Monday, January 10, 2011

On Nobility

In the Orkneyinga Saga (kafli 139), we are given a strophe by Earl Rognvald, famous for its summation of the skills of the nobility : Tafl emk orr at efla,/ íþróttir kannk níu, / týnik trauðla rúnum, / tíð er mér bók ok smíðir./ Skríða kannk á skíðum,/ skýtk ok roe'k, svát nýtir, / hvárt tveggja kannk hyggja / harpslótt ok bragþóttu, "I am passionate about tafl, I know nine skills, I scarcely forget the runes, books* and art I long for, knowing how to use them ; I know how to glide on skis, shoot, and row marvelously well ; I know how to think, both with cunning on the harp, and able to speak my mind through verse."

[* "books" in the archaic, poetic sense meant narrative tapestries]

He thus speaks of athletic skills, skill in gaming, knowledge of the mysteries, passion for lore and art, and in particular, dedication to the craft of poetry and song.

This list should be compared with the list of skills in Rigsthula, where the emphasis is on skills of defense and protection, sports, and hunting, followed by learning the sacred mysteries of men and of the heavens. Upp óx þar Jarl á fletjum; lind nam at skelfa, leggja strengi, alm at beygja, örvar skefta, flein at fleygja, frökkur dýja, hestum ríða, hundum verpa, sverðum bregða, sund at fremja. (Rigsthula 35) ... Rígr gangandi, rúnar kendi (Rigsthula 36) ... En Konr ungr kunni rúnar, ævinrúnar ok aldrrúnar (Rigsthula 43) “Jarl grew up on the benches ; he learned to shake the shield, to fasten bow-strings, to shaft arrows, to let fly darts, to shake the spear, to ride horses, to let loose the hounds, to brandish swords, and to swim. ... Rig arrived, taught him runes ... And the young king learned runes, the mysteries of eternity and the mysteries of men.”

Amongst the arts that the young king learned were the ability to communicate with animals (Klök nam fugla), hypnotherapy (sefa of svefja, literally, to soothe the mind or affections), and to “lessen sorrows” (sorgir lægja), which from context of all medieval tales most likely refers to the playing of music (compare Hjorrandi’s taking away sorrow ; Saxo mentions Hodur having the ability to soothe people’s sorrows with music : Ad quoscumque volebat motus, variis modorum generibus humanos impellebat affectus: gaudio, maestitia, miseratione vel odio mortales afficere noverat, “He knew how to affect mortal affections, and through different kinds of measures could stir up and urge on whatever human emotions he wished : joy, sorrow, compassion, or hate.”) He also learned the arts of protecting men (mönnum bjarga), as catalogued in his martial skills, and various shamanic or wizard abilities that affected the elements (to lower the seas and calm fires, ægi lægja ... , kyrra elda).

Amongst the runes mentioned in Sigrdrifumal are ölrúnar, limrúnar, málrúnar, and hugrúnar, which may be glossed for our purposes as the arts of brewing, the arts of healing, rhetoric and eloquence, and philosophy, in its widest sense as the king of the sciences. In addition to all this, Odin mentions as the sixth rune-song he knows (it sétta) one which will turn back curses, the ability to calm the winds (vind ek kyrri), the power to return astral travelers to their bodies (it tíunda), sociological knowledge (fyrða liði ...ek kann allra skil, “I can differentiate all the hosts of men”), holy dawn-songs (er gól ...fyr Dellings durum, “that song before Delling (Dawn)’s doors”), and arts of love (it sextánda).

Jordanes, in Chapters 69 - 73 of De Origine Actibusque Gothorum, speaks of a teacher who had come to the folk, who by context is obviously Rig, his name meaning “teacher”, who taught them the arts of philosophy, ethics, physics, logic, astronomy, botany, and theology, the latter of which was particularly taught to the nobility. We thus have a catalogue of education, martial arts, arts and music, theology, magic, and medicine.

Noble families were, in general, those who dedicated themselves to the patronage and protection of the histories, arts, humanities, law, and sacred lore of the folk. They were the most educated and strove to preserve this education and excellence within the family. The older folk knew that not everyone would be inclined in this direction, as some people just want to tend to their fields and do their work, and yet there must at least be some who keep the law and lore alive and intact. Such people were necessary as mediators and arbitrators, and of such arbitrators, Kropotkin indicates that they were taken from “such families, or such tribes, as were reputed for keeping the law of old in its purity; of being versed in the songs, triads, sagas, etc., by means of which law was perpetuated in memory; and to retain law in this way became a sort of art, a "mystery," carefully transmitted in certain families from generation to generation.” It is these who became the nobles, an “aristocracy” in the original sense of those who most cultivated virtue and excellence.

