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Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia

Part I -- Forward and Introduction


Some time ago, some friends of mine came to me and asked me to tell them how a Viking wedding was conducted. Although I write a column entitled"The Viking Answer Lady" for my local SCA newsletter, I hadn't a clue as to the answer. When I turned to the sagas, they didn't tell me, either. Thus began the start of a massive research project that has produced the work you are about to read. The study is still not over... I am still discovering new information as the number of scholars in the fields of Viking history and Scandinavian womens' studies increases. Whenever I discover new information, I either correct or augment my work, so it is as current as I can make it.

The long and short to the problem is this: even in sappy modern romance novels, how many times is an entire wedding ceremony actually described? You can discover that brides wear white dresses, often with veils, that there was a groom, a best man, a matron of honor, bride's maids. You'd find out that the words "I do" and some rings fit into the picture somewhere. But since each and every one of us has seen or heard about weddings, the novelist doesn't have to include all the details. Only an ethnographer or an anthropologist is likely to record the type of full details that would enable someone from another time or culture to really understand a modern American wedding. Similarly, the authors of the sagas did not provide complete details, nor did contemporary commentators or historians from other cultures.

So here is my answer to the question of "How did the Vikings conduct a wedding?" I feel that I have made a good approximation. My friends, Lord Bjorn Haraldson and Lady Leidrun Leidulfsdottir, enacted the wedding as I describe it here: as all the guests, and the couple themselves will tell you, everything felt right. It was like participating in a folk ritual in a foreign country, where you know that each action has millennia of tradition behind it. I take little credit for the success of the event, as Ledirun is a formidable general who knows how best to marshal her friends and assemble her resources to stage a coup: this wedding was the closest I have ever felt to the sensation of "YOU ARE THERE."

As with any piece of scholarship, you the reader must judge my research upon its merits and decide if you agree with my conclusions. If you have access to information which corrects or elaborates upon my own, please feel free to contact me:

dividing line

I. Introduction

This paper seeks to examine marriage and related topics as they existed in Viking Scandinavia. Primarily, marriage was a contractual arrangement between the families of the bride and groom in the Viking Age, just as it was throughout other areas of medieval Europe. However, in addressing the topic of marriage, I have also briefly examined love, sexual conduct, mythical-religious aspects, and divorce in order to provide context for understanding the sociocultural background in which marriages were made. The focus of this research is the pagan era of the Vikings, although due to the lateness of the period legal codes and literary sources, some information is undoubtedly more reflective of medieval Scandinavia (ca. 1000- 1400 CE). It should also be mentioned that since much of the information we possess today about the Viking Age originated in Iceland, the information presented in this paper may reflect Icelandic practices only, for there were wide differences in laws. society and religion throughout the various Scandinavian countries, and thus there was no such thing as a single, universal "Viking culture." The primary sources for the Viking period come from archaeology, runic inscriptions, and contemporary literary evidence provided by Arabic travelers and German chroniclers such as Adam of Bremen. Additional sources which may be used to complete a picture of the Viking Age date from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries: these are the Scandinavian chronicles, sagas, and laws. In utilizing these later sources, the researcher must use caution in accepting as confirmed truth whatever he or she finds there. The sagas are concerned with personalities and political maneuverings rather than with social history, and may reflect most accurately the social conditions of the author's lifetime instead of those of the historic figures that people the sagas, just as medieval artists painted historic figures such as King Arthur in the armor of the late Middle Ages rather than in the proper historical gear. The legal codes of medieval Scandinavia are perhaps more factual in orientation than are the sagas, however their chief value to the researcher is to provide "normative history," describing how lawmakers wanted their society to operate, rather than the actual workings of day-to-day life. Further, the extant law codes we possess (Grįgįs, the Gulažing Law, Frostažing Law, Jyske Lov etc.) were all redacted and written down after the close of the Viking Age, when the establishment of Christianity and canon law could influence these codes.

Unless one day we recover and revive some hapless Viking who has been preserved frozen in glacial ice, and are able to extract from him a detailed account of his life and culture, it is unlikely that modern historians will ever be able to present an absolutely accurate and authoritative description of the life of the Viking Age. The Saga Time has passed away, and like the Golden Age of Homer, may only be recovered in bits and potsherds, in romanticized remembrances and distant echoes. In order to re-create the society of the Vikings within recreationist organizations such as the S.C.A., or to resurrect the religious beliefs and tenets of the pagan Scandinavians as do the Asatruar, we frequently blend together a mix of historical fact, period fiction, and the creativity of our own imaginations in order to create a new reality which we hope is not too far from the truth of history. With this in mind, we can let the information contained in these pages teach us what the Viking marriage was, or at least, might have been.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

Part II: The Function of Marriage in Viking Scandinavia

The starting point for any discussion of marriage in a culture should be the reasons and function of marriage in that society. In general, marriage serves two primary functions: the control of sexual activity and/or reproduction, and as a means of forming socioeconomic alliances between social groups.

In Scandinavia, the boundaries of proper sexual conduct were very wide, although (as is usual in many societies) a double standard prevailed. The ideal woman was expected to be chaste before marriage and faithful within it. This bias may be seen in examining the types of insults against women that existed in such materials as the Poetic Edda, which vilify their subjects with accusations of promiscuity and incestuous or otherwise illicit liaisons (Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1962. pp. 90-103). There was good reason for this insistence on female chastity: an unwed maiden was a marketable commodity who could be used to bring wealth to her family via her bride-price, and to help form favorable alliances with other families when she wed.

Pregnancy was an important concern for Viking peopleA more important reason for limiting women's sexual activity was the lack of effective birth control, because the risk of producing illegitimate children could mean financial hardship for a woman's family. An illegitimate child who had been recognized by its father would receive only two-thirds of its support from its father and the father's kin, while unacknowledged bastards were entirely supported by the mother and her family (Grethe Jacobsen, "Sexual Irregularities in Medieval Scandinavia," Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982. p. 74). The legal codes reflect the enormous concern of the Vikings over this issue.

