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CHAPTER XV

THE STRUCTURE OF THE CLAN

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Against this background the old poet-chief of Borg, Egil Skallagrimson, stands out in his true tragical grandeur, when he keens for his drowned son and defies the wench of the sea as he sees her erect on the headland or fiercely rocking the dear corpse in the deep. In a world where all is hamingja, his words find their true violence and their true sadness. Not for nothing does the word titanic rise to our lips in regard to his challenge of the heavenly powers; for titanic defiance is our highest expression of human helplessness; a titan, in our world, is he who has renounced the task of moving the world, and purposely crushes himself in order to demonstrate that our heads are only made to be broken against that which is stronger. But the contrast between our world and that in which Egil moves, is brought out sharply when we compare the modern titan who is set outside the world as a unit against the dumb and blind powers of the universe, with an Egil standing as representative of a world in which man is the core and ties nature to himself by strong bonds of soul. It is not titanic obstinacy, not defiance, not megalomania that inspires the old chief, but the simple reality that man's hamingja is large enough to include the sun and the moon and the whole world, and can challenge gods on equal ground without any titanic hint of magnificent absurdity. Perhaps there is a modern touch in his despair; Egil belongs to an age in which contact with western Christianity called forth strange revolutions in the minds of men, but at the very moment when the spiritual community seems to link up between him and us, the character of his melancholy severs all intimacy. He is helpless because the luck and hamingja of his family has failed; he has few behind him, so runs his plaint, and that means that there is a paucity and lack of strength within him. It is not because his foes are gods and he but a man that he despairs, if he were but enough he would stand by his word and take up the combat with the powers who have stolen his son.

It would seem that even if all other ideas that issue from human brains will always bear the restricting stamp of time and place, the sphere of numbers should be a common ground where folk of all races and tongues could meet. And yet even here we do not escape the Babel of culture. To have many kinsmen and many children was a necessity of life under the old regime, a numerous clan was a sign of great luck. This seems easy enough in alien words, but the thing no alien speech can express is the intensity of this need of kin. Tacitus can say of the Germanic type that the more kinsmen he has on his father's and mother's side, the happier an old age he can look forward to. But for the Roman, the many were stronger than the few, whereas the Germanic idea held one of many as stronger in himself than one of few. We add the numbers up one by one to a total, our primitive cousins see the number as something that puts force into any member of the numerous clan.

But after all has been heard, and the question: what is the family? has been answered, we come to the next: where is it? We have described the contents of the soul, but the problem remains: how far does it go, which people belong to it, and which stand without?

Several investigators have wrestled with this problem in one form or another, when they moved in regions where the population marched up against them in tribes and clans and families. And they have perhaps often enough given up the task, contenting themselves with a definition which at best covered the bulk of the facts and left the remainder to find a place for themselves. They have perhaps had to deal with a tribe, a clan or whatever it may properly be called, which was united by the bond of blood and by vengeance to an indissoluble whole in face of all the rest of the world; and the savants have seen with dismay that this indissoluble whole suddenly fell asunder in two parties which bravely enough by internecine strife helped one another to keep manhood and the feeling of blood alive, when peace became too oppressive about them.

Facts will continue to contradict one another, and the problem will remain unaffected by all solutions, as long as we — like the Neo-Europeans we are — start by supposing that a solid whole must be expressible in a definite figure, and take it for granted that the family must be transposable into a reckoning up of generations.

The secret of primitive society is to be sought not in outer forms but in the energy of the clan feeling. The one and unchangeable reality is frith and solidarity, and this reality is so strong that it makes one body and one soul of the kinsmen; but the extent of the soul is determined by the needs of the moment. At one time a body of men will act as a homogeneous clan, next time they will split up into a couple of conflicting groups. The secret of the force contained in the principle of frith is not that it demands a fixed number of men to be effective, but that its power of tension acts unswervingly on the circle so far as the occasion gives it scope to act.

