Frith and honour, these are the sum of life, the essence of what a man needs to live fully and happily.
"Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth," says God, in the Genesis, to Noah on his leaving the Ark; and the Anglo-Saxon poet of the Genesis gives it as follows: "Be fruitful and increase; live in honour and in frith with pleasure."
Once on a time, there lived in Iceland, near the Isfiord, an old man by name Havard. He had been a bold man in his day; but he was not rich, and had not great influence. His only son, Olaf, was envied for his prowess and popularity by the local chieftain residing at Laugabol, the powerful and intractable Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn sought to be more than first, he would be the only man of note in the place, and this end he attained by killing Olaf. When the news was brought to Havard he sank down with a deep groan and kept his bed a whole year. And indeed there was no one who really believed that a solitary old man would be able to exact reparation from the domineering men of Laugabol. Havard's grave wife kept the homestead going, went fishing with the manservant by day and did the rest of her work by night; then, at the end of the year she persuaded the old man to pull himself together and set off to demand payment of a fine. He was met with great scorn. His demand was not even refused; he was told to look outside the enclosure, he would find there a creature just as old and lame and halt as himself; the horse had lain kicking for a long while past, but now, after some scrapings, might perhaps manage to get on its legs again; this poor beast he was welcome to keep, if he wanted consolation for the death of his son. Havard staggers home and goes to bed for another year.
Once again he humours his wife and makes the attempt; he is loth to go, but "if I knew there should be vengeance for my son Olaf, I would never reck how dearly I might have to buy it". So he rides to the law-thing. Thorbjorn, when first he sees the old man enter the booth, cannot at once recollect what is his errand. "This," says Havard, "the slaying of my son Olaf is ever in my mind as if it were but newly done; and therefore it is my errand now to crave payment of you." He gains nothing for his pains but new scorn, bloody scorn. So downcast is he now as he leaves the booth, that he scarcely notices when one and another man of some standing pass him a kindly word. And his third year in bed is rendered heavier to bear by reason of aching joints. Bjargny, his wife, still manages the work of the place, and finds time between whiles to persuade her kinsfolk to render aid, and to gain knowledge of Thorbjorn's journeys and the way he goes. Then one day she comes to the bedside again, when the third summer was come: "Now you have slept long enough; to-night your son Olaf is to be avenged; afterwards, it will be too late." This was something different from the comfortless task of riding out to ask for reparation. Havard sprang from this bed, secured his revenge before daybreak, and came the next morning to Steinthor of Eyri to report the killing of four men, and remind him of his words at the last Al-thing: "For methinks you said then, that if I should need a trifle of help, I might as well come to you as to other chieftains." "Help you shall have," answered Steinthor, "but I should like to know what you would reckon a great help, if this you now crave is but a trifle." And thereupon Havard seated himself squarely and at ease in the second high seat at Eyri, laughed at the future with its troubles, and jested with all he met: "for now there was an end to all fretting and misery."
Havard had suffered a shame, a loss of honour. It shakes him in every limb. The evil grips him, aged man as he is, so that he sinks down in a palsy. And there he lies, while a single thought gnaws so insistently at his mind that he thinks he has not slept all those three years. At the law-thing he walks, as a looker-on describes him, "a man unlike others, large of growth and something stricken in years; he drags himself along, and yet he looks manly enough; he seems filled with sorrow and unrest."
But when at last reparation comes, honour flows once more through his veins, honour newly born and giving new birth again. His limbs are straightended, his lungs are filled. With a sigh of awakening the man feels life once more pour through and from him. His strength wells up. His mind grows young, so young that it must learn anew the meaning of danger, the meaning of difficulty; it is filled with restive joy of life, the true rejoicing in life that cares nothing for death.
Paulus Diaconus tells of an aged Lombard, Sigvalde, who, like Havard, was sorely tried, and like Havard, reaped joy in many fold for his sorrow. He had lost two sons in battle with the invading Slavs. In two battles he avenged them with great eagerness, and when a third battle was about to take place he insisted on going out to fight, in spite of all protestations, "for", he declared, "I have now gained full restitution for my sons; now I can meet death gladly if need be." And so he went to his death out of sheer abundance of vitality.
Honour at once brings up the thought of vengeance. It must be so; he who thinks of honour must say vengeance, not only because the two are always found together in the stories, but more because it is only through vengeance that we can see the depth and breadth of honour. Vengeance contains the illumination and the explanation of life; life as it is seen in the avenger is life at its truest and most beautiful, life in its innermost nature.
known by its esctasy. There is a sort of delight in
which men go beyond themselves and forget themselves, to
sink down into the infinite, the timeless. But then too,
there is an ecstasy wherein men go beyond themselves
without losing foothold in time, a delight in which they
live through the highest and deepest - their highest and
deepest - as in a feeling of power, so that they stand a
while in enjoyment of the growth of their strength, and
then storm on, stronger and bolder.
What Christianity was, in the days when Christianity constituted a culture, a spiritual atmosphere, life-giving and necessary to life, we feel by trying to realise in our own minds as nearly as possible the experience of a father when he praises God because his children have been found worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesu name. The Jew reveals himself in the moment he places a newborn son on his knee and by his blessing consecrates him to be the uplholder of his race. Hellas must be experienced through the aged Diagoras, as he sits on the shoulders of his sons after their victory at the games, surrounded by a jubilant throng, and "accounted happy in his children". The Germanic ecstasy is reached in the moment of vengeance.
Sigvalde tread holy ground. However far we may be from
understanding their motives and reasonings, their
presence inspires us with awe. It is not their manhood,
their violence, their humour, their quickness of wit
that arouses our interest; we feel dimly, that vengeance
is the supreme expression of their humanity, and are
urged on by the need of converting our veneration into a
sympathetic understanding of the ideals guiding their
Vengeance raises him up and transfigures him. It does not merely raise him, but holds him suspended, thrusts him into a higher plane. And this can happen, because the desire of redress is not only the loftiest of all sentiments, but also the most ordinary, most generally human. Whatever differences there might be between human beings otherwise, in one thing they met; they must and should and could not but seek restitution.
What then was vengeance?
It was not the outcome of a sense of justice. There are peoples who see in justice the vital principle of existence, whereby the world is held together and kept going. For them, there is a kind of direct relationship between the behaviour of human beings and the motion of the planets, so that a crime unpunished hangs brooding like a peril over mankind. In order to avoid famine, defeat, or disturbances of the order of the world generally, one must, in case of need, execute the sons for the crimes of their fathers, and vice versa. The Germanic people are not of this sort. Justice demands an altogether different type of conscience from that with which our forefathers were equipped.
these barbarians understand the symmetrical morality,
that which restores the balance by striking out an eye
for an eye. The Germanic mind had as little conception
of the word retaliation as of the word punishment.
There is little of exultation over the fallen; and even when it occurs, it is plainly only a casual attendant circumstance, not the main point in the feeling of satisfaction. Behind the outward calmness of vengeance, the mind is in a turmoil of rejoicing and pride; the accomplishment of the deed serves better than anything else to call forth enthusiastic words in praise of the act, in praise of him who wrought it, and of him for whose sake it was done, of the race to which both parties belonged. But these outbursts come from the depths, they are the outcome of life's ecstasy.
punisher, as for the man of vindictive nature, all
thoughts circle about that other one, what is to be done
with him, whether he can be properly and feelingly
struck. The avenger has the centre of his thoughts in
himself. All depends on what he does, not on what the
other suffers. The avenger procures something; he takes
But then also, the other party must necessarily have an honour, if the injury was to be wiped out. The most unfortunate death a man could die was to be killed by slaves, and more particularly when these were acting on their own behalf, without any man of distinction as instigator; for there was no vengeance to be gained from bondmen. One of the earliest settlers in Iceland, Hjorleif, was set upon and slain by his slaves. When his foster-brother Ingolf found the body later, he cried out in distress: “This was a wretched fate for a brave man, that thralls should be his bane.” Havard, when taking vengeance for the killing of his son, suffered the slaves to go free; the deed would not be “more avenged” by his taking their worthless lives as well. Almost as wretched as death by the hand of slaves was his lot who died by the hand of a vagabond, a man having no companions in honour, no foster-brother or comrades in arms in the world. Not only was there the risk of vengeance being lost, since it vested in a single individual; but the honour to be gained from such an one was in itself but slight.
