With Valentine's Day here – and many men cursing themselves for leaving plans and purchases to the last minute – it is often a time to reflect on love and romance. 

Now, the early medieval period, the era where people from Viking societies were at their cultural, political, economic, and social zenith, is not perhaps the most romantic of historical eras. 

Women were treated, at best, as inactive members of society confined to the domestic sphere and, at worst, little more than pieces of meat or war booty. 

One should remember that people from Viking societies were among the era's most prolific slave traders, and untold wretched and poor females ended up in a ghastly world of sexual servitude. 

While acknowledging the harsh realities faced by enslaved women, it's also important to note that Viking societies held complex notions of love and romance. 

Many people entered relationships and marriages, besotted with one another, and lived happily ever after. 

Scour any of the sagas, myths, or legends that these societies produced, and you will see how love and romance underpinned much of their history and lore. 

Remember that until the latter end of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), these people worshipped love personified by the Norse goddess, Freyja

To understand love in the Viking era, we must first delve deeply into the varied aspects of how love was expressed, perceived, and practiced within these societies. 

In Viking culture, loyalty to family and spouse was highly valued, and betrayals or infidelity risked personal shame and dishonor for the entire community due to the complex moral codes of the era. Illustration: The Viking Herald

To love and to honor 

These Viking societies with strong family and personal relationships were underpinned not only by love but also by the concept of honor. 

This was such an integral part of the societal fabric that scholars have devoted entire books to its analysis. 

Love and honor were intertwined and fundamental parts of Viking culture, and love played a significant role in maintaining one's honor. 

Loyalty to one's spouse or family was considered honorable, and acts of betrayal or infidelity (especially when Christian notions of the sanctity of marriage entered Viking societies) could bring shame and dishonor to individuals, their families, or even whole segments of a community. 

Similar to this honor-bound loyalty were concepts of endurance and commitment. 

Couples were often expected to stand by each other through hardships and challenges, where loyalty to one's spouse was highly esteemed. 

Many a Viking housewife had to wait patiently as raiding, trading, or exploration expeditions departed, never certain if she would see her loved one again. 

The expression of love in Norse literature 

World history and literature are indebted to the great literary skill of the Norse. 

We know how skilled their sagas, myths, and legends were and how a high cultural status was placed upon skaldic poets and bards. 

Much of their literature, whether mythological tales or more historically accurate sagas, featured romantic themes. 

Love poems were used to express affection and admiration for one's beloved, often employing elaborate metaphors and imagery. 

The sagas, perhaps the greatest cultural gift bequeathed to us by people from Viking societies, recounted the lives of legendary heroes and heroines, often featuring themes of love and romance. 

These sagas provide us moderns with fascinating insight into the social dynamics of these people, including the complexities of love, marriage, and kinship. 

In Viking societies, love was seen as a divine force that brought blessings and prosperity, with marriage being a crucial bond that united communities and reinforced family ties. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Love and religion 

Love was intertwined with the more mythological aspects of the Old Norse religion

Deities like Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, fertility, and beauty, were revered by many, even after the advent of Christianity. 

The attributes of these deities significantly shaped the perception and expression of love within society. Love was regarded as a divine force capable of bestowing blessings and prosperity upon individuals and their families. 

Rituals in Old Norse religion, while varied, occasionally included practices that celebrated or invoked love. 

The connection many adherents felt with the gods was akin to a personal relationship, with many showing a preference for, or even love towards, certain deities over others. 

To honor these gods, offerings were made to please them, similar to how we give gifts to loved ones today. 

Additionally, rituals such as handfasting, which involved binding a couple's hands together to symbolize their union, were often conducted by someone deeply connected to and knowledgeable about the Old Norse religion. 

Legitimate and illicit love 

People in Viking societies placed immense importance on family and kinship ties. One of the most important ties that bonded members of the community was marriage

This was not only a social institution, often arranged for political or economic reasons, but it could also involve a genuine and emotional connection. 

Though elites favored arranged marriages, love marriages were not rare, particularly among those lower in the social hierarchy. 

For the unmarried, romantic relationships were also common. 

Whilst perhaps not as common as they are in the West today – bad enough telling a teenager nowadays who they can or can't see, let alone telling one that knew how to wield an axe or a sword (!) - romantic relationships were a part of young people's lives. 

There is a plethora of Norse sagas and poems telling the tales of passionate love affairs (illicit or not – involving all ages), sometimes leading to marriage but sometimes also sadly causing conflicts within families and the community. 

Romantic relationships and love marriages existed alongside arranged unions in Viking society, with literature from the era depicting a wide range of love stories, from the joyous to the tragic. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The power and endurance of love 

In the history of Viking societies, love was a multifaceted and richly nuanced aspect of their culture. It encompassed themes of passion, honor, loyalty, and spirituality. 

Through their literature, mythology, and social customs, they celebrated the complexities and enduring power of love in all its forms.

From the bonds of marriage and family to the passionate romances depicted in the sagas and poems, love played a vital role in shaping Viking culture. 

Through their tales of love and honor, people in Viking societies remind us that even in the most tumultuous times, the power of love endures as a beacon of strength and resilience. 

For more information on love, marriage, and the medieval period, visit BBC History Extra here

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