This is not to say that women did not engage in extramarital sex. Women who avoided pregnancy suffered no penalty under the law, but it was not considered proper for her to accept an inheritance if she were promiscuous (Ibid.). In cases where a woman was seduced or raped, no stigma attached to her at all, thus protecting her from sexual exploitation (Ibid.).The only restriction that seems to have existed on a man's sexual activity was to penalize a man for fornication, making him pay a small fine for sleeping with a woman not his wife. Sturlunga saga indicates that "almost universally, men indulged in extramarital affairs with numbers of women before, during, and after marriage" (Jenny M. Jochens, "The Church and Sexuality in Medieval Iceland," Journal of Medieval History. 6 [1980]: pp.383-384). Female slaves were fair game, and a man could purchase a slave woman valued up to twelve ore (the value of 489 yards of homespun cloth) to have as a bed-slave (Grethe Jacobsen, "The Position of Women in Scandinavia During the Viking Period," thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1978, p. 76). Concubines were customary, as Adam of Bremen scornfully reports:

Only in their sexual relations with women do they know no limits.
According to his means a man has two or three or more wives
at the same time (Jacobsen, "Sexual Irregularities," p. 82).

Concubines were always women of the lowest social class, and entering into concubinage with a man of higher social status seems to have been quite advantageous for these women. The concubine was never eligible to become her lover's wife due to this difference in social class, and thus was tolerated by the man's wife, since a concubine could be no threat to the wife's position (Ruth M. Karras, "Concubinage and Slavery in the Viking Age," Scandinavian Studies. 62 [1990]: pp. 141-162. See also Eric Oxenstierna. The Norsemen. Greenwich CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965, p. 211).

Since sexuality was thoroughly regulated by the laws, which made numerous provisions for extramarital activity and illegitimate children, it is logical that the Vikings saw marriage not so much as a means of limiting sexual activity, but rather as a means for forging alliances with other families. A marriage "meant a chance for the bride's family to make an alliance with one of the most important families... and thus be assured of powerful support in its dealings at the local thing and Alžingi"(Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 40).Another very important function of marriages was not just the promise of economic gain or political advantage: often the Scandinavian wife served as a "peace-pledge," bartered in marriage to guarantee the reconciliation between formerly feuding parties (Jenny Jochens, "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?" Viator 17 [1986]: p. 37). Anglo-Saxon literature in particular records this Germanic theme, identifying wives and queens as "peace-weavers," who through childbearing wove together the blood of warring tribes, acted as a hostage for her family within the enemy camp, and sought to cool hatreds within her new family (Jane Chance, Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986. pp. 1-3). The sagas record instances when the peace-making wife would gather the women on a steading in order to stop a fight between feuding parties by throwing clothing on and between the combatants, hindering their swords and "turning the fight into something so ridiculous it couldn't be fought" (Oxenstierna, p. 208).

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

Part III: Love, Courtship and Poetry

Since marriages were arranged by the families of the bride and groom during the Viking Age, love between the two prospective partners was an insignificant consideration when compared to bride-price, dowry, political maneuverings and the like. The sagas support this view, for they "are not particularly interested in good marriages: post-nuptial remarks like 'their love began to grow' or 'their marriage became good' indicate that the couple is now out of the story" (Roberta Frank, "Marriage in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Iceland," Viator 4 [1973]: p. 478). Such tags also indicate that the newlyweds were expected to forge a workable relationship after their wedding, as is the case in many arranged marriages. The Vikings did not practice what we would recognize as a courtship, in which a man and a woman could evaluate their comparability, or in which love could blossom: it was sink or swim within the bounds of wedlock.

Since there was no expectation that love should be a prerequisite to marriage, predictably there was less fuss over the prospective couple's consenting to the union. There are few indications in the sagas that the young man was asked for his opinion of the match (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 37): whether this reflects the assumption that his assent was required prior to the opening of negotiations, or the fact that a man was not overly concerned with the qualities of his prospective bride because of his easy access to concubines and other women during the marriage is unknown. The consent of the woman was definitely not required in the laws, being vested in her fastnandi, her father or guardian responsible for her interests during wedding negotiations (Frank, p. 477). The fastnandi in the case of a maiden would be her father, her brother if the father was deceased, or other male relative in the absence of both father and brother, while a woman who had previously been married was represented by her son if he was older than sixteen, or her son-in-law, or father, brother or mother in the rare case that none of the others was still living (Jacobsen, Position of Women, pp. 37-38).

While the law did not require that a woman consent to her marriage, it seems to have been a very good idea to get her approval, for in the sagas, "all five marriages made contrary to the stated will of the girl are unmitigated disasters, ending with the death, maiming, or divorce of the husband" (Frank, p. 477). The sagas also show that it was a normal practice for fathers to consult their daughters before betrothing them, for those women who were not asked express their rage and frustration over the fact (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 37). In general when asked, most prospective brides seem to have acquiesced to their father's decision: after all, the laws did provide amply for divorce if the marriage became unbearable, and her family always stood to gain in some way from the alliance (Ibid.). In a few specified situations, a woman had the absolute right to chose a husband. Widows were free to select their own mates. In the case where a woman was represented by her brothers, but they could not decide among themselves whether to accept a suit, her wishes were to be followed. If a woman's brothers sought maliciously to keep her from marrying, so as to retain her labor on their farms, the woman could marry the third suitor that her brothers turned down (Ibid., pp. 38-39; Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 38).

All the foregoing aside, people being what they are, some pagan Scandinavians certainly knew love as passionate as any immortalized today in song. The Vikings named it inn mįtki munr, "the mighty passion" (Peter Foote and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970. p. 112),with sagas and poetry recounting stories of true love. Often the love that is described is one that has developed within a marriage, as in Rigsžula (v. 27), where Father and Mother sit gazing into one another's eyes, their fingers intertwined --- obviously happily in love (Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 120). Sometimes a declaration of love in the sagas will be very short and indirect, as when Bergžóra refuses the amnesty of those attacking her home, preferring to die with her husband: "I was given to Njal in marriage when I was young, and I have promised him that we would share the same fate" (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, trans. Njal's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960. p. 267). Men, perhaps, were more free to express their love than women. Since the ideal man was supposed to be able to extemporize poetry, it may have been easier for them to proclaim their emotions. Saxo Grammaticus records the moving last speech of a man about to be hanged, as he speaks of his beloved:

There shall be one end for us both; one bond after our vows; nor shall our first love aimlessly perish. Happy am I to have won the joy of such a consort; I shall not go down basely in loneliness to the gods of Tartarus. So let the encircling bonds grip my throat in the midst; the final anguish shall bring with it pleasure only, since the certain hope remains of renewed love, and death shall prove to have its own delights. Each world holds joy, and in the twin regions shall the repose of our united souls win fame, our equal faithfulness in love (Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. cited in Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. The Road to Hel. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1943. pp. 53-54).

