Family life was important to Norse men and women. While arranged marriages might have been the norm, romance and courtship were an integral part of the couple’s life. In many aspects, family life in the Norse countries of old can be quite relatable, even today.
A courting messenger from the Viking Harald Harfagre to Gyda, 1860 Acrylic by Nils Bergslien
Courtship wasn’t strictly necessary in Norse culture as marriage was more about alliances than love. The prospective bride and groom’s families would command the negotiations, to create a match that would bind the two clans as allies, quite often ending feuds.
Arranged marriages did not, however, signify lack or romance. The fine art of wooing was very much present, with a very distinctive pace. While it would be improper to move too fast, if a potential groom was too slow in making advances to his prospective bride, the lady’s relatives could take this as a slight and seek blood vengeance. Eighteen courtships in the sagas ended in this messy fashion.
In stark contrast to our modern view, love poetry, although a favorite of the Gods, was greeted with suspicion. In fact, Icelandic law forbade skalds to compose Mannsong, (maiden songs) for women who were not married to them under the threat of outlawry or death. This suspicion came about because the Norse believed that the poems could act as spells to seduce and bind women. Worse still, such praises could suggest that the skald or his patron knew the lady more intimately than he should.
Somethings are quite similar to our modern standards, such as good hygiene, which was central to making a good impression on a potential or actual partner. This practice applied to both men and women. Norse graves from men and women alike are packed with grooming essentials for the afterlife. Combs, toothpicks, tweezers and ear spoons were all familiar, demonstrating the Norse liked to be neat, tidy and clean.
The Norse were probably the cleanest people in the Dark Ages. According to the Saxon cleric, John of Wallingford, they bathed weekly, on a Saturday. Wallingford complained that this, and their habit of changing their clothes regularly, was to “undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”
As well as being clean, garments were brightly colored and adorned with the most costly array of jewelry you could afford. Cloak pins and arm rings all showed off status, impressing the object of your desire not only with your appearance but your wealth and prospects in life.
Combs found in almost every Viking grave prove that personal hygiene was important to Vikings. Illinois Chicago Field Museum Exhibition.
Sex before marriage was acceptable
The sagas make constant reference to “the illicit love visit.” In such cases, a young couple, forbidden from marrying would meet in secret. The sagas never mention sex occurring. However, it is highly unlikely the young man would risk a secret tryst simply to talk to the object of his affections.
Although some post-christian sources claim otherwise, it would appear that it was common, and sometimes even acceptable for a woman to have had sexual relationships before her marriage. However, she should not have had any children out of wedlock. This restriction was not for moral reasons. Illegitimate sons could become their father’s heirs if he recognized them. Rather, society censured Illegitimacy because of the burden it placed on the maternal family, not because it was deemed wrong or shameful.
Illegitimate children were the responsibility of the mother’s family. It was they who ultimately supported the child. Even if the father acknowledged his child, he and his family were only obliged to provide two-thirds of its support. Worse yet, the mother probably lost all hope of marriage, as few men would want to take on the responsibility and expense of another man’s child. Thus her family would lose out further as she would gain no bride price and no family alliance.
For men, sex outside marriage posed no such constrains, as long as they submitted to marriage in the end. Men cannot become pregnant after all. The one taboo for a Norseman was to lie with another man’s wife. For this, he could be fined or even killed.
The constant is that both men and women should marry. Unmarried people risked becoming social outcasts because they were not fulfilling their “role” in the procreation of children for the survival of their families and society.
Viking Couple by Johannes Gehrts.
Viking women could divorce their husbands
Norse women possessed rights and liberties that would only see their resurgence in the end of the XX century.
Women rights to own property and to divorce may be obvious to us today, making it is easy to forget that most women couldn't have any propriety during the major part of the dark ages. This went to such an extent that women themselves were almost considered property.
As for divorcing, it is shocking to know that it was illegal until the last years of the XX century in most of the world, with some countries only legalizing it on the XXI century. For comparison, divorce was only legalized in Italy in 1970; Portugal, 1975; Brazil, 1977; Spain, 1981; Argentina, 1987; Paraguay, 1991; Colombia, 1991; Andorra,1995; Ireland 1996; Chile, 2004; and Malta only in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Norse women, before christianity, had the right to divorce for as long as oral traditions remember it.
If her husband hit her, a woman could fine him. If he abused her in front of witnesses, not only did a fine apply, but his wife could divorce him after the third blow.
There were also various sexual reasons why a wife could divorce a husband, and most of them revolved around the woman’s lack of satisfaction in bed. If a man refused to have sex with his wife for three years, if he could not perform or was leaving his wife sexually unfulfilled, he was at risk of being divorced.
The right to divorce was an obvious one for the Norse peoples, as an unhappy marriage bred bitterness and resentment that could easily boil over into violence and family feuds. So it was better for an unsatisfied woman to look elsewhere for a partner.
In each case, the now ex-wife could claim back her original dowry and any inheritances she received during the marriage, rights that even today some countries fail to recognize.
In the sagas, it often was the women who sued for divorce. All that was required was for them to assemble witnesses, cite their reasons and declare themselves divorced. This had to occur three times: in their bedroom, in front of the house and before a public assembly.
For the Norse peoples during the Viking age, the family life and, specially, women rights, were more advanced in the XI century than what it is today in many “modern” countries. A worldview that the modern world is rushing to rediscover.
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.
Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2
Anthony Faulkes (1995) Snorri Sturluson, Edda. 3rd. edition. London, England: Everyman J. M. Dent. ISBN-13 978-0-4608-7616-2
Jón Árnason (1972). Simpson, Jacqueline (ed.). Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-02116-7
Disclaimer: Since we did not find any reliable source written by non-christians during the Viking Age regarding homosexuality, we chose not to discuss the subject.