While we often expect engagements to be entered into out of love, the betrothal, in the Viking Age, was in many regards a form of a commercial agreement. Indeed, the women were not even guaranteed a say or a voice in whether they wanted to enter the marriage or not.
A Viking marriage consisted of a betrothal and a wedding. At the present time, more is known about the betrothal than the wedding, as it was during the betrothal that the legally binding agreements were made.
Indeed, because it was at this point that the agreements were made, it was generally more important than the wedding that followed.
An agreement between families
In essence, the Viking betrothal was an agreement made between the families of the prospective husband and wife. In the Viking Age, marriages were usually not initiated out of love but instead out of the desire to connect two families.
As such, the betrothal can be likened to a commercial agreement, wherein the two parties both agreed upon a price and then shook hands to accept it.
It was made between the woman's guardian, usually her father, and either the prospective husband or his representative, which would usually be his father as well.
The proposal itself had to come from either the man or his guardian, and it was made to the woman's guardian. Thus, the women who were about to get married were not the ones that accepted the agreement on said marriage.
The "bride price"
In the agreement made between the two parties, the man's father promised to pay a mundr, also known as a "bride price," to have the woman.
In Iceland, the minimum price of the mundr was 8 ounces of silver, while in Norway, it was 12 ounces. The woman's father then promised to pay a dowry at their wedding.
If their marriage ended in divorce, the woman would get her dowry back and could even get the "bride price," too.
Once the details were settled and the agreement made, the two men would shake hands on it in front of witnesses and then decide a date for the wedding. Usually, this date would be within a year.
While the wedding rites of Vikings are not well known, sagas have still given us some indication of what might have been common practices. For example, apples likely took a part in the wedding ceremony as a sign of fertility. The same goes for rings, which symbolized birth, death, and re-birth. Photo: Iza Gawrych / Unsplash
As the betrothal was an agreement made by the woman's father, it begs the question of the woman's right to consent. To this day, it is still not clear to what extent the women would be asked for consent when their guardians entered into this agreement.
When looking at the laws in place at the time, women were not granted many reasons for turning down an arranged marriage. However, the many Viking sagas can also give some insight into this, and they seem to show many examples of women who both could and could not turn down their match.
For example, a story found in the Brennu-Njáls saga tells of Hallgerdur, who was very angered when she had a marriage arranged by her father, Hoskuldur, without asking her beforehand.
However, the Hardar saga og Holmverja tells the story of Hogni, who received a request to marry his daughter Gudrid, to which he replied that this was a decision in which his wife and daughter would have the most to say.
Thus, the Viking sagas show that it was not uncommon for the father to consult with his daughter before making the agreement. Indeed, the sagas have also pointed out that if a woman was forced into a marriage, the marriage might commonly end in divorce or with the husband's death.
So, while forced marriages were not that common, whether a woman could consent or not was still dependent on each individual case.
Furthermore, if the marriage was seen as very politically or economically attractive, there were still instances where coercion could be used.
Changes related to the Christianization of Scandinavia
Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was only in the 12th century CE, after Christianity had taken hold in Scandinavia, that it was required to also have the woman's consent for a marriage.
Along the lines of consenting to marriages, widowed women had more freedom than single women, as they only needed to get their father's approval before they remarried.
Overall, Viking betrothals were more or less like business agreements, where the two parties agreed on the payments and specifics of the wedding and then shook hands to confirm it.
While women were not guaranteed a say in whether the proposal would be accepted, it was still not unusual for the father to consult his daughter before making the agreement.
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