Even among true kinsmen, however, there might be degrees of value in revenge. If the family felt the injury very deeply, either because the member slain was one of their best men, or because his kinsmen generally set a high price upon their honour, then they might prefer to aim immediately at a better man among the offender's kin. This tendency to take vengeance on a kinsman of the offender who was counted “worthier” as an object of revenge dies late in the North.
In the introduction to the Norwegian law-book of the Frostathing, we find “Hakon the King, son of King Hakon, son's son of King Sverri” still mournfully bewailing “the ill mis-custom, which long hath been in the land, that where a man hath been put to death, his kinsmen will take such of the slayer's kin as is counted best, even though the killing were done without his knowledge, will, or nearness to the deed, and will not take vengeance upon the slayer, even though it might be easily come by,” whence evil men flourish, and the good have no reward of their peaceable life; “and we see ourselves robbed of our best subjects in the land”, sighs this father of his country.
bitterness of tone is in itself a token that comfort is
yet far to seek. True, the peasant freeholders would
gladly live in safety in the country, and if the king
could help them to such peace, then an edict or so were
welcome enough; but sure as it was that peace might be
furthered by refraining from killing of men, it was no
less sure that man could not live by not being killed.
And when a man now suffered need, what could the king do
for him? The surplus of healing for a wounded honour
which the king's good subjects gained for themselves in
ancient wise was not to be replaced by anything the king
had to offer in new ways of law. And as long as honour
stood as a fundamental factor in the moral
self-estimation of the people, stood, indeed, as the
very aim of justice, there could be no lopping an end
off by a sharp rescript. Prohibitions and law reforms
from above are at best only the precursors, heralds of a
change of mind that takes centuries to effect; and as
long as “law” and “right” had not found one
another in a new unity, so long would the “abuse”
among the people, their misunderstanding of their own
good, be stronger than both kingly power and prudence.
“No man in all the land had such brave vengeance taken
for him as this one; for no other man were so many taken
in payment” — this was, and continued to be the best
proof that the fallen man had been among the greatest of
An injury done occasions a loss to the sufferer. He has been bereft of some part of his honour. But this honour is not a thing he can do without in case of need, not a thing he requires only for luxury, and which the frugal mind can manage without. He cannot even console himself with the part that remains; for the injury he has suffered may be likened to a wound which will never close up of itself, but bleed unceasingly until his life runs out. If he cannot fill the empty space, he will never be himself again. The emptiness may be called shame; it is a suffering, a painful state of sickness.
Njal, peaceable, peace-making Njal, has not many words about the matter; but the human feelings are as unspoiled in him as in the doughty warrior Egil. He looked at his aged body and said: “I cannot avenge my sons, and in shame I will not live” and thereupon laid himself down on his bed in the midst of the flames. In a character such as Kveldulf, the suffering displayed itself in violent convulsions. His son Thorolf had fallen in something approaching open feud with no less a man than King Harald himself; it seemed hopeless for a simple yeoman to crave honourable amends from the mighty King of Norway. He himself was old and past his time; but the hunger for honour turned in his body to a stimulant, calling up the last remains of strength to strike down a man or so “whom Harald will count it ill to lose”. Different as the two men are by nature — representing, one might say, the two opposite poles of Icelandic culture — they yet think and feel alike, and act on the same principle: that honour is a thing indispensable, and vengeance inevitable. As long as men still lived the old life, irrespective of whether the outward forms were pagan or Christian, a man could not, under any circumstances, let his vengeance lie; there was no ignoring the claims of honour, for this was a thing that came from within, manifesting itself as a painful sense of fear.
There was once an Icelander who did a great thing, all but superhuman. After the general battle at the Al-thing in the year 1012 when the prospects of reconciliation were dark, and everything pointed to a fatal breaking up of the free state itself, the great chieftain Hall of Sida stood up and said: “All men know what sorrow has stricken me in that my son Ljot is fallen. One or another of you may perhaps think that he would be among the dearest of those fallen here” (i. e. one of those whose death would cost most in reparation). “But this I will do, that men may be agreed again; I will let my son lie unavenged, and yet give my enemies full peace and accord. Therefore I ask of you, Snorri Godi, and with you the best of those here, that you bring about peace between us.” Thereupon Hall sat down. And at his words rose a loud murmur of approval, all greatly praising his goodwill. “And of this, that Hall was willing to leave his son unavenged, and did so much to bring about peace, it is now to be said that all those present at the law-thing laid money together for payment to him. And the count of it all together was not less than eight hundred in silver; but that was four times the fine for killing of one man.”
But blood need not be shed to endanger life. Honour might ooze out as fatally from the wound made by a blow from a stick, or by a sharp word, or even by a scornful neglect. And the medicine is in all cases the same.
When a man sits talking among others, and emphasises his words with a stick in such fashion that he chances to strike his neighbour's nose, the neighbour ought perhaps to take into consideration the fact that the striker was short-sighted, and had talked himself into a state of excitement. Nor can it be called quite good manners to jump up on the instant and endeavour to drive one's axe into the nose of the other; but should the eager and short-sighted speaker chance to be found dead in his bed a few months after, it would be understood that someone had been there “to avenge that blow from a stick”. No one would on principle deny the name of vengeance to the deed. And if the man so struck were a man of honour, no outsider would deny his right to act as he had done; on the contrary, they would immediately realise that the blow to his nose might prove as fatal to him as the loss of an arm or a leg. Unless honour were taken for the injury, the little sore would, so to speak, lead to blood-poisoning.
It happened thus with the Icelander Thorleif Kimbi. While voyaging abroad on a Norwegian ship, he had the misfortune to act in a somewhat hot-headed fashion towards his countryman Arnbjorn, while they were preparing a meal. Arnbjorn started up and dealt Thorleif a blow on the neck with his hot spoon. Thorleif swallowed the insult: “Nay, the Norsemen shall not make game of us two Icelanders, and haul us apart hike a couple of curs; but I will remember this when we meet in Iceland.” Thorleif's memory, however, seems to have been weak. But when one day he sets out to ask the hand of a girl in marriage, her brother answers him as follows: “I will tell you my mind: before I give you my sister in marriage, you must find healing for those gruel-scars on your neck, that you got three years ago in Norway”. And that blow of a spoon and the refusal based on the scars brought two whole districts into feud, and led to deep and lasting dissension between the families concerned. From the point of view of the age, there is nothing disproportionate in the cause and its effects.
If a man were called thief or coward — which he was not —or beardless — which perhaps the fact forbade him to deny — he would in any case have to win full and complete indemnity for the assertion, if he wished to retain his dignity. Njal had the disability that no hair grew on his face. Gunnar's wife, Hallgerd, saw it, and was not silent about the matter. “So wise a man, that knows a way for everything; that he should not have hit upon the plan of carting manure where it was most needed; he shall be called the beardless old man, and his sons be hight Muckbeards. And you, Sigmund, you ought to put that into verse; come, let us have some gain of your art.” Sigmund does all in his power to win fair Hallgerd's admiration and her applause: “You are a pearl, to pleasure me so.” The insults have power, not only over the young, hot-blooded sons, but equally so over Njal himself. The verses come to Bergthora's ears. And when they were sitting at meat, she said: “You have been honoured with gifts, both you, father, and your sons; there will be little fame for you if you give nothing in return.” “What gifts are these” asked Skarphedin. “You, boys, have one gift to share between you, you have been called Muckbeards, and the master here is called the beardless old man.” “We are not womanly minded, to be angered at everything” said Skarphedin. “Then Gunnar was angered on your behalf, and if you do not seek your right here, you will never avenge any shame.” “The old woman takes pleasure, it seems, in baiting us,” said Skarphedin, and smiled; but the sweat stood out on his forehead, and red spots showed in his cheeks, and this was an unusual thing. Grim was silent, and bit his lip; and Helgi showed no sign. Hoskuld followed Bergthora when she went out. She came in again, foaming with rage. Njal says: “There, there, wife, it can be managed well enough, even though one takes one's time. And it is thus with many matters, however trying they may be, that even though vengeance be taken, it is not sure that all mouths can be made to say alike.” But in the evening, Njal heard an axe rattle against the wall. “Who has taken down our shields?” “Your sons went out with them” said Bergtora. Njal thrust his feet into a pair of shoes, and went out, round the house; there he saw them on their way up over the slope. “Whither away?” “After sheep” answered Skarphedin. “You need no weapons for them; it would seem you were going on some other errand.” “Then we will fish for salmon, father, if we do not come across the sheep.” “If that is so, it is to be hoped that you do not miss your catch.” When he came in to bed, he said to Bergthora: “All your sons have gone out armed; it would seem that your sharp words have given them something to go out for.” “I will give them my best thanks if they come and tell me of Sigmund's fall.” — They come home with the good news and tell Njal. And — he answers: “Well done!”
