The Teutonic and Scandinavian Religion
Viking Age Online Library Release #1
7. Social Character, Maritime Discoveries, and Political Institutions of the Scandinavians.
Of the manners, customs, and habits of the Scandinavians, we cannot speak at length. Society among them was divided into two classes, - the landholder or bondsmen, and the thralls or slaves. The duty of the last was to perform domestic service and till the ground, and they consisted of prisoners taken in war and their children. The Business of the landholder or bondsman was war, and his chief virtue courage. His maxim was, to conquer a singe opponent, to attack two, not yield to three, and only to give to four. To die in battle was their high ambition; then they believed that the should pass to the halls of Odin. King Ragnar died singing the pleasure of receiving death in battle saying, "The hours of my life have passed away: I shall die laughing." Saxo, describing a duel said that one of the champions fell, laughing, and died. Rather than die in their bed, some. when sick, leaped from a rock into the sea. Others, when dying, would be carried into a field of battle. Others induced their friends to kill them. The Icelandic Sagas are filled with stories of single combats, or holm-gangs. When not fighting they were fond of feasting; and the man who could drink the most beer was counted the best. The custom of drinking toasts came from the North. As The English give the Queen, and we the President, as the first health on public occasions, so they begin with a cup, first to Odin, and afterward to the other deities, and then to the memory of the dead, in what was called grave-beer. Their institutions were patriarchal; the head of the family was the chief of the tribe and also its priest. But all the freemen in a neighborhood met in the Thing, where they decided disputes, laid down social regulations, and determined on public measures. The Thing was, therefore, legislature, court of justice, and executive council in one; and once a year, in some central place, there was held a similar meeting to settle the affairs of the whole country, called the Land-Thing or All-Thing. At this the king was chosen for the whole community, who sometimes appointed subordinate officers Yarls, or earls, to preside over large districts. Respect for women was a marked trait among the Scandinavians, as Tacitus has noticed of their congeners, the Germans. They were admired for their modesty, sense, and force of character, rather than for the fascinations which the nations of the South prefer. When Thor described his battle with the sorceress, the answer was, "Shame, Thor! to strike a woman!" The wife was expected to be industrious and domestic. She carried the keys of the house; and the Sagas frequently mention wives who divorced their husbands for some offense, and took back their dowry. The Skalds, or Bards, had a high place and great distinction among this people. Their songs constituted the literature and history of the Scandinavians, and the people listened, not as to the inspiration of an individual mind, but to the pulsation of its own past life. Their praises were desired, their satire feared, by the greatest heroes and kings. their style was figurative, sometimes bombastic, often obscure.
Of the maritime expeditions of the Northmen we have already spoken. For many centuries they were the terror of Europe, North and South. The sea-kings of Norway appeared before Constantinople in 866, and afterward a body-guard of the emperors of the East was composed of these pirates, who were called the Varangians. Even before the death of Charlemagne their depredations brought tears to the eyes; and after his death they pillaged and burnt the principal cities of France, and even his own palace at Aix-la-Chapelle. They carried their arms into Spain, Italy, and Greece. In 844 a band of these sea-rovers sailed up the Guadalquiver and attacked Seville, then in possession of the Moors, and took it, and afterward fought a battle with troops of Alderahman II. The followers of Mohammed and the worshippers of Odin, the turbaned Moors and the fair-haired Norwegians, here met, each far from his original home, each having pursued a line of conquest, which thus came in contact at their furthest extremes.
The Northmen in Italy sold their swords to different princes, and under Count Rainalf built the city of Aversa in 1029.* In Sicily the Northern knights defeated the Saracens, and enabled the Greek Emperor to reconquer the island. Afterward they established themselves in Southern Italy, and took possession of Apulia. A league formed against them by the Greek and German Emperors and the Pope ended in the utter defeat of the Papal and German army by three thousand Normans, and they afterward received and held Apulia as a Papal fief. In 1060 Robert Guiscard became Duke of Apulia and Calabria, and at last of the whole kingdom of Naples. Sicily was conquered by his brother, Count Roger, who, with a few Northmen, routed vast numbers of the Saracens and completed the subjection of the island, after thirty years of war. Meantime his brother Robert crossed the Adriatic and besieged and took Durazzo, after a fierce battle, in which the Scandinavian soldiers of the Greek Emperor fought with the Normans descended from the same Scandinavian ancestors
*Gibbon, Chap. LVI
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