Marriage and divorce in the Viking culture
With the new show The Vikings becoming so popular, it really gives me a chance to show off some of my research for my Viking series, Maidens of the Shield The show features Ragnar and his wife, Largatha. They have a unique and beautiful relationship. Although, the Saga's often show this is not always the case. So I thought I would feature a blog about marriage and divorce, and women's "rights." Viking women were considered among the few who had any “real” rights as women before the women’s rights movement. The Vikings were so far ahead of their time in my humble opinion it’s astounding how little it’s been studied or written about over the years. This culture fascinates me for that very reason. I have a real passion for this particular time period and I hope to share that with you.
The Icelandic Vikings were opposed to a central state dependent on the authority of a lord or King. They founded the world’s oldest, surviving parliament while Britain was mired in feudalism. Indeed, they were far, far ahead of their time for that very reason alone.
But what really captured my interest was the way they treated their women. They gave them more freedoms than any other culture in the world during those times. Women were held in high regard and the men treated them with respect. They managed the finances of the family. They ran the farm and villages when the men were absent. And Vikings created laws that protected women. For instance unwanted attention from a man was forbidden by society and women were encouraged to protect themselves, with force if necessary. And it was considered shameful in the extreme to harm a woman for there was no honor in that. Viking men chose a challenge and looked down on men who chose easy targets like women or children. Should any man be seen striking a woman, he would often be challenged and killed for his actions.
Although marriage was arranged between two families, often created when women were just girls or babies, she still held quite a bit of power. Though she had no say in who she married, if a Viking wife were truly unhappy, divorce was allowed by either party. It was not unheard of for a woman to marry several times in her life. And a woman owned property and when the marriage was dissolved, she took her property with her to return to her family.
The basic procedure for obtaining a divorce was for the couple to declare their intention before witnesses. If only one of the two spouses wanted the divorce then witnesses were called in, the dissatisfied party declared him or herself divorced. The declaration had to list the reasons for the divorce and has to be repeated before witnesses in the couple’s bedroom, in the front entrance to the house, and before a public assembly. The division of property ensued and the woman received one third of their shared property and was allowed to return home with the property she entered into the marriage with.
Marriage was a much more complicated process. Marriages had two parts: the betrothal and the wedding. The betrothal was a commercial contract between the woman’s guardian and the suitor. Interestingly, there are a few instances of the woman turning down the marriage proposal in the Saga’s.
The groom’s family agreed to pay a bride price called the mundr and the bride’s father agreed to pay a dowry at the wedding. The two parties shook hands, agreed on a date and the deed was done.
The wedding was an elaborate ceremony. Feasting a drinking continued for several days usually at the home of the bride’s parents. There had to be at least six witnesses. The first part of the ceremony was used to invoke the God’s attention, often by sacrifice. The Groom would then present his bride with the sword of his ancestors, to hold this sword in trust for their future son. It signified the tradition of family and the continuation of bloodlines.
The bride then presented the sword which proceeded her to marriage from her father which represented the transfer of the father’s power of guardianship and protection to the groom. The exchange of swords was very ceremonial. Then came the exchange of rings. Then with joined hands on the hilt of the ancestral sword, they exchanged their vows.
The feast came next and the ceremonial wedding night. The most interesting thing about the Vikings was the morning gift. In the morning the two were separated for a short time and the woman was introduced into the “married woman’s coiffure.” Single women wore their hair loose. And then her hair placed in the hustrulinet. A long, snow-white, finely-pleated linen cloth.
The wife was escorted to her husband and in front of witnesses paid his wife a morning gift, signifying the marriage complete. She received the groom’s keys to his home which symbolized her new authority of mistress of the household.
It’s nice to see some form of women power in history. It’s refreshing to know there are those who appreciated a woman for the real value she gave to society. Sadly, it took the rest of the world centuries to catch up. While it was unusual during the time period and often something we take for granted today, history has many secret gems like this in her grasp. We just have to take the time to peel back the folds and find them.
Have you seen the show The Vikings? And what did you find that most drew you to series?