Feuding, I: What is Feud? Solving Problems with an Axe


                              …seldom anywhere,

after the death of a prince, does the deadly spear rest

for even a brief while, though the bride be good!

It may, perhaps, displease the Heathobards’ prince,

and every retainer among his tribe,

when across that floor, following that woman,

goes a noble son of the Danes, received with honors;

on him glitters an ancestral heirloom,

hard, ring-adorned, once a Heathobard treasure

as long as they were able to wield their weapons—

until in that deadly shield-play they undid

their beloved comrades and their own lives.

Then an old spear-bearer speaks over his beer,

who sees that ring-hilt and remembers all

the spear-deaths of men—his spirit is grim—

begins, sad-minded, to test the mettle

of a young thane with his innermost thoughts,

to awaken war, and says these words:

“Can you, my friend, recognize that sword,

which your father bore into battle

in his final adventure beneath the helmet,

that dear iron, when the Danes struck him,

ruled the field of slaughter after the rout of heroes,

when Withergyld fell—those valiant Scyldings?

Now here some son or other of his slayer

walks across this floor, struts in his finery,

brags of the murder and bears that treasure

which ought, by right, to belong to you.”

He urges and reminds him on every occasion

with cruel words, until the time comes

that Freawaru’s thane, for his father’s deeds,

sleeps, bloodstained from the bite of a sword,

forfeits his life; from there the other

escapes alive, for he knows the land well.

Then on both sides the sworn oaths of earls

will be broken, once bitter violent hate

wells up in Ingeld, and his wife-love

grows cooler after his surging cares.

Thus I expect that the Heathobard’s part

in the Danish alliance is not without deceit,

nor their friendship fast.[1]


Many of the great sagas and ancient lore from the medieval North recount endless, bloody feuds between generations of prominent families: a conflict ends, peace is made, and two families become one through marriage—but slander, envy, and old wounds spoil the sweet sap of peace, leaving only the smoldering ash of conflict behind; cold iron and blood reign in an ever-consuming cycle of fiery feud.

The prelude for this post comes from Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem that shares deep roots with the rest of the early Germanic world. The dating of Beowulf, however, is a notorious debate within academia, with assertions ranging anywhere from 700 to 1000 CE. We won’t trouble ourselves with that today, but I will say that, while it is certainly apparent that this poem contains old lore, I take the stance that it should be treated primarily as a later text, since the version that we have (and quite literally the only version) comes from around the year 1000 CE.[2] In other words, although feuding was certainly a major part of the historical memories that inspired Beowulf’s textual world, the attitudes towards feuding expressed by the poem as we have it are from the viewpoint of a much later time than the text itself seems to represent. We’ll be coming back to this theme later though, when we talk about the textual criticism of feud in saga literature—so, for now, let’s get back to Beowulf:

In that passage, Beowulf confesses to Hygelac that Hrothgar’s great Hall would soon be threatened once more; for although he had defeated Grendel, the bond of peace between the Danish people and the Heathobards would soon rot his hard-earned peace from within. As Beowulf explains, Hrothgar had arranged for his daughter, Freawaru, to marry the prince of the Heathobards, Ingeld, the son of Froda, in an effort to end an old conflict between their people.[3] That was the hope, at least—but Beowulf reminds Hygelac (and thus the poet reminds their audience) that such a peace would hardly last. As he continues, Beowulf confidently predicts (or rather proclaims) that this marriage would inevitably plant the seeds of its own demise:

The Danes will strut their Heathobard plunder during the wedding feast, causing an old Heathobard spear-bearer to open up the old wounds of woe among his people. That spear-bearer, remembering that those treasures once belonged to his slain companions, will lean over his beer, grim-faced while surrounded by laughter, and whisper spell-like words into the ear of a young thane. Chanting, he will breathe: “Don’t forget their atrocities. Don’t let this cycle die with you on the tip of their spear. Avenge your slain father. Their marriage doesn’t amend his death. Just look at how they strut with pride! Even now, they are proud to have slain your father and taken his treasures…treasures that were meant for you.” And so that young thane will redden his sword with blood and their feud would continue.

