Friday, 26 February 2016

The Role of an Anglo-Saxon Lord

A long time ago, at the request of Beith a noted scholar prevalent on the OBOD Forum I wrote a long essay on this & lost it when my PC crashed (she left due to the badgering of less-than-scholarly people convinced, due to the Dunning Kruger effect, their unstructured opinions were correct). It has taken me many years to write it again.

Heoric Lordship

The key nature of Lordship in the Anglo-Saxon world is in the relationships and incumbent duties around gift giving. It is not a world where the divine right of Kings, with its underlying social caste structure, is a given. This 'divine right of kings' develops later as part of the ossification of structure in the Feudal world. In the Feudal world kingship become hereditary rather than the meritocracy of the Heroic Age (aka Age of Migrations, Dark Ages, Early Medieval period).

The Heroic Age is a world where a lord is reliant upon his people just as his people are reliant upon him. A good lord is much more aware of the symbiosis and potential fragility of this relationship. A lord is either given power by the Witan (wise leaders of the people) or takes power through his own abilities as a warrior and leader. As a lord he gains wealth which is then distributed as gifts. This ties into the act of giving as an oath, which is related to the rune Gebo, the X, which is the handshake of the act of giving between gift-giver and gift-receiver. The act of giving is a sacred one involving responsibility and duties. Thus both the acts of giving & receiving is an oath. Which ties into the religious and cultural significance of the oath and sacrifice. In an oral world one's spoken word becomes very important your 'word is your bond' and it is these ties of bond-ship that uphold the cultural structure of the heroic world. So when a lord is described as 'ring-giver' there is more than just the transferral of wealth involved.

The only thing more sacred than your word would be an oath-ring carved with runes and given to the gods - many oath rings have been found sacrificed at archaeological digs at Heargs & Hofs. The oath ring is sacred to Thunor (Thor) and Wuldor (Ullr), so the ring is related to divine power. So that when a Lord is named ring-giver it also relates to the Oath as Law and the Lord's role as Law enforcer. "Many times this object was the oath ring and this oath ring was a holy item in the hof. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives an example of the oath ring being used by the Danes in 876 and there is an account of a ring called Thor's ring on which oaths were sworn. Thor presided over the Assembly, which opened on Thursday (Thor's Day) in Iceland. In Eyrbyggja Saga the oath ring was described as being 20 ounces of silver. When not in use it lay on the stalli and during feasts the gothi wore it on his arm. In the description of Thórólf's hof in Iceland, the ring is described as being 2 ounces and was worn on the finger of the gothi during all assemblies. Like the description in Eyrbyggja Saga, this ring laid on the stalli of the hof when not in use. "

A lord uses the gift of wealth as a contract, he does not give lightly and expects loyalty from the gift receiver. The Battle of Maldon poet says this when describing Godric's cowardly betrayal of his duties as gift-receiver
"and left his good lord
Who had often given him many a mare,
He sprang upon the horse that his lord had owned,
Upon the trappings where no right had he"
The poet contrasts the act of the good lord giving a horse with the crime of stealing a horse. Upon seeing the Lord's horse leave the field of battle it causes the shield-wall to break because the people believe their Lord had broken. The shame of betraying your oath, your Lord and your kin will long be remembered. You will not go to the Halls of the Honoured dead but will instead end up in the grey purgatory of Hel or worse; back to the mud un-remembered and un-mourned.

The Germanic peoples, like the Celtic people, had a long history of tribal law handed down as part of an oral tradition. The Lord holds the Hall, the hearth of his people. This hall is the central point within the Garth, the boundary, of the people. In this respect the Lord has to be aware that he holds the spiritual & physical power of his people, if he breaks or betrays this then his people will break and the line of tradition is broken. As King he is also Gothi to his people and so responsible for their spiritual well being too. So if the Gods don't favour him then his people will break oath with him. If his people break oath with him then he breaks and his lineage can be broken.

Conflicts of interest

A good Lord is also aware of the conflict of interest a person may have between their Lord and their Kin, he will use his generosity as a gold giver and law giver to ensure loyalty to him. A Lord does not inherit his position it is given to him by the people (or for a King the lesser Lord or Thegns of the people). The bond between a lord and his housecarls is one of blood-brotherhood, in that respect the Lord's companions are also bound by the kin-oaths. Whilst a Lord's thanes may not have the kin-oaths, his housecarls should live and die with him...
'Soon in the struggle was Offa struck down
Yet had he done what he boasted to his friend
As he bragged before to his ring-giver:-
That they both to the burg should ride
Hale to their home, or in the battle fall,'
This sentiment is common throughout the A-S literature; in 'Beowulf' at the end Wiglaf articulates the same sentiment and it's a theme within 'The Wanderer' too.

There is a common theme of holding your counsel until you know your mind and not being a loud braggart; 'That with proud minds many did then speak
Who later at need would not endure.'
Which in our modern world we would call 'talking the talk but not walking the walk'. So a good Lord must know when to listen and when to talk wise counsel. This passage from 'The Wanderer' sums up the approach of a good lord...
'A wise Lord must be patient
nor too impulsive, hasty of speech,
nor weak as a warrior
nor reckless,
nor pessimistic
or overly optimistic
nor greedy
or eager for boasts.'

Gewessi Mindfulness

What does this mean to a follower of the Gewessi path? I would say that just as a Gewessi is a Gothi/Gythi it is incumbent upon you to behave a like a Lord (or Lady and I'm not going to get into a Transgender argument about terminology!). So that in your daily mindfulness of interacting with people think of the relationship between gift-giver and receiver and the advice above about how a wise Lord behaves. I find the advice above very useful when dealing with social media.
Picture from here
ref: Heroic Age


  1. A wonderful post, with much I was not aware of. I shall have to go off and research. I wonder if this in part had any influence on Tolkien when conceiving of the LOTR? Indeed, more importantly, I wonder if Wagner had any knowledge of this while writing the Ring? It was certainly an area in which he was knowledgeable. Even ignoring the obvious source of the Ring cycle and the Ring being the Andvaranaut? The ring cycle is certainly deeply ingrained on oaths and contracts - especially via Wotan of course?

    Also pleased to have discovered the term " Dunning Kruger effect" which I shall, from now on, be using profusely. Although, sadly, I suspect people will be throwing it at me with even great zeal.

  2. I think Tolkien, as a leading scholar and WW1 soldier, would have understood the role of a Lord and it can be seen not only in Strider/Aragorn but in the tale of Túrin Turambar
    With Wagner's ring I am less sure, the Wagnerian heroes seem more based upon later Chivalric codes of conduct with reference to the earlier myths.
    As to the origin of the ring of power some scholars have suggested that Andvari's ring was originally rooted in Atli/Attila the Huns circle of wagons which formed his government.