Blood-brothers: a ritual of friendship and the construction of the imagined barbarian in the middle ages

Blood-brothers: a ritual of friendship and the construction of the imagined barbarian in the middle ages 

Klaus Oschema (Department of History, University of Berne)

Journal of Medieval History, 32 (2006) 275-301  


This article analyses the history of blood-covenants in the middle ages. Appearing in various historiographical and literary texts from antiquity onwards, these covenants have hitherto mostly been interpreted by modern authors as a typical feature of pre-modern or even ‘primitive’ societies. A closer inquiry into the context of the existing source-material reveals, however, that this motif can be characterised as a part of discriminatory narrative strategies which aim at the exclusion of foreign and non-Christian cultures. The analysis of the medieval texts, which were mainly produced from the twelfth century onwards, clearly shows a tendency to attribute this ritual of blood-brotherhood either to representatives of the so-called ‘Saracens’ or allegedly heterodox cultures, like the Byzantines or the Irish, which populated the margins of the Latin west. Not only does this topical use of the motif invalidate part of the texts’ factual source value, but it also proved misleading for the interpretation of pre-modern societies by modern historians. While an older tradition of classical political history mainly tended to note the ritual as a cultural curiosity, more recent studies of ritual structures are in danger of misrepresenting the cultures they focus on.

A blood-brotherhood then, a real, true blood-brotherhood; the one I have already read so much about! It exists amongst a variety of wild or semi-wild peoples and it is concluded either by the partners mixing their blood which they drink afterwards, or their mutually drinking each other’s blood. As a consequence of this act, the partners stay together more intensely and altruistically as if they had been born as brothers.

The few lines of this quotation are obviously not taken from an academic work; they are part of a novel which exerted a strong influence on the German perception of the North American native tribes during most of the twentieth century: the Saxon writer Karl May’s Winnetou, the red gentleman. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Karl May had never actually been to the countries he described in dozens of adventure novels, but his works are probably far more representative of the common German’s opinion about foreign peoples than many ethnographic analyses. They are also very interesting as a point of departure for the purpose of developing my own ideas about the ‘blood pact’ in the middle ages, which I want to present in the following pages.

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