Frith is often translated as “peace”. The full meaning of frith encompasses peace but extends well beyond it, to cover a large portion of the most meaningful and essential foundations of human social life, especially as it is lived in more “traditional” societies. A full understanding of the concept of frith will show that “peace” is not identical to frith; rather, peace as we understand it is generally an outgrowth of frith, resulting from the conditions of frith being met. When frith has been achieved, usually peace is there too, though that is not always the case, as I shall show.
Our forebears perceived three primary focuses or centers of frith. The first — and surely the original — wellspring of frith was kinship and kindreds. The second was the web of loyalty created among a lord or chieftain and his (occasionally her) folk. The third wellspring of frith arose from the relationships between the folk and their gods, goddesses and other holy wights, as well as between individuals of the folk who had come together into the presence of their deities. I will address each of these wellsprings in turn, drawing much from Vilhelm Groenbech’s volumes on The Culture of the Teutons. As far as I am aware, Groenbech has done the most comprehensive job of summarizing and analyzing the existing literary sources concerning the concept and practice of frith and related thews among all the Germanic tribes.
Frith and Kinship
The idea of frith is very closely tied to kinship — blood kinship in particular — and then to kinship by marriage, adoption and fostering. The words frith and sib were often used interchangeably to describe the state of being of people involved in a kindred relationship, and we can easily see the connection in the modern use of the term sibling to indicate a brother or sister. The term frith did not merely indicate the material fact of blood relationship. Rather, it described the essence of the relationship itself: the joys, responsibilities, interdependence, burdens, and benefits that characterized it.
The word frith is related to the words for friend and free. Frith was to our forebears the “power that makes them ‘friends’ towards one another, and free men towards the rest of the world.” (Groenbech, Vol. I, p. 32) In their minds, “freedom” did not mean freedom from responsibility toward others. Freedom meant being strong enough to face the evils the world threw at one and being able to overcome or survive them, and for this one depended on one’s kindred. Surrounded by a numerous kindred cognizant of the requirements of frith, the Germanic man or woman was well-armored against all the misfortunes the world could cast, whether poverty, threats of violence, legal troubles, or any other difficulties. Not woven into a web of frith, a lonely wretch had nothing either material or spiritual upon which to rest his or her life and welfare. This also was the bitter lot of thralls.
The term frith captured a huge proportion of everything good that could exist in life, and all of these grew out of the roots of the kindred itself — the kindred relationship. Lines from Egil Skallagrimson’s moving poem about the drowning of his son express this sense of the unity of the kindred: “Cruel was the hole the waves tore in my father’s kin-fence; unfilled, I know, and open stands the son-breach torn in me by the sea.” The oneness of the kindred was no mere conceptual ideal; it was implemented and practiced as a matter of course in everyday life, and the name for this many-faceted thew was frith. “Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand spon sor for one another, trust one another… The responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds.” (Groenbech, Vol I., pp. 42-43)
One can read again and again in the Icelandic Sagas of a worthless, trouble-making person whose actions bring disgrace and disaster on the whole kindred, but who, nevertheless, is supported, helped and defended by other members of the kindred committed to the thew of frith no matter what the consequences. Groenbech notes the “absolute character of frith, its freedom from all reservation.” (Vol. I, p. 36) This absolute, uncompromising character of kindred-oriented frith actually contributed significantly to the pursuit of feuds and strife within the larger community, at the same time that it reduced strife within the kindred, inside the pale of frith. Frith was nothing if not partisan: focused on security and stability of the kindred, it had no application to those individuals and groups who lay outside the boundaries when it came to a conflict of interest between the two. Nor could any notion of absolute, unbiased justice make a dent in it: defending one’s kindred was always right, no matter how wrong thir actions were. Frith was the paramount thew, taking precedence over all others.
Often women, as brides, were meant to serve as frithweavers between warring clans. When, as too often happened, the frith thus woven broke down, the effect on women of the conflict between loyalty to lord (husband) versus kin was severe. As far as I am aware, though, there seems to have been no question in our forebears minds that a woman’s loyalty belonged first to her kin. Gudrun of the Volsunga Saga is a perfect example: she could not take vengeance on her brothers for their murder of her husband Sigfried, in spite of her bitter grief at his death. Though she loved her husband dearly, that love could not outweigh the demands of kin-frith. Yet she had no hesitation enacting vengeance on her next husband, the Hun leader Atli, for her brothers’ deaths. This was done in order to keep frith — kin-frith — whole.