It is, then, not the construction of the soul that makes the difference between them and us. The life of modern man too has many axes and rotates in different circles. One day he is a family man, next day a citizen of his country; one hour he acts as a member of a corporation, another moment as his own very self, as an individual, and his thoughts and feelings vary in force and content according to the task allotted to them. The difference between modern individuals and primitive clansmen lies in the character of the circles and in the intensity of feeling. In our lives, the single self of the isolated individual is the strongest and most vivid of all selves, and all the other modes of life draw their power of thought and their warmth of feeling from the experience of the soul when it is alone and concerned with its own private happiness. The true religious man is he who cares immensely for his own salvation, and thus learns to take an interest in other people's souls. In primitive culture, the current works the opposite way. The circle can never be narrowed down to a single soul, and the most potent motives in the individual arise from the life he has in common with his brothers. Sympathy in us may be strong and comforting, but it is too vague to need definite forms, and it is too inarticulate to be able to create social institutions; in primitive man, sympathy is so overwhelming and so fundamental that it will determine all the forms of society without exceptions, and life within the different circles is so intense that it will realise itself in outward forms and laws.

The problem of primitive society cannot be solved by our hunting for a typical nucleus of society, either family or clan or tribe or horde, and explaining the manifold forms in existence as variations or evolutions of a fundamental system. The question before us assumes this form: how far will the inner force work in an actual culture? How small can the circle be, and what is its extreme possibility? What can the clan include and what is excluded beforehand?

If we watch the recurrence of names throughout the clans we can gather an idea of the possible extent of kinship, because a family could not appropriate a name without the right involved by spiritual alliance. In the customs of name-giving as they shaped themselves in Scandinavia, we find some indications of the plasticity of the soul. The habit of naming after former kinsmen shows that to the soul belonged first and foremost blood-kin in the direct ascending line. Often grandfather and greatgrandfather are resurrected in the infant, when their demise occurred prior to his coming into the world, and with the same frequency grandfather's and father's brothers are called into life once more as soon as they have gone away. Furthermore the luck of the brothers-in-law is eagerly drawn into the clan, the child being named after its mother's father, mother's brother or more distant kin on the distaff side; but the naming is not restricted to direct regeneration through the person of the mother. All the hamingja that belongs to the allied family lies open to the clan. Very often younger brothers and sisters of the bridegroom or the bride will appear as living witnesses to the bridal pact between the two families, their father will freely remember his newly acquired brothers-in-law in children born after the marriage of his son or daughter. And even more prominent is the tendency to name children after people whom we might call secondary relatives-in-law, perhaps even in the third or fourth degree. After the alliance, the clan drew as a whole upon the brothers-in-law as a homogeneous whole.

In several of these respects the Vatsdoela family provides a comprehensive illustration, filled out as it is by family traditions which, whether historical in our narrower sense of the word or not, show what men thought of their own names. The first man of the family standing forth in the full light of history is Thorstein, a Norwegian who according to family tradition won a bride from the kingly house of Gautland. When a son was born to Thorstein he wished to nail the luck of the Gautland nobles to his family at once, and called the boy Ingimund after his wife's father. The fundamental truth of the family-legend is vouched for by this name, which is decidedly not Norwegian but has a Gautland ring. Ingimund continued the two strands in his children. First he remembered his own late father Thorstein, then in his second son he raised Jokul, the brother of his mother, and when a daughter was born to him he called her Thordis after his own mother, the Gautland princess. With his son Thorir he sealed his own relationship with the renowned earls of Moeri in the west of Norway; Ingimund was married to a daughter of Earl Thorir the Silent. And with his other children he reached out far into distant circles of kinship. Through an Icelandic branch of the Moeri family he became related to a prominent chieftain, Thord Illugi, and when an illegitimate son was born to Ingimund he called him Smidr after Thord's son, Eyvind Smidr. Now Thord Illugi belonged directly through his father to the widely spreading family which was proud of tracing its descent back to Bjorn Buna, a petty king in Norway, and when another daughter was born to Ingimund he remembered a Jorun of that ilk. Finally his son Hogni is witness to the fact that Ingimund felt all the relations of the Bjorn Buna descendants as his kin, for one branch of that house intermarried with the descendants of a famous house of Norwegian kings in Hordaland, rich in legends that find an echo in Half's saga, and in this clan Hogni the White was a prominent figure immediately before the time when Iceland was colonised. Thus the Vatsdoela family gathered up luck and hamingja through a multitude of channels.

