Aug 11, 2013

Codex Unia: Karl And Redbad - Part III

This is the third and final translation of an Old Frisian legend preserved in the Codex Unia.

PART III - Karl And Redbad

Then the Twelve fell to their knees and prayed piously. When they were done with the prayer, they saw a thirteenth sitting at the stern and a golden axe on his shoulder with which he steered them back to land against the current and wind.

Then they came to land, and he threw the axe upon the land and turned up the grass turf. Then a spring welled up there. Therefore, that place is called "up to the Court of Axes." [FN12] And over Eswei [FN13] they came to land, and they sat beside the spring. They took what the thirteenth taught them as their law. Though none of them knew who the thirteenth was, he was like each of them. [FN14] He showed them the law, that there would no longer be only Twelve. Therefore, there shall be thirteen lawspeakers in the land and their judgments must be pronounced at Axenhof and at Eswei. And whenever they disagree, the seven must overrule the six.   

From this comes the land-law of all Frisia. 

[FN12] Axenhof.

[FN13] Eswei is sometimes translated as the "Way of the Gods." See Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., An Introduction to Old Frisian, 176 (2009).

[FN14] H.A. Guerber writes that "the newcomer resembled each one of them in some particular, but yet was very different from any one of them in general aspect and mien." See H.A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen, 143 (1909).

Aug 7, 2013

Codex Unia: Karl And Redbad - Part II

This is the second translation in a three-part series about the divine origins of Old Frisian law. The legend's pre-Christian elements become especially apparent in Part III


The Frisians asked King Karl to wait for their spokesmen, and he granted his permission. On the second day, the king called them to go and come back with their law. They came and chose their spokesmen, Twelve from the Seven Sealands. [FN7] Then he ordered them to choose their law.

The Twelve yearned for a delay. On the third day, King Karl called them to come before him. They pled a legal impediment. They did this on the fourth day and the fifth day as well. These were the two delays and the three legal impediments that Free Frisians could have through means of the law. [FN8]

On the sixth day King Karl ordered the Twelve to choose the law. They said that they could not.

Then the king said, “Now I lay three choices before you: that you all be beheaded, that you all be serfs, or that you be given a ship so firm and strong that it can withstand the ebbs and flows, without any kind of rudder, oar, or tackle.” [FN9]

They chose the ship, and it followed the ebbs so far out that they couldn’t see the coast. And their hearts were troubled.

Then the first lawspeaker [FN10], who was of Widukind’s line [FN11], spoke: “I have heard that our Lord God had twelve disciples when he was on earth and he himself was the thirteenth, and he came to them through a locked door and comforted them and taught them. Why don’t we pray that he send us a thirteenth to teach us the law and conduct us to land?”

[FN7] The number twelve is relevant to the history of English law as well, e.g., regarding jury sizes. On a personal level, I do find it interesting that Gylfaginning, for example, lists twelve holy Gods and notes that they meet in judgment. See Gylfaginning 20, 15, and 42.

[FN8]  Responding to unpleasant substantive questions with procedural objections is a strategy as old as law itself.  

[FN9] Ain or ein, the Old Frisian word that I am translating as “serf,” literally means “owned.”

[FN10] The Old Frisian word asega is often translated as “lawspeaker” in English. An asega was an official who provided advice on law and procedure but who was not quite the same as a judge in the modern sense nor a lawspeaker in the former Icelandic sense. They were heavily tied up with the Frankish legal system imposed by Charlemagne, which may be one of the reasons that the title of this legend is sometimes rendered as an exchange between King Redbad and a non-contemporary ruler. The skelta, or “sheriff,” was also integral to the administration of law in Frisia at that time. The two roles were later consolidated into one position. See, e.g., the Skout (Skelta) and Asega entries on the Frisian version of Wikpedia.

[FN11] Widukind lived at the same time as Charlemagne.

Aug 1, 2013

Codex Unia: Karl And Redbad - Part I

This Part I in a series of loose translations of the so-called “Tale of Charlemagne and Redbad” from the Codex Unia, introduced in the previous post. Please be aware that I am not a professional linguist nor any sort of expert on Old Frisian. Any errors are my own, and my attempts at translations here will not be entirely precise or accurate. If you are more familiar with the language and can share corrections, please post a comment or send me an e-mail. These entries are subject to change where accuracy can be improved.

As Rolf Hendrik Bremmer, Jr., notes in his introduction to the Old Frisian text, this is a legend about the origins of Frisian law that combines both Christian and pre-Christian elements. I’ll include notes and links that may be of further assistance. Modern Heathens, of course, remember King Redbad as the Frisian hero who refused to convert right before he was to be baptized. “King Karl” is often rendered as Charlemagne in English translations of the title of this section of the Codex Unia. However, it would make far more sense for the story to actually be about Karl Martel and Redbad, with elements from an earlier, pre-Christian legend carrying through.

While the stranger who suddenly appears at sea and gives the Frisians their law is not identified, some of us do presume this to be a surviving tale about Fosite (Forseti).


Concerning King Karl and Redbad

Then King Karl and King Redbad came to this land from Denmark, each with a band of soldiers, and told the other that the land was his. They wanted to reconcile their wise people, and their armies wanted to fight. Nonetheless, the men decreed that they would reconcile if the two kings called for an “ordeal by standing still” so that one might win. [FN1] Then the armies gathered together and they stood through an entire period of 12 to 24 hours.

Then King Karl let his glove fall; King Redbad reached for it. [FN2]

King Karl said, “Ah ha! Ah ha! This land is mine!” and he laughed. Therefore, his dwelling mound is called “Hachense.” [FN3]

“Why?” asked Redbad.

Then Karl said, “You have become my vassal.”

 And Redbad said “Oh, woe!” Therefore, his dwelling mound is called “Wachense.” [FN4]

Then King Redbad left the land and King Karl wanted to sit in judgment. But he could not, because the free land was so full that there was no place to hold court. [FN5] Then he sent a messenger to the Seven Sealands [FN6] to find a free place to hold court. He bought it with treasure/cattle and Danish shillings. He set up court, summoned the Frisians before him, and ordered them to choose their law.
[FN1] Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., further explains that this ordeal involved standing motionless with the arms stretched sideways. See Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., An Introduction to Old Frisian, 176 (2009).

[FN2] Per the author’s note on page 176, “[p]resenting a gauntlet was a common ritual to symbolize the acknowledgment of a liege lord.”

[FN3] This site is allegedly nearby the modern capital of Friesland, Leeuwarden (Ljouwert). Hach means “high” in Old Frisian. I am not entirely sure if the name derives from that word, or from the verb “to laugh,” hlakkia.

[FN4] Wach! is Old Frisian for “Woe!”

[FN5] The original word is thingia meaning “to proceed, sue, administer justice, or sit in judgment,” a cognate that appears in other Germanic languages. 

[FN6] The “Seven Sealands” show up in modern usage as well. They are the lands that traditionally make up the Frisian areas along the North Sea. On the modern flag of Friesland (a province in the Netherlands), the Seven Sealands are symbolized by red, heart-shaped lily blossoms.