Women indeed acted as peace weavers, not only within the kindred but also in the community, and inspiring examples of their deeds can be found in the literature. (The same, of course, can be said for many men.) Yet they also acted against peace, as we would see it today, by being the keepers of the family frith and honor, and ensuring that vengeance was taken when one of their own had been injured. The Icelandic and Germanic Sagas give many instances of women who prodded their more peaceable or just lazy or feckless (in the mindset of the times) menfolk into taking vengeance when the men perhaps would not have bothered if they had been left alone. The difference between our times, our mindset, and theirs is profound in this respect. They regarded the courageous act of marrying into an enemy clan as frithweaving, and so would we; but they also saw vengeance against those who broke through the boundaries of frith — outsiders who damaged their kindred in some way — as being properly supportive of f rith, which we would not regard today as “peaceful” behavior.
Frith and the Bonds between Leaders and Folk
Due most likely to the violent, insecure and threatening world in which they lived, our Germanic forebears in many, though by no means all, places and times of their history laid great emphasis on a close and loyal relationship between leader and folk . This reached its highest expression in the oathed relationship between a war leader and war band, though it also applied to peacetime chieftains, kings and other leaders. This lord/sworn man relationship was frequently extolled in the heroic poetry and sagas of the age, so that we have good records of what it ideally involved.
Frith between lord and man was expressed much as the frith of kinship: there were mutual obligations and benefits, including the requirement for the man not to raise hand or voice against his lord, and the lord not to punish or deprive his man and the man’s dependents unjustly. In essence, the lord owed the man his livelihood, while the man owed the lord his life. Under the social conditions present in those times, neither could survive safely or comfortably without the other; thus the importance o f making and maintaining bonds of trust and frith between them. This was often strengthened by the fact that there were kin relationships within these groups, also among the folk, and between chieftain/lord and some of the folk. This gave a double foundation for frith: it was both oath-bound and kinship-bound.
The men sworn to a lord were likewise expected to keep peace and trust among themselves. Anglo-Saxon literature is rich in references to the healldream, the “joys of the hall”, where the deep frith between members of a war band or other oathed group , seated blithely in the lord’s hall, closely matched the gladness and security ideally available within the homes of families and kindreds.
The greatest possible disgrace was for a man to leave the battlefield where his lord — his “ring-giver” — lay dead, unless vengeance had first been taken for the lord’s death. All of the heroic epics, both “historical” and “legendary” made much of this obligation, including Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon. Famous lines from the latter, spoken by Byrhtwold on the battlefield at the death of his lord Byrhtnoth, capture the passion of frith between man and lord:
“Hyge shall the harder be, hearts the keener,
Mod shall be greater, as our main lessens.,
Here lies our ealdor, all hewn about,,
Good man on the ground; ever will regret,
He who from this war-place thinks to wend forth.
I have broad wisdom; I will not leave,
But by the side of my lord,
By so dear a man, think to lay myself down.”
(Lines 312-319; my translation)
The strong attachment to a lord could, on occasion, create a conflict between kinship-frith and oath-frith. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 755 has a complicated account of fighting between Cynewulf and Cyneheard. Cyn ewulf attacked and killed Cyneheard; Cyneheard’s thanes were determined to protect his body and avenge him. When these thanes were offered money and safe-conduct by kinsmen who were in the opposing force, they answered that “no kinsman was dearer to them than their lord, and they would never follow his slayer.” The Laws of Alfred (late 800’s) state that a lord and his follower may each fight on each other’s behalf without penalty of law, and a man may so fight on behalf of a blood relative, but a man “may not take the side of a kinsman against his lord — that we do not permit.” (Griffiths p. 73-74)
These examples, including the Battle of Maldon, come from christian times. While there is a clear continuity between the Heathen thew of troth between lord and warrior, and this same loyalty described in writings by christians, the christians took the whole idea a lot farther until it ended up in despotic monarchy. Thus I believe the writings early in the christian period have some relevance for illustrating the practices of troth and frith, but they must likewise be taken with a grain of sa lt because they may be extending the concept in a different direction, or to a greater extreme, than Heathens would have done.