But the circle is not completed with mother's and father's side. The step-father's family may contain a fund of luck to which one would gladly have access; such a custom accounts for the fact that Erling Skjalgson, who married a daughter of Astrid and Tryggvi and thus became brother-in-law of King Olaf Tryggvason, names one of his sons after Astrid's subsequent husband, Lodin. Erling's daughter was named Geirthrud, and there is a strong probability that this name, which is unprecedented in Norway, is derived from a queen Geira whom Olaf Tryggvason is said to have married in Vendland during his exile from Norway. So also former marriages may have laid the foundations of an honour which it was desirable to preserve for oneself and one's kin. When the poet Hallfred took unto himself a Swedish wife, he called their son after her former husband, and thus kept up the luck of the deceased Swede. The unruly Icelander Glum had a daughter, Thorlaug, who was married several times; in her last marriage she gave birth to a son, and she renewed in him the curious name of her former husband, who was called Eldjarn.

Name-giving would undoubtedly reveal still further possibilities for the healthy greed of the soul, if our material were more extensive, or at any rate, in several respects allowed us to link up a connection between the dry registers of names and the history of the bearers. We may regard it as certain that both adoption and fostering have left their traces in the family archives, but indisputable instances can hardly be cited.

As far as these possibilities go, so far kinship has weight, and the moment frith is appealed to, men enter into a compact body in which no account is taken of far and near, but all are simply kinsmen to one another. Before a court of law, the individual's oath was valid only in as far as it carried with it the will of a whole family, and had therefore regularly to be supported by a circle of ,,compurgators” who confirmed with their conviction the assertion of the one who swore as principal. Here, the law can safely be content with demanding so and so many men of his kin, trusting that life in each individual case has beforehand determined who shall be included under that heading, and that the name of kinsman always covers a man who can take his place in the chain of oath.

The action of these kinsmen inwardly shows very soon that they are not a loosely assembled troop, held together by a vague feeling of opposition to all others. The unity they form has sufficient practical firmness to carry out the functions of a social organism. When it is a question of arranging life for a minor or giving away a kinswoman in marriage, then one of the clan stands forward as bearing the responsibility, viz. the natural guardian, or, if he should fall away, then the nearest of kin — son after father, then brother, and so on to the more distant kin, as the rules may run. But behind the individual we discern for the most part a definite circle of men, and we constantly find, in the indications of the laws, the kinsmen stepping forth out of the gloom, revealing themselves, not merely as interested parties in all important undertakings, but also claiming respect for their participation. When it is hinted that wards can seek protection among their kin against unwarrantable interference on the part of the guardian, or that the clan can step in where a guardian is found to be plundering instead of guarding, this precautionary right is only a pale survival from a time when the clan exercised the guardianship and the individual, even the father himself, only acted as the representative and executor of the kinsmen. The Anglo-Saxons express the full reality when they bring forward, at the ceremony of betrothal, the kinsmen of bride and bridegroom respectively as negotiating parties promising with one mouth everything that is to be promised, at the same time singling out one person, called the director of the bargain, to act on behalf of his party.

And now, in the matter which most of all moved the soul of the clan, the matter of loss of life and revenge, the whole is moulded into one as far as frith has yet any hold upon men's minds. In the everyday pictures of Icelandic life, the living sense is still effective before our eyes; the individual feels called upon to grasp a favourable moment as it comes, without thought of wasting time in reckoning out degrees of kinship near or far. Here and there we find mention of family councils, where a leader of vengeance is invested with the full combined will of the clan as a proxy to take the responsibility for bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion; and whether such custom in early times was general throughout, or merely a form among others, it arises directly out of the clan feeling. On the other hand, under normal conditions the choice always fell upon the one who was nearest by birth to the right and duty in question, he who stood to the slain man in the relation of son to father, father to son, or brother to brother. The responsibility of the kinsmen increases in weight the nearer they stand that centre where the slain man lies. However difficult it may be to combine a common, unconditional obligation with foremost rank in responsibility for a single individual or a small group, when considering the world from the point of individualism or from the circle of communism; for a man who lives his life in a hamingja and under social conditions shaped under its power, the two facts coincide well enough.

