Passing this wealth down to the next generation was done via a combination of customary laws and family traditions. 

Carved in stone 

Though they can sometimes be rather dull, legal documents are invaluable for our understanding of the past and the people who lived in it. 

Take, for example, the giant runestone at Granby, the Swedish village in Uppland, just north of Stockholm. 

Contemporary historians and analysts believe that this runestone, one of many that dot the countryside surrounding Sweden's capital, is a legal document etched in stone. 

Memorializing both a mother and a father, it specifically details how the father, Finnvid, owned property and how it was to be shared among his heirs. 

Aside from its legal importance, the Granby runestone is strikingly beautiful. It is just one of many runestones carved by the famed runemaster Visate, who was active in the latter part of the 11th century. 

It is also decorated with what modern art historians call the Urnes style of Viking art, which features animals and interwoven patterns. 

It is hard to think of any of Logan Roy's lawyers producing such a legal document that is as aesthetically pleasing. 

What makes the Granby runestone important for analysis today, however, is that it is an inheritance document. Yet when it was carved in about 1050, it would not have stood out or been seen as special. 

It would have been just one of many runestones that communicated similar familial wishes, according to Birgit Sawyer in her brilliant 2000 book, The Viking-Age Rune-Stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia (available to buy on Amazon here). 

The Granby runestone was physical evidence of agreement, chiseled in stone, and memorialized not only the deceased members of the family but also commemorated this important familial transaction.

Aside from runestones, then, how else did people from Viking societies bequeath riches? 

The Vikings relied heavily on oral tradition, where stories, laws, and agreements were passed down verbally, making one's spoken word a crucial element of their societal framework. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The spoken word 

Despite the carved runestones that dot what was once the Viking homelands of Scandinavia and the vast amount of Old Norse literature, sagas, and mythology, it should be remembered that people in Viking societies, first and foremost, had an oral culture

Though literacy existed and certainly increased for some following the Christianization of Scandinavia, people from Viking societies lived in a world where one's word was their bond. 

In fact, much of the rich tapestry of Norse sagas and stories was not meant to be read but recited and shared in a communal setting, like a great feast. 

For much of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), this oral culture permeated all aspects of life, including death and inheritance. 

Wealth and property transfers were often arranged through spoken agreements, witnessed by family and important community members. 

These were, in essence, verbal wills that expressed the wishes of the dying family member. These declarations were meant to be upheld in a society that valued familial and societal responsibilities and honor highly. 

Viking women had the right to inherit land, wealth, and dowries, but their portions were generally less than those of men, as societal norms and local laws often prioritized male heirs. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Gender difference 

Much has been made, in recent times, of the supposed gender equality of Viking societies. Whilst it is true that women had slightly more agency and voice compared to other contemporary societies, this was hardly a progressive paradise. 

Daughters could indeed inherit, but their share was often smaller than that of their male siblings. However, depending on local and regional customs and laws, daughters did have some rights to secure an inheritance, land, or a dowry. 

For males, the patriarchy was not only alive and kicking but also best served their interests. They were often preferred as the favored heirs to inherit property and valuables. 

As the early medieval period progressed, this favoritism soon became the famous primogeniture. 

Though many Viking-era rulers were elected, perhaps at a local assembly, as the medieval nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden took shape, primogeniture became an ever-increasing feature of inheritance, whether this was (to butcher Shakespeare here) for a kingdom or for a horse... 

The Granby runestone, located in Uppland, Sweden, serves as a legal document from the Viking Age, detailing how the father, Finnvid, intended his property to be shared among his heirs. Photo: Catasa (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Influence of Christianity 

Many historians have argued that the introduction of Christianity into Scandinavia during the early medieval period was the binding force that helped forge the creation of the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. 

Part of the Catholic Church's success in proselytizing was its access to an extensive wealth of knowledge and talent through its highly literate working culture. 

This literate working culture consisted of many a medieval monk who would read, write, and chronicle key events, decisions, and documents, including family inheritance. 

The Church often promoted written wills, which were seen as the best, and many sinners bequeathed their wealth to the Church to ensure they spent their afterlife in heaven and not hell. 

The Church also received requests about the division of familial estates or properties, which, in turn, influenced inheritance decisions. 

By the end of the Viking Age, the Church often took possession of any property or belongings of individuals who had no close relatives to inherit them, as stated in Linn Lager's 2002 book, The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300–1300 (available for purchase on Amazon here). 

Family disputes 

Was there a Viking version of Succession? What happened when families back then bickered, fought, and squabbled over the possessions or property of a recently deceased loved one? 

Well, there wasn't exactly a family court to attend, but there was a form of arbitration and communal discussion. Disputes over family possessions or wealth could be (politely) discussed at local assemblies or things

Here, prominent members of the community would hear arguments from the disgruntled parties and then voice their opinions, advice, or judgment. 

Respected elders could also weigh in with their opinions, and there might even be a need to consult the local "lawspeaker," a position always held by a man who was required to memorize and promptly recite every law that the community followed and upheld. 

This drawing provides a bird's eye view of the Granby runestone, capturing the intricate details and layout of the inscription as seen from above. Illustration: Johan Peringskiöld (1654–1720)

Written in the stars... and stone 

As the early medieval period progressed, the influence of the Christian Church affected – to an extent – the level of literacy and written documents throughout Scandinavia. 

Issues of inheritance, once decided through oral culture, were now written down and recorded, either on runestones, such as the one at Granby, or on parchment. 

Whilst parchments written by monks could only be accessed by an elite, public declarations and documents, like runestones, were there for the whole community to witness. 

In an era of widespread violence, the smooth transfer of property or possessions was aided by such public documents. 

If only Logan Roy had commissioned a runestone for his property and wealth, his kids might be a little happier, but we then would have lost a great television show. 

If you are interested in how the Granby runestone was used to stave off bitter family fights like those of the Roys, perhaps you would consider learning more. 

A great way to learn more about Sweden's proud Viking history and take in some of the beautiful scenery is to go on the STOEX Viking History Extended tour

STOEX offers intimate day tours from Stockholm, where you can learn more about important events and elements of the Viking Age, including the multifaceted purposes of runestones. 

For more information on how the Faroe Islands are luring tourists using Viking-era laws, visit the New Zealand Herald here

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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