Everyone knows the Scandinavians are pretty casual about relationships and they’ll have sex with anyone. Obviously, that’s because they’re descended from Vikings, for whom ‘marriage’ was really abduction.
Actually, the Scandinavians aren’t especially liberal by northern European standards or they don’t seem so to those of us who have lived among them. It is true that Swedish movies showed boobs in the 'fifties' and Swedish primary schools were the first to have mandatory sex education.
It is also true that some Scandinavians are pretty liberal but culturally, Scandinavia varies a lot. The Stockholm club scene isn’t anything like a farm out in Norway, we can tell you reliably.
So where does this silly stereotype come from? As for the middle ages, these ideas do raise an interesting question for the history-minded. What did Vikings use to make of marriage? Did they have it? Did they honor it? And how do we know?
If you’re interested, the story is largely a dialogue between pagan and Christian traditions. ‘Pagan’ doesn’t mean what it means in pop-culture and in another post, I will have to explain that. Christianity bears defining carefully too. It’s not monolithic.
There are regionalisms within it and how the medievals understood it is not always what you might think. More about that some other time.
But generally, there were ways to get married in early medieval Scandinavia. They were all pretty formal and we know a lot about them.
Marriage by kidnap: Like in the movies did exist, pretty early and for pretty long. The Old Norse term was herfang. The ‘fang’ part of that is cognate with fangen. In modern German, which means to capture or grab. The ‘her’ part probably refers to a war-band. The antique Germans did this too.
Far enough back, so has most of the world at one time or another. We know the Scandinavians probably did it as late as the 12th century which is long after the Viking period and because we see it prohibited in the penitentials, books of things that are not to be done on scriptural grounds.
Penitentials and law codes aren’t clear evidence of everything – some of them contain regulations about vampires about netting over graves to keep women who died in childbirth from coming for their babies. Probably this doesn’t mean there were real vampires, or zombie mothers.
But we can infer from penitential codes that taking a wife consisted often enough of … well … taking a wife. We know from allusions in chronicles that this happened too and that broadly speaking, the women seized were foreigners.
They were aristocrats, more often than not, and they were kept not as wives but as concubines. They were brought home to live in something resembling polygamy though not of a particularly formal or legal sort.
Kings, more than commoners, were likely to have housefuls of captive women. Yes, they were expected to join in casual sexual union. Just how bound these women were to their captors and how much these captors regarded themselves as husbands is open to debate.
But there was also marriage. The non-Christians did have the concept. More accurately, they had a word for a ceremony that looks to modern eyes like a wedding. It was bruðlaup, or sometimes bruðkaup. (One means ‘bride walk’, the other means ‘bride purchase’.) We know the term from the sagas and from law codes.
What did you do at one of these ceremonies? The chap or his father started things going with an offer to the girl’s father. Her father, incidentally, was not allowed to look for a suitor; he had to wait for offers. The groom would agree to pay a bride price.
The bride’s father affirmed his right to give her away and he was expected to include a dowry, generally her inheritance. The date was fixed usually within a year and there was a ceremony at one family’s house or the other.
Then there’s a party that could last a few days and by custom, a culminating moment in which at least six guests witnessed the couple’s retirement to bed. The bride, as far as we can tell, had no legal say in any of this.
Perhaps in intimate village settings, where she was known and loved, she was not always coerced. We don’t know. We do know that widows were treated more gently than maidens and not strong-armed into marriages nearly the same way.
The legal framework of marriage was rigid though a powerful enough device to end long and bitter feuds. Marriage was not, in other words, casual. It was not the same as concubinage. There were divorces. Interestingly, women could obtain them too.
It’s not clear what the grounds needed to be but law codes require witnesses to some sort of misdeed at least. There’s reason to think that people tended not to stay single after they were divorced or widowed. Arduous farm life is probably the reason. It’s very difficult to manage alone.
For Christian Viking families, things were different. Here was a sacramental union, monogamous, that forbids sex with any other and that was intended never to be dissolved. Something close to equality between man and wife, as a philosophical concept as much as a legal one, was understood to exist. The woman’s consent was implicit in this union.
After the Viking period, Church law developed the concept of woman’s consent and enshrined it as part of the canon of marriage. They also enjoined the faithful to consider marriage itself as something undertaken by the young couple involved and no longer by their fathers.
Canon law in Scandinavia differed from the rest of the Germanic world in this. There you go: liberal Swedes. Even so, we can tell from later sagas that the Church was careful to accommodate old folkish custom.
Marriage was considered to have germinated when a man proposed and witnesses heard the woman say yes. The ceremony migrated from family house to church building. The priest announced the coming marriage for a number of Sundays. (Older Anglicans like me will still remember this ‘reading of the banns’ of marriage.)
The two-stage betrothal and wedding remained. The priest himself ceremonially conducted the new couple off to bed. That’s the structure anyway. We don’t know especially among the illiterate out in the hinterlands (here is the original etymology of ‘pagan’, by the way) how closely these rules and customs were actually followed.
Icelandic men late in the middle ages were famous for bedding women who weren’t their wives. There were forced marriages in the Norwegian aristocracy. The Danes, tellingly considered a woman a common-law wife if she lived with a man for more than 3 years.
Viking hooked-up life wasn’t like old Ursula Andress movies. It was a lot more studied, a lot more carefully considered. The stakes were high in marriage. Families survived, or didn’t, on the decisions they made about the nature and function of life-mating.
They did, however, say, “Jane Foster, please meet Frigga, Queen of Asgard, and my mother.” This we know from Thor: The Dark World. The kissing scene. That part is accurate.
Image Credit: wedswing.com, oddfeed.net, metro.co.uk