Germanic Warrior Tradition: the Terror of the Northman

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Germanic Warrior Tradition: the Terror of the Northman

Post by John T Mainer on Sat Dec 11, 2010 9:46 pm

A furore normannorum libera nos domine ("From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!) Thus begins the English Bible of the 8th to 10th Century. Indeed when Ariovistus the German stood before the assembled kings and chielftains of the Gaulish nation in the 1st Century BCE ( whose collective might he had smashed in a single day) he gave them the choice of paying to him tribute, burning their cities and taking their whole peoples to new lands they must take from the dominant superpower of Europe; the Roman Republic, the Gauls chose to dash their nations to rubble against Rome, rather than stand against the Germans. Who were these supermen? What made this nation of small tribes, poor in metal for weapons, and scant of armour, the terror of the ancient world, and the one group to turn back the power of Rome at its height of late Republican and early Imperial power?

To understand the strength of a pattern welded sword you must first learn of its forging, and to understand the power of the Germanic and Norse warrior, you must first learn of his birth and shaping. To understand the Northman, you must first look to the woman that birthed him and raised him. In the Northwoman we saw something unmatched in any European nation save ancient Sparta, a figure of power and authority rooted in duty not to herself, but to those who come after her. From Tacitus Germania we have the ancient marriage laws of our folk:
Chapter 18
Marriage Laws. Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. The wife does not bring a dower to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relatives are present, and pass judgment on the marriage-gifts, gifts not meant to suit a woman's taste, nor such as a bride would deck herself with, but oxen, a caparisoned steed, a shield, a lance, and a sword. With these presents the wife is espoused, and she herself in her turn brings her husband a gift of arms.
This they count their strongest bond of union, these their sacred mysteries, these their gods of marriage. Lest the woman should think herself to stand apart from aspirations after noble deeds and from the perils of war, she is reminded by the ceremony which inaugurates marriage that she is her husband's partner in toil and danger, destined to suffer and to dare with him alike both in in war. The yoked oxen, the harnessed steed, the gift of arms proclaim this fact. She must live and die with the feeling that she is receiving what she must hand down to her children neither
tarnished nor depreciated, what future daughters-in-law may receive, and may be so passed on to her grandchildren.

Consider the dowry gifts; oxen that she will care for and work for the prosperity of the family, and arms that she may vest her husband with to defend what she will pass to her children. Unlike the folk of other nations, the Northwomen did not sit behind walls and send their men off to decide their fate, the women and children went to the battlefield to stand within sight of their men, that each man should know the fate of his women and children rested solely upon his valour. Indeed, when battle stood in the balance, and fear caused men to turn from the battle line, the sight of women baring their breasts and crying out drove home to the men the truth that should they seek to flee, their women would face slavery whose shame the Northmen feared worse than death (Tacitus Germania Cpt 8). While it was for the man alone to man the battle line, it was for the whole of the folk to face death together, and for the strength of the women and children in the face of fear to inspire the men.
The myth of German invincibility, like that of the earlier Spartan was born of a simple truth; the Northman was such a highly conditioned and trained warrior as to be both physically and personally overpowering and dominant to lesser peoples. In the War Commentaries of Caesar, the victorious legions that had crushed the fierce Gauls were themselves as terrified of the Germans as were their Gallic foes:

[1.39]While he is tarrying a few days at Vesontio, on account of corn and provisions; from the inquiries of our men and the reports of the Gauls and traders (who asserted that the Germans were men of huge stature, of incredible valor and practice in arms - that oftentimes they, on encountering them, could not bear even their countenance, and the fierceness of their eyes) - so great a panic on a sudden seized the whole army, as to discompose the minds and spirits of all in no slight degree.

The Legionaries facing the Germans were professional soldiers, bearing swords of iron, full armour and helm, large tower shields, spears, and throwing javelins. They trained year round with both their personal weapons, and in large scale manoeuvres to be able to outmarch, out manoeuvre and outfight any foe, and yet against the Germans armed with only spear and shield, with a smattering of axes and the rare sword with almost no personal armour, they felt quite outmatched. Unlike the Romans who came to the profession of arms on enlistment, the Northmen were raised to nothing else.
Where the Roman child upon reaching citizen age was given a toga to wear, a northman received his arms, usually from his father or male relative. Indeed while it was illegal to go armed in most cities, the Northmen did not conduct any business or meetings unless they went armed (Tacitus Germania Cpt13). Indeed the Hamaval cautions us to go about armed in our daily lives thus:

38. Away from his arms | in the open field
A man should fare not a foot;
For never he knows | when the need for a spear
Shall arise on the distant road.