For everything there is but one form of vengeance; vengeance in blood. If it were only a question of retribution or self-assertion, payment could no doubt be made in the same coin. When men have such faith in the power of scornful words over honour, one might think they would also regard their own taunts as of some effect. But to give ill words for ill words did not win honour back; the sting of the other's words remained, and one might lose one's revenge. A man would hardly dare to take his enemy prisoner and put him to scorn, instead of putting him to death at once; there was the fear of bringing degradation on oneself, instead of restitution, and thus it was reckoned unmanly to humiliate an enemy instead of killing him. Vengeance was too costly a matter to jest with.
Honour was a thing which forced men to take vengeance, not merely something that enabled them to do so. The guilds lived, like the old circles of kinsmen, in frith and honour, and in their statutes the principles underlying ancient society are reduced to paragraphs. A man is thrust out of the guild and pronounced a niding, if he break peace with his brother in any dispute arising between them, wherever they may meet, whether in the guild hall, in the streets of their town, or out in the world. He incurs the same sentence, if he fail to take up the cause of his brother, when he is in need of assistance in dealings with people outside the brotherhood. But no less does a brother sin, if he suffer dishonour without calling in the aid of his brethren; and if he do not thereafter avenge the wrong with the aid of his guild brethren, he is cast out from the brotherhood as a niding.
Though frith is not directly expressed in the codes of law, it was nevertheless manifest; its authority is so obvious, that the lawyers do not become conscious of it until they begin to find themselves in opposition. Honour, on the other hand, is amply recognised in the codices of the law-makers.
partners in frith, vengeance is a duty; the law
sanctions this duty as a right. The laws of
Iceland allow of killing on the spot in return for
attack or for a blow, even though they may leave no mark
on the skin. In the case of more serious blows and
wounds, and of insults of a graver character, the
offender may be freely struck down when and where he is
found before the next assembly of the Al-thing. Thus
far, vengeance is valid.
In the laws of Norway, the process of restriction is carried a step farther. Vengeance is for the most part only recognised in cases of the very gravest injury. Authority must of necessity countenance the vengeance taken by a man for the killing of his kinsman or the dishonouring of his womenfolk; to include such vengeance under the head of crime, though it were of the mildest order, was, even in the early Middle Ages, out of the question. But here also, the laws of the Norwegian kings would seek to draw the limit for personal action. There is some hesitation, perhaps, in regard to abuse of the very worst kind; —can one deny a man's right to answer with the axe when addressed in such words as: “You old woman, you bitch, a jade like you, a slave that you are!”? — but a wound or a blow, a nudge, a jeer, a man should be able to carry to court.
Nevertheless, a stronger sub-stratum shows clearly through. Hakon Hakonson, in his great Novel from the middle of the thirteenth century, which serves as an introduction to the Frostathing's Law, cannot say otherwise than that vengeance for wounds and genuine insults must stand valid, when it is taken before the opposite party has offered to pay a fine. The vague arbitrariness of the addition: “save where the king and other men of judgement deem otherwise” is characteristic of all helpless reformatory movement from above; it is giving the old régime one's blessing, and tacking on an empty phrase to stand in the name of reform. And if the offender, trusting to his wealth and power, or to influential kinsmen, repeated his insolence, then the offended party had the right to choose whether he would accept settlement or not.
Half-humorous is an improvement which at one time seems to have been regarded with great hopes; that a man taking vengeance shall be held guilty of no crime as long as his vengeance does not exceed in magnitude the wrong for which it is taken. Any surplus is to be duly assessed at its proper value on settlement, and indemnity paid accordingly. A well-meant idea, if only it were possible to agree as to what punishment fitted the crime, and what the surplus, if any, might be worth. The thought looks better in the form of a gentle exhortation, as put forward to guide the conscience of the king's retainers: Do not take vengeance too suddenly, and let not the vengeance taken be over-great. Thus run the words in King Magnus' court-law of 1274.
All these interferences bear the stamp of weakness and lukewarmness; the improvements themselves show us how clearly and simply the old régime is imprinted on the mind: that injury, whether of this sort or that, demands its cure, and that the cure is certainly to be found in vengeance. True, new ideas are beginning to germinate; but for the present, the reformers have nothing wherewith to lay a new foundation, and are thus obliged to build upon the old, basing their edicts against vengeance upon the fact that vengeance is a thing no man can do without.
Surely enough, a contrast may be noted between law and life. The man of law appears to have had a keen eye for shades and degrees of offence, which practical men never recognised, or recognised only while in company with the jurists. These Norsemen, good souls, sat at the law-thing and listened 'with interest when those versed in law expatiated on the distinction between a wound laying bare the bone, but closing entirely on proper treatment; and the legally graver case where a piece of flesh of such and such a size was shorn away and fell to the ground. The hearers would make a mental note of how much was to be paid for the first sort, and how much for the second. Or they ‚would be given a classification of the various terms of abuse. “Full fine shall be paid, firstly, when a man reviles another as having lain in childbed; secondly, if he declare that the other is possessed of unnatural lusts; thirdly, if he compare him with a mare, or a troll, or a harlot;” likewise full fine if he be called slave, or whore, or witch; and for the rest, there are only words of abuse for which a minor fine can be claimed, or which can be avenged by saying: you are another. — Then the assembly dispersed, and the good men went back to their homes, and took vengeance in blood as well for great injuries as for small insults, as if no such scale had ever been. Or the Icelanders, those hard-bitten champions, who quarrelled and fought and took their revenge in all the simplicity of honour, they went to their Al-thing and heard the lawman recite the chapter on killing, in all its artificial complexity, with conditions, possibilities and circumstances endlessly tangled and woven in and out. Never a man laughed; on the contrary, all listened with the deepest interest.
This picture has a magnificent humour of its own. If we did not know better, we might be led to imagine a schism in the community. But no. In Iceland, at any rate, there is no trace of any distinction between a law-giving caste and a lawless mob. The same headstrong yeomen who fought with one another in their own districts, were jurists to a degree, with a fondness and a gift for the intricacies of law. It is these peasants, indeed, who have made Icelandic law the fine-patterned web of casuistry it is. Law, in the saga isle, has its own particular stamp of almost refined systematism, that we find in Iceland and nowhere else, built up by constant lawsuits and constant legislation. Something similar applies in the case of Norway. Even though there were everywhere men learned in law, in the narrower sense, to be found beside the unlearned, the distinction is only valid as a matter of actual knowledge, and does not apply to the interest displayed.