Skalds also made mansongr, "maiden-songs" or love poems, composed despite laws ordaining outlawry or death for the skald who dared to make them:

Well considered, the woman's worth the whole of Iceland...
Heavy though my heart... of Hunland, and of Denmark;
Not for all of England's earth and kingdoms would I
Forego the golden-braided girl, ay, nor for Ireland

(Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Skalds: A Selection of
their Poems with Introduction and Notes
. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1945. p. 118).
I little reck... to reach her risked I have my life oft...
Though I be slain within the arms of my beloved,
Sleeping in the Sif-of-silken-gowns' embraces:
For the fair-haired woman feel I love unending

(Ibid., p. 134).

One reason why love poetry was so ill-regarded by the Vikings may have been due to the fear in pagan times of magical ensnarement of the woman so immortalized by the power of the verses (Foote and Wilson, p. 112). Hįvamįl credits Óšinn with two runic spells meant as love charms:

That sixteenth I know, if I seek me some maid:
to work my will with her:
the white-armed woman's heart I bewitch,
and toward me I turn her thoughts.
That seventeenth I know, if the slender maid's love
I have, and hold her to me:
Thus I sing to her that she hardly will
leave me for other man's love

(Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 40).

The prohibitions against love poetry help to explain why courtships were little practiced in the Viking period. While the goddess Freyja was the patroness of mansongar, and delighted in love poetry, mortal women had to be more cautious. Love poems were viewed in law as a distinct slur upon a woman's reputation, suggesting that the poet had had a more intimate knowledge of his beloved than was considered seemly (Foote and Wilson, p. 112). The reputation of a woman reflected upon the honor of her family: if her honor was tarnished, so was that of her father, brothers, uncles, cousins and sons. Any dalliance with a woman's reputation was likely to bring down the wrath of her entire lineage upon the hapless suitor!

All of the family sagas agree that courtship "was the single most deadly pastime for the young Icelandic male" (Frank, p. 476). The most important, unwritten rule of courtship was that the less a hopeful groom saw of his intended bride before entering into formal marriage negotiations with her family, the better his chances were of staying alive (Ibid.). If an attentive suitor was slow in making his proposal, the woman's relatives were quick to reclaim her honor by taking blood-vengeance on the offending swain (Foote and Wilson, pp. 111-112): eighteen courtships in the sagas end in this manner (Frank, p. 476). There seems to have been a practical reason for the family to take a dim view of prolonged courtships, however, for in the eight cases in the sagas where the family was slow to act, an illegitimate child was the result (Ibid.). Despite the hazards, some courtships did occur. Attentions paid to a woman by her suitor, including visits, conversations, and the making of poems in her praise were expected, and apparently welcomed by the girl, no matter what her family may have thought (Foote and Wilson, p. 111).

The most common method for locating a suitable bride was at the Thing, where fathers brought their daughters not only to perform the housekeeping and cooking at his booth for his comfort, but also to make the girls and their wifely skills visible to prospective suitors (Mary Wilhelmine Williams, Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920; New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971. p. 282). Other social gatherings such as feasts, ceremonies, markets, fairs and the like were also good places for spotting a prospective wife. The "marriage market" provided by the gathering at the Thing fitted neatly with the basic character of the Viking wedding as a formal contract between families: the law codes show that negotiating a marriage followed the same sort of rules as formation of any other contract or legal agreement, and thus benefitted from being conducted at the Thing, along with other undertakings of a legal nature.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

Part IV: Negotiating the Marriage

As when bringing a legal suit or conducting a sale, those who sought a marriage often took with them men of prestige, power, and wealth to act for them as a broker or advocate when making the proposal of marriage (Jesse Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. p. 75). Such sponsors not only acted as witnesses to the handsal or formal agreement of betrothal sealed by a hand-clasp, but the promise of their support and political influence formed a part of the inducement for the bride's kinfolk to accept the proposal. Once it was agreed that an alliance between the two families would be satisfactory, the next step was to negotiate the bruškaup or bride-price (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The bride-price consisted of three payments: from the groom would come the mundr and morgengifu, while the bride's family provided the heiman fylgia.

The mundr was what most modern sources refer to as "bride-price." It was a payment to the father of the bride for control of the mundium, a Latin term for the right of protection and legal guardianship which was held by her father or other kinsman until she was married (Ibid.). Other Germanic terms occasionally encountered which are roughly synonymous with mundr are dos [used by the Continental Germanic tribes] (P. D. King. Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1972. p. 225) and handgeld [found in Anglo-Saxon laws] (Ibid.). The mundr was calculated to be similar in worth to the girl's dowry [heiman fylgia], but was set at a statutory minimum of eight ounces of silver in Iceland and twelve ounces in Norway. This was the "poor-man's-price" that was the minimum amount which would render the children of the union legitimate in law (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The reason that a minimum payment was required went back to the Vikings' concern for the economic support of any children produced by the couple: a man who could not afford the "poor-man's-price" had no hope of supporting his offspring, and should therefore not marry (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, p. 75). In addition to ensuring the economic soundness of the marriage, payment of the mundr served to compensate the bride's family for the loss of her labor at the homestead.

While the minimum mundr was set to 8 to 12 ounces, the amount could certainly be much more, again being about equal to the girl's dowry in most cases. Tacitus records that a Germanic groom brought to the marriage "oxen, a horse with its bridle, or a shield, spear and sword" (Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. trans. Harold Mattingly. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1970. p. 116). In Norway, one mundr was "twelve oras, the worth of four to five cows" (Jacobsen,Position of Women, p.111), while under the reign of Knśtr, an English suitor paid one full pound of gold to induce his bride to accept his suit (Jo Ann Macnamara and Suzanne Wemple. "The Power of Women through the Family in Medieval Europe, 500-1100." in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women. eds. Mary Hartman and Lois Banner. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. p. 106). The balance of the mundr was usually payable at the time of the wedding ceremony in Germanic cultures, but often an arrha, a pledge or "down-payment" was made as an earnest of good faith during the negotiations (Suzanne Wemple. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p. 32).

