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Vikings’ Families in the Norse Era

Posted in Vikings  by antiques

vikings-families-in-the-norse-eraDuring the Norse era, multiple “families” lived in the same longhouse, working the same farm holding. This “grand family” played an important role in shaping Norse society and its laws and customs, and was the standard unit of society.

A household might consist not only several husband-and-wife couples (with one member of each couple typically related by blood to one member of every other couple) and their children, but also the families of servants and bondsmen. During this time, the typical household size was probably ten to twenty people. This household size suggests that at the end of the settlement era, Iceland had a population of about 60,000 people.

Settlement patterns in late Viking age Iceland suggest there were about 4,000 farms, of which 1,500 were estates and large farms, while the remainder were smaller settlements. The distribution of resources implies that the 2,500 smaller settlements were dependent upon the larger farms and perhaps even were controlled by the larger farms.

Information about Norse families in this era is sparse. Much of it comes from the Icelandic family sagas. And some of it comes from osteoarchaeology, the science of studying the skeletal remains of the people of an era. However, for the Norse era, skeletal studies are flawed. Mortuary practices varied by region. In some places and times, it was customary to cremate bodies, rather than bury them. Of the bodies that were buried, the distribution is skewed by the lack of infants (who may not have been buried in normal burial plots), and by the lack of adult males (a significant percentage of whom died violently abroad). A child’s skeleton in situ is shown to the right.

Nonetheless, by taking the data that do exist (and applying what appears to be a lot of speculation, as far as I can tell), scholars have drawn conclusions about the demographics of the Norse population.

The life expectancy at birth was about 20 years. Half of those who survived birth lived only to their seventh year. Children under the age of 15 made up nearly half of the population. Of those that reached the age of 20, about half reached the age of 50. Perhaps 15 percent of the total population was 50 years or older. And only 1 to 3 percent of population was over 60 years old. The population distribution by age is shown in the plot below on the right (blue bars), clearly showing the skew towards the young.

A typical woman probably bore 7 infants during her lifetime, 29 months apart on average. During pregnancy, women were expected to continue working. After the child’s birth, the mother typically returned to work with little delay. Evidence suggests that mothers nursed their children until the age of 2 years, which may have dictated the interval between the births of a couple’s children. A typical couple probably had 2 or 3 living children at any one time. Few parents lived to see their children marry. And fewer lived to see their first grandchild. Three generation families were rare.

When one member of a couple died, the other remarried quickly. It was probably difficult for a single person to run a household alone.

Marriage was a business arrangement between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. It was initiated by the male suitor and approved by the woman’s father. In many cases, marriages were arranged to build an alliance between families. The marriage was the means by which the families’ wealth was distributed amongst the next generation. But that is not to say that the emotions of the man and woman did not play a role.

Courting the woman was only natural, but frowned upon by the woman’s family as unseemly. Courting might take the form of visits by the man to the woman’s house, conversation with the woman, or poems of praise to the woman. While such poems of praise were prohibited by law (Grágás K 238), there are plenty of examples of them, so the law must have been routinely ignored.

An example of this kind of courting is described in chapter 5 of Kormáks saga. Kormákr regularly visited Steingerðr at Gnúpsdalur, where she was being fostered. While there, he composed poems of praise to her. When her father Þorkell learned of this, he felt that there was the prospect of dishonor to himself and his daughter, and so he brought her home to Tunga (shown to the right as it appears today). Kormákr continued to visit, so Þorkell hired two assassins to kill him. The assassins attacked Kormákr after he left Tunga on one of his regular visits. The assassins were incompetent, and Þorkell could see they were making no progress. He took up his weapons and prepared to head out to assist them. Steingerðr saw what her father was up to, and she took his hands. He made no further efforts to help the assassins, and Kormákr killed them both. Ultimately, Kormákr asked for Steingerð’s hand, and the wedding was arranged, which ultimately did not come to pass.

A man looking for a bride might seek the advice of family members before taking the first steps towards marriage, for a misstep could be costly. If a marriage proposal did not immediately follow courting, the woman’s family was embarrassed and insulted. If a marriage proposal was rejected, the man’s family was similarly injured. In either case, blood vengeance might be sought.

Marriages had two parts: the betrothal and the wedding.