Another and more likely explanation may be advanced. Men do not remain always at the same stage; but they move only with part of their soul at a time. The same individual contains a progressive self, which asserts itself triumphantly when the man appears in some public function or in co-operation with other kindred soul-halves; and an old-fashioned, conservative self, which takes the lead at home in daily life, and manages altogether to take advantage of any disturbance of balance in the soul to surprise and depose its rival. The laws of Norway and of Iceland do not represent any primeval law; on the contrary, both are phenomena of progress. It is the progressive self that speaks through them. And strangely enough, while the Norsemen have a scale of values for wounds, according to whether they penetrate to a cavity (which costs 1/2 mark) or do not go beyond the skin (price 1 ounce), according as the breach heals without a scar (price 1 ounce) or with a scar (6 ounces), the Icelanders, on the other hand, have plainly not advanced beyond the stage of calling a wound a wound. If we could follow the course of the laws back century by century, we should see how the forms became simpler and simpler, see them more and more nearly approaching the simplicity of everyday thought.
This, however, does not by any means imply that the forefathers of those Norsemen and Icelanders had no idea of distinction. A valuation of the injury done lies, after all, so deep in the character of the law, that it must be supposed to have its roots in the attitude of mind among the people. Even though we find, in the Icelandic law-book, the Grágás, the limit for right to vengeance set very far down, so that a simple blow is included, the mere presence of such a limit still denotes that certain injuries were counted too slight to be paid for in blood. Undoubtedly our forefathers must, at an early stage of their existence, have made the discovery that a man might sometimes do another harm on purpose, and sometimes by accident. Or they have been led to observe that certain epithets in their vocabulary were stronger than others; and the difference was recognised in their intercourse of everyday.
The interest in shades of difference was strong and deep, and undoubtedly of ancient date; men knew and recognised well enough the possibility of a difference between small injuries and great. There is no reason to doubt but that men were from the first more inclined to come to a peaceable settlement in the case of slight wounds than in the case of wounds more serious. Whether it were possible would depend on the individual character of the case; what had led up to the injury, how it had been dealt, and not least, who the offender was; whether he and his kin were of such standing that a peaceable settlement with them meant honour. But one thing was certain; the will to reconciliation was not based on any inclination to let the insignificant blow pass unheeded; if the culprit would not or could not make good the damaged honour, then vengeance must be taken, no less than in matters of life and death.
On this point law was as stiff and uncompromising as any private feeling enjoining unconditional restitution. That the offender is not in a condition to pay, or that he no longer exists, does not dispose of the fact that the other party stands there in need of payment. The slightness of an offence does not diminish the necessity of its being made good. And in face of this basic principle, all attempts at progress come to a standstill. The law reformers of Norway thrust vengeance as far as possible into the background. They urge, that the courts are ready for those who need them, and in addition there will now be royal officials, whose task in life will be to give men the restitution they had before to get for themselves as best they could. But they cannot refrain from adding, that if the opponent will not give way, and the will of the official is not enough, then the man who takes vengeance himself for his dishonour shall be regarded with all possible consideration; ay, if the vengeance taken does not exceed desert, he shall be held not guilty. “If payment of the fine for killing a man be not made, then the dead man's kinsmen may take vengeance, and they are to be no wise hindered by the fact that the King hath given the slayer peace and leave to be in the country,” — these are the very words of King Hakon's great reform edict, which prefaces the Frosta-thing's Law.
The demand for personal restitution, indeed, is not a thing that life and society merely acknowledge, it is the very innermost secret, the sustaining power itself, in the legislation of the North. When the Gula-thing's Law breaks out with its: “Then it is well that vengeance be taken” or when it says: “None can demand payment for injury more than three times without taking vengeance between them,” then it is not defiance of law, mischievously putting on the legal wig and uttering cynicisms with comic seriousness. These sentences are nothing but the direct expression of that law-craving energy which has built up and maintained the entire network of ordinances from which they emerge.
The spirit of the law may be characterised as a juridical sympathy with the offended party and his sufferings. The law-thing is the place whither he comes to seek healing. In other words, any attack is regarded from the point of view of personal wrong. It matters not whether a man comes bearing the body of his slain kinsman, or leading in a thief caught in the act and bound, or with the odium of a scornful word to be wiped out, the cry is the same: “Give me restitution, give me back my honour.”
A deed can never be a crime in itself, it only becomes a crime, if we will use the word, by its effect upon a person. If it falls upon a man sound and whole, it is equivalent to damage done, and he must have it made good. The fine society takes upon itself to procure for him, if he appeals to it, is, according to ancient terminology, his “right” — which means, approximately, his value. And if there be “no right in him”, i. e. if he is a man without honour, then there can be no crime.
The law-maintaining energy which goes
out to the complainant from the seat of justice is by no
means less than elsewhere where the judge sits to punish
and protect. On the contrary. It is the stronger,
inasmuch as it is inspired by the fundamental idea: that
restitution must and shall be made, since the well-being
of the complainant stands in jeopardy; he is a marked, a
fallen man, if we cannot procure him “honour”. If
the culprit is out of reach, his kinsmen must come
forward; it is not a question of finding any offender,
but of finding someone to make restitution.
The extreme standpoint is represented by the Burgundians' law, which decrees capital punishment for killing, and thus aims at abolishing altogether the taking of the law into one's own hands. But the good Burgundians were not yet farther on the road to perfection than that the lawgiver finds it necessary in the same breath to point out that no other than the guilty person is to be prosecuted. The remaining peoples had evidently not advanced beyond the stage of restrictions when they began to write down their ordinances. Unfortunately, owing to the casual nature of the laws, we are only able to follow the movement by occasional glimpses here and there. The law of the Alamanni seems inclined to distinguish between satisfaction of the impulse to revenge arising at the moment and vengeance planned and carried out in cold blood; a man who, with such helpers as may be at hand, sets off immediately in pursuit of a slayer and strikes him down in his own house, is fined the simple price of a man's life; but if he procures assistance first, the fine is raised to nine times that sum. Among the Franks, it is the Carolingians who first set about reforms in earnest. In the earlier periods, vengeance is still fully recognised, at any rate for more serious injuries. The Salic Law mentions punishment for anyone independently taking down the head set up by an avenger on a pole to advertise his deed. We happen to learn of a good man, Gundhartus, that he was obliged to remain at home by reason of vengeance threatening. In his need he has applied to Eginhard, who now (presumably about the year 830) writes a feeling letter to Hraban, urging this servant of Christ to release the man from his military service, as his coming to the army would infallibly throw him into the power of his enemies. The kings' attempts at reform amount for the most part to earnest and cordial exhortations to the parties concerned, to compel people to be reconciled and give up taking vengeance.
Most instructive are the limitations to which vengeance is subjected in the law of the Saxons. In the first place, it is banned in every case where damage has been done by a domestic animal, or by an implement slipping from the hand of the person using it; the owner shall pay a fine, but shall be secure against vengeance. Furthermore, a man innocent himself is not to be held responsible for acts of his people; if the deed be of his secret devising, then of course, he must be mulcted or suffer vengeance, but if the person actually guilty have acted on his own initiative, it is permissible to disown him, and let him, with seven of his nearest kinsmen, bear the blame, that is, serve as the objects of vengeance. Finally, when a question of murder, the family, in its wider sense, is entitled to purchase immunity from vengeance by payment of the third part of the simple fine for killing; the entire remainder of the enormous indemnity (nine times the fine simple) falls upon the murderer and his sons, and they alone are open to vengeance if payment be not made.
In the brief Frisian law we find the following: He who incites another to homicide — here again the relation of master and servant is probably in mind — can only escape vengeance if the offender has fled; he then pays a third part of the fine. If the slayer remains in the country, then it must be left to the judgement of the offended parties whether they will relinquish their vengeance on the instigator and accept a settlement. And where a man can swear himself free of all participation in his servant's act, he also escapes vengeance; but he must pay the fine all the same.
The Lombard legislators are greatly occupied with the question of vengeance, and much concerned about the problem of how to force it back within somewhat narrower bounds. The decrees accordingly provide an interesting picture of the position of vengeance, both in law proper, and where the injured parties take the law into their own hands. In cases of accidental homicide, mishaps in the course of work where several are together, etc.; as also in cases of damage caused by cattle, etc. not under control, vengeance is barred. According to the edict of Rothari, personal vengeance must not be taken for an insult or a blow; a fine must here suffice; in return, the king puts up the price: “For which reason we have for every kind of wound and blow set payment higher than our forefathers knew, to the end that the fine may thrust aside vengeance, and all suits be made amenable to complete reconciliation.”