A second sum payable by the groom after the consummation of the wedding was also set at the negotiations: this was the morgen-gifu, the "morning-gift," also known as bench-gift, bride-veil-fee, or extra-gift. The morning-gift was given to the woman as compensation for her sexual availability to her husband, or for her virginity of she were a maiden (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The morning-gift was usually calculated in relation to the woman's dowry, being anywhere from one-third or one-half, to equal in amount to the dowry (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p.111; Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The morning-gift was probably also related to the woman's wergeld, since pregnancy generally represented the most substantial hazard to health and life a woman was likely to face. The morning-gift served to ensure the wife's financial support during the marriage, and thus she always had the use or usufruct of the morning-gift, and often owned it outright from the time it was given (McNamara and Wemple, p. 106). The morning-gift usually included clothing, jewelry and household goods, livestock and slaves, and many times land and estates: an Anglo-Saxon woman in the reign of King Alfred received five hides of land as her morning-gift (over five hundred acres). The largest recorded morning-gift seems to have been that given by King Gormr to his wife Žyri: he gifted her with the entire land of Denmark, according to Saxo Grammaticus (Birgit Strand, "Women in Gesta Danorum," in Saxo Grammaticus: A Medieval Author Between Norse and Latin Culture. ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1981. p. 159).

The final sum set during the marriage negotiations was the heiman fylgia, the bride's "accompaniment from home," or dowry (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The dowry represented a girl's portion of her father's inheritance: although she did not inherit funds as her brothers did, the dowry allowed her to also share in the family's wealth (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 37). The dowry was administered by the husband, but he kept it as a trust which could not be spent unwisely nor squandered. The dowry could not be confiscated with the husband's other goods during outlawry proceedings, nor could he use it in the repayment of debts (Ibid., pp. 42-43). The dowry was intended in part for the wife's maintenance during the marriage, but was reserved primarily as a sort of annuity which would be used to support her and her children if she became a widow. Consequently the dowry was returned to the wife in the event of a divorce (Ibid. p. 55).

Once the financial negotiations were completed, the arrangement was sealed with the handsal. probably the witnesses would number at least six men, "since the oral agreement reached would have validity only as long as the witnesses were alive" (Frank, p. 475-476). There was a set formula to be spoken by the bridegroom over the handsal, which sealed the contract:

We declare ourselves witnesses that thou, N.N., bondest me in lawful betrothal, and with taking hold of hands thou promisest me the dowry and engagest to fulfill and observe the whole of the compact between us, which has been notified in the hearing of witnesses without duplicity or cunning, as a real and authorized compact (Williams, 93).

With this, the legalities were finished and the formal contract made.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

Part V: Reconstructing the Wedding Ceremony

In attempting to reconstruct the details of the Viking wedding ceremony, the researcher is immediately struck by the paucity of information available. The sagas are full of married couples, much mention is made of negotiating a marriage alliance; the laws carefully prescribe details pertaining to the marriage contract; rarely a saga will divulge a few details of a wedding feast. Mythology is no more helpful on the facts of the matter, but does provide some background for conjecture. After reviewing the few facts known about the Viking wedding, one is left with the question of why more details weren't recorded. There are several answers. First, by the time the sagas were written, Christianity had replaced many of the older pagan practices. .

Along with this fact, one should recall that of all aspects of pagan religions, Christianity has most fervently attempted to stamp out worship of the deities of fertility, thus obliterating temples, artifacts, and even mention of the gods and goddesses of love, sex, and marriage. Even if the pagan Vikings had possessed a technology of writing similar to that of their Christian successors, some details of the rites of marriage would not have been recorded, being restricted to oral transmission from the goši or gyšja in their role as priest and priestess, being kept sacred by limiting the dissemination of the secret rituals to the initiates of their cults. Even the public portions of such a ritual would not often be recorded, because the elements that were common knowledge were so well known that the authors of the Eddas and sagas took for granted their audience's familiarity with the rite and so failed to elaborate upon it in their works

Swedish amulet thought to represent the goddess Freyja
Freyja Amulet
The goddess Freyja was invoked at weddings
to bless the newlyweds with fertility

In order to fill in the gaps to provide a workable reconstruction of the Viking wedding ceremony, researchers must turn to the work of folklorists, the rituals of related Germanic peoples, and to the structural outlines produced by anthropologists and ethnographers who have studied modern peoples. If marriage is defined as a rite of passage, marking the change in status of two individuals from that of mere adults to a reproductive social unit, some of the pieces of data begin to fall into place. A rite of passage incorporates certain standard features:

  1. Separation of the individual from the larger social group
  2. Destruction or removal of the individual's old social identity
  3. Creation of a new social identity via instruction and/or ritual
  4. Reintegration of the new initiate into the larger social group within the new social role.

All of these features can be identified among the fragments of information we possess regarding the Viking wedding.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

A. Setting a Wedding Date

The traditional day for weddings in the North was Friday, sacred to the goddess Frigga (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964. pp. 110-112).

Friday was sacred to the goddess Frigga
Weddings were held on Friday or "Friggas-day" to honor the goddess of marriage.

For the Vikings, the date of the wedding would have been further limited by climactic conditions. Travel for the guests, witnesses, and the groom's or bride's party to the wedding location would have been difficult or even impossible during the winter months. The wedding celebration was frequently a week-long affair, so ample food supplies had to be available, dictating a date near harvest time. The legal requirements for a wedding included the stricture that the bride and groom would drink together the bridal-ale, usually mead, which meant that honey must be available to brew the drink, and in sufficient quantities so that the couple could share mead together over the month following the wedding, the "honey-moon" (Edwin W. Teale. The Golden Throng. New York: Universe. 1981. p. 127; also see John B. Free. Bees and Mankind. Boston: Allen & Unwin. 1982. p. 103). Probably most weddings, taking all these factors into account, occurred towards the end of summer through the early part of winter.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

B. Preparations for the Wedding Ceremony

Following the model of the rite of passage, the bride and groom would undergo preparations for the rite that both separated them from their former roles as unwed adults, and prepared them for their new roles as man and wife. This transition could be much more extreme for the woman marrying, since she would not only undergo transformation from woman to wife, but also from maiden to mother in many instances.

1. The Bride

The bride would probably be sequestered before the wedding with female attendants, presumably her mother, other married women, and perhaps a gyšja to supervise her preparations. In order to provide a visible symbol of the loss of her former role as a maiden, the new bride might be stripped of her old clothing, and any symbols of her unwed status such as the kransen, a gilt circlet that was worn by medieval Scandinavian girls of gentle birth upon the outspread hair that was likewise a token of her virginity (Sigrid Undset. The Bridal Wreath. trans. Charles Archer and J.S. Scott. New York: Bantam. 1920. p. 331). The kransen would be solemnly removed by the bride's attendants, and wrapped to be put away for the bride until the birth of a daughter of her own.