But, as I have already alluded to, the poem Beowulf is not alone in presenting feud as an uncontrollable cycle of violence, for many sagas from the medieval North express the same concern. To name an example that most people might know, The Saga of the Volsungs, which was written in Iceland during the 13th century, is even more upfront about its treatment of feuding violence than Beowulf is. In fact, as early as the 3rd chapter, there is a wedding between a local rival of the Volsungs, King Siggeir, and Volsung’s daughter, Signy.[4] This is hardly different from the marriage that Beowulf describes between prince Ingeld and Hrothgar’s daughter, Freawaru. But could it prevent these two families from feuding?

Unfortunately, even in this saga, an unquenchable envy arises in King Siggeir’s heart during the very wedding feast meant to secure their peace. Just as that old spear-bearer grew grim-faced at the sight of his companions’ treasures in the hands of their slayers, so too does King Siggeir grow cold when Sigmund earns a great treasure that he won’t sell.[5] In both cases, marriage could not mend nor prevent the feuding between those families; the social mechanisms they had put in place to prevent feud could not, in the end, prevent the cycle of violence from continuing.

Contextualizing Feud

So what is feud, if not just a chaotic cycle of endless violencec? At first, it seems to mean solving your problems with an axe. If someone stole your sheep, you gave them the good ol’ Hlíðarendi Slam; or if someone called you a horker, you performed the legendary Skárpheðinn Slide, knocking their teeth all over the ice after an impressive ice-skating feat. Most of that probably sounded like Old Norse to unfamiliar ears, but don’t worry: you’ll understand the Hlíðarendi Slam referrence if you listen to Saga Thing and the Shárpheðinn Slide if you keep reading the Hall’s own forthcoming posts. But I suppose I should be a bit more serious, because things were much more complicated than that. In reality, feuding was only one part in a larger system of conflict resolution that includes various aspects of social tension and the mechanisms used to handle them, such as formal legal procedures, extra-legal mediation, threats, promises, marriage alliances, and, of course, feuding.[6]

But why bother talking about it? According to Jesse L. Byock, it is impossible to understand the sagas and literature of medieval Iceland without also acknowledging the important function of feud within their society. For the Sagas of Icelanders in particular, even more so than the Legendary Sagas mentioned above, feud stands at the very heart of their narratives. In other words, we are truly missing something when we read our Old Norse sources without this important social context. As Byock continues, the dominate concern for this society (as reflected in their literature) was to channel their violence into acceptable patterns of feud in order to regulate conflict.[7]

The important term to draw attention to here, though, is regulate. Although I have used a comical title for this post, I must stress that feuding was not actually a barbaric process of senseless violence. The examples I have shared here so far show feuding at its worst because they are being critical of the failures and flaws of that system (in the hopes of expressing the need to reform old ways). In regards to Beowulf, for example, Bruce Moore has argued that this exposure of human violence serves to show that disorder could be found in the human and social world of Heorot just as much as it could be found in the monstrous realm of Grendel.[8] It was a haunting lesson to the poet’s audience that their society was not free from monstrous violence. As David Clark puts it, the poem Beowulf celebrates Beowulf’s heroic achievements while also exposing the fragility of heroic society as a whole: the homosocial bonds, kinship ties, and marital alliance all fail to prevent the feuding violence that taints Heorot even after Grendel’s final defeat.[9] In other words, the mechanisms that society had developed to control feuding didn’t always work; for the later societies writing these stories, something needed to change.

But despite the fact that many sagas seem to be critical of feuding, it was still a highly regulated process with social norms and appropriate procedures imbedded into it—but what does that actually mean? Like everything in academia, defining things without oversimplifying them becomes difficult. How does one actually define what the feuding process really was? In this post (as well as posts to come), I will be following William Ian Miller‘s characterization of feuding in the medieval North (and elsewhere). In order to get us started, I’m going to concisely list 10 points that characterize feuding, which have been summarized from Miller‘s book Bloodtaking and Peacemaking.[10] 

These points, however, are only meant to serve as a general introduction to what feuding was like—a ‘crash’ course guideline, if you’d prefer to call it that. Their purpose is to get us acclimated with this somewhat complicated subject, and so they will only give us a vague sense for what the feuding process was like. But don’t worry, we’ll be exploring these points with more detail in later posts:

  1. A feud is a hostile relationship between 2 groups of equal status and resources (typically wealthy—feuding was expensive).
  2. Those groups could recruit participants in various ways (kinship, households, clientage, etc.).
  3. Feud was a process, not an institution. There was no model for a ‘proper’ feud, although the laws attempted to regulate the process, though they general failed to do so in practice.
  4. Unlike war, feud-violence was controlled and casualties were typically low (per single encounter).
  5. Liability was collective, so anyone in the group could be targeted, whether they were the actual wrongdoer or not.
  6. Feud was structured like gift-exchange: one offense called for another in retaliation. Miller describes this as a “my-turn/your-turn rhythm.”
  7. Feud centered around balance and people kept score: one offense needed to be ‘evened out’ with another.
  8. Honor was the primary motivator driving feud. An offense towards someone was considered an attack on their reputation, so if they did nothing to retaliate, they would appear weak and lose face.
  9. There were norms governing the appropriateness of response. Ideally, the goal was the ‘even’ the score, not to ‘one up’ your opponent. Also, certain targets were off-limits depending on the situation.
  10. Feuds were sometimes moral, often juridical, and always political. Moral when norms were violated, judicial when legal action was involved, and political in the matter of gaining something from feud.

In the end, feuding was a rather complicated conflict resolution process that most of us aren’t very familiar with anymore—and yet, it was arguably the social backbone that governed socio-political interactions in the medieval North. It allowed the people of Norse society to handle disputes within their communities even in the absence of a centralized, government-run ‘police’ force. And so, through the next few posts about feuding, I hope to familiarize everyone with this important bit of social context, which will help everyone to better understand and enjoy the literature and lore of the medieval North.

ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ:ᛚᛁᛋᛏᚱ. Þǫkk fyrir lestr! (Thanks for reading!)

Make sure to wander back for Part II!


Endnotes and Resources

  1. R.M. Liuzza trans., Beowulf, Second Edition (Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2013), 109-10. [Lines 2029-69] [Facing page edition] ^
  2. The only manuscript that we have containing Beowulf is the British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv [digitized, with Beowulf occupying ff. 132r–201v]. ^
  3. Liuzza trans., Beowulf, 109. [Lines 2020-2029] ^
  4. Jesse L. Byock trans., The Saga of the Volsungs (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), 38. [Chapter 3] ^
  5. Ibid., 39. [chapter 3] ^
  6. Kim Esmark, Lars Hermanson, Hans Jacob Orning, and Helle Vogt ed., Disputing Stategies in Medieval Scandinavia (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 4. [Google Book’s preview] ^
  7. Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 1. [Google Books preview] ^
  8. Bruce Moore, “The Relevance of the Finnsburh Episode,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75, No. 3 (July 1976): 329. For a contrary perspective, readers may also be interested in John D. Niles, “The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 114, No. 2 (April 2015): 163-200. ^
  9. David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 143. [Google Books preview] ^
  10. These points come from William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 180-2. [Google Books preview] ^


9781554810642 51VhUj-8UNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ 9789004243675 417xyZ+U1cL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_ 9780199671175 51C2bdJNFpL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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  1. Bruce Moore, “The Relevance of the Finnsburh Episode,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75, No. 3 (July 1976): 317-29.
  2. John D. Niles, “The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 114, No. 2 (April 2015): 163-200.



Patreon LogoAs always, I extend my most sincere thanks to my dear Fellowship of esteemed patrons over on Patreon. Without their support, this Hall would not be as lively and warm as it is today. Here are the names of those who supported me during the writing of this post (taken from Patreon): Anastasia Haysler, Froggy, Jonas Lau Markussen, Kathleen Phillips, Kevin McAllister, Patch, and Sarah Dunn. ᚦᛅᚴᛅ:ᛁᚴᚱ:ᚴᛅᚱᛚᛁᚴᛅ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ (Þakka ykkr kærliga fyrir)

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4 thoughts on “Feuding, I: What is Feud? Solving Problems with an Axe

  1. Pingback: Feuding, I: What is Feud? Solving Problems with an Axe — Fjörn’s Hall – PatrickNelson

  2. patricknelson750

    Unlike in civilized Skandinavía, feuding is alive and well in certain sections of the population in the UK and Ireland although though, apart from in the case of criminal gangs, the stakes are lower today I think! Instead of death by axe, now triumph is usually measured in terms of a bleeding nose or a black eye : )

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Feuding, I: What is Feud? Solving Problems with an Axe (ft. Beowulf) – Fjörn's Hall

  4. Pingback: Njal’s Saga: A Medieval Best-Seller Most People Haven’t Heard of – Fjörn's Hall

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