There is a passage in King Liutprand's edict which gives us an accidental glimpse into the life of the Lombards, and shows how vengeance once let loose is flung backward and forward between the parties. The King has recently learned of a distressing episode; a man had taken the clothes of a woman bathing, and hidden them. Liutprand hastens to decree a very heavy fine for such misdemeanour; the culprit in such a case should be rightly mulcted in a sum equal to that paid for a killing; “for”, says Liutprand in explanation, “supposing that the woman's father, or brother, or husband, or other kinsman were come by, then there would have been a fight. Is it not better, then, that the sinner should pay the price of a man's life, and live, than that vengeance should arise over his body between the families and greater fines thence arise?”
The Lombard lawgivers appeal, for the rest, to the good sense of their subjects; it is a question of smuggling a higher standard of morality into the old-fashioned minds, and gradually expelling vengeance from the sphere of what is legal and fitting. The Lombard maids appear to have grown beyond the good old custom of remaining virtuously content with the husband chosen for them by their family. There are constant instances of a betrothed maiden running off with her own chosen swain, and the elopement naturally gives rise to regular vengeance and feud. Liutprand now tries whether the prospect of losing all her dowry might not induce a maiden to respect her betrothal. She is to lose her lot, and go naked and empty-handed from her home. He sternly forbids father or brother to give way to leniency here, “. . . that strife may cease, and vengeance be done away with”.
Among the peoples to the northward, the Danes — and the Anglo-Saxons — stand more or less worthily beside the Bargundians. Nominally, all vengeance is disowned. But the lawgivers cannot make their own language conform to the new ideas. When they endeavour to give reasons for the inability of women and churchmen to take or pay fines, the matter falls of itself into the old words: “for they take vengeance upon no man, and no man upon them”. Or an expression such as this slips in: “If the person wounded choose not to declare the deed, but to take vengeance. . .“ In the edict of Valdemar II regarding homicide, there is also the most remarkable contrast between subject and language. The purpose of the edict is to free kinsmen from liability to pay a share of the fine: “While the slayer is in the country, no vengeance shall be taken upon any other man.” If he takes to flight — when the injured parties, of course, stand empty-handed — then his kinsmen shall offer payment, and if they do not, and one of them should be killed by the avenger, then they have only themselves to thank, for not offering to pay. Naturally, however, the avenger is not exempt from paying for his kill; he has, so to speak, to pay for his right, just as the Burgundian who commits his act of homicide when “driven by pain and anger” to retaliate on the spot. The old régime is thus nominally broken off at the root.
The Swedes were hardly as far advanced as their southern neighbours. The Swedish laws lay particular stress on the point that vengeance is only to be taken on the actual offender, not on his kin. A breach of this principle comes under the heading of “unrightful vengeance”, an idea also known in Denmark, as for instance where Valdemar II's ordinance abolishing the ordeal by fire distinguishes between the killing of an innocent man and killing “in rightful vengeance”.
In Gothland, where the progress of development was in no wise behind the times, but in many respects followed a peculiar course, they had their own fashion of avoiding vengeance. The precepts of the Law of Gothland as to what is to be done in cases where “the devil hath wrought that a man should take a man's life” are doubly interesting, emphasising on the one hand the difficulties in the way of abolishing vengeance, and on the other, offering a solution by making use of old-fashioned means. It is laid down that the slayer shall flee with his father and son and brother, or, if these do not exist, then with his nearest kinsmen, and remain forty nights in one of the three church sanctuaries of the island. Thence they proceed to find themselves a dwelling place, away from their home; they are free to choose an area of three villages and the forest surrounding, as far as half way to the nearest inhabited district always provided, however, that there lie no law-thing nor market town, nor more than one church, in the district. There they remain. And for three successive years, they are to offer payment; and even though the offended party accept the fine on its first offering, no blame shall attach to him. If he refuse the fine on its third offering, then the people are to dispose of the money, and the offender shall go free.
Vengeance is in process of restriction everywhere. First of all, it was made conditional upon the intent to harm, then it was limited to the case of more serious injuries only, such as homicide and adultery; and finally, it is reduced to a sort of retaliation upon the culprit himself, his family being free from all liability to share the blame.
Restriction, limitation everywhere. And these very subtractions open up perspectives to a time when the necessity of restitution threw all consideration of malice prepense completely into the shade; when for instance every wound had to be traced back to someone responsible, even in cases where the weapon itself had acted against the will of its owner. But the palliatives chosen suggest a time when the sufferer stood more in need of spiritual than of bodily healing, and a time when vengeance was the universal medicine.
But there is more than this in these remains of kingly and clerical efforts to suppress individual vengeance; it is openly recognised that revenge was a necessity, for which the reformers must provide some substitute. Restrictions are made solely on the condition that restitution be secured by other means, and under the supposition that in case the new and lawful way should lead to nothing, then the kinsmen are to have the right of seeking their honour rather than risk its loss. This, as we have seen, was the final note in Valdemar's edict against kinsmen's help; they have only themselves to thank for having brought down vengeance upon themselves by neglecting to offer indemnity. Even the Anglo-Saxons are forced, no less than the Lombards and the Norsemen, to leave the right to vengeance open as a last resource, when the offender will not or cannot make restitution in any other way.
entirely isolated instance, we may find the conception
of law as existing for the purpose of punishment as a
warning to evildoers and a protection for the good; thus
in the preface to the Law of Jutland, in the Burgundian
Law, and here and there in some royal rescript. It
stands there as a lesson learned and repeated,
altogether isolated, without any effect upon the laws
themselves; set there, as it were, to show how
incommensurable is the principle with all Germanic
thought. As long as the reformers cannot demolish the
fact that injury poisons a man, they are forced now and
again to contradict themselves. They were too much men
of their world to fancy that a suffering could be
abolished by abolishing the principal means of curing
In the Law of Gothland, we find, in reference to a man in holy orders, who has an injury to avenge, but is refused payment for the same; he is to appear at the law-thing before all the people, and make his complaint, saying: “I am a learned man, and ordained into the service of God; I must not fight or strike a blow; I would accept payment if it were offered, but shame I am loth to bear.”
We have here a picture in brief of the essence of Germanic sense of right. Shame we are loth to bear. And from the seat of justice comes a ringing answer to the cry, for the law is in reality something more than a recognition of the necessity of vengeance to a man's welfare. The court must take up the cause of the injured party and throw in its weight and authority on his side, for by disallowing his claim to restitution it would place him outside the pale of society. Law is based upon the principle that an individual who suffers shame to fasten on him no longer counts among men; he cannot in future claim the protection of the law. If a man be called craven, and fail to clear himself by challenge and victory, then he is craven, and devoid of right — thus runs the sentence, both in the south and in the north. It is true enough that the injury is a private matter, inasmuch as it is a private distress for which a man must himself seek healing; the community takes no initiative in respect of pursuing the offender. But no less true is it that public opinion would place the sufferer beyond the pale if he did not rehabilitate himself. And the sufferer can, in a way, transfer his distress to the community by making complaint; he makes the people participators in the shame and its consequences. The law-thing must procure him restitution, as far as can be done with the means at its disposal, it must declare itself at one with the injured person, and renounce his opponent — unless a reconciliation can be effected. If the people cannot do this, then the people will perhaps be infected by his feebleness. The complainant has, so to speak, power over the people and its conscience, but not in virtue of a common justice, not in virtue of a constitutional principle that says: you must not, and demands punishment; not in virtue of anything but this: if nothing be done, I must perish, and I can drag you with me.
A man who fails to avenge an insult is a niding, and is deprived of the protection of the law.
