Divorce during the Viking Age
The Vikings were unique among the peoples of medieval Europe because of the extensive legal provisions for divorce.
Even after Christianity became an accepted religion in Scandinavia, divorce continued to be a widespread custom in the North, socially acting as a safety valve for those whose marriages were arranged for the benefit of their families instead of the optimal happiness of marital union.
Divorce allowed an unhappy couple to separate and try again with new partners, before resentments could develop into hatred that could lead to quarrels and violence. With regard to the laws and customs governing divorce, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the conditions that prevailed in a Viking marriage, in the light of examples of actions that led to the end of a marriage.
The Arab poet Al-Ghazal reported that he had been informed by a queen of Denmark that "jealousy was unknown in this country, and that women stayed with men of their own free will, and left them whenever they wanted" (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, pp. 78-79).
While this is not a completely accurate statement, an examination of the sagas shows that women were often the ones who initiated the divorce proceedings.
This is probably due to the fact that men had more social and sexual options, that they were free to travel and take concubines, while the woman was often bound to the farm by her various management functions and that she refused any sexual opportunism outside her husband.
Divorce laws show that specific circumstances justifying a divorce were necessary, and that Al-Ghazal's description of capricious bed changes did not reflect the reality of Viking life.
Since marriages were contracted for the benefit of the families of both spouses, there was probably pressure to continue the alliance as long as possible, but sometimes this could not be the case (Jochen, Icelandic Heroine, p. 45).
Reasons for divorce
The Icelandic code of law, Grágás, allowed divorce in only three cases:
- If the couple had given themselves "great wounds" or meira sar metiz (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 51), generally defined as wounds that penetrated the brain, body cavity or marrow (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 45).
- When a couple was too poor to support themselves and had to rely on their family to assist them, or they were forced by their family to divorce, or "if a spouse with little or no own money (of his or her own) was suddenly charged with financially supporting poor parents" (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, p. 75; and Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 53), thus allowing the partner seeking the divorce to put his or her property in safety and thus escape the predation of step-parents.
- If a husband tried to take his wife out of the country against her will (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 51).
If one of these conditions is not mentioned, Grágás declares that: "no divorce will exist" (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 44). This may be due to the fact that the Grágás editorial offices we have today were influenced to some extent by canon law, as the sagas are a set of various grounds for divorce that are not mentioned in the code of law.
The reasons given in the Sagas for divorce would be familiar to any modern high court. First there were problems with parents, such as a family dispute (Frank, p. 478), or a spouse failing to treat the other's family "with due consideration" (Williams, p. 107).
Domestic violence was also a reason for divorce, especially in those parts of Scandinavia strongly influenced by Christianity and where divorce was harder to obtain.
Apart from the "great wounds" mentioned in Grágás, one spouse could ask for a divorce because the other spouse made fun of his or her partner (Frank, p. 478), because of excessive anger or jealousy shown by one of the two spouses (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine p. 39), or if one of the two slapped the other. Slapping a spouse, especially in front of witnesses, was considered extremely humiliating (Williams, p. 106).
Norway's Gulaþing law contained special provisions against a husband slapping his wife: if a man slapped his wife in front of witnesses, she could not only claim monetary compensation for the blows, equal to what she would have received if another man had slapped her, but also, in addition to the fine, the right to divorce her husband after the third slap (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 116).
Beating a woman is the most common reason given for a divorce in the sagas (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 39). From time to time, a woman felt that divorce was not enough revenge for the insult of a slap: Hallgerd in the Njal saga was involved in the deaths of two husbands who made the fatal mistake of slapping her (Magnusson and Palsson. Njal's Saga. pp. 59 and 123).
A couple could also divorce for what our modern justice would call "sexual reasons". If a woman committed adultery, divorce was the least of the penalties she faced, risking penalties ranging from fines to death in some parts of Scandinavia, if she was caught red-handed by her husband.
However, a man only committed adultery when he slept with another man's wife and his extramarital activities were never grounds for his own wife to seek a divorce (Frank, p. 479). A divorce could be granted for what was called "a kind of Icelandic non-consumption" (Ibid., p. 478; Magnusson and Palsson. Njal's Saga, p. 52) as described in the Brennu-Njáls saga, when a man failed to sleep with his wife for three consecutive years.
Another reason to divorce found in the sagas was what we could call "transvestite." If a husband wore effeminate clothes, particularly low-cut shirts exposing his chest, then his wife could divorce him (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, the transaction. Laxdæla Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
1969. P. 125), and if a woman appeared in public dressed in male pants, then her husband could divorce her (Ibid.; also Williams, p. 114). Even if a couple did not cite one of the reasons listed above, they could still dissolve the marriage by citing incompatibility, general antipathy, or sadness in the marriage (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 39).
For a couple, the basic procedure to obtain a divorce was to declare their intention in front of witnesses (Christine Fell. "Viking Women in Britain", in Women in Anglo-Saxon England, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1984. P. 140). If only one of the spouses wanted a divorce, "witnesses were called, the dissatisfied party declared its willingness to divorce and forced the other person to leave" (Jochens, Church and Sexuality, p. 379). The statement had to record the reasons for the divorce and had to be repeated in front of witnesses in the couple's bedroom, at the main entrance of the house and at a public meeting (Williams, p. 108).
After a divorce was declared, the couple had to agree on an arrangement dividing their property. As soon as the divorce proceedings were underway, the woman took possession of all her property, regardless of the final outcome of the arrangement (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 53). The division of property was arranged to penalize the spouse demanding the divorce.
- If the divorce was done because of the poverty of the spouses, or because of the mutual sadness in the couple, neither partner was penalized: the wife received her dowry and her morning gift, the husband took back the price of the bride and if they had a community of goods on the property, the woman received one third of their common goods (Ibid., pp. 54-55).
- If the husband was the one demanding the divorce, his wife would receive the bride's price, the dowry, the morning gift and a third of any common property.
- If the woman decided to separate, she only received her dowry and the morning gift.
- If ownership provisions had been included in the marriage agreement, it was followed in the same way as prenuptial agreements today. By financially penalizing the partner who filed for divorce, the tradition of property division served to keep couples together except in the most serious cases.
Divorce, freely validated, served as an indispensable social custom for the Vikings, complementing their laws on marriage and practices. Scandinavians of the Viking Age could marry for love and not for family advantage, but these unions were often made by men and women who had already had a marriage experience and were seeking to make their marriage a greater success.