By what I have noticed from my reading, it appears that among the Anglo-Saxons and most likely their continental Germanic forebears, the oathed frith-relationship between lord and sworn man stood highest of all values, while among the Icelanders and to a lesser extent their Scandinavian forebears, the frith of kinship was paramount. This difference had, I believe, complex implications regarding the amount of feuding, strife and litigation present within the larger communities of these two cultural groups (Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon), but this is a large topic outside the scope of my current essay. Differences in the relative priority of kin-frith versus oath-frith could also explain some of the disagreements and misunderstandings between modern Heathens who follow the Icelandic form versus those who have chosen the Anglo-Saxon way.
Frith between Folk and the Holy Ones
Frithful behavior was a highly important sign of respect and troth on the part of our forebears toward their gods, goddesses, land-wights, and their ancestral dises and alfs. This is attested to by the prevalence of “frithyards” found everywhere that Germanic peoples settled, and often mentioned in the literature of the time.
Frithyards were to be kept holy in several respects, the primary one being that no bloodshed, fighting or severe quarreling was allowed. One well-known example of the required behavior in a frithyard is given in Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 4, abou t the Thor’s-godhi Thorolf Mostur-Beard and his holy mountain Helgafell. Things were held at the foot of the mountain, at the place where Thorolf’s Thor’s-pillar had first come to land. No bloodshed nor excrement were allowed in the area–folk had to go off to a rock in the sea to relieve themselves! (Indeed, the very term used for “to relieve oneself” meant literally “to go drive out the alfs”. (Cf. Our Troth, p. 227.) Chapter 9 of the same Saga tells of the purposeful desecration of the frithstead by the Kjallekling clan, and the resulting bloodshed as Thorolf’s kin tried to defend the land they regarded as holy.
Again, as we see in the context of kin-frith and oath-frith, the establishment and maintenance of frithsteads holy to the gods could also result in violence and death–not to mention the free and liberal use of excrement to make one’s point, something foreshadowing of the strife prevalent in today’s Heathen community…! (As an interesting aside, the fight over the frithstead was finally broken up by a team of peacemakers who, when they were at first unsuccessful, threatened to join the fighting on t he side of whichever clan first agreed to listen to them! This immediately broke up the fight. Something to keep in mind, perhaps!)
Both temporary and permanent frithsteads were used by our forebears. Temporary frithsteads were usually the Thingsteads, and frith was kept there both to honor the deities and as a practical matter, in that the business of the Thing could not be prop erly conducted if frith were not maintained. Permanent frithsteads, often called frithyards, were generally associated with a temple, shrine, or other holy spot such as a well or a sacred tree, or a boulder housing a local landwight. Frithyards were holy not only to major deities, but also and perhaps even more commonly, to “minor” holy wights such as landwights, well-maidens, or family forebears (dises and alfs).
Holy beings of our folk, both high and low, for the most part love frith and demand it from their followers and their human neighbors. Heathen landwights, well-maidens, woodwives, house-wights, and most other kinds of nature spirits dislike strife and tend to leave their steads, taking their mains and holiness with them, if subjected to too much strife, bloodshed, or lack of respect on the part of quarrelsome or greedy humans. They will also leave if they feel betrayed by their human friends and neighbors, showing that frith comprises not only absence of strife, but also ties of loyalty.
The central importance of frithyards to Heathen worship is exemplified by the fact that centuries after Germanic countries were supposedly christianized, kings and church leaders still found it necessary to promulgate strict laws and penalties against having and visiting “peace enclosures” on one’s own property or anywhere else. One example is the 16th Canon Law enacted under England’s King Edgar (939-946), some 300 years into the period of christian dominance:
“And we enjoin, that every priest…totally extinguish every heathenism, and forbid well-worshipping, and spiritualism, and divinations, and enchantments, and idol-worshipping, and the vain practices which are carried on with various spells, and with peace-enclosures, and with elders (the tree), and also with various other trees, and with stones….”
(Linsell, p. 161. See also Our Troth, p. 236, for more examples.)
Even with enormous social pressure levied against the practice, over the course of many generations, people still maintained and worshipped at their frithyards. The christian church clearly saw the practice of having “peace enclosures” as evidence of a dangerously Heathen mindset — an irony indeed, coming from the followers of “the Prince of Peace!” Possibly the idea of the christian church being a sanctuary for fugitives and a place to enter in peace of heart was influenced by Heathen belief in the value of the frithstead.
