modern peasants. When equals are seated side by side at table, they watch jealously to see that their advances are fully appreciated, and regard it as a dire insult if the one they drink to fail to “do right”, -- refuses to accept the drink, or shows the lukewarmness of his feelings by only drinking half; and a chieftain exhibits the greatest punctiliousness in the matter of what is handed to him and who offers himself as a drink-fellow. King Harald regarded it as a disgrace t sit and be drunk to by King Magnus' half-brother Thorir, and gave vent to his feelings in a scornful verse with an allusion to his birth.

The common people's fear of being ill-used in drinking together is so violent as to show that the instinct has its roots deep down in human dignity itself. When Swedish peasants in, thought not of, the century of enlightenment, jump up and grasp their knives because they cannot get their respective thirsts to keep pace, they are hardly in a position to explain their indignation, save perhaps by an old proverb -- the explanation of which again lies centuries before their own time – to the effect that he who fails a man in drinking will fail him in other things. [92]

The final termination of all differences is the sharing of food and drink. A reconciliation did not hold good until it had been confirmed by a common meal. In the year 577, Gunnthram and Childebert ate and drank together, and parted in friendly feeling after having honoured each other with rich gifts. Adam of Bremen's heathen contemporaries in the North feasted eight days together when they agreed upon alliance, and the Icelandic sagas tell often enough of how former coolness was turned to its opposite by the parties exchanging gifts, vowing mutual friendship and inviting each other to a feast.

The bargain for a wife was prepared with caution and craft. Where the bargain itself falls into several minor agreements: suit, betrothal, wedding and leading home, each separate item has also to be confirmed by an “ale”. When peasants in Norway after the provisional agreement, first assemble at an “ale feast to talk the matter out”, at the house of the bride's parents, where further details are arranged and the betrothal confirmed, then at a corresponding feast with the bridegroom's family, and only then proceed to the wedding, they are in all probability only doing what ancient custom demanded.

After the bridal bargain comes the gift bargain, and demands its confirmation at table. Here, we read of the transaction's being effected per cibum et polum, by food and drink, in the receiver's house, and this per has the same force as the “by” which declares that a deal or a payment as been effected in and through the vadium, or pledge, which the party concerned has tendered. Perhaps the solemnity of a meal among our southern kinsmen has falled somewhat into the background, which may have some connection with the fanciful cult of symbolic gifts which grew so such an extent in German law; but in the North it lasted even more stubbornly than the faith in the pledge itself. Without a cup to soften the parting with the pig just sold, and confirm the joy at the shining dollars paid, it is hardly possible, among the peasantry, to buy or sell at all, and if a man have a weak stomach or a weak head to look after, he must excuse himself by an assurance of his sincerity: “The bargain stands, for all that.” [93]

To reckon up all the legal transactions which called for a “cup” in conclusion of the bargain would mean giving a list of all the transactions that could take place in Germanic society, and the demand lies deeper than in a misty impulse to do what is right. The law looks again and again to the convivial wind-up as a legal criterion. Icelandic law does not accord legality to a wedding, unless six persons at least had eaten, drunk and bargained the two clans into alliance, the Swedes are content to register habit and custom, saying for instance: kin shall be asked to a wedding as far as the third degree, i.e. as far as normal relationship goes. Or again, as in the Norwegian Bjarkeyajar rétt, ale might be made the arbitrator, so that a son could be declared born in lawful wedlock when his mother was brought for lawful bride money (mundr) and a cask of ale had been purchased for the wedding, and drunk in the presence of two brides-men and two brides-women, a male and a female servant.

There is still something vulnerable about this old means of compact, which could so force human beings together that their slightest action under its influence became a fact in law and right. When the sharing of food could thus in course of time become a sign of compact, it was because it had once been established in experience. The legality of the action arose from the fact that both parties felt the change in them, and thus experienced the rightness of the new state; it was demanded that the great bowls, those on which important decisions depended, should be emptied to the last drop, in order that the will to hold by the bargain might be firmly secured. And men knew that an incautious mouthful might deprive a man of his self-control, or at any rate allow some other influence to affect his will and paralyse his power of further progress. The refusal comes with a force of its own: “my errand is of another sort than to eat food,” when a man comes knocking up the master of the house to demand a settlement. “If I could but get the stiff-necked clerk to eat with me, I should know how to manage him easily enough” – this approximately was the thought of the crafty Merovingian, Chilperich, when, on his meeting with [94] Gregory, he sought to persuade him to take some refreshment; but on this point, Gregory was as good a Teuton as the king, and knew how to take care of himself. “Let us first straighten out what is amiss; then we can afterwards drink our settlement fast,” or, as the matter might also be put, with Gregory's not uncommon two-legged logic: “Our eating shall be to do God's will, not suffering ourselves to be tempted by the lust of the flesh, to the forgetting of His commandments; therefore, before I eat, you must promise not to trespass against the rules of the church.”