In matters of such moment to the clan as marrying or guardianship or revenge, a fixed definition was needed excluding all save those concerned, and this definition is everywhere among the Teutons contained in one single word: kinsmen, nothing more and nothing less. No other words howsoever precisely circumscribed could express more concisely which persons were concerned or which persons felt the responsibility, because the qualification depended on an inner solidarity and not on a reckoning up of degrees. Life itself would in any actual case point out the men who were kinsmen of the deceased or of the orphan.

When we pass on to discuss the structure of the clan in particular we cannot probably do better than take the rules for payment and recaption of the weregild for our guide. In Norway, the fine for homicide consisted chiefly of three ,,rings”. The first ring was paid by the slayer to the nearest of kin of the slain: son and father; the second was called the brother's ring, and with this the slain man's brother was indemnified; the procuring of it was also a matter for a brother in the attacking circle; in the third, the two cousin-circles, father's brother's sons, paid each other. The terms still suggest a time when rings were the usual forms of valuables. Lack of representative for one or another group did not affect the fine; the right to receive and the obligation to pay would in such case vest in one of the others, so that, to put an extreme case, the slayer himself paid all three rings, and the heir received the entire fine. Payment of the three rings, however, was not sufficient to acquit the slayer and his nearest of kin from their obligation; before them were still three further classes of kinsmen, each of which demanded a fine for the slain kinsman; from the degrees above cousins and below brothers — uncles and nephews on the male side — they thinned out through mother's brother and sister's sons to distant relatives on both sides. And when all these have taken the greater or smaller fines due to them from the ring men, they have still to reckon with some gifts from the corresponding circles in the clan of the slayer. Not until the whole of this network of fines has been drawn through the clans is frith declared from one side to the other.

In Denmark, the slayer and the slain man's son stand face to face, with their paternal and maternal kinsmen as a compact host on right and left. The fine is divided into three equal parts, and of these, the slayer pays, or his nearest of kin pays for him, one part, the two others pass from and to the two sides of the clan, and at the assembly of kinsmen, the obligations are divided into smaller and smaller claims, according as the kinship ebbs farther and farther out. The two sides answer each for itself; as long as a single man is left on the paternal side the maternal kinsmen have no duty to pay more than their own share of the blood money; but if the branch be altogether withered, then the others must bear the double burden. And if it so happen, says Eric's Law in sure, oldfashioned speech, that no kin are to be found on the mother's side, and he who was begotten of the slain should be slave-born or out of the country so that none knows his kin, and if the father's kin have taken one part, and another thereto, then their kinsman shall not be unpaid if he were a free man, for in full he shall be paid — and the kinsmen on the father's side take all the fines. At the final peace meeting, where the slayer paid down the total amount of the fine in the presence of his kinsmen and of the slain man's family, the head man with twelve of his family promised him full frith and security.

The corresponding system obtaining among the Franks is unfortunately not clearly expressed in the laws. What was done when all went off as it should, this was known well enough, and it was not found worth while to enter such common-places in the law book, but what was to be done in the case of a poor fellow who had not the wherewithal to pay, was a matter that called for writing down, — and this is consequently all we learn. Our position, then, is that of accidental spectators of an action reserved for extreme cases of necessity, forming their own conclusions as to the ordinary course of life by observing what people consider most urgent to do when matters have been brought to a dangerous pass. The paragraph of the law introduces us into the midst of a scene, where the slayer has thrown all he owns into the scale without being able to make up the amount of the fine; he then solemnly, in the presence of his kinsmen, enters his house, takes there a handful of earth, and throws it upon his nearest of kin, thereby casting the responsibility from himself upon one who can bear it, before he himself takes his staff in hand and leaps the fence, that all may see how denuded he is. If his father and brothers have already contributed all they could and this the law appears to take for granted that they would — then the handful of earth falls upon the nearest of kin outside their circle, and can thus pass down the ranks; three kinsmen on the father's side and three on the mother's, each, of course, representing one branch of the family. If all have been obliged to let it lie, then the slayer shall be brought forward at the law-thing, to the end that any man feeling obligation towards him can step in, and not until he has been three times so received at the law-thing in silence has he forfeited his life as one who failed to produce his fine.

