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CHAPTER V

PURCHASE AND PLEDGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the old sense of ownership, which must prove inadequate in reckonings with coinage, places itself involuntarily in a posture of defence, as soon as it is brought face to face with the thing itself. For the present, the Germanic mind cannot go so far as to see things as objects; they were individualities, known and encountered with the reassurance of recognition. The world from which the laws and established customs of these people proceed is one in which articles of value have their proper names and their personality; it is the world where the haughty warrior, strutting about among his former enemies in the spoils of war, gives rise to the exclamation: “Look, Ingeld, do you know that weapon? It was the one your father bore the day he fell.” And wherever these men go, they reveal themselves by their inability to sever altogether the connection between themselves and things. The gift a man had given to another was and would ever be an outpost of his soul in the alien territory, and he had both a right and a duty in regard to it, which rendered his will significant even to later recipients. For an Olaf the Saint, this feeling oneself in the thing was nothing less than a personal experience. One of his men, Brand Orvi, had once received a cloak from the king, and shortly after, given it away again to a poor priest, Isleif, who had come home from his studies in foreign parts and was short of clothes. Olaf had something to say to Brand about this readiness of his to rid himself of a king's gifts, but when he saw Isleif in the glory of his learning and holiness, he realised at once that the cloak had found a worthy wearer. “I will give you that cloak,” said Olaf, “for I can see from the look of you that there is a blessing in being counted in your prayers.” It may be a Christian hope that is here expressed, but the grounds for so hoping are heathen enough.

Apart from the personal feeling of ownership, the importance of land and goods to others besides the nominal owner was a fact not to be disregarded in daily life. As long as a clan was not entirely dissolved, it was difficult to exterminate the right of the heirs to consideration in any transfer of inherited property, whether it appeared as a claim to be heard at the sale, or a demand for right of pre-emption. It may be forced back within certain limits, and then it stands firmly as a claim that not more than a certain portion of a fortune may be given away, and that all beyond the reasonable amount can be claimed as returnable on the death of the giver.

The legal provisions are but surface signs of the anxiety with which the clansmen as a whole watched any transfer which involved spiritual revolutions and obligations. The family never lost touch of its gifts, and the clan could not surrender itself for ever as a passive instrument into the hands of strangers; so they rebelled at the thought that the receiver of a gift should freely dispose of what he had received to a third party.

This kicking of culture against the pricks of alien influence gives rise to a peculiar duality in the character of the trade-loving German people. Their laws for trade and commerce are nearer the commercial routine of a Roman than the chaffering of the true Germanic type; in their wrestling with sale and pledging, hire and rental, their speech is in reality that of a modern society, but they disguise their experienced wisdom in curious terms, which are only properly appreciated when one passes them by and approached them from behind, through the past. There is no getting round the old forms, and consequently, thought and expression are stubbornly in conflict, the meaning ever tugging and straining at the form till it is near to bursting, and the forms resisting, striving to keep the transactions within the confine of the ancient bargain system. It may end by the institution falling to pieces, as is actually the case with the old marriage and betrothal contracts, where the gifts which constitute the obligation have lost their significance as enrichment, and retained a ceremonial value as ved or present, while the pecuniary arrangement has maintained a separate position under or even outside them; a Lombard maiden becomes a bride in virtue of the old-fashioned betrothal, but her main interest lies in the document whereby the husband secures her to a fourth part of his fortune. The result may establish itself as a temporary compromise, as when transactions dealing with things presuppose the seller's obligation to uphold the purchaser's right in face of his own kinsmen as well as of other possible objectors, so that he not only guarantees the rightful transfer of ownership once and for all ,but declares his willingness to accept responsibility for the same as often as opportunity may arise.

But here and there, half or more than half stifled beneath all this flourishing legislation, we find an occasional etiolated shoot of the prehistoric idea of trade. Provisions such as those of the Grágás: A giver cannot revoke his gift, but if he gave in hope of return, or if the receiver have promised value in exchange, then the giver has a claim to as much as was promised, -- or as that of the Östgötalag which provides that ownership can be asserted by saying: he gave and I rewarded, -- contain in reality the Germanic trade legislation. They hark back to the idea of exchange of gifts as the true mode of procedure when things change hands; an object in one man's hand proffered a suit to an article of property that belonged to the neighbour. The gift which a Swedish suitor carried in his hand in token of his wish to marry into the house was characteristically called tilgæf, meaning a gift (gæf) for the obtaining of (til) a desire. The suitor for friendship, who gives his gift in order to obtain a certain thing in return, and the giver who prophesies blessing in the article transferred, have in reality long since told us all there is to say anent Germanic sale and purchase, and Gjafa-Refr, the Gift-Fox, is as a trader, the highest type of Teutonic bargaining.

