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.
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
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
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.