While the leadership of most armies in the ancient world was inherited, leading to periods of great success when ably lead (Ceasar at Alesia ), and disaster when poorly lead (Varus at Cannae), the leadership of the Northmen in war was a merit (Tacitus Germania Cpt 7). While it was for the professional soldiers to determine the tactics and strategies of the armies, it was for the chieftains to lead and inspire their troops. Unlike the nobility of other folks, it was for the Germanic noble to lead by example from the front. The Hamaval tells us

15. The son of a king | shall be silent and wise,
And bold in battle as well;
Bravely and gladly | a man shall go,
Till the day of his death is come.

This is confirmed in history from the writings of our foemen, with Tacitus and Caesar both noting that while the Germanic nobles lead the battle line, it was considered the height of disgrace for a warrior to survive the death of his chieftain, so as a chieftain steps forward into the fray, each of his sworn men and kinsmen rivals with each other to push beside him, and ward him with their shield and fury (Tacitus Germania Cpt 14). Like the Spartans before them, for a Northman to come from the battlefield without their shield (to flee a warrior would have to throw the heavy shield for speed of escape) was to lose citizenship, to be barred your own home, barred from speaking at law or counsel, barred from the rites of the gods themselves (Tacitus Germania Cpt 6).
Now that we have considered why they fought so fiercely, it is time to consider how they fought. The North has always been metal poor, especially in the ages when our folk were largely herdsmen, so the heavy armour common to the Greek Hoplite or Roman Legionary was almost unknown even for kings. The traditional weapons of our folk were the centre boss shield and the spear called a framea. This spear is heavy with a short sharp head that is wielded equally well in long distance and close combat (Tacitus Germania Cpt 6), and is spoken of in the War Commentaries of Caesar as being a very great danger to Roman helmets. The leading men were likely to have a sword or axe as well, with skirmishers equipped with light spears and axes for throwing which they could hurl incredible distances (Tacitus Cpt 6).

The primary strength of the Germanic warrior has not been the incredible striking power that defeated foeman have made so legendary, but the mobility that comes from troops so well-conditioned that not only could they out march horses over long distances (a feat common to elite infantry from Gaius Marius Legions to Napoleons Imperial Guard) , but they could sprint into battle alongside the horsemen during battle. From the War Commentaries of Caesar we have this:
[1.48]The method of battle in which the Germans had practiced themselves was this. There were 6,000 horse, and as many very active and courageous foot, one of whom each of the horse selected out of the whole army for his own protection. By these [foot] they were constantly accompanied in their engagements; to these the horse retired; these on any emergency rushed forward; if any one, upon receiving a very severe wound, had fallen from his horse, they stood around him: if it was necessary to advance further than usual, or to retreat more rapidly, so great, from practice, was their swiftness, that, supported by the manes of the horses, they could keep pace with their speed.

These elite horsemen and infantry so impressed Caesar that his best legions employed 500 of them throughout the civil wars against Pompey and his allies in the Senate for dominance of Rome. Indeed the mobility of the Northmen was to be a theme that persisted well into the Viking age which saw the combination of swift foot infantry and swift longships allowed them to strike at will over the coast of Europe, Africa, and even up the rivers to forge Russia from the boundaries of Asia.
The role of the warrior in Germanic tradition is different than that of most other peoples, for the warrior draws his value from his service to his folk, and not his gear. Alone among the warrior classes of antiquity, his arms were free of adornment, being purely functional:
(Tacitus Germania Cpt 6) There is no display about their equipment; their shields alone are marked with very choice colors. A few only have corslets, and just one or two here and there a metal or leather helmet. Their horses are remarkable neither for beauty nor for fleetness

What gave a warrior status were his deeds, not the fine sculpted bronze of the Hoplite, nor high crested helms and bright scarlet cloaks of the armoured Roman, or the fantastic checker patterned brightness of the Gaul. The Northman fought with valour, for he feared not death, and yet he was no Jihadist seeking martyrdom, for his honour lay not in death, but in serving his folk. The Hamaval, or sayings of the High One show the twin principles of the Germanic warrior:

70. It is better to live | than to lie a corpse,
The live man catches the cow;
I saw flames rise | for the rich man's pyre,
And before his door he lay dead

Dying alone accomplishes nothing. Your honour is found in serving your folk, not dying for personal glory.

78. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.

Everyman dies, but the deeds you do while living will live on. The Germanic warrior knew his immortality lay in the defense of his people, and the fame of his deeds. He did not fear death, only failure to do his duty.
In some ancient peoples, the wounds of war were considered shameful. Indeed Celtic Kings were expected to lead their folk in battle, yet wounds would render them unfit to be King, as the King must be physically perfect to the Celt. In the Book of Invasions, the great King Nuadha lost his hand in battle and had to step down and let Bres, a tyrant and despot lead the Tuatha de Daanan to ruin. It was only when his hand was restored that Nuadha Silverhand again became ruler of his people (Green, M.J. [1993]. Celtic Myths. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press). To the Germanic warrior, wounds were no disgrace, but a source of pride and badge of honour. Odin gave his eye for wisdom, and Tyr his hand for the defense of the people. No new hand or eye were crafted by the gods of the North, because loss in defense of the folk was a source of pride, not of shame. Indeed disability through injury, battle, or disease was not shameful as every man and woman was expected to contribute to the folk to the extent of their ability, and win equal honour in the doing. The Hamaval tells us:

71. The lame rides a horse, | the handless is herdsman,
The deaf in battle is bold;
The blind man is better | than one that is burned,
No good can come of a corpse.

It is from this foundation of security, that neither death nor wounds in defense of the folk can bring him anything but honour and glory, that the Germanic warrior draws his strength. It from the women and children who not only volunteer to share his danger, but demand and expect from him nothing but the most exceptional courage and that he roots himself. It is from his chielftains and nobles who share the risks alongside them that they draw their inspiration. It takes a folk whole and strong to produce a warrior tradition whose excellence so outweighed the material disadvantages of its troops in arms and armour, to win for it eternal glory, and for its peoples safety and freedom.
Indeed the virtues of the Germanic warrior were so greatly admired by ancient peoples that where they would not trust the integrity or the prowess of their own folk, they would secure their throne and people with the unquestionable valour and loyalty of the Germanic warrior. The Varangian Guard was the imperial bodyguard and elite fighting force of the Byzantine Empire from the 10th through the 14th centuries ( ), responsible not only for preventing assassination and civil war, but for marine assault forces and heavy infantry support in the campaigns to consolidate and expand the empire. The loyalty of the Germanic warrior was so strong, and his devotion to his sworn lord so legendary that it survives even in the boasts of those few forces great enough to know victory against them. In the battle of Stamford Bridge where Harald Shaggy Hair and his unarmoured vanguard fell to English ambush and archery, the valour of a single Norse axeman who defied and held off an entire army of heavily armoured foot until at last archers were able to fell him; his bravery was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by his foemen ( ).
It was from the fierce freedom of its folk, the unmatched pride of its women, and the deep reverence for their folk, sacred ancestors, and holy gods that the strength of the Germanic warrior flowed. With the coming of Christendom, the crushing of the free and open society that Charlemagne would bring (^ Rudolf Simek, "the emergence of the viking age: circumstances and conditions", "The vikings first Europeans VIII - XI century - the new discoveries of archaeology", other, 2005, p. 24-25), and the reduction of women to no more than chattel, the source of the Germanic warrior tradition faded, and the age of the supermen was ended. The Germanic warrior was not the best equipped, nor was his training lavish beyond that of professional standing armies, indeed he was less well supplied in both leisure and wealth to maintain his fighting abilities. The Germanic warrior tradition, the matchless power of the Northmen arose from the strength of his whole folk, shaping and empowering a warrior tradition that shook the world, and founded the bulk of the nations of the first world that endure to this day.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum
"Let justice be done, though the heavens fall."
John T Mainer

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