The betrothal was a commercial contract between the woman’s guardian (usually her father) and the suitor or his representative (usually his father). The proposal was made to the woman’s guardian, usually by a representative of the suitor. Whether the woman’s consent was sought or not is not clear. The law books suggest that consent was not required except in some specific circumstances (e.g., Grágás K 144, St 119). Yet examples from the sagas suggest that it was and that the woman’s wishes were normally observed (e.g., Laxdæla saga chapter 23). However, coercion was not unknown in order to force an especially attractive political or economic bond between two families.

The groom’s family promised to pay a sum called mundr (bride price) to obtain the woman. The bride’s father declared his right to give his daughter away and promised to pay a heimangerð (dowry) at the wedding. The two parties shook hands in front of witnesses to fix the bargain, and arranged a date, usually within a year.

Thus, the betrothal differed little from any other commercial transaction: there was an agreed upon price, a handshake, and witnesses.

The wedding was an elaborate festivity, with feasting (and drinking) going on for several days. It usually took place at the house of the bride’s parents. The marriage was considered binding when at least six witnesses saw the couple openly go to bed together (Grágás St 58).

If the marriage didn’t work out, divorce could be easily obtained by either party for a wide variety of reasons. For example if no children resulted from the marriage, the union could simply be dissolved. It was not unusual for a woman to marry several times. In the earlier part of the Norse era, divorce was accomplished simply by either party declaring the divorce in front of witnesses. However, the sagas show that straightening out the finances resulting from a divorce could result in blood feuds between the families that lasted for generations. After the divorce, the woman was entitled to one-half of the estate. In addition, if the man were at fault, both the bride price and the dowry reverted to the woman. Thus, after a divorce, a woman could retain substantial economic independence and could easily remarry.

A male was considered to be an adult after he had passed 15 winters. Women married early: perhaps as early as 12 years old. Virtually all women were married by the age of 20.

When a child was born, the child was accepted into the family by means of a set of rituals. The mother accepted the child by nursing it at her breast. The father showed acceptance by taking the infant onto his knee, giving the child a name, and sprinkling water on the child (vatni ausinn). Once the infant was named, sprinkled, and suckled, then the Norse inheritance laws came into play, and the baby had inheritance and other rights within the family.

An infant that was not accepted for one reason or another was put to death by “exposure”. The unwanted baby was put outside, exposed to the elements, until death ensued. This was usually done only in the case of birth deformity, or because of economic hardship. An archaeological study of one Norse era farming village turned up an abandoned well in which many dozens of infant skeletal remains were found.

During the Norse era, it was common for a family to give one of their children to another family to foster. It was a bond that could link a man to his social superior. Typically, a child from a superior family was raised by an inferior family. The foster parents received either payment or support from the birth parents. Fostering was not the same as adoption. It was a legal agreement, and an alliance. However, ties between foster-relations could be as strong or stronger than those between blood-relations.

The rituals for the dead in Norse society varied from between different regions, different times, and different social classes. The Norse pagan religion taught that, with few exceptions, the dead didn’t “go” anywhere; they stayed in their graves. Yet at least some of the dead were buried in rich graves furnished with all sorts of objects for daily life. And some of the dead were buried in ships, or in ship replicas, as if they were going on a journey. It’s hard to relate the grave finds with the religious ideas found in the old Norse literature. And at least some of the rich grave goods must have been placed simply to impress the neighbors.

The poorest people were buried in a simple hole in the ground with a few belongings. Warriors were sometimes cremated, with their swords bent and shields broken, although this practice is more common in the times before the Viking era. A prosperous man might be buried along with his horses, slaves, weapons, and a variety of household goods.

The sketch above shows an interpretation of the burial of a prominent man. The body was placed on its side in a shallow grave, with tools and weapons placed nearby, along with his horse. The grave was covered with a mound. The grave mound of Skallagrímr Kveldúlfsson is shown to the right as it appears today. Skallagrímr was one of the early settlers in Iceland and father of Egill, a prominent chieftain and poet. Egil’s son, Böðvarr, is also buried in this mound. Wealthy and powerful men were sometimes buried in a ship. A structure was built on the deck in which the body was laid. It was not unknown for his wife to voluntarily join him. Horses, slaves, farm animals, and all the trappings of wealth were placed on board the ship before it was buried. In general, graves were not marked. Only the mounds remain. However, some graves were marked with stones, or formations of stones, such as the boat shaped grave markers at the Norse era cemetery in Lindholm Høje in Denmark (left) and the stone outline of a ship (right) from a cemetery on the island of Öland, off the coast of Sweden. —

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