Kinship, gift-exchange, honour and feud in Medieval Frisia and Iceland

In this article I want to say a thing or two about a few interrelated ‘processes’ in the Medieval Germanic society. How groups form and how they are maintained and how ‘mechanisms’ such as honour and feud work. These at first sight varied subjects will prove to be interwoven.
For this article I have used a few books that you will find listed at the bottom. All authors more or less treat parts of the whole, but from different perspectives and speaking about different societies. It seems as if all of these kinds of works owe a great deal to Willam Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking which is one of the books that I used. Miller is mostly concerned with Medieval Iceland. Another author I consulted is Jos Bazelmans who dived deeply into the Beowulf story and therefor Anglo-Saxon culture. Another Dutch author, Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld wrote a book about gift-giving mostly concerning people and the Church in the late-medieval Netherlands, a period in which little empires started to arise and this lord-civilian bond is also very present in Bijsterveld’s book. Further I used two articles and last but not least, the inspiration to start this little investigation came from Han Nijdam’s excellent Lichaam, Eer en Recht which is about Medieval Frisian society, with many references to Medieval Iceland.

The individual

Nowdays we speak of an individualistic society, people are atoms in a society and hardly connected to anybody. This was different in times past. In fact, it is not entirely true nowadays either. When you think of who a person is, you think how that person relates to other people to ‘define’ that person. Han Nijdam says: “a person [is] dividable because it is defined in terms of the relationships that he and other members of the society maintains” (Nijdam 50). He continues with a simple example refering to a short film in Sesame Street in which a boy is the newspaper boy for one person, the grandchild of the next and the little brother of the third. The boy is ‘defined’ by the people he relates to. Or the other way around, who he is, depends on the person who describes him.

“If we could abstract a person’s movements and graph them into a network, we would find that the greatest predictor of the identity of the various households in which he or she gained entry, either as visitor or lodger, would be the presence of kin within that household.” William Miller writes (Miller 139), meaning that the visitor would define the persons in the houses he visits by looking at the other people present. Since it still works that way, one can hardly speak of an individual.

So if an individual is defined by his or her surroundings, what are these surroundings? “Family”, “kin”, “sib” , “tribe” perhaps? Just as with an individual, these terms are not so easy to describe, because they too are dependent on the situation. “The oldest Germanic societies that can be reconstructed using historical sources possessed, according to the most widely held opinion, a relatively stable order that was based on the natural principle of blood-relationship. Relationships of descent, whether fictional or not, gave each person a place within the tribal collective.” (Bazelmans 13) On a smaller scale Miller does not only speak of “regional variation[s] in householding practices” (Miller 113), but he continues with saying “that the precise sense of household might change depending on the context in which it is invoked. A household unit as identified for recruitment to the feud is not the same as the household unit used to determine whether someone qualifies for service on a jury or is required to attach himself to a chieftain for the purposes of Thing attendence.” (Miller 114). “Ego-focused kin groupings of shifting composition […] were quite important in Iceland in a multitude of social and legal settings, even if these groupings were variously constituted depending on a number of personal, social, and other contextual factors and did not include all eligible members. Kinship mattered, even if not all people related to a person felt obliged to assist him or her.” (Miller 140) Or in the words of Jos Bazelmans: “The tribe consisted of a large number of relatively autonomous elements. These were not descent groups in the sense of lineages or clans, but name-bearing groups of disparate size which recruited their members on the basis of kinship and residence in the same geographical area. Each person was not only a member of such corporate, regional groups, but also of an open network of persons related on the father’s or the mother’s side along with dependents (the kindred). Such networks played an important rold especially in the resolution of feuds.” (Bazelmans 3)

“The extend of the kindred, that is, how genealogically distant two people can be and still count each other kin, is formally set in some provisions in the laws at fourth cousins.” (Miller 145) (addition: a fourth cousin is a person of my own generation with whom I share great-great-great-grandparents, in our reckoning that is an 8th grade kinship! Some texts speak of seventh cousins!!)

