Vikings in popular culture are often viewed as the brutes of the Dark Ages, robbing, raping and pillaging people and goods. However, an analysis of their personal lives shows a much different side. Family life was important to Norse men, and every proper, upstanding Viking aimed to marry and have children. And although their parents arranged their marriages, Norsemen liked to court their ladies- and made a special effort to impress with their appearance.
As for Norse women, although they had to put up with their husband’s affairs with live-in mistresses, slaves and even other men, they had the right to divorce their partners for violence, neglect, and various sexually related issues. In fact, Norse customs of love, marriage, and sex set a high standard in their time- and some even survive to this day. Here are just eight facts about sex, love, and marriage in the Viking era.
Courtship: The Viking Way
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 – and sometimes end feuds. Many brides were promised as ‘peace pledges’ to smooth troubled waters between rival families. Although the couple in question could voice an opinion, it was fair to say they had little choice but to go ahead with the match.
That didn’t mean there was no romance -but Norse men had to handle it carefully. 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. On the other hand, it also didn’t pay to move too fast or stretch out the courtship too long. If the couple liked each other too much to wait for the wedding night, matters could become complicated by an unwanted pregnancy.
So attempts to cultivate what the Norse called ‘inn matki munr’ (‘the mighty passion’) were intricate and involved specific rituals. Meeting and talking was one way to forge a relationship. But some odd practices were also employed. For instance, if a girl wanted to show her man she liked him, she made him a shirt. As for Viking men, they would go out and handpick their lady a bunch of purple flowers- and then slap her around the face with it!
Love poetry, although a favorite of the Norse gods, was viewed 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.
Even if they were not in love before the wedding, the couple would try and cultivate it afterward. Husbands would seat their wives next to them if they wanted to show affection. Couples could also express their closeness by sharing the same drinking horn. If a husband were feeling very affectionate, he would ‘put her on his lap’ where he and his wife could indulge in “kyssir hana’ – a kiss and a cuddle. Or he would put his head on her lap, and she would stroke his hair.