The next step is the bride's preparations was a visit to the bath-house, the Scandinavian equivalent of the Finnish sauna, which featured wooden tubs of water, soap for cleansing, and a steam room. Heated stones were sprinkled with water to produce steam in which the bathers luxuriated, switching themselves with bundles of fine birch twigs to stimulate perspiration (Williams, pp. 85-87). The symbolism of the steam bath included both the "washing away" of the bride's maiden status, and a purification to prepare her for the religious ritual that would follow the next day. While "baking" in the bath house, the new bride's attendants could instruct her on the duties of a wife, religious observances to be followed by married women, advice on the best ways of living with a man, and the like. Part of the contents of these teachings may have been taken from collections of gnomic wisdom such as the verses preserved in Sigrdrķfumįl, which touch upon the magical knowledge necessary to the housewife, and ways in which to advise and guide her husband (Hollander, Poetic Edda, pp. 14-41). The final step of the steam-bath, a plunge into cool or cold water to cool the bather and close the pores, completed the cleansing. The rinse water might be further associated with the wedding ritual by having herbs, flowers or oils added to it, not only to scent the water but also to add magical potency to the cleansing rite via the supposed aphrodisiac and fertility-encouraging powers associated with such additives.

The final preparations of the bride would involve dressing her for the ceremony. The bride apparently did not wear a special costume as is the case in modern weddings. The bride's hair would be left outspread: the wedding ceremony and the feast would be the last times when she would wear her hair unbound and uncovered.

To replace the kransen she wore as a maiden, the bride would instead wear the bridal-crown, a heirloom kept by her family and worn only during the wedding festivities (Undset, p. 331). A modern fictional account describes a wedding crown as being made of silver, with pints ending alternately in crosses and clover leaves, set with rock-crystal, and garlanded with red and green silk cords (Ibid., p. 310). At least some bridal-crowns used to the present day were elaborately woven from straw and wheat, then garlanded with flowers (Marta Kashammar. Skapa Med Halm. Halmstad, Sweden: Bokforlaget Spektra. 1985) . Although none of the sources I have seen have confirmed the use of the bridal crown in the pagan Viking period, it was worn in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, and the age of the custom is further attested in the Continental Germanic tradition of the Feast of St. Lucy, where a maiden designated as the "Lucy Bride" is dressed in a crown ornamented with burning candles.

A Viking Age bride
The bride wore the bridal crown.

2. The Groom

Like the bride, the groom would experience the characteristic features of the rite of passage, including separation and removal of the old identity. The groom's attendants would be his father, married brothers, other married men, and perhaps a goši. Since men did not wear a visible token of their bachelor status, the symbolic removal of their old identity followed a much different ritual from that being followed by the bride. The groom was required to obtain an ancestral sword belonging to a deceased forebear for use later in the wedding ceremony. There is a string tradition in the sagas of breaking grave-mounds in order to retrieve a sword belonging to a deceased forebear, to be given to a son of the family, and Hilda Ellis-Davidson finds evidence for the importance of such a sword at the wedding (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. "The Sword at the Wedding," in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer, 1978. p. 123). This would indeed be a powerful ritual of separation and destruction of the man's identity as a bachelor, with the descent into the grave-mound to recover the sword serving as a symbolic death and rebirth for the groom. If an appropriate barrow was not available, the ancestral sword may have been concealed by the groom's relatives in a mock-tumulus (Ibid., p. 109). This would provide an opportunity for the groom to be confronted by a man costumed as a ghost or aptrgangr of his ancestor, who might elaborate on the young man's instruction by reminding him of his family history and lineage, the importance of tradition, and the need to continue the ancestral bloodline. On the other hand, the sword which the groom had to obtain might instead be gotten from a living relative, complete with the lecture on family history: the sagas are not clear on this point and nowhere actually describe grave-breaking as a part of the wedding ceremony.

Regardless of how the groom got his sword, he would next pay a visit to the bath house as his bride-to-be had done before him. There the groom would also symbolically wash away his bachelor status, and purify himself for the wedding ceremony. His instruction on the duties of a husband and father, conferred upon him by his attendants, may have included information garnered from sources such as Havamal, which advises young men in their dealings with women, not only warning of their fickle ways, but also providing instruction in the ways to win a woman's love, and how to live comfortably with her (Hollander, Poetic Edda, pp. 14-41). After bathing, the groom could then be dressed for the wedding. Again, no special costume is recorded for the groom, although he would bear his newly-acquired sword during the ceremony, and may have also carried with him a hammer or an axe as a token of Thorr, intended to symbolize his mastery in the union, and to ensure a fruitful marriage (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, "Thor's Hammer, " in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer. 1978. p. 123).

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

C. The Wedding Ceremony

Once all the preparations were completed, the stage was set for the wedding itself on Frigga's-Day, or Friday. The first order of business would have been the exchange of dowry and mundr before witnesses. Once the financial considerations were out of the way, the religious ceremony could then proceed. Although small family temples appear to have existed, probably the ecermony would have been held out-of-doors, either in the open or at a site such as a grove or that was considered sacred. Holding the ceremony in the open would not only have provied better visibility for the wedding guests and witnesses, but would also have been more appropriate for a rite invoking the deities of fertility and marriage. The bride was escorted to the chosen location, preceeded by a young kinsman bearing a sword that would be her wedding gift to her new husband (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 97).

The first part of the religious ritual was designed to summon the attention of the gods and goddesses via invocation and possibly sacrifice. If a sacrifice was to be held, an animal appropriate to the gods of fertility would probably have been slected: a goat for Thórr, a sow for Freyja, a boar or a horse for Freyr. It is possible that instead of sacrificing such an animal, it was instead dedicated to the god as a living gift, and maintained thereafter as a sacred beast (Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 97. See for example the stallion Freyfaxi.). In a sacrifice, the goši or gyšja performed the ritual by slitting the animal's throat and then catching the blood in a bowl consecrated for that purpose (modern day Įsatrśar generally use mead instead of a live sacrifice). The flesh of the sacrificed animal would later form a part of the wedding feast (Williams, p. 387). The bowl was then placed on an altar or horgr built of heaped stones, and a bundle of fir-twigs dipped into the liquid. This branch, known as the hlaut-teinn, was then used to sprinkle the nuptial couple and assembled guests in order to confer the blessings of the gods upon them (this may have been done by moving the hlaut-teinn in the "Hammer-sign," a gentle, short downwards movement followed by a swift movement from left to right. This would effectively spray anyone in front of the gesture with the liquid. From personal experience, it is amazing just how much liquid a small fir bundle can hold. If done properly, a very minute amount of liquid hits each of the assembled observers. See Williams, p. 387).