The cry for honour comes so piercingly from the lips of kinsmen because it is forced out by fear. It was no doubt largely a matter of form, when in Friesland, one of the slain man's kin took his sword and struck three blows on the grave, calling out in presence of the whole family his “Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance!” A matter of form, too, is the ritual whereby the complainants draw their swords and utter the first cry, carry the body up to the law-thing and after two more cries, sheathe their swords again. But the forms are not more violent than feeling justifies. There was tension enough in the men to let the cry ring out far and wide. The law knows no such unrestrained violence. It speaks advisedly, weighing its words, but earnestly, as one who sees a human being in peril of life; and when all is said and done, the law's insistence on the indispensability of honour is just as emphatic as the cries of the kinsmen. The distinct and form-bound utterance of the man of law does not permit the demand to leap out upon us as in the wild cry of the relatives: “vengeance, vengeance”. And yet perhaps, if our ears are properly opened to what it is the man of law sets forth in his brief, rhymed sentences, we may by that indirect testimony itself gain the most overwhelming impression of honour's energy, an impression the more powerful from the fact that we here see the energy transmuted into a supporting power of society.
The process of Germanic law rests on the principle that an accusation — brought forward in due form, of course — is enough to compel a man to defend himself at law. Anyone must be ready to nullify the mere unfounded charge by his own oath and that of his compurgators. If not, he succumbs to the accusation; according to the old mode of thought, the matter is as fully decided as if he had publicly declared himself guilty. The fear of a man's being sentenced though innocent, by this method, was unknown, because silence was really not regarded as a mute confession; rather, the charge itself was considered as a way of introducing guilt into a man. He who fails to fling back the charge lets it, so to speak, sink into him and mark him. The accused does not prove himself clean; he cleanses himself.
This is the dominant principle in the Germanic law process, the bond that holds the people united in a community of law. In everyday life also, it seems as if one man had power over another by virtue of his mere word. One can egg on a man to show his strength, his courage, his foolhardiness in the way one suggests. One can force him, by expressing a doubt of his manhood. The Northmen have a special term for such compelling words: frýjuorð they are called; words whereby one indicates one's belief in another man's lack of manly qualities. For instance, there was a man called Már. This Már certain persons desired to be rid of for good. Accordingly, one day a suspicious-looking person comes up to his homestead, and tells him that one of his oxen is lying out in the bog. Már knows very well where his oxen are, but when the other lets fall a word to the effect that it is strange that a man should be afraid to go and look to his cattle, the yeoman must go out into the bog, and there he meets his death.
“You dare not” is enough to make a man stake his life. Gregorius Dagson lost his case and his life because he could not resist the power of a taunt. When he and Hakon met, there was a stream between them; the ice was doubtful, Hakon had had holes cut in it, and covered up with snow. Gregorius did not like the look of the ice; better, he thought, to go round by the bridge. But the peasants could not understand that he should be afraid of going against so small a party on good ice. Gregorius answered: “I have not often needed that any should taunt me with lack of courage, and it shall not be needed now; see only that you follow when I go on ahead; it is you who have wished to make trial of bad ice, I have no great wish myself, but I will not bear with your gibes. Forward the banner!” Altogether a score of men followed him, the rest turned back as soon as they felt the ice underfoot. There Gregorius fell. And this was as late as the year 1161.
A man has power over his neighbour by the use of frýjuorð, because the taunting words place the honour of his opponent in danger. If honour fails to rise and show its strength in answer, paralysis steals over it. The man sinks down to a niding. When an Icelander or a Norseman shouts at his opponent: “Be you every man's niding if you will not fight 'with me”, his words act as the strongest magic formula; for if the other will not take up the challenge, he becomes in fact a niding all his days. In the Hildebrand Lay, the father utters his anguished cry of woe to fate: “Now must mine own child strike me with the sword, give me my death with his axe, or I must be his bane.” But what is to be done? “He shall be most craven of all the Easterlings, who would now refuse you battle, since you are so eager for it..." So irresistible is the power of the taunt that it can force upon a man the deadliest of all misfortunes, the killing of his kinsman.
An insult, or an accusation, no less than blow or stroke of weapon, bends something within the man, something that is called honour, something which constitutes the very backbone of his humanity. In this wise, a man could make his fellow an inferior in law and right. The Uppland Law gives us a fragment of an old legal form from pagan times, in regard to an accusation of cowardice. The one party says: “You are not a man, you have no courage!” the other says: “I am as good a man as you!” Then they are to meet with weapons at a cross-roads; he who fails to appear is a niding and devoid of right. Or as the Lombards said: If one call another craven, then he must be able to maintain his assertion in trial by combat; if he succumb, then he should rightly pay for his falseness. If any call a woman witch or whore, her kin must clear her by combat at law, or she must bear the punishment for witchcraft or whoredom. Here, the insulting party infuses cowardice or whoredom into the other by his assertion. Similarly, the complainant puts robbery or other mischief into his opponent before the law, and forces him to cleanse himself.
The honour which has been bent within
the party accused must be raised up again, and given
back its power to rule the man. The insult can be
regarded as a kind of poison, which must be cast out and
flung back upon the sender. And thereafter, the sufferer
must get back honour again from the offender, for the
full and complete strengthening of his humanity. Mere
self-preservation forces one to seek restitution for any
injury; for a man cannot carry on life in shame. It is
of this feeling that the constitution of society is
born, a fundamental law hard enough to hold hard natures
together in an ordered community under the guardianship
The insult, the injury, might come from within, by the fact of a kinsman showing cowardice or slackness, in letting slip an opportunity of showing himself, of accentuating his existence in honour. Or he stamped himself as a son of dishonour by committing an act that could not be defended; let us say, by “murdering” a man. Finally, the family could be stricken by a bloody stroke that was in itself irreparable; when the slayer was one of its own members.
Then, the kinsmen may utter such words as these: Better gone than craven; better an empty place in the clan where he stands. We know something of what it must have cost to say such a thing; to utter these words a man must do violence to his feeling of frith; he must be filled with a dread that overshadows his natural fear of seeing the number of his kinsmen diminished and the prospect of a rich coming generation narrowed down; he must be driven so far as to forget what pain it meant to each one personally in the circle, when a string, a close-twisted string, was riven out of it. If we have realised what frith meant: the very joy of living and the assurance of life in future, and if we can transmute this understanding into sympathy, we cannot but tremble at the words: better a breach where he stands.
When shame comes from within in such a way as to preclude all restitution, it produces paralysing despair.
In the Gylfaginning, we read of Balder's death as follows: “When Balder was fallen, speech failed the gods, and their hands had no power to grasp him; one looked at another; all had but one mind towards him who had done the deed; but none could avenge it; the peace of the place was too strong. But when the gods found speech again, then burst their weeping forth at first, so that none could say any word to the others of his sorrow. But Odin felt the ill fortune heaviest, for he best knew how great a loss the gods suffered in Balder's going. -But when the gods came to themselves, then Frigg asked if there were any among the gods who would gain all her love by riding out along the Hel-road, to see if he might find Balder and offer ransom to Hel for suffering him to return home to Asgard.”
The reader can hardly doubt but that the author has drawn this vivid description from actual experience. The myth itself was undoubtedly handed down from earlier times; but whatever it may have held in its popular form, whatever its centre may have been before it gained its final shape, it must have touched and released a fear in the poet himself that lay awaiting the opportunity to burst forth. With the weight of an inner experience, the single moment is made a fatal turning-point. The gods are standing, young and happy, rejoicing in their strength and well-being, and then, suddenly as a hasty shiver comes, grey autumn is upon them. They have no power to determine, no strength to act. And while we watch, the shadows draw out, longer and longer, till they fuse, at the farthest point, into inavertible darkness. By its inner pathos the scene announces itself as a turning-point in the history of gods and men; we are made to feel that the killing of Balder ushers in the decline of the gods and the end of the world.