The main point to be made here is that the frithstead or frithyard was not only intended to be a place where peace was enforced. It was also a reminder and a commitment to the fact that Heathen folk are in a relationship with their deities and friendly spirits: a relationship of frith, that involves trust, respect, mutual benefit, and mutual obligations, including but not limited to behaving in a peaceful manner toward one another/ones folk.
One of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the ancient concept of frith is by looking at the early medieval frithguilds. Frithguilds appeared during this time as a result of radical changes in social conditions and social structures. The original sources of frith (kin, oath-bonds, and Heathen faith and practice) were weakened by social changes such as christianization, the growth of large, impersonal towns instead of small villages, movements of people away from their birth- and kinsteads, the growth of merchant and artisan classes of society, and the rise of competing focuses of loyalty.
These competing focuses included professional guilds, church hierarchies, and a distant monarch with political bureaucracies who were not personally known to most individuals and who most certainly did not cleave to the responsibilities of frith owed by traditional chieftains and lords to their folk. At best, minimal levels of justice and social order were maintained by the secular and clerical hierarchies, but these, one might argue, were more often motivated by the desire for gain (from fines) than by any sense of frith toward their subjects and followers. The responsibilities of followers and subjects to their leaders seem to have been a good deal more heavily emphasized than the responsibilities of leader to folk, creating a fundamental breach of frith. (To be fair, there were some notable exceptions, King Alfred the Great among them, who articulated a sincere and demanding vision of a king’s responsibilities to the folk, based on his christian values, and who tried to live his vision.)
If any proof were needed of the gradual abrogation of the bonds of frith between leaders and folk, one has only to look at the struggle that was required to obtain the Magna Charta from King John (‘Lackland’) in 1215. This reinstated, at great human cost, some of the ancient rights of non-royal folk and reduced some of the overweening privilege that had by then been arrogated by kings. If proper frith, according to Heathen custom, had been held between king and folk, such bitter struggles would not have been necessary.
Frith was felt to be so essential to the life of the folk, that those who were removed from the natural innangardhs of traditional society during the Middle Ages felt the need to create new hearths of frith for themselves: the frithguilds. Though these fell far short of the full frith of kinship and other traditional structures, they still provided for at least the minimal needs of frith.
The general provisions of the frithguilds were as follows:
Members of a guild were not to engage in strife with each other; but if they did do so, they were not allowed to bring it before any court for litigation, excepting the court of the Guild itself.
If anyone killed a man who was not a member of the Guild, the Guild must help their fellow escape with such provision as they could manage for his well-being. Anyone who failed to help when they were able to do so was cast out as a niðing.
Every brother of the Guild was obliged to help every other one in lawsuits (by being an oath-helper, by guarding him in court and out, and so forth).
If a Guild-brother was killed, other Guild members must refrain from eating, drinking, or having any social connections with his slayer, and must aid the dead man s heirs in seeking vengeance or restitution. (See Groenbech, Vol. I, Ch. 1)
By these descriptions, we can gain a better understanding of our forebears’ expectations of frith, of its value to them and their dependence on it for support and safety.
In Summary…. Groenbech tells us that “If ever word bore the mark of the transforming influence of Christianity and humanism, it is this word ‘frith.’ If we look closely into the older significance of the word, we shall find something sterner; a firmness that has now given place to weakness. The frith of earlier days was less passive than now, with less of submissiveness and more of will. It held also an element of passion which has now been submerged in quietism.” (Vol. I, p. 33)
In essence, frith is not an absence, but a presence. It is not the absence of strife; rather it fills the spaces between people with something that is stronger and more important, more meaningful, than strife. That “something” that fills in the spaces is frith: a closely woven relationship with a distinctive pattern to it. If frith were merely an absence of strife, we could not speak of frithweaving: how does one weave a vacuum? One weaves a fabric, filling empty space with substance, pattern, and tensile strength that is created by the interweaving of many threads into a strong whole. Strife can occur between people who are in frith with each other, though there are limits to the severity of expression allowed. Strife is a natural component of existence: consider its linguistic connection to the word “strive”, a word that expresses part of Heathen thew. Strife only becomes dangerous when there is no frith, no committed relationship with recognized rules and patterns of behavior, to control and countebalance it.
[…]On the Meaning of Frith — Friggas Web