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Viking weddings
A Viking wedding
A Viking wedding

Were weddings big business during Viking times?

Dr Richard Hall is Deputy Director of York Archaeological Trust, he fills us in on Viking weddings, domestic arrangements and even divorce!

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 Viking weddings

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The people we now call 'Vikings' do not appear to have viewed marriage in quite the same way as we do today.

The direct evidence is limited, since references in the classic sagas date from a later time, usually around the thirteenth century, and we can no longer be certain of the degree of 'editing' involved in their composition and transfer from oral to written media.

What we do know suggests that, initially, a betrothal would be arranged by the parents of the couple, often at the instigation of one or other of the prospective partners.

Considerations such as social standing, relative wealth, and the usefulness (or otherwise) of the family ties generated by a marriage would all be taken into account when arranging the match, and these would also have an effect on the bride-price and dowry.

The bride-price was a sum paid over to the family of the bride, by the groom's family, whilst the dowry was paid over to the newlyweds by the bride's family. This remained the property of the bride, although it was usual for it to be used as commonly-held finance.

Should the marriage fail, the bride-price could be reclaimed by the groom's family, whereas the dowry remained with the ex-wife, and could travel with her to any future marriages.

Joined hands at a wedding
Women were considered equal to their often absent husbands

Weddings themselves appear to have been somewhat loose and informal. Public celebrations are generally recorded as being three days of feasting and sports, but no further details are preserved.

Presumably at some point during this party, the couple were considered properly married, although what form this recognition took is unknown. It is possible that it occurred on the second morning, after their first night together (still the case, to a certain degree, in India and Japan, both current societies retaining their original, native religions).

The main requirement for any such recognition was its witnessing by neighbours and local dignitaries, since these were the people who backed up the declarations involved, and broadcast it in the wider public arena.

Polygamy appears to have been accepted, though not necessarily expected or particularly condoned. Wives were recognised by the household keys hanging from either her brooches or her belt (depending on the costume she favoured); in the case of a multi-wife household, the senior wife held the keys.

Women were considered to be equal under the law to men; they had to be, if the husband was away on the ship for up to six months every year.

Women ran the farms, organised the slaves and labourers, and maintained the household. They could speak at the 'Thing'* (although it appears to have been customary to have a male relative speaking for them), hold money in their own name, arrange business deals, etc.

They could also divorce, a simple matter of declaring themselves divorced, before witnesses, at three separate locations around the house: at the bed, at the high- seat, and lastly at the threshold.

Multiple divorcees seem to have carried something of a bad odour with them, and often appear as villanesses in some of the major sagas, most notably Njal's Saga, where Rannveig is portrayed as a trouble- maker and a cause of extensive social disorder.

DR Richard Hall (Deputy Director of York Archaeological Trust)

If this article has whetted your appetite and you want to find out more about Viking weddings, try the 'Family Life - A Viking Wedding' event which is part of the 2005 Jorvik Viking Festival. It takes place on Saturday 5th February at 10.15am, at Cliffords Tower. Tickets cost £2.50 adults and £1.90 for concessions. Call 01904 543403 to book.

* A 'Thing' was an assembly assembly or gathering of local freemen. They met together regularly in the open air to make and discuss laws and to decide punishments for criminals.


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