Thus all distinction between unselfish desire to give and egoistic lust to possess, between an offer of friendship and haggling over a bargain, between noble self-surrender and ignoble demands for payment, melt away. Germanic culture knew no better than that possession was obtained by means of an offer of friendship, and neither affection nor cupidity were lessened thereby. To a Teuton, love and interest could no more be separated than were the soul and the body of the ring or axe. When, then, Gunnar, in the Edda, says: “One thing is better to me than all, Brynhild, Budli's daughter, she is above all women; sooner will I lose my life than lose that maiden's treasures,” there is true pathos and depth in his words, and in no other way could the passion be adequately expressed.

On this point, the ideas of the barbarian and of the educated man clash more helplessly, perhaps, than anywhere else. Tacitus has seen the guest emerge on departure with his arms full of costly gifts, and has seen the host remain behind content with a little mountain of souvenirs, which he had begged of those who had rejoiced his heart by accepting his hospitality. “It is customary to speed the parting guest with anything he fancies; there is the same readiness in turn to ask of him,” he says, but adds: “gifts are their delight, but they neither count upon what they have given, nor are bound by what they have received.” If he had been able to peep a little more closely within doors, he would have been considerably taken aback on observing how carefully the cheerful givers saw to it that nothing remained to enter in any account. The same thing has happened to many Europeans endeavouring to understand the ideas of savages as to the value of a thing between brethren. Here comes a native with his present, freely offering his friend the one lamb he has, and lo, shortly after, points out to the grateful colonist that he has forgotten to requite the little attention by giving, for instance, in return that very nice gun there. Then the white man is sorely bewildered, and sometimes becomes a ready convert to certain philosophical systems, which teach that the nobler characteristics of man do not fall in under innate ideas; it is only a pity that European speculation is too provincial to be able to feel with the native, who is shaking his head just as energetically over this remarkable world, in which people can go about and grow up to manhood without understanding the simplest things.

There is soul in the greed of the ancients, and so their desire rises to the level of passion, or should at least retain its sole right to that noble word. It comes over them whey they move about the object of their cupidity, looking at it from every side, and unable to take their eyes off it; they cannot resist, they must have the owner's friendship, or take by force that which they cannot win – and let the man of violence look to it thereafter, if he can force the acquisition to obey his will. Because desire comes from such a depth, therefore a refusal strikes at it as an affront. The calm and self-possessed chieftain of the Vatsdale, Ingimund the Old, had an experience in his later years, concerning a weapon. One summer, a Norseman, Hrafn, was staying with him as a guest, and this Hrafn always went about with a most excellent sword in his hand. Ingimund could not help casting sidelong glances at the sword; he had to borrow it and look at it, and he was angry in earnest when Hrafn flatly refused his eager offer to buy it. Days went on, Ingimund grew more and more interested in the Norseman's stories of his travels and viking adventures – had had been young himself once, and known the thirst for adventure – Hrafn talked, Ingimund listened, and in course of conversation Ingimund, lost in thought, stepped into his sanctuary, Hrafn following. Then Ingimund turned on him indignantly, for in a temple it was the custom to enter unarmed, not thus to challenge the gods; if a man forgot himself, he would have to make amends by offering the best he had, and begging one who knew the gods to take his case in hand. Thus Ingimund gained possession of the sword Ættartangi.

Desire can do more than set the passions moving, it creates the true tragedies in our forefathers' lives. When the old one-eyed god came into the hall of Volsung and struck the sword deep into the tree-trunk as a gift to the strongest, none but Sigmund could move it, but there was one, his brother-in-law Siggeir, who cast longing glances at it. He offered three times its weight in gold, but the gold left Sigmund unmoved. Siggeir then angrily left the place before the end of the feast, but in return, invited his wife's kin to his place, and there he gained possession of the sword, after having killed his father-in-law and set his sons, ignominiously bound, as food for the wolves in the forest. One after another the grey one took the young men, only one, Sigmund, the owner of the sword, was left; by the help of his sister, Signy, he got back the sword, saved himself and avenged his father – and it was this sword which Odin himself struck from his hand in the battle, which Regin forged together for his son, which served to slay Fafnir; the weapon of Sigurd Fafnirsbane. So one treasure after another comes with its tragedy. The collar of the Yngings, the arm-ring of the Scyldings, the Andvari hoard, -- in these names are indicated not only the tragedies of the Germanic people, but the tragic element in their life.

 

 

 
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