“We find here a community based upon general unity, mutual self-sacrifice and self-denial, and the social spirit. A society, in which every individual, from birth to death, was bound by consideration for his neighbour. The individuals in this community show in all their doings that they are inspired by one passion: the welfare and honour of their kin; and none of the temptations of the world can move them even for a moment to glance aside.”
Frith is an Old English word meaning “peace; freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security”.
Derived from Old English friðu, friþ, it is cognate to Old Norse friðr, Old High German fridu, German Friede, Dutch vrede, West Frisian frede, Icelandic friður, Common Scandinavian fred (all with meanings similar to “peace” or “calm”) and is also a root-cognate to “friend”.
“…we must begin with the kin, the race or family; a gathering of individuals so joined up into one unit that they appear incapable of independent action. As to the feeling which so unites them, this we must leave till later; the point here is, that the individual cannot act without all acting with and through him; no single individual can suffer without affecting the whole circle. So absolute is the connection that the individual simply cannot exist by himself; a slight loosening of the bond, and he slips down, the most helpless of all creatures.”
In terms of Anglo-Saxon and post-Anglo-Saxon culture, the term has a considerably broader scope and meaning. Frith has a great deal to do not only with the state of peace but also with the nature of social relationships conducive to peace. Moreover, it has strong associations with stability and security.
The word friþgeard meaning “asylum, sanctuary” was used for sacrosanct areas. A friþgeard would then be any enclosed area given over to the worship of the gods. Frith is also used in the context of fealty, as an expression of the relationship between a lord and his people.
“By frith they mean something in themselves, a power that makes them ‘friends’ one towards another, and ‘free men’ towards the rest of the world.
“Frith is the state of things which exists between friends. And it means, first and foremost, reciprocal inviolability. However individual wills may clash in a conflict of kin against kin, however stubbornly individual heads may seek their own way according to their quota of wisdom, there can never be question of conflict save in the sense of thoughts and feelings working their way toward an equipoise in unity.”
Frith is inextricably related to the state of kinship, which is perhaps the strongest indicator of frith. In this respect, the word can be coterminous with another significant Anglo-Saxon root-word, sib (from which the word ‘sibling’ is derived) – indeed the two are frequently interchanged. In this context, frith goes further than expressing blood ties, and encompasses all the concomitant benefits and duties which kinship engenders.
“Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another. …frith is the mutual will, the unanimity, gentleness, loyalty, in which men live within their circle.”
Frith also has a legal significance: peace was effectively maintained in Anglo-Saxon times by the frith-guild, an early manifestation of summary justice.
“We need not doubt but that the feeling of frith included love, and that kinsmen loved one another, and that deeply and sincerely. … Besides love there is in frith a strong note of joy. … The connection between joy and friendly feeling is so intimate that the two cannot be found apart. All joy is bound up with frith; outside it, there is not and cannot be anything answering to that name. When they sit about the board, or round the hearth, whatever it may be, they grow boisterous and quick to laughter – they feel pleasure.”
Of all the terms used by Grønbech in reference to frith, one stands out to me above all others: reciprocal inviolability. Think about what that means: if you and I have a state of frith between us, then I am to you as much as you are to me, and we rest in the knowledge that this cannot be changed.
[post-sticky note-id=’2424′]Most of us go through lives sharing that level of commitment with very few. Parents and children comes to my mind first, but that is not a given; I didn’t lay eyes on my father between the ages of four or five and thirty-one (and the latter only because I tracked him down). Husbands and wives are a statistical toss-up, as half of marriages end in divorce.
In heathen society, you knew that you had dozens who would fight for you, die for you, share their bounty with you, watch your back, and stand by your side. Of course, you would do the same for them. This is the way of tribal cultures; they all share similar beliefs, values, and culture, and they know that survival requires “reciprocal inviolability”.
For the most part, surviving isn’t the issue for modern Americans. I am reminded of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs ,” with food, shelter, and security at the bottom; without those things, we can think of little else but having them. When we have those thing, however, we begin to look for things higher on the pyramid: a sense of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (i.e. the realization of one’s full potential). Perhaps these needs draw some of us to seek out alternative forms of spirituality, lifestyle, and worldview.
To have frith is to have the bond of kinship; not modern kinship, where “kin” move across the country for a better-paying job, but the older form in which “my people” were enough to keep one’s feet firmly-planted. Frith is a bond not to be taken lightly, because if it is not “inviolable” then it is not frith. For the heathen of old – and, it seems to some degree, of the new as well – an oath is sacred, and an oath that forms a relationship of frith is of the highest significance.
One more Grønbech quote, before I close:
“‘Gladness” must be taken in an individualizing sense, as of a sum of gladness pertaining to the house, and which the man must leave behind him in the house when he goes out into the void. There is no joy lying about loose in the wilds. He who is cast out from gladness of his own and those about him has lost all possibility of feeling the well-being of fullness in himself. He is empty.”