Next, the groom would present his bride with the sword of his ancestors which he had so recently recovered. The bride was to hold this sword in trust for her son, just as was done by earlier Germanic tribes as described by Tacitus: "She is receiving something that she must hand over intact and undepreciated to her children, something for her sons' wives to receive in their turn and pass on to their grandchildren" (Tacitus, p. 117). She then gave her husband the sword which had preceeded her to the ceremony. "This interchange of gifts typifies for them the most sacred bond of union, sanctified by mystic rites under the favor of the prsiding deities of wedlock" (Ibid., p. 116). The ancestral sword signified the traditions of the family and the continuation of the bloodline, while the sword given to the groom by the bride symbolized the transfer of the father's power of guardianship and protection over the bride to her new husband.

Following the exchange of swords, the bride and groom exchanged finger rings (Williams, p. 98). These rings may have recalled the sacred arm-ring in the temple upon which oaths were sworn (Foote and Wilson, p. 403). These may also have been further consecrated to the wedding vows by placing them on the horgr within the sacred arm-ring to strengthen the link between the concept of the unbroken circle of the ring and the unbreakable nature of the vow.

Vikings exchanged fingerrings to symbolize their marriage vows
The wedding couple exchanged
finger rings just as we do today.

Artist's conception of the Oath Ring of Thorr
Sacred Oath-ring of Thórr

The bride's ring was offered to her on the hilt of the groom's new sword, and his tendered to him in the same fashion: this juxtaposition of sword and rings further "emphasizes the sacredness of the compact between man and wife and the binding nature of the oath which they take together, so that the sword is not a threat to the woman only, but to either should the oath be broken" (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 95). With the rings upon their hands, and their hands joined upon the sword-hilt, the couple then spoke their vows.

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

D. The Wedding Feast

After the conclusion of the wedding ceremony came the bruš-hlaup or "bride-running," which may have also been connected with the bruš gumareid or "bride-groom's-ride" (Williams, p. 97). In the Christian period, this consisted of separate, dignified processions by the parties of the bride and the groom to the hall for the wedding feast, however the term "bride-running" may indicate that in pagan times this procession consisted of an actual race as is the case today in certain parts of rural Scandinavia. Whichever group arrived last at the hall had to serve the ale that night to the members of the other party. Of course, if the groom's party was mounted for the "bride-groom's-ride," it was a foregone conclusion that they would win the contest every time.

When the bride arrived at the door of the hall, she was met by the groom, who blocked her entrance into the house with his bared sword laid across the entry-way (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 96). This allowed the groom to lead his new bride into the hall, ensuring that she would not stumble over the threshold. Medieval homes, unlike those of the modern day, often had a raised lip at the bottom of a doorway in order to stop low, cold drafts, and which had to be stepped over in order to pass the door. Superstition concerning the bride's passage over the doorstep was wide-spread throughout the pagan world, for a doorway was a portal between worlds. Stepping over the threshold represented the bride's literal translation from her life as a maiden to her life as a wife. Spirits were thought to gather around a doorway, and there are hints of a tradition in pagan Scandinavia for the threshold of the home to be the actual grave of the founder of the homestead, who guarded the door against evil influences. Thus it was of great importance that the bride should not fall as she passed the door, for that would be an omen of extreme misfortune.

Once within the hall, the groom would plunge his sword into the rooftree or a supporting pillar of the house, "to test the luck of the marriage by the depth of the scar he made" (Ibid., p. 97). This tradition was connected with the concept of the *barnstokkr* or ancestral tree of the family, the "child-tree" which was "clasped by women of the family at the time of childbirth" (Ibid., p. 98). Thus this custom reflected the demonstration of the virility of the groom, with the "luck" of the family being the children produced by the union (Ibid., p. 99).

These preliminaries over, the feast began. The most important part of the feast was the ceremonial drinking of the bridal ale, another of the legal requirements set forth by Grįgįs for the marriage to be considered valid (Frank, pp. 476-477). Here the new wife would first assume the foremost of her official duties as a housewife, the ceremonial serving of drink. She might present the mead to her husband in a vessel like the Swedish kåsa, a bowl-like vessel provided with handles on either side in the form of animal heads, or the heads and tails of birds: a variant of the kåsa is still used today for trophies and known as a "loving-cup." Upon presenting this cup of mead to her husband, the bride might recite a formal verse in oder to confer health and strength to the drinker, such as this one recorded in Sigrdrķfumįl:

Ale I bring thee, thou oak-of-battle,
With strength blended and brightest honor;
'Tis mized with magic and mighty songs,
With goodly spells, wish-speeding runes.

(Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 109)

When he received the cup, the groom might consecrate the drink to Thórr, perhaps by making the sign of the Hammer over it, moving the hand in a T-shaped pattern (Ellis-Davidson, Thor's Hammer, p. 123). Before drinking, the groom would make a toast to Óšinn, then sip and pass the cup to his new wife, who would make a toast to Freyja before drinking (Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans. Seven Viking Romances. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1985. p. 220). By drinking together, the bride and groom were made one in the eyes of the law and the gods, symbolically affirming their new kinship. A drop or two of the blood from the morning's sacrifice may also have been blended into the mead, further strengthening the notion that the couple were now related. The couple would continue to formally drink mead together for a full four weeks, for the honey in the beverage and the bees that produced the honey were both associated with fertility and healing in pagan Scandinavia.

Once the couple were seated together, the couple's fertility was agin insured by hallowing the bride with Thórr's Hammer. This may have been performed by the husband, or by a goši, but in any case the procedure was to lay the Hammer in the bride's lap, blessing her reproductive organs, and Frigga, goddess of childbearing, was invoked as in the ritual enacted in Žrymskvida:

Bring the Hammer the bride to bless:
On the maiden's lap lay ye Mjolnir;
In Vor's name [Frigga] then our wedlock hallow!

(Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 109)

After this ceremony, feasting and merriment would commence that would last throughout the remainder of the week. Dancing, wrestling, and good-natured flytings or insult-contests provided the entertainment for the guests, while some of the attendees presented lygisogur, the so-called "lying stories" which they had composed for the occasion, featuring stories about famous people, selections of verse, romance and the supernatural, often revolving about the theme of a wedding (Julia H. McGrew and R. George Thomas, trans. "The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi," in Sturlunga Saga: Shorter Sagas of the Icelanders. New York: Twayne. 1974. pp. 41-44).