A man surrendered himself completely to his opponent the moment he handed him the cup and drank with him; on those two hands reached out toward each other with the vessel, there balanced a future which the least uncertainty could upset, to the misfortune of two human beings. After the death of the Lombard king Authari, his queen, Theodolind, was asked by the people to accept the dignity herself, and choose a husband with a strong hand to rule the kingdom. With the advice of wise men, she chose Duke Agilulf of Turin, and hastily invited him to a meeting. The two met at Laumellum, and after they had spoken together a while, she had wine brought, drank first herself and handed Agilulf the rest. When he had taken the cup and would kiss her hand, she said with a smile and a blush that it was not fitting he should kiss her hand who was to kiss her lips. She bade him stand up and spoke to him of wedding and rulership.

Thus Paulus Diaconus. And here, we should be poor readers if we failed to understand that the little scene has a tension of its own, great enough to give rise to a tragedy. Theodolind has, with the cup, offered her own honour, and given it into his hand, to do with as he pleases; she has bound herself as Brynhild bound herself to Sigurd by her vow to possess him who rode the flame; hesitation on Agilulf's part to accept the vow and make it a reality would fling her into unluck and force her later vengeance.

Whether the future consists in wedding or in the new acquisition of property, the act of drinking together is a giving and [95] receiving both the joy of the new state and the power to enjoy it. The two parties drank njótsminni, a cup that could make the purchaser njótr, one who should enjoy the luck of the thing; and the modern formula for lídkøb – as the bargain cup is called in Danish – still contains a brief idea of all the effects which the purchase cup produces on buyer and seller as well as on the thing transferred; though I do not mean to imply that the ritual is handed down from earliest times. The seller testifies his contentment with the price, guarantees that the article is full and whole and shall be handed over to be the other's property entirely and for ever, without reserve, without flaw, with the luck in it; and the other party assures himself that the deal is finally concluded and the receiver satisfied, guaranteeing on his part that the receiver shall have the full use and value of the money. And this runs, when Danes are bargaining: “Now I drink the black-faced cow to you, healthy and sound it is in every way, free of hidden faults, 100 dollars is the price I am to have for it; the calving time will be as I have stated; as it is, so you shall have it.” “Then I drink to you the 30 dollars already paid, I wish you the luck of the money; so much you shall have, that you have had.” “We wish luck on both sides with this deal,” says the witnesses.

We can gather the Germanic bargain into one image, in the Norwegian form for freeing a slave. The slave was given his freedom – and therefore he himself was called frjálsgjaft – and for the gift of freedom he paid his fee; but until he had held his freedom's ale – eating and drinking with the man who freed him – he was not regarded socially as released from his position of dependence.

Modern research has found endless difficulty in understanding this superfluity of forms, worrying its brains with the question as to what the glove did, since possessions depended upon the skeyting, and what was the use of the latter, sine the vadium was all sufficient, and men have wrestled with the various symbols as a kind of puzzle, that had to be made to work out by some clever arrangement. The same difficulty applies to almost every point in the life of the ancients; name-giving and its con- [96] firmation, betrothal and wedding, bridal gift and bridal ale, are all absolute powers, and yet they get on so excellently well together as soon as they are suffered to act outside our learned heads. We can never arrive at any solution by limiting the effect of the individual acts relatively to one another, simply because their power of working together lies in the fact that they are all perfect in themselves and therefore each contains its counterpart. Faith in the single action must then, as its balance, have so much earnestness, that a breach of the proper sequence means an affront on the part of him who caused the disturbance and misfortune, since it was not a possibility upset, but a real bargain that was broken and a spiritual connection that was irregularly sundered.

Two antagonists can wash away the feud in a common drink, because there is something strong in the horn, which heals all disharmony and quenches all thirst for revenge, and more than that; something which cherished a new feeling. They quaff the goodwill directly. Therefore the law must deny a man right to seek restitution from his opponent when he has of his own free will shared house and food with him. Like everything else in the world, the drink has its peculiar luck, a concentrated essence of the hamingja belonging to the house and its family. If a bride, on her first stepping forward to the door of her new home, or her first crossing of the threshold, was offered a taste of the food and drink there housed – as was the custom in later times – it was in order that she might be initiated and received into the spirit which ruled in that home, and become minded of one mind with the house. In Sweden, and possibly also elsewhere, it was not enough that bride and bridegroom emptied the wedding cup together with their kin in the bridal house; after the bride had been handed over to her husband, the whole party moved off together to the husband's house and there celebrated a wedding. At the first place, the agreement was drunk fast in all those concerned; at the second, the bridal pair was initiated into its new existence.

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