When the Norsemen went out “viking” (i. e. raiding), somebody had to stay home and take care of the farms and families. The summer farm work fell to old men, women, slaves and children.
It was the women, however, who managed such tasks. The perils of sea travel and the loss of life in war resulted in a shortage of men back home. When the men returned, they’d repair the boats and weapons, and spend the long, dark winter nights drinking ale, telling of their exploits and planning the next year’s expeditions.
A popular misconception of the “Viking Age” (a term only began to be used 200 years ago) is that it was a glamorous time. It’s true that men sometimes brought home expensive jewelry for their wives that were proudly displayed, but for the most part life was glum and lacking in security.
The Norsemen also raided each other’s homes and left a trail of burned buildings and blood. Like all pagans, they lived in fear of fickle gods and jealous neighbors. Fatalism and determinism dominated their view of life.
Women did not have the customary rights that we take for granted in the western world today, but a strong-minded woman did exercise influence in everyday decision making. Women’s work was caring for children, preparing food, milking cows, and making cloth and clothes, washing laundry and doing needlework. The famous Hardanger stitches are not a modern innovation. It represents a long tradition of skill practiced by Norse women.
Women had no political rights and only limited benefits of inheritance. Unmarried women were kept under the guardianship of the families. Widows, however, could manage their own homes.
Daughters were regarded as property of the family and were jealously guarded. A broken engagement could result in blood-vengeance. Writing love poems in Iceland was forbidden. But as usual, what was banned was also popular.
With few exceptions, people stayed in their own social class. A rich man would not give his daughter to a poor suitor. “Matchmakers” might act as brokers between guardians and prospective grooms. It could lead to a lot of haggling. The wedding was not legal and the children legitimate until the “bride’s price” was paid by the groom.
In Norway, a minimum of 12 ounces of silver was required and that was called the poor man’s price. The groom was expected to add a percentage to the dowry after the ceremony. The bride’s consent for marriage was not required.
In Christian homes, however, an unwilling bride could get out of a marriage by going to a convent and becoming a nun.
At the husband’s discretion, adultery was punishable with death for a woman, while men were not penalized for extramarital activities. Divorce was uncommon. Wives usually stuck by their husbands even when it meant death.
In the Icelandic saga of Njal, his wife refused to leave their burning farm house (set on fire by his enemies), saying, “I was given when young to Njal, and I have promised him that one fate shall on both of us.”
Population control dictated that the old and feeble were allowed to die. When a child was born, the father made the decision whether it should live or be exposed to death.
Legitimate children had a better chance of survival. Illegitimate births were high risk and the deformed almost certain to perish. But once a child had been nursed at its mother’s breast, life was guaranteed.
Property rights were jealously guarded and were reserved for those who were wanted. Presents were given when the first tooth was cut and when a person became of age at 15 or 16.
The handicapped and destitute were the responsibility of the family. The coming of Christianity with its emphasis on “good works” made charity the responsibility of the community. But it took centuries for the social improvements to take significant effect. The introduction of the tithe by the church, and food saved from fasting, made possible both relief work and the building of hospitals.
Iceland developed a mutual insurance plan to help the unfortunate. If a farmer lost one-fourth or more of his cattle through disease, his neighbors would make good the loss. The same was true if a farmstead lost three or more of its buildings through fire.
Such contributions were limited to 1 percent of total income and no one could receive insurance compensation more than three times.
Despite the harshness of life, Scandinavia was not a worse place to live than other countries. On the contrary, even in pagan days, loyalty to family was an obligation. Our later times have eroded much of that sense of duty and self-reliance.
It was not until the last 100 years or so that the great social reforms have taken place. The challenge of such support systems for us is to maintain visible signs of family loyalty.
Some of the ancient qualities still persist among Scandinavians. It was the custom of families to take care of their own handicapped, feeble minded and illegitimate members. They were zealously guarded against the curiosity of outsider.
Emotions among Norsemen were not publicly displayed. A stone face hid the thoughts of their hearts. It’s a way to survive with honor. The Norseman’s creed was that “real men” ought rather to die than to cry. I’ve seen those faces.
Next week: “Chiefs, Earls and Kings in the Viking World”