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

E. The Wedding Night

The next legal requirement of the marriage was that the groom must be put to bed with his wife, after being led there by witnesses "with light." The law is unclear in meaning at this point: it is not certain whether the bedding must take place in daylight, or whether the groom was led to his wife's bed by torch-light (Frank, pp. 475-476). The purpose of the law was to ensure that the six legal witnesses could identify both bride and groom, so if called later to testify to the validity of the marriage, they would have no doubts. Probably torchlight is indicated: it seems logical to assume that the bedding would take place after a long day taken up with ceremony and feasting. Prior to the groom's arrival, the bride was placed in bed by her female attendants. Goldgubber, small gold plaques depicting small embracing figures (perhaps the union of the god Freyr with the giantess Gerd) may have been used to decorate the bed or the bride's night-clothing, again as a token of fertility (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1988. pp. 31-31 and p. 121).

Viking bedframe
A Viking bed. The linens and bedclothes would have been a part of the bride's heiman fylgja

The bride would once again be arrayed in the bridal crown, which would be removed by her husband before the assembled witnesses as a symbol of sexual union. At some point in antiquity, this ritual defloration may have been an actual one, witnessed by the male and female attendants. After the witnesses left, presumably with much ribaldry and hilarity as is customary in country nuptials, the wedding was consummated. The bride's dream's that night would be noted, for they were held to be prophetic of the number of children she would bear, the fortune of her marriage, and the destiny of her descendants (Strand, p. 160).

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

F. The Morning-Gift

The next morning, the new husband and wife were once again parted for a short time. The bride was assisted by her attendants in dressing, and at this time her hair was braided or bound up in the coiffure reserved for married women. The universal Scandinavian symbol of the wife was now hers to wear as well: this was the hustrulinet, a long, snow-white, finely-pleated linen cloth. There may have been several varieties of this headdress. The commonly-delpicted reconstructions showing a stark, bandana-style affair worn on the head is a misconception (Christina Krupp and Carolyn A. Priest-Dorman. Women's Garb in Northern Europe: 450-1000 CE: Frisians, Angles, Franks, Balts, Vikings and Finns. Compleat Anachronist 59. Milpitas CA: Society for Creative Anachronism. 1992. pp. 46-48) The hustrulinet might have been pinned to a fillet, a woven cloth band figured with metallic brocaded threads which was tied around the forehead. Archaeological evidence has turned up examples of a hood or long cap of silk that may have been worn instead (Ibid., p. 48), and some female grave-sites have been found to contain pins six to eight inches long laying alongside the head at either temple, which might have fastened a veil-like hustrulinet to a woman's coiled braids beneath, or to a fillet as discussed above (David M. Wilson. The Vikings and Their Origins. New York: A & W Visual Library. 1980. p. 33). The head-covering was worn as a badge of honor and as a token of the woman's new status as a wife, distinguising her within her household from the servants and the concubines. There is some debate as to whether the custom of wearing the hustrulinent might not have been introduced with Christianity in the tenth century, when grave finds of various headcoverings increases sharply, however it is certain that archaeologists have discovered head-coverings dating to the ninth century and possibly earlier, placing the housewife's badge of office squarely in the pagan Viking period (Krupp and Dorman, pp. 46-47).

Once attired as a married woman, the new wife was escorted into the hall to complete the final legal requirements of the marriage. Before witnesses, the husband paid his wife the morning-gift, signifying that the marriage was now complete, and delivered into her keeping the keys to the various locks of his house, symbolizing her new authority as mistress of the household (Williams, p. 97).

seveal gold foil ornaments showing a man and woman embracing or dancing

Part VI: Divorce in the Viking Period

In order to complete a survey of marriage in Viking Scandinavia, one must briefly examine the custom of divorce. The Vikings were unique as a medieval European people due to the extensive provisions they made for divorce. Even after Christianity became the accepted religion of Scandinavia, divorce continued to be a prevalent custom in the North, acting as a social safety valve for a people whose marriages were arranged to the benefit of their families instead of for the maximum happiness of the wedded couple. Divorce allowed an unhappy couple to seperate and try again with new partners, before resentments grew into hatreds that could spawn feuds and violence. By looking at the laws and customs surrounding divorce, one may gain a greater understanding of the conditions expected to prevail within a Viking marriage as illuminated by examples of the actions which would bring a marriage to an end.

The Arabic poet al-Gazal reported that he was told by a Danish queen that "jealousy was unknown in that country, and that women stayed with men of their own free will, and left them whenever they wanted to" (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, pp. 78-79). While this is not a completely accurate statement, examination of the sagas shows that women were often the ones who initiated a divorce (Frank, p. 478). This was probably due to the fact that men had greater social and sexual options, being free to travel and to take concubines, while the wife was often tied to the homestead by her various managerial duties and denied sexual outlets other than her husband. The divorce laws show that definite circumstances warranting a divorce were necessary, and that al-Gazal's picture of capricious bed-hopping did not reflect the reality of Viking life. Since marriages were contracted to benefit the families of the wedded couple, no doubt there would be pressure to continue the alliance if possible, but sometimes this just could not be done (Jochens,Icelandic Heroine, p. 45).

The Icelandic law code, Grįgįs, allows divorce in only three cases. The first was if the couple gave each other "large wounds" or meira sar metiz (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 51), generally defined as those wounds which penetrated the brain, body cavity or marrow (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 45). The second was the case in which a couple was too poor to support themselves and had to rely on their familes for support, in which case they could be forced to divorce by their kin, or a divorce might be grabted "if one spouse with little or no money of his- or her own was suddenly charged with the support of poor relatives" (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, p. 75; also Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 53), thus enabling the solvent member of the partnership to escape with his- or her goods safe from predation by in-laws. The third legal provision for divorce was if a husband tried to take his wife out of the country against her will (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 51). If one of these conditions was not cited, Grįgįs states that "no divorce shall exist" (Jochens,Icelandic Heroine, p. 44). This may be due to the fact that the redactions of Grįgįs which we possess today have been influenced to some degree by canon law, for the sagas list a whole variety of grounds for divorce which are not mentioned in the law code.

