Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Pegn and Drengr in the Viking Age

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Pegn and Drengr in the Viking Age

Article excerpt

OVER THE LAST CENTURY, few words in the Old Norse lexicon have stirred such debate as the terms drengr and pegn. (1) The substance of these dialectics revolves around the social, political, and military involvement of men called pegn or drengr--in general, which semantic components informed these terms and specifically whether these men constituted part of the Nordic comitatus, a term first used by Tacitus in Germania to describe the bond and reciprocal duties shared by retainers and their lord. (2)

Successful attempts to divide drengr and pegn into discrete categories have been thwarted by a number of factors. Foremost, these terms appear frequently throughout the Viking Age and several hundred years subsequently in a variety of sources and contexts, namely runic inscriptions, poetry, sagas, and legal texts. The geographical and cultural span in which these terms occur is likewise daunting in ranging from England, to Iceland, to mainland Scandinavia. In some contexts, such as social rank in medieval England, the terms are synonymous, or nearly so, (3) while in others, such as Viking-Age skaldic poetry, they are not obviously related. For these reasons the word drengr has been labeled "tricky and in a Bakhtinian sense probably highly 'contestable'" (Poole 51 n.11).

The goal of this paper is to examine the terms within the Viking Age and to present the semantic probabilities with precision as great as the evidence affords. The present study will endeavor to show the following: first, that the term drengr in East Norse runic inscriptions as well as in Viking-Age skaldic poetry connoted a "brave, youthful man." In the skaldic stanzas, the term was often associated with the comitatus and its connotations "warrior" and "king's man" may have developed through hyponymy with its primary meaning "man" Second, that in both runic inscriptions and skaldic poetry, the term pegn connoted a "mature, settled man. "The pegnar (pl.) of the runic inscriptions, however, seem to have borne a sense of "honor" that is absent from the skaldic stanzas. Additionally, in skaldic verse, pegnar could collectively signify "people" or "king's subjects." Analysis of the terms drengr and pegn within both runic and skaldic corpora suggests that neither constituted formal comitatus in the Viking Age.

OVERVIEW OF SCHOLARSHIP

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Johan Fritzner described the term drengr in very general terms as a "menneske der er som det bor vaere" [person who is as he should be]. (4) About thirty years later, Finnur Jonsson corroborated Fritzner's definition in specifying that the term could be used to describe a warrior, though it did not denote "warrior" (in Aakjaer 27). Svend Aakjaer (28) took issue with Finnur Jonsson in suggesting that East Norset pegnar and drengir (pl.) (5) were terms for royal attendants and those serving in a hird ("retinue"), a notion expounded upon by Hans Kuhn in 1944- and first challenged a year subsequently by K.M. Nielsen. The military involvement of pegnar and drengir has been debated ever since and remains tentative. Peter Foote and David Wilson agreed that drengr was sometimes used as a technical term, but that in general, it implied "an occupation ... but not a career" (106-8). John Lindow (106) rejected Aakjaer's hypothesis entirely and affirmed the more traditional idea that drengr simply meant "man" and added that pegnar and drengir together made up a free middle class of farmers. Echoing many of the arguments put forth by Erik Moltke in Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere, Birgit Sawyer (l03-5) took issue with Lindow and Fritzner and contended that drengr designated a member of a retinue and that pegn denoted a man in the service of a superior. Sawyer's conclusions have been challenged by Judith Jesch (Ships), who finds no evidence that pegn and drengr were titles associated with the comitatus. Rather than define the terms absolutely, Jesch traces their development through the semantic environments in which they occur and discusses a range of connotations they may have borne. …

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