The Holmgang

The Holmgang:

Our friend Lars Walker has finished his series on the history of the Holmgang. You might wish to read through the three-part series:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

I do have one mild comment, wherein my understanding differs from our learned friend: Germanic society had both "duels" and "judicial combats." The duel -- whereby two men settle an affair of honor -- was known in every such culture except, oddly, the Anglo-Saxons (see Henry Charles Lea, The Duel and the Oath, p. 111 & 115). The judicial combat was to settle the truth of criminal charges: also called "the ordeal of battle" (or "wager of battle), it was a final appeal to arms in cases where a man felt he was being handled unjustly by the law -- or in cases too serious for the swearing of oaths by even the most honorable men to be considered adequate evidence.

I'll quote Lea on the Holmgang, simply because it will amuse some of you to see one of my earlier namesakes fare poorly in the test. (Not the earliest Grim, however!)

Among the heathen Norsemen, indeed, the holm-gang, or single combat, was so universal an arbiter that it was recognized as conferring a right where none pre-existed. Any athelete, who confided in his strength and dexterity with his weapons, could acquire property by simply challenging its owner to surrender his land or fight for it. When Iceland, for instance, was in process of settlement, Kraku Hreidar sailed thither, and on sighting land invoked Thor to assign him a tract of ground which he would forthwith acquire by duel. He was shipwrecked on reaching the shore, and was hospitably received by a compatriot named Havard, with whom he passed the winter. In the spring he declared his purpose of challenging Sæmund Sudureyska for a sufficient holding, but Havard dissuaded him, arguing that this mode of acquiring property rarely prospered in the end, and Eirek of Goddolom succeded in quieting him by giving him land enough. Others of these hardy sea-rovers were not so amenable to reason as Kraku. When Hallkell came to Iceland and passed the winter with his brother Ketel-biorn, the latter offered him land on which to settle, but Hallkell disdained so peaceful a proposition, and preferred to summon a neighbor named Grim to surrender his property or meet him in the holm-gang. Grim accepted the defiance, was slain, and Hallkell was duly installed as his heir.
This section goes on for about half a page, offering additional evidence; Mr. Walker alludes to it in his part three, where he speaks of a class of professional duelists who had so prospered. However, this was not the judicial use of combat: no one here was accused of a crime, or proving his innocence by ordeal of battle. In all cases, these fights were about settling a private dispute, not a public or criminal matter.

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