A man might actually come to live through a catastrophe which brought irreparable ruin upon a whole circle; and from some such experience — of the feeling of frith in the moment before its dissolution — the myth has drawn all its life. I am not in any way presupposing that the poet should himself have seen such a disaster in his own family; the overwhelming force of the deepest, most elementary feelings can so easily transform itself into a premonition of what the loss would mean, that an apparently very slight impulse may raise them in tragic form. Out of this collision between subject and experience, this inspiration as we call it, rose the generally recognisable picture of frith violating itself. Thus the kinsmen stand in their need. Their hands sink down, they look timidly at one another, fearing to look straight before them and yet afraid to meet one another's glance; none can utter a word. In a moment all vital force is broken. No one knows anything, all sway from side to side between two possibilities, as the Beowulf aptly paints it in the line about King Hrethel: “He could not let the doer of that deed hear ill words, and yet he could not love him.” In place of the old determination, which never paused to consider anything but the means, we have blind fumbling. The gods can find no other way but to send a messenger to Hel, and even go on a beggar's errand afterwards to all living and all dead things imploring them to raise Balder from the realm of death by their crying. This is no exaggeration transposed to human conditions. The kinsmen who bear the shame between themselves have no power for vengeance or defence. Insult from without is too strong for them. They bow their heads involuntarily, where they would otherwise stand firm. They fight without hope, with the despairing consciousness that the disaster will not cease. This misery is properly speaking what the ancients called redelessness, the inability to find a way.
And with this the downfall of the family is certain. When Beowulf's retainers had forsaken their king in his fight with the dragon, the consequences of their cowardice are depicted in the following words: “None of your kin shall ever now reach gladly for gold, see sword outstretched in gift; waste is the dwelling of the fathers, waste is life. Every man of your race shall go empty-handed away, and leave his land of heritage behind, as soon as brave men far and wide hear of your flight, your craven deed. Better is death than life in shame.”
This passage in the Old English poem leads us first and foremost to think of the disaster as a civic death; we can imagine the family driven into exile by a weight of sentence openly expressed or mutely understood. In this we are right to some degree; but the sentence is not the primary fact, it is only the outcome of deeper causes. For the trouble lies not merely in the scorn of men. Shame does not merely render the kinsmen unworthy of participating in human existence, but also, and most strictly, incapable of so doing. There is something wrong within. If it were not that the cowardice of individuals infected their companions and rendered them incapable of showing manhood, the race would not to such a degree become as a rotten bush, that could be torn up at a grasp and flung out into the field. Lack of frith is in its innermost essence a sickness, and identical with lack of honour. Such a condition is called by the Northmen nidinghood, the state of being a niding, whereby they understand a dissolution of that inner quality which makes the individual at once a man and a kinsman.
We encounter the word niding now at every step. In it lies the whole fear of a loss of honour not made good. And at every encounter, the word has a deeper and more ill-boding ring. To be a niding means that a man has lost his humanity. He is no longer reckoned as a human being, and the reason is, that he has ceased to be so in fact.
The state in which Hrethel and his fellow-sufferers find themselves forms a diametrical opposite to Havard's fulness of life. In men without honour, a dissolution of all human qualities takes place. First and foremost, the frith of kinship is destroyed. The strong coherence which alone enables the members of a family, not only to act unanimously, but to act at all, fades away. The lack of honour eats through the frith, so that the kinsmen wither and rush all different ways, as a mob of solitary units, that is to say, a mob of nidings.
In the house where a kinsman lies unavenged, there is no full and true frith. The family lives in a state of interregnum, a miserable and dangerous pause, in which all life lies as it were prostrate, waiting its renewal. The high seat is empty; none may sit there until honour is restored. The men shun their neighbours, they do not go to any meetings of men. Their avoidance of others is due to the fact that they have no place to sit where people are gathered together. 'Wherever they go, they must submit to be regarded as shadows. Nidinghood is in process of growth, encroaching over a new stratum of the soul for every opportunity of vengeance suffered to go by. Joy there is none. What is told of an Icelander; that he did not laugh from the day his brother was slain till the day he was avenged, applies in a wider sense, inasmuch as the power of joy itself was frozen.
The intermediate state is dangerous; for
if restitution be too long in coming, it may end with
loss of the power to take revenge. Then anticipation and
determination give place to helplessness and despair, to
The course of events is alike in all matters of honour. Whether the injury be a killing, a slander or anything else, it brings about an emptiness in those who suffer it. And if they do not gain their right before the seat of justice, either by laying the offender low, or by clearing themselves of the charge, — and obtaining restitution, — then they must perish, and it is immaterial whether the defeat be due to lack of will or of power or of good fortune. The great terror lies in the fact that certain acts exclude beforehand the possibility of any restitution, so that the sufferer was cut off from all hope of acquiring new strength and getting rid of the feeling of emptiness. In a case of kin slaying kin, the helplessness is increased, for here something is to be done which cannot be done. The kinsman's arms fall down if they move to touch the one responsible. And even if the slayer's kinsmen could bring themselves to attack him, there is no restitution for them in shedding his blood. It cannot be used to sprinkle their honour and give it new life.
We should probably feel this helplessness in ourselves as a strife of the soul, where the will itself is consumed in an inner conflict. Thus we can undoubtedly come to experience something of the dread our forefathers felt for nidinghood, but the question is if we can penetrate into the centre of suffering by so doing. The thing that weighed most heavily upon them was their powerlessness; the issue in their soul was between the will to act and the inability to act; the symptoms of nidinghood thus consist at once of fear and dulness. For the soul torn by inner strife, helplessness can be a relief, but for the Germanic character, the culmination of despair was reached when action was impossible because it had no aim. It was impossible to take vengeance on a kinsman. But what difference did it make if the slayer were kinsman or stranger, when the latter, for instance, was a slave without honour, or a vagabond without kin? When one could not reach beyond the slave to a master, or beyond the beast to its owner, or beyond the solitary individual to a group of warriors, one was left to bear the wound, and the wound meant emptiness in any case.
Any breach in the frith raised the same feeling of dread. In effect, there was no such thing as a “natural” death: however the breach were made, it was felt as a peril, a horror and an offence. Egil's despairing cry against the “ale-maker” sounds indeed to a certain extent modern — it is man asserting his right in face of everyone, though it be a god. In point of form, his challenge also seems rather to belong to a transition age, when gods and men had somewhat lost touch with one another. But Egil's challenge really contains a highly primitive element. Beneath the late form lies an old feeling of death, primeval fear and primeval defiance. Death was an anomaly, a thing unnatural and incomprehensible; one peers around to find who has brought it about, and if no slayer is to be found in the light, one seeks him in the dark. One seeks, perhaps, for the worker of this “witchcraft”. The oppression of natural death has, in the Germanic mind, been lost in care for the future of the dead; but again and again the old despair can rise up again in a feeling of injury to frith. Egil here shows himself as the most original, the most ancient of the northern characters. His exclamation: “If I could pursue my cause..." has in it quite as much of hopelessness and helplessness as of defiance. It is a sense of nidinghood lying in wait that gives his words their bitterness. But Egil is strong enough to conquer helplessness; he rises, through the feeling of solitude, up to the defiance of resignation. The downfall of frith forces his spiritual individuality forward in self-defence. He boasts of what his poetry and his will can achieve over men, even though they may be powerless to move the god; he will now sit and wait till Hel comes, unshakably the same as he has always been. In this assertion of his personality, Egil reaches far ahead of the culture in which he is spiritually set. As long as frith was the indispensable foundation for all human life, such trials could never lift a man up. Then, sorrow was merely a poison, that ate its way through frith, sundered the family, and set nidinghood in place of humanity. From the moment kinsmen declared themselves unable to find anyone to serve as the object of their vengeance, they sealed their death-warrant spiritually as well as socially.
If the shame be due to spiritual suicide, then there is no restitution to be found in all the universe. The loss remains irreparable. Only one possibility remains, as the only way of saving the family; the extirpation of the evil-doer. The dishonour can be burned away before it poisons the whole body, but it needs a terrible effort to break through the frith and lay violent hands upon oneself.