There were mechanisms for balancing out the classes. The king was permitted to promote those within his service and retinue he saw having potential, subject to review by his witan, and notification at the Thing, and thus those of lower classes who showed promise had the opportunity to rise to that level appropriate to them. Likewise, nobility often fostered their children with members of the farming class, so that their own children might gain a taste of and empathy for the realities of the people they would eventually serve and protect, and the foster family would have the honor of close contact with a more educated family, and the inspiration and possible patronage that might provide.

Now all of this is on the level of ideals, and is good so far as that goes, but as we all know, reality too often fails to live up to ideals, and thus there must be checks and balances, and quite practical and even somewhat cynical mechanisms to restrain the abuse of power and trust that leads, however gradually, however small at each step, towards tyranny. Without such pragmatics and such checks, ideals become ideology and justification for realities which consistently and even cynically fail -- rather than just incidentally fail, which we expect in the course of an imperfect life -- to live up to, or at times, even approach, the higher ideals. Indeed, a great deal of post-Roman Europe might be considered an object lesson in the abuses of nobility and aristocracy in the decay of the older traditional checks and balances.

The first place to look for this is in the highest position of prestige and trust, the king ; for what is held to be the true concept of the highest will necessarily condition what lies below. For a model of the king, we must look to Odin, who in particular watched over kings especially and scrutinized their conduct. Odin is the chieftain of Asgard, and in an analogous position to a king. He is never explicitly called a king in genuine heathen lore, but Snorri does once call him a king, suggesting that to his eyes, closer to the source material than ourselves (although still separated by over two hundred years), the comparison seemed a natural one, given his place in Asgard. It is therefore critical that we understand the conception of his position there. Fortunately, we have a name or perhaps even direct title in the heiti Jafnhar, which may be inflected either as "Equally High", or "High Equity", both of which bear meaningfully upon our investigation. A proper idiomatic translation of "Equally High" is "First Amongst Equals", perhaps the most important qualification of his power. But the myths do not leave the interpretation of this epithet to chance, for they demonstrate it directly in narrative, for Odin is actually deposed at one point in time for what the others considered a violation of the dignity of his office, and he must earn his way back into good standing with worthy deeds. It ought prove an edification of prime significance to our understanding of power that the Teutons felt that even God could be deposed for poor behavior! By the time Snorri receives his material, this story, which certainly would prove subversive to the new Christian concept of divine monarchy, had been set aside and lost, because Snorri doesn't report it, and lacking the context, shows he doesn't understand this epithet of Odin, via the fact that he has to invent the stilted explanation that Odin had created a three-tiered illusion of himself. But Odin, while tremendously wise, and their leader, was still subject to collective review in council by the other Gods, his peers amongst whom he was simply the first. If such checks on power are expected of the divine, how much more so in the human realm!

Moreover, the other inflection of the term points to a similar rigor of expected conduct and standards. Odin was expected to demonstrate as a leader the noble value of High Equity, of just decisions that accorded to each their due, with impartiality and understanding of the particulars of the circumstances, so that differentials might receive their appropriately equal, or more properly, equitable treatment. A leader's office was a dignity and a trust granted by the council in whole, and who may grant and delegate may also withdraw and impeach, through due process.

Saxo gives examples of the promotion, through exceptional service to their country, of those of lower orders. Moreover, all were subject to law, and while the nobility might have more resources to pay the fines for convicted crimes, if the resources of their families did not suffice, they too, in theory, could be made Thralls.

The concern for equity was quite conscious and institutionalized. The rotating allotments of fertile land were directly intended to foster unity and discourage faction, particularly class division between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, through which the tribe could lose its solidarity and therefore strength. Whatever differentials in personal wealth, everyone shared a similar lot of farmland, and shared the same common resources.

Having the populace attend the courts and congresses fully armed was another check upon abuse of power, and a direct intimidation to any leader whose arrogance stepped too far beyond the line. Moreover, stories were well known and kept circulated about kings who had been sacrificed to Odin for stepping out of line too far. The welfare of the folk and the land had to be foremost in a leader's mind, and demonstrated, on the whole, in his actions. The tales of Robin Hood, which accord with the lore of King Frodi, were constant popular reminders of how unjust nobility could become under the wrong circumstances, and how that might be fought, if necessary, and all other recourses and remedies had failed, insurgently.

Thus ideals and the ability to call leaders out when they consistently failed to duties of trust to such ideals, acted as balances to allow the different levels of advancement in society to work, on the whole, harmoniously, and thus in frith, and therefore strong as a whole.

all translations copyright 2011 by Siegfried Goodfellow


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