There we are left, wondering. Seeing that the ancient Franks did not play out their parts for our benefit, but were acting for their own poor selves, they have naturally left much in the dark, without so much as a single informative aside to the spectator. Whether the law here presumes that the slayer paid the whole of the fine, or if it be his own ring he could not manage to procure and had to leave to his kin, — as to this, the spectators can, if so inclined, find matter for discussion for the remainder of their lives. But we are told in one passage in plain words that the fine is divided into two equal parts, one going to the son, the other to the kinsmen, further that these kinsmen are represented by three on either side, father's and mother's, and that the three divided their share with decreasing parts according to the nearness of relationship. And a kinsman has no rights save as he has corresponding obligations — or once had such.

Between the Northman sitting with his kinsmen reckoning out sums in fractions of rings and fractions of kinship, and the Frank who makes his last leap over the threshold out of house and home stripped to his shirt, there is more than a difference of circumstance. But the national peculiarities cannot hide profound unity in essentials. And the first thing, perhaps, which strikes the spectator is the common responsibility. The Northmen's geometry in the matter of fines may denote sharp heads, - it certainly does mean also a pronounced need to see and feel family whole against family whole; in every imaginable way the degrees are intercrossed in fine and counterfine, class against class and man against man. The kinsmen are divided into groups, and the obligation falls according to class, but above all division stands the common responsibility. The fine must be procured, and if one side fail, then the others must step in to fill the gap; if one link be lacking in the chain of kinship, then the burden falls upon the next; the entire weight can roll over upon the kinsmen if the culprit himself be unable to pay, and it can fall back from a vacant place among the kinsmen upon the principal himself. And as a single side may often have to make additional sacrifices, so also, as receivers, they take any part unclaimed, for the principal point is that the fallen man shall be fully and duly paid for; “for their kinsman shall not be unpaid for, if he were a free man, in full he shall be paid for”, to quote once more the weighty old-world phrase of the Danish law book. A remarkable indication of the honour due to a slain man from the slayer's kin is furnished by the law of Gothland. In this island, men had in Christian times set aside three churches as asylums, and “when it so happens that the devil is at work and a man kills another, the slayer shall flee with father, son and brother and take refuge in the sanctuary, but if they are not living their places must be filled by other kinsmen”. All must bear revenge as long as any portion of what is due remains unpaid, this is the fundamental principle among all Teutons, a principle that reveals its strength by forcing kings and prelates to contradict it in decrees and anathemas without end.

Only against the background of this elastic unity can the legal limitations which here and there occur be properly seen. There was often a need, at any rate in later times, for some rule as to where kinship might be held to cease, as also for a limit within which responsible men could always be found. When then three kinsmen on the father's and three on the mother's side were appointed as a permanent staff, or when “third degree” or seventh man were fixed as the extreme limit, the decision was naturally arrived at in the way life set it to be; the point chosen was where kinship generally ebbed out, or where it glided over into a wider personality, only to be felt by heavier pressure from without. An interesting hint is given in a Danish law book: the share of the fine to be paid by each kinsman is continually halved for each degree the payer is removed from the slayer, but the share cannot fall to a lower amount than one ortug (one third of an ounce)

thus the question of the bounds of kinship is solved automatically by an ingenious device. A mere outline of the actual facts, this is all the law can be; and much that in reality left a more than superficial mark upon the life of the community finds but an imperfect utterance in the schematic average of the laws. By chance the Lombard edict includes foster-brothers among those entitled to make oath; probably the solidarity of friendship was brought forward into a prominent place to supplement the clan ties which were loosening among the Lombards; but if the decree is inspired by the anxiety of the lawgivers to uphold the ancient legal system which required compurgators, it will be no less weighty as evidence of the intimate union of sworn brothers with the clan in earlier times. In Iceland, we know that the aid of foster-brothers was invoked in matters of vengeance, and it is thus in accordance with the old spirit that certain Norse systems assign to them a right of receiving fines. In Christian times, when baptism created an intimate relationship between sponsor and godson, the spiritual affinity entered upon the rights and duty of the ancient institution; in England at least, the sponsor was entitled to blood money for his godchild. In reality, the limit was far too individually variable for any legal edict to deal with it without itself suffering dissolution.

