Often Vikings are mistakenly categorized as roving barbarians with only one thing on their minds, plunder. But in reality, they had a complicated social structure with the same expectations and desires as any historical civilization. Love and sex thrived in the Viking Age. And whether in the marital bed or beyond, it appears Viking men had veracious appetites. But don’t be discouraged, Viking women had it pretty good compared to other cultures. If she felt threatened or abused, she retained the right to divorce her spouse. Though I’m not claiming equality between the sexes, certain protections and rights were extended to women.
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 (Viking Answer Lady).
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.
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 : 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).
But don’t be discouraged by the historical double standards, proof exists that romance existed amongst the Norse.
Don’t forget to join us for Viking month on Facebook. There’s also a party at the end of August, lots of giveaways and talented authors.