A look at a woman's life back in the days of the Vikings. (800-900 AD)
Given the reputation the Vikings had for raiding and pillaging the lands of other people in their travels, we seldom stop to think what life was like for their families. Did they also treat their women and children with disdain, ordering them about to their liking? Let's take a closer look.
Did Women Have a Voice?
It's true, the Vikings were a rugged, boisterous group of men– but when at home, with their families, they exchanged their roughness for a more domestic demeanor. We might be quite surprised to learn that women were considered to be the equal of men! At home, these same men who cared nothing about the rights of people they fought against, were quite organized and law abiding.
The Vikings adhered strictly to the Law, and meetings called "Althings" were held regularly. At these meetings, the Law was read aloud, and a council of men ruled on cases where it had been broken. At these meetings, women, too, had the opportunity to speak their mind.
Unlike today, where many families are scattered from one end of the country to the other, – parents, children and grandparents, likely out of necessity, all lived in one homestead. The women, of course, were responsible for running the large household.
It's a good thing extended family was in the picture, because in the days of the Vikings, brides were much younger – getting married at a mere 12 -16 years of age! It's doubtful they could have kept their home running smoothly, as was their duty, without help from the older women in the family.
Marriages in the day of the Vikings resulted not from love, but from an agreement between the two families that it should occur. The bride, herself, had little to say about it. As would be expected, not all of these marriages lasted a lifetime, yet many did. A good many husbands trusted their wives, giving them authority and responsibility over their home and property. As a sign of her husband's trust, the woman of the house wore the keys to all the buildings tied around her waist.
How did the Women Dress?
One word - simply! There was no need for large closets in which to hang an assortment of clothing. The standard garb for the day was a simple long linen dress, over which was worn a woolen tunic (similar to an apron). If this was not warm enough for her, a shawl about her arms would help repel the chill. To keep her legs and feet warm, the Viking woman would don thick woolen socks and leather shoes.
Duties of the Vikings' Women
Quite frankly, today's women would have a difficult time fulfilling the necessary tasks if they were suddenly thrust back into the times of the Vikings. Living where the weather was often harsh, especially in the long winter months, the lady of the house had the following significant duty. She was expected to put up enough food during the summer months to last through an entire winter.
This meant making large amounts of butter and cheese, drying and smoking meat and fish, and learning how to make medicines using common herbs, to be used, if needed, in the case of sickness or injury. For the young bride, it was a godsend to have the mothers readily available for help and guidance.
Along with all the cooking, another major part of the woman's life was sewing and weaving. Many hours a day were spent on these tasks. Not surprisingly, these women became very talented at weaving linen, spinning wool and making beautiful tapestries. They used food dyes to make them colorful, adding warmth and beauty to their homes.
As children were born into the family and grew beyond the age of toddlers, the daughters were quickly taught to help with the care of the home as well. Yet even with all the help afforded her, it is readily obvious that the life of these women was not one of leisure.
Actually, women had more rights than any other women in Europe at the time. Virtually everything a woman brