Though the frequency of divorce is unknown, it was a right that both men and women retained and which they could use for several reasons.
So much so that even foreign travelers who met with the Vikings were perplexed to learn about their practices surrounding divorce.
Old sagas have helped give some insight into the practice of divorce in Norse society. They have told the stories of many women who were divorced or widowed and married again.
They have also described the rules around divorces, making it evident that there was a big legal system around the whole process. If one party wanted to end the marriage, it was generally not hard to obtain a divorce for a plethora of reasons.
Amongst those was that if no children came from the marriage, it could be dissolved. Other reasons concerned domestic violence; if the husband hit his wife three times, she could get a divorce.
Furthermore, if a man settled down in a new country while he was out traveling and he did not go to bed with his wife for three years, the woman could demand a divorce. The aim of this was to protect women from living their lives in loneliness.
Often, it was enough for either the husband or the wife to declare divorce in front of witnesses. Overall, it was not rare for women to have married and divorced several times.
Different ways of ending a marriage
While divorce was a common way to end a marriage, Viking sagas have also given us insights into other ways that people did this.
For example, the Brennu-Njáls saga mentions the story of a man hitting his wife, which ends with the wife's foster-father killing her husband. Thus, she was free to remarry. So, while divorce was a common way to part ways with one's spouse, there could be a few times when people used more violent means.
Women who divorced did generally not have trouble becoming economically independent. Photo: Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock
Nevertheless, while it was not that hard to get a divorce, it was not always easy to sort out the specifics of said divorce.
When ending the marriage, it could cause conflicts over how the husband and wife's wealth should be divided between the two. Since the marriage meant that the wealth from both of their families got combined, sorting this out could be a meticulous process, and, in some cases, it could even lead to long-spanning blood feuds.
Diving the wealth
However, it was not always that difficult, as marriage contracts would often state how the wealth should be divided if the marriage ended. Along these lines, sagas have even told stories of the measures that women have taken to keep their family's wealth outside of the marriage.
The Harðar saga og Hólmverja mentions a woman who was unhappy with her marriage, so she gave her property to her brother to ensure that it would still belong to her family.
When it came to the couple's children, babies and small children typically followed their mother. However, if they had older children, they would generally be divided up amongst the families of the man and the woman, all dependent on their level of wealth and social status.
Upon marrying, the wife's family paid a dowry, and the husband's family paid a bride price. When divorcing, the wife had the right to reclaim this dowry.
The woman also had a right to half of their estate. With that in mind, the women who divorced did generally not have trouble becoming economically independent.
Indeed, some women could even use the threat of the high financial costs of divorce as means to influence their husbands. Such an example can be found in the Gísla saga, where a husband tried to forbid his wife from entering their bed upon finding out that she had cheated. His wife then threatened him with divorce, which made the husband drop his position.
Travelers surprised by women's rights
The ease with which women could get divorced was also noted by foreign travelers. Indeed, several Arab diplomats at the time were surprised to hear about the freedoms that Viking women had.
Amongst those, the Arab At-Tartuschi was perplexed when he noted how women had the right to divorce and would divorce when they wanted to.
Another example is that of Al-Ghazal, an Arab poet and diplomat who spent time with the Vikings. He would spend a lot of time talking with a woman, which made him worried that there would be talks about the two of them spending so much time together.
The woman, on the other hand, told him about the freedoms that women had and that he should not worry as a woman could leave her husband if she did not like him anymore.
Overall, while we don't know how frequent divorces were in the Viking Age, we do know that it was a right that both the husband and the wife had. A divorce could be claimed on several grounds, and the ease with which Viking women could get divorced even astonished foreign travelers.
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