The Balder poem gives us here once more a poetical expression of the feelings at issue among the kinsmen. Or here we should perhaps say: one of the Balder poems; for from all appearances there were two. On the one hand, we have the version followed by the author of the Gylfaginning, where the slaying of Balder is linked up with the sending of Hermod to the underworld. The other form seems to have connected Balder's death with the myth of Odin's and Rind's son, Vali. Unfortunately, we never get the connection in full, but are forced to make do with our own conclusions, drawn from scattered hints in ancient literature. The poet of the Voluspá, in his allusive manner, compresses the entire episode into the following lines: “Of that tree which seemed so slender came a fateful arrow of sorrow; Hod loosed it from the bow. Balder's brother was born in haste, he, that son of Odin, wrought night-old his slaying. He washed not his hands, combed not his head, ere he bore to the flames him who had shot at Balder.” And in another Eddic poem, Balder's Dreams, the avenging of Balder is prophesied as follows: “Rind gives birth to Vali in the Western Halls. That son of Odin wreaks night-old his slaying; washes not hand, combs not head, ere he bears to flames the shooter of Balder.” Saxo has heard the story in this form. He lets Odin, who “like all imperfect deities often needs aid of men” learn from a Laplander that in order to provide an avenger for Balder, he must beget a son with Rind, a Ruthenian princess. He gives us, further, a detailed description of Odin's difficulties as a suitor in the Western Halls, where he tried his luck as a hero, as a goldsmith, and when neither heroic deeds nor golden rings made any impression on the maiden, as a leech, who both produced and cured the sickness. But whether these calamities properly belong here, where the question is only of an avenger for Balder's death, we do not know. Unfortunately, we are left without any indication as to how and where this myth was fused into the legend of Balder, but it certainly looks as if the poet who worked up the story was playing upon primitive notions. He felt the need of an avenger who was a kinsman and yet not a kinsman. The young hero carries out the deed before he has washed or combed himself — i.e. before he has become a human being. In any case, even though we cannot arrive at any certainty regarding the feeling of the viking age in connecting the two items, we may take the story as a symbol of the helplessness of kinsmen when their honour has been injured by one of their own; their feeling of helplessness in themselves and the sense that the trouble must be got rid of.
One thing we can say for certain: when it was a question of wiping out the shame, of extirpating the author of the shame, the kinsmen would hardly in any case have called in human help; they have opened the way out into annihilation, or the way to the forest. They have not, properly speaking, cut him off from themselves, but rather indirectly forced him to cut himself off, and not until the evil-doer had torn himself away from the family did they lift their hands and declare him solemnly as outside the pale of frith and humanity, and his place empty.
As long as there was the slightest possibility of preserving the vitality of the family without violence to its organism, the painful amputation would probably be postponed. In the case of members who by cowardice and inactivity were gradually bringing dishonour upon their kin, the others would probably first make trial of all goading and inciting words. This was the women's great task, and from all we know, they proved themselves equal to it. We have illustrations enough to make plain the influence of Germanic women over their husbands and brothers and fathers. They could etch in the details of an injury, stroke by stroke, as when Gudrun says to her sons: “Your sister — Svanhild was her name - Earmanric had her trodden underfoot by horses, white horses and black, along the road of war, grey horses, broken to the rein, horses of the Goths.” They could use living illustrations, more striking than those of any Jewish prophet, as did the fiery Icelandic widow Thurid, who set a joint of beef on the table, carved into three pieces only, and let the sons themselves call forth the interpretation: “Your brother was hacked to larger pieces.” After the meat, she had a stone to follow as an after-dish; this was to mean that they were as fitted to be in the world as stones on the table for food, “since you have not dared to avenge your brother Hall, such a man as he was; ye are fallen far from the men of your race . Sigrid, sister of Erling Skjalgson, accompanied her brother-in-law, Thorir Hund, to his ship after having showed him the body of her son, Asbjorn, who had perished in all but open revolt against King Olaf, and before Thorir went onboard, she spoke her mind: “Ay, Thorir, so my son Asbjorn followed your kindly counsel. He did not live long enough to repay you after your deserts, but if I cannot do so as well as he would have done, it shall not be for lack of will. I have a gift here I would give you, and glad should I be if it might be of use to you. Here is the spear that went in and out of his body the blood is on it still. It fits the wound Asbjorn bore, you can surely see. . ."
Thorgerd, wife of Olaf the Peacock, was a daughter of Egil, and had her father's pride of race. One day she bade her sons go with her on a journey to the westward, and when the party arrived outside the homestead of Tunga, she turned her horse and said: “What is the name of that place?” The sons answer:
surely know, it is called Tunga.” “Who lives
there?” “Do you not know that, mother?” “Ay,”
answers Thorgerd with a deep breath, “I know it full
well; there lives he who was your brother's bane. You
are little like your brave kinsmen, you who will not
avenge such a brother as Kjartan. Egil, your mother's
father, would not have acted thus; it is ill to have
deedless Sons — ay, such as you are, you should have
been your father's daughters and given in marriage. What
says the proverb, Halldor, there is a dullard in every
family; one misfortune Olaf had, it is not to be denied,
his sons turned out badly. And now we can turn back; it
was my errand to remind you of this, if you did not
remember.” Halldor is right when he says: “We shall
not hold it any fault of yours, Mother, if it pass from
These examples form a mighty responsory to all the foregoing, explained by and explaining it. Through the words and actions of these women there speaks a feeling of the enormous tension which the life of honour produced in men, and therefore the words have a meaning beyond the individual situation to which they are applied in the saga. They give us the certainty that such honour's need could drive men to their utmost. There is in them an indirect suggestion of what might happen if the incitement failed of its effect.
In one case we know for certain that the party concerned speedily proceeded to forcible amputation, and wiped the shame off the earth. When a woman had been dishonoured, her kinsmen's endeavours were directed first and foremost toward obtaining honour from the offender. But this was not as a rule the end of the matter. The dishonoured woman was reckoned a shame to her kin; she was a burden upon the race, and brought its honour into the same danger as did a craven among the men. Even after a woman was married, her kinsmen were responsible for her. The husband would lay the dishonour upon them, and bid them cleanse themselves and her. Gregory of Tours gives an instance of how such a matter was dealt with in those days — an example typical in all essentials of Germanic thought and action. A woman was said to have deceived her husband. Then his kinsmen went to the woman's father and said: “You must cleanse your daughter, or she must die, lest her fault should smirch our race.” The father declared himself convinced of her innocence, and in order to stop the accusation, offered to clear her by oath.
If the kinsmen cannot clear themselves, then they must bear the shame with her; they must let themselves be made nidings or else put her out of the way. There was a family, says Gregory, which learned that one of their womenfolk had been seduced by a priest; all the men hurried to avenge the blot upon their race, by capturing the priest and burning the girl alive.
The family undertook this uprooting for its own welfare, from the instinct of self-preservation. The necessity for the deed has left its mark in the laws, and we even find traces indicating that the right was once a duty. Rothari's edict to the effect that the authorities shall intervene if kinsmen do not avail themselves of their right to take action against a kinswoman who has misconducted herself with a man, is doubtless an emphasising of an ancient sense of right. Swedish laws refer to the right of parents to drive their daughter away.
If a woman has dishonoured her father's or her husband's house, she is whipped from house to house, or forced to take her own life — thus Boniface describes the domestic rule of the Saxons in pagan times. The latter alternative points back from the judgement of society to what we have called racial amputation; the shame is wiped out, without any direct violation of frith on the part of the kinsmen.
The reason why the family took such extremely harsh measures against their womenfolk was not that the Germanic standard regarded woman's frith and inviolability as inferior. On the contrary, since woman occupied, so to speak, the very innermost place in their frith, the danger arising from a decay of her honour was the greater. Therefore the misfortune caused by a wife or a girl must be checked at once and effectively. But we have indications sufficient to show that men with fatal shortcomings were cut off too with the same rude hand, but also with the same wariness, lest any guilt of blood should attach to the survivors.