18 May 2008

Families & Children: Complicated Personal Lives of Vikings

By Michelle Styles

Vikings had complex and complicated personal lives. This fact becomes immediately obvious if you read any of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas like the Laxdoela saga or Njals saga show bitter feuds and families torn with strife. They both examines the conflict that exists within individuals due to bounds of blood, loyalty and family. Divorce appears to have been common. In Njals, one of the women divorces her husband at crucial time because he dared make a disparaging remark about her hair. Adultery, particularly on the woman's part, was harshly punished.

But what of the children from a divorce? And how does that affect the inheritance laws? Could a woman inherit a man's property if they were divorced? What happens if she is a widow? Did a woman in Viking times have any power?

It is something that fascinated me when I started writing Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife. And the short answer is yes, a woman could inherit property from her divorced husband through their mutual child--if the child was acknowledged by the father.

Women brought a dowry and received a morning gift at the start of a formal marriage. If they divorced, they were allowed to take the dowry and the morning gift with them, but any child from the marriage belonged to the father. However, if the man died, and his child inherited and then died, the mother of that child stood to inherit.

Even if they were still married, spouses did not inherit directly from each other but had a claim on the estate. So the woman would have to inherit through her child, but her second husband would not necessarily have full claim on the estate. Sometimes through marrying successive times, women actually became very wealthy indeed. The largest find of Viking goods hails from the Osburg ship grave, the grave of a early Viking queen.

The Hillersjo Stone from Sweden tells of one complicated inheritance or how Geirlaug inherited quite a bit of wealth and was able to put a stone presumably to explain everything and why she had the farm--
Geirmund married Geirlaug when she was girl. Then they had a son before he drowned and the son died later. The she married Gudrik. Then they had children, but only one girl survived. She was called Inga. She was married to Ragnfast of Snottsta, who also died, and then the son later. The mother inherited from her son. Then she [Inga] was married to Eirik. She died there, and there Geirlaug inherited from her daughter Inga.
I found it fascinating that things could get so complicated, so quickly. It helped the Vikings seem far more real to me. Oh, and I really recommend the Laxdoela saga, a wonderful tale of revenge and powerful women.