Norse Women – Courtship

This is part two of my series on the women of 9th Century Norway. For the first part on childhood, click here. For the sake of the series, we’re calling the sample young Norse woman Gerda

YOUNG WOMANHOOD

medieval cheeseAs Gerda grew older, she would come to know that she was expected to marry and have her own family. A woman was considered to be “good wife material” if she could weave and make good clothes, and if she could make good cheese. http://ribevikingecenter.dk/en/learn-more/food-cheese.aspx These, you see, were what would be needed by her future family to live. The husband would give her a house to live in and meat for her table, as well as protection, but the wife had the domestic responsibilities once all was set before her. She was expected to use her resources well.

medieval spinningIt is possible that she might learn some of these skills away from her birth family. Fostering was not uncommon and was indeed considered a compliment to the families involved. Gerda would have perfected her needlework and cooking skills and learned new ways of doing things which might make her more desirable as a wife for the future. 

It is possible that this time of “young womanhood” was very short. Some records show that a girl would be considered an adult as early as her twelfth year. In any event, virtually all women were married by the age of twenty, so Gerda’s childhood would have become a time of marital preparations quite early.

COURTSHIP of the VIKING WOMAN

Gerda would not have been expecting to be swept off her feet as she contemplated her future as a wife. Marriages were, in general, business transactions between the families of the bride and groom. 

Image courtesy of York Archaeological Trust

Image courtesy of York Archaeological Trust

Gerda would not have been courted in and of herself, but she might expect to see interested young men visiting her family more often. The suitor would approach her father, seemingly without reference to Gerda at all, in order to contract a marriage. He would have spoken with her, naturally, to make sure she was agreeable to him. 

And, if her suitor were very bold and daring, he might have flouted the laws and written a poem in her honor. It didn’t always reflect well on all parties, but men were known for having done so; the law must have been ignored on a regular basis.

The mother, if she were still living, would have had input into the marriage contract. It is likely that she represented Gerda’s interests and perhaps interjected the young woman’s opinions in a socially acceptable manner. It in unlikely Gerda would have protested much with the arrangements; she would be getting a husband who had proven his worth to her family and who had singled her out as desirable. And as a married woman, she would accrue additional respect.

Credit to knighterrantjr.blogspot.com

Credit to knighterrantjr.blogspot.com

If the match were considered to be especially advantageous, a family might employ mild coercion to get the prospective bride to agree. She might be granted more money for her bridal morning, or extra gifting from her family.

The marriage, remember, was a financial arrangement and was done largely to mingle family fortunes. It is likely that wealth was displayed and used prominently. Gerda would have gained honor by marrying into a wealthy family, and her own family would increase in status thereby. This was all seen as perfectly proper and questioning tradition did not happen often.

Norse Women – Childhood

First in a series about the life of a woman in Norway, 9th Century

One of the awesome things about studying history is learning how folks viewed themselves back in the day. We here in the 21st Century have a great deal going for us, it’s true, but so did people a long time ago. Women have traditionally wielded power in their lives in ancient societies; consciously or not.

Credit: York Archaeological Trust

Credit: York Archaeological Trust from the Jorvik Viking Centre site.

Before I go any further, I want to remind you, Reader, that my research into Viking culture has been confined to the early to mid 9th Century. It was a time, in Nordweg (Norway), in which there was no royal hierarchy for there were no kings. There were jarls—strong men who could claim the arms of other men in a time of need and whose opinion mattered—but they didn’t preside over any legal structure. This was a time before the Thing or Althing. This was a time when the law was read by the law reader: the lovsigeman. He memorized the codes of his society and was relied on to be accurate and impartial. He, in turn, would mentor a younger man, teaching his protégée (or more than one, if necessary) to memorize the laws.

In short, there was no central government; just a general sense of the way things were done. 

CHILDHOOD

viking girlA girl of this time and place might not have even survived childhood to begin with. 

All children were subject to acceptance by their father. In general, of course, fathers kept their children alive but occasionally, the children were left to die if they were born with obvious birth defects or if there was a severe economic hardship, such as famine. In addition, approximately 17% of children did not even survive their earliest years. Of those who did, about 16%, it is estimated, didn’t reach adulthood. So our Norse girl, we’ll call her Gerda, is doing fairly well to even be alive and well along the fjørds of Nordweg.

norse goatGerda would have been active about the house and family farm, learning how to card wool from the sheep and goats, and later, how to spin and weave to make cloth from which the family would clothe themselves. It was also important for her to learn to cook filling meals that would keep her family fed and warm during the long winters. She would help her mother or grandmother or elder sister with the family garden, too, learning which plants they would eat and when and which would be used for medicinal purposes.

There were times for fun, too! Outdoor games during the brief sunny times were generally martial in nature, but racing was allowed for girls, too. They also learned, along with the boys, how to play a board game called Hnefa-Tafl, or King’s Table. It was rather like chess in some ways, and it involved strategy and cunning to win. For more information on this, you can visit the Viking Answer Lady at http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/games.shtml.

viking dollAnd, as in most every culture on the planet, Gerda would have had a doll. Wood was often at a premium, so her doll might have been made from cloth scraps, stuffed with wool that wouldn’t have been good for weaving, and dyed. She might have learned to sew by making clothes for her doll. http://www.lothene.org/school5.html

Gerda’s clothes would have been much like her mother’s, and her mother’s before her. Woven of wool and flax (linen), there would have been an undergown, an apron that went from shoulders to knees, and very likely a belt to keep her clothes from getting in her active way. Her shoes would be leather, oiled against the weather. In the warmest days, the apron would have been abandoned, of course, as would have the shoes in all likelihood, allowing Gerda to run barefoot in the grass if she were tending the family livestock.

Next: Young womanhood and the betrothal of a Norse woman.