The reasons given in the sagas for divorce would be familiar to any modern-day divorce court. First were problems with relatives, such as a family feud (Frank, p. 478), or one spouse failing to treat the family of the other "with due consideration" (Williams, p. 107). Family violence was also a reason for divorce, especially in those parts of Scandinavia heavily influenced by Christianity where divorce was harder to obtain. Aside from the "large wounds" cited in Grįgįs, a spouse might seek a divorce because the other partner made mocking verses about him or her (Frank, p. 478), excessive anger or jealousy displayed by one spouse (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 39), or if one partner slapped the other. Slapping a spouse, especially in front of witnesses, was considered extremely humiliating (Williams, p. 106). The Gulažing Law of Norway made special provisions against a husband slapping his wife: if a man struck his wife in front of witnesses, she could not only claim monetary compensation for the blows equal to what he would have received had another man struck him, the wife had the right to divorce the husband on top of the fine after the third slap (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 116). Slapping a wife is the most common reason given for a divorce in the sagas (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 39). Occasionally a woman did not feel that divorce was sufficient retaliation for the insult of a slap: Hallgerd in Njals saga was involved in the deaths of two husbands who made the fatal mistake of slapping her (Magnusson and Palsspn. Njal's Saga. pp. 59 and 123).

A couple might also divorce for what modern courts would class as sexual reasons. If a woman committed adultery, divorce was the least of the penalties she might have to face, being also at risk for punishments ranging from fines to being slain if caught in the act by her husband in some parts of Scandinavia. On the other hand, a man committed adultery only if he slept with another man's wife, and his extramarital activities were never grounds for his own wife to divorce him (Frank, p. 479). A divorce might be granted for what has been called "an Icelandic variety of nonconsummation" (Ibid., p. 478; Magnusson and Palsson. Njal's Saga, p. 52) as described in Brennu-Njįls saga*, or if a man failed to sleep with his wife for three years in a row. Another reason found for divorce in the sagas was what we might term "cross-dressing." If a husband wore effeminate clothing, especially low-necked shirts exposing his chest, his wifge could then divorce him (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, trans. Laxdæla Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1969. p. 125), and if a woman appeared dressed in men's trousers, her husband could then divorce her (Ibid.; also Williams, p. 114). Even if a couple did not have one of the reasons listed above, they might still dissolve their marriage citing incompatibility, general dislike, or unhappiness in the marriage (Jochens,Icelandic Heroine, p. 39).

The basic procedure for obtaining a divorce was for the couple to declare their intention before witnesses (Christine Fell. "Viking Women in Britain," inWomen in Anglo-Saxon England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1984. p. 140). If only one of the two spouses wanted the divorce, "witnesses were called in, the dissatisfied party declared him- or herself divorced and forced the other person to leave" (Jochens, Church and Sexuality, p. 379). The declaration had to list the reasons for the divorce, and has to be repeated before witnesses in the couple's bedroom, in front of the main entrance to the house, and before a public assembly (Williams, p. 108)

After declaring a divorce, the couple had to agree on a settlement dividing their property. As soon as the divorce proceedings were underway, the woman could take possession of all her property, no matter what the eventual outcome of the settlement (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 53). The division of property was arranged in such a way so as to penalize the partner demanding the divorce. If the divorce were due to equal poverty of the spouses, or because of mutual unhappiness with the union, then neither was penalized: the wife recieved her dowry and morning-gift, the husband took back the bride-price, and if they had commonality of property, the woman received one-third of their common possessions (Ibid., pp. 54-55). If the husband were the one who demanded the divorce, his wife received the bride-price, dowry, morning-gift, and one-third of any common property. If the wife had instigated the separation, she received only her dowry and the morning-gift. If any property dispositions had been included in the marriage agreement, these were followed in the same manner that pre-nuptial agreements are used today. By financially penalizing the partner who wanted the divorce, property division customs served to keep married couples together except in the most serious cases.

After the divorce, child support was contributed by each parent according to his or her ability to work, and this was further supplemented by the families on either side. There were no firm rules for determining custody, although the mother always kept a nursing baby for its first year, and had custody of all her children if her husband later died. (Ibid.).

Divorce, made freely available, served the Vikings as an indispensable social custom that complemented their marriage laws and practices. Scandinavians in the Viking Age could and did wed for love and not for familial advantage, but these unions were often made by men and women who already had had the experience of marriage, and sought to make their succeeding unions better ones.


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  • Jochens, Jenny M. "Consent in Marriage: Old Norse Law, Life, and Literature." Scandinavian Studies 58 (1986): 142-176.

  • Jochens, Jenny M. "Gender and Drinking in the World of the Icelandic Sagas," A Special Brew: Essays in Honor of Kristof Glamann. Odense University Studies in History and Social Sciences Vol. 165. Thomas Riis, Ed. Odense: Odense Univ. Press. 1993. pp. 155-181.
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  • Jochens, Jenny M. "The Illicit Love Visit: An Archaeology of Old Norse Sexuality," JHS 1 (1991): 357-392.

  • Jochens, Jenny M. "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?" Viator 17 (1986): 35-50.

  • Jochens, Jenny M. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia. University of Philadelphia Press. 1996.
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  • Jochens, Jenny M. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1995.
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  • Karras, Ruth M. "Concubinage and Slavery in the Viking Age," Scandinavian Studies 62 (1990): 141-162.

  • Kashammar, Marta. Skapa Med Halm. Halmstad, Sweden: Bokforlaget Spektra. 1985. ISBN 9171363467

  • King, P.D. Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1972.

  • Krupp, Christina and Carolyn A. Priest-Dorman. Women's Garb in Northern Europe: 450-1000 CE: Frisians, Angles, Franks, Balts, Vikings and Finns. Compleat Anachronist 59. Milpitas CA: Society for Creative Anachronism. 1992.

  • Macnamara, Jo Ann and Suzanne Wemple. "The Power of Women through the Family in Medieval Europe, 500-1100." in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women. eds. Mary Hartman and Lois Banner. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. pp. 103-118.
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  • Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Palsson, trans. Njal's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
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  • Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Palsson, trans. Laxdæla Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1969.
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  • McGrew, Julia H. and R. George Thomas, trans. Sturlunga Saga: Shorter Sagas of the Icelanders. New York: Twayne. 1974.
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  • Oxenstierna, Eric. The Norsemen. Greenwich CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965.
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  • Palsson, Herman and Paul Edwards, trans. Seven Viking Romances. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1985.
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  • Strand, Birgit. "Women in Gesta Danorum." Saxo Grammaticus: A Medieval Author Between Norse and Latin Culture. ed. Kirsten Friis-Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. 1981. 135-167.
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  • Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. trans. Harold Mattingly. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1970.
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  • Teale, Edwin W. The Golden Throng. New York: Universe. 1981.
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  • Undset, Sigrid. The Bridal Wreath. trans. Charles Archer and J.S. Scott. New York: Bantam. 1920.
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  • Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
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  • Williams, Mary W. Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920; New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971.
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  • Wilson, David M. The Vikings and Their Origins. New York: A & W Visual Library. 1980.
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