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Viking Marriage and Divorce

marriage and divorce

"Among pagan Viking Age Scandinavians marriage was essentially a business contract between two families. A marriage was arranged in two stages: the betrothal and the wedding. The initiative had to come from the man or his father, who would make the proposal of marriage to the woman's father or guardian. If the latter was agreeable, the groom promised to pay the bride-price (mundr). In Iceland the minimum payment was 8 ounces of silver; in Norway it was 12. In return, the bride's father promised to hand over her dowry at the wedding. Both the bride-price and the dowry remained the property of the bride after the wedding. The two men shook hands on the agreement in front of witnesses and agreed a date for the wedding, usually within a year. The woman's consent to the marriage might be sought but it was not necessary. Widows had more freedom than single women, as they needed only to seek their fathers' approval before remarrying. Only in the 12th century, well after the introduction of Christianity, did a woman's consent to marriage become necessary. The wedding itself took the form of a feast, usually held at the bride's family home. The marriage was considered legally binding when the couple had been seen going to bed by a minimum of six witnesses.

If a marriage was an unhappy one it could be ended by a divorce, though this does not seem to have happened very often. On the face of it, divorce was a simple procedure. All that was required of the party who was seeking a divorce was that they summon witnesses and declare himself or herself divorced. In practice it may have been more complicated than this if there was property at stake. A wife's adultery was a serious matter, and in some areas the husband had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together. There was no penalty for a man if he kept a concubine or had children outside his marriage. This was very common in the higher levels of society, even after the conversion to Christianity, and overseas, where captive native women were often taken as concubines by Viking men. It was probably the widespread practice of concubinage that led some outside observers, such as Adam of Breman in the 11th century, to accuse the Scandinavians of practising polygamy, but monogamy appears actually to have been the rule, as even pagan marriage contracts recognized only one legal wife".

This text is taken from:

Haywood, J. (2000), "Encyclopedia of the Viking Age", Thames & Hudson, p 128