But in the midst of the great circle we soon become aware of a smaller group of men who are always found to be more restless than their surroundings; on the one side the slayer and his house, on the other, the heirs. Even though of course the nearest of kin outside must step into the place of the culprit, and “take up his axe” if he himself, his father and his brothers should be lacking, the obligation of the proxy cannot efface the picture of a minor hamingja, which the kinsman first and foremost feels as his soul, in which he ordinarily lives and moves and has his being. In this soul-kernel are included those whom we should call the nearest of kin, but even this inner circle was not always or everywhere the same. On this point, the rules for payment of fine cannot give more than a rough idea, and the only way of using the laws psychologically is to lay chief stress upon the discrepancies. In Denmark, and also, in the southern countries, as far as we can judge from the scanty indications, it is a sort of family group, father, son and brother, which occupies the central position; on Norse ground it seems rather as if the soul extended crosswise through the clan, the strongest light falling upon son, brother and cousins. The lawmen of the Frosta-thing even include father's brother and brother's son together with cousin and cousin's son in the narrowest community, thus reaching out a hand towards the Anglo-Saxons, who at any rate regarded the father's brother as a mainstay of the family. Or again it may happen that father and son overshadow the brother to a certain degree, while elsewhere, the brother stands out as a particularly near kinsman, responsible for the important second ring.

Within this narrow circle there seems some trace discernible of daily intercourse in the steam from the common fleshpot and the smoke of the common hearth. It would then give a pretty theory if the great family represented the group of houses that stood back to back the better to resist storms and hard weather. But we do not find anywhere in Germanic society a pattern of so broad and simple a design. The partners found one another in the battle and arranged themselves in order of clan and kinship, it is said, and who would not believe it? And that the kinsmen kept more or less together locally, in those restless times as well, when the people rather washed to and fro about the land than stayed firmly seated each group on its own plot, is also more than reasonable; Cæsar indeed, says of the Suevi that they changed their fields from year to year and their headmen portioned out annual holdings to the tribes and clans according to their superior wisdom. No one who can put himself in Cæsar's place as he stood looking at these human hordes, will, however, think of taking the words as sentences based on results he had arrived at by an investigation of family relationship within the separate groups, or venture to conclude from such general statements that the local lines anywhere exactly coincided with the family figures.

Naturally the structure of the soul had its counterpart in the social order. There is no doubt that clan feeling normally presupposed neighbourly sympathy as a corroborating force, and certainly intercourse in the house during adolescence was also one co-operating factor and that a very strong one, but habitual companionship does not suffice to explain the soul unity that existed between kinsmen, nor is the force of frith dependent for its strength on acting in daily communion. When men entered a friendship of absolute solidarity, they might seal their covenant by promising “to act and avenge as were it son or brother”. This old and significant formula must be supplemented by another oldfashioned phrase about two friends who have shared all things bitter and sweet together “as if they were born of two brothers”; these words vibrate with an experience that does not necessarily coincide with the feeling of having been brought up together. But the innermost community of life was not restricted to descent from a common father. The rules for paying blood money show abundantly that some of the mother's kinsmen, especially perhaps her brothers but also her father and her brothers' and sisters' sons, formed a ring near the centre of the clan, and any supposition that the maternal kinsmen owed their place to later changes in the family runs counter to the collective evidence of life and laws. Everybody who is fairly well read in the history and literature of the Teutons will know how directly the invocation in case of need went out to the mother's kindred, and how readily her friends came forward to assist their kinsman. The solidarity is confirmed by one legend after another, when for instance the hero is sent to his mother's brother for good counsel, or when his taking vengeance for his mother's father is made the principal task of his life, the deed that shall set him up as a man of honour. It is indicated also in proverbs such as that to the effect that a man takes after his mother's brothers most, and Tacitus himself understood as much, since he finds himself constrained to interpolate the observation that a particularly warm affection exists between uncles and sister's sons.

The clan is not an amplified family, but on the other hand, any theory that would square the facts by reducing the group of father and sons to insignificance is doomed at the start.

 

 
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