Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

One of the great interests of Anglo-Saxon poems is the heroic code of the warriors.  They fight for their own glory, of course, but also to protect and avenge their lord, to preserve their religion, and defend the liberties of their people.  Unlike the Vikings, they are neither savages nor merely predators.

Before going on to discuss the code(s) adhered to by the warriors at Maldon and earlier at Brunanburgh, I want to reach back to Beowulf and repeat some of what I wrote in that discussion:

We have next-to no knowledge of Anglo-Saxon  society on the eve of  the invasions that Germanized England, but we know a little more about Vikings several hundred years later. At the top of the social order were kings, members of royal kindreds, though power did not pass automatically to eldest son or, failing sons, a daughter, either in Scandinavia or in AS England.  The king was primarily warchief and thus a tough and resolute warrior was needed to protect the people.  King much more loosely applied than among Goths and other tribes to the South—often claimed by members of royal clan.  Under the king were jarls/earls, who enjoyed power and prestige over community or communities, and in Scandinavia were commissioned by the king to represent his government, much like the comites in Carolingian Francia.  These nobles, powerful as they might be, lacked the divine sanction of kings who claimed descent from Woden.

“The basic unity in society…was no king or earl but a bondir, a free farmer, roughly equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon ceorl…”  [H.R. Lloyn, The Vikings in Britain] The bondir was no little man in our sense of the word.  He was at his most typical the head of a household, a man of some property in land and especially in stock.  He was a slave-owner.  His symbols of rank were his axe and his spear.  The mark of the freeman was the right to bear arms.  He was oath-worthy and law-worthy… Sturdy and at times savage, independence was a characteristic of this breed, but…his very litigious and squabblesome nature found its outlet in what was essentially communal institutional life, in the folk-court, the local thing held at some traditional spot…”

Anglo-Saxon society developed under Frankish and Christian influence, but it started from roughly the same place and was  never fully detached from its foundations.  The freemen and Earls were fiercely individualistic, self-assertive, quick to anger; also intensely familial and devoted to kin.  Marriage far more egalitarian than among more developed peoples.  Free contract between man and woman, dissolvable by either party.  Scandinavia and AS societies were not the Playboy Club that Iceland has become, but they were freer and less restricted in their sexual mores and attitude toward women than, say, Mediterranean cultures. This is one more indication of how primitive they were and are.

In Beowulf, the most important social and legal fact to notice is the code of the Germanic warrior.  A free man, by definition, was a man who could fight to defend himself, his kin, and his king.  Blood revenge and what would later be called dueling were social and moral norms.  In modern times, English law has gone farthest in restricting the individual’s recourse to violence. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, if they were freemen, did not so much take the law into their own hands as exercise the law on their own authority.  In avenging a death in the family, they were less interested in the motives and circumstances than in the fact.  Blood once spilled cannot be recalled, as the furies say in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.  Even in a case of accidental homicide, where no negligence is involved, a man is still dead, and–as the legal maxim held–”Legis enim est qui inscienter peccet, scienter emendet”, that is a man should knowingly fix the harm he had done in ignorance.”  In tort law, this principle endured into the 19th century.

For the Saxons, murder as well as accidental homicide were settled by payment of blood-money to the kindred.   “Homicide appears in the Anglo-Saxon dooms as a matter for composition in the ordinary case of slaying in an open quarrel.  There are additional public penalties in aggravated cases, as where a man is slain in the king’s presence or otherwise in breach of the king’s peace.” [Maitland and Pollock I.52]

Wergeld, as our Saxon ancestors called it, is a custom of many nations, although none, perhaps, has elaborated it into a social system so successfully as the Germanic peoples.  The monster Grendel, whom Beowulf kills, is an outlaw not so much because he kills the Danish king’s retainers as because his refusal to pay compensation puts him outside society.

“Although it may be assumed that the primitive Germans recognized only the fact of bloodshed, motivation and circumstance did come to play an important part.  Of course the slayer’s kin could stick to the letter of the law of blood, but “one may almost say that the leading motive in heroic literature is precisely this difference of opinion between the people who hold that under any circumstance it is shameful to come to an agreement with the bana (slayer) of one’s lord or friend or kinsman, and the people who are willing under certain circumstances to come to such an agreement.” [Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn by R.W. Chambers with supplement by C. L. Wrenn, IIIrd Ed., Cambridge UP, 1963, 276-77.]  Liability also extended to one who loaned weapons or was present in a fray.

Much of what underlies the principle of blood-revenge is summed up in the phrase “collective responsibility.”  In other words, an individual who killed or maimed or robbed someone was not the only person responsible.  If a town rose up against the king, it was not just the guilty parties who suffered.  In Medieval Tuscany, Florence in particular, wide networks of kinfolks were held collectively responsible for paying the fines of an offending member, and this gave the Florentine business classes the ability to expel entire noble kindreds.  One of King Alfred’s successors made local communities responsible for paying the fines for unpunished criminals—which must have served as a powerful incentive to punish the guilty parties.

This is a very inadequate and amateurish introduction, which can be fleshed out in many directions, but I wanted to begin to show that in the heroic world of Beowulf, we shall not find many things to confirm our modern liberal prejudices in favor of equality, individualism, and universal moral rules.

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