“Kinship mattered”. But what is a person’s kin? The people he is related to by blood of course, but both in the old and in the current view of things, blood-relations go in two directions, the father’s and the mother’s side. “Bilateralism, the tracing of relationship through links of both sexes, meant that not all a person’s relatives were related to each other. […] An important feature of bilateral kinship reckoning is that your kin will not entirely coincide with your cousin’s kin; or, from another perspective, you are by virtue of kinship eligible for membership in several different kin groups with different overlap. […] The kin group, in other words, was not a closed corporation of determinate membership; it did not constitude itself automatically. It always fell to someone to recruit his of her kin for the particular enterprise at hand.” (Miller 155)

You have family on both your father’s and your mother’s side, but the uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces of either side are probably not related to eachother, their kin is different from yours. Therefor the situation exists in which an uncle of both your father’s and mother’s side are called upon, but when one of these uncles invites (or whatever) his kin, he will most likely not ask your other uncle. With that in mind you can only conclude that kinship differs in different situations.

A similar situation goes for “households”, a group of people living in the same house or on the same piece of land under guard of a “householder”. A household is something quite different from kin, since aunts and nieces do not often live in your house and the servants that do, are usually not related by blood. A household surely is a unit of society to take a look at, especially because often it is said that in governmentless society such as in Medieval times there first were separate households:
“Inevitably the attempt was made to add early Iceland to the number of regions that socialized people in nuclear families within simple households. As we shall see, what the sources tell us about the shape of Icelandic householding must compel a different conclusion. The sources, both sagas and laws, are not without their own special problems in this particular topic. For one thing, the laws take an explicit interest in households and even define what constitudes a household unit. But the “juridical” household does not seem to correspond with what archeological evidence there is, nor with saga descriptions of how the main economic unit, the farm, was populated and managed. Outside passages in the laws directly dealing with the legal household, information on householding must be culled from passing comments in the laws and sagas and inferred from contexts devoted explicitly to other matters. The fact that most of our information is acquired incidentally is in its way quite reassuring. Even the most committed member of the Icelandic school of saga scholarschip would have a hard time giving any reason as to why a thirteenth-century saga writer would want to situate his characters in households that had no basis in reality.” (Miller 112/3)

“While the laws formally imposed kinship out to fourth cousins, kinship in the practical or world depended on more than just biological or affinal connections. Just who would be counted kin was clearly subject to much situational variation and was quite context-specific. A second, even a third cousin with whom one shared common interests and with whom one consequently acted or consulted would be counted kin, while a first cousin with whom one was less involved might cease, for practical purposes, to be counted kin at all. Nor might the people with whom one claimed kinship for the purpose of invitations to feasts and weddings be the same people one counted as kin when it came time to assist in a lawsuit or help pay compensation for their wrongdoings.” (Miller 156) Miller calls this “recruitable kin” (Miller 156) and of course the situation is not different nowadays. I suppose the “common interest” could also be with a non-kin version but a friend.

Earlier we saw Jos Bazelmans speaking of “fictional relationships of descent”. This can refer to the famous, but in the used books little described subject of blood-brothership. “Blood-brothership was a formalized relation undertaken between two or more men in which each vowed to avenge the death of the other, just as if he were his own brother.” (Miller 173) And thus a new member of the kin was a fact.

What might sound strange in our logic is that “[i]n various places in the law a sister’s husband is considered an especially close relation. “He is disqualified for interest from sitting on juries and from judging his affine’s cases just as if he were a blood relative.” (Miller 162) This does not count for a wife’s brother!

“People looked to kin and affines for aid in law and life. They avenged each other’s wrongs; they invited each other to weddings and funerals; they gave each other gifts. They stood surety for each other hired on their poorer cousins as servants.” (Miller 178) This had the result that “[o]ne of the chief activities kin undertook with eachother was mutual consultation. Since the target of a vengeance killing might not be the wrongdoer himself, but one of his kin, there was every reason why kin would want to have some say in actions for which others might hold them to account. […] Uncounseled deeds were considered reckless deeds.” (Miller 164)

The consulting of kin is very different from how things go today. When I do something to somebody, that somebody in most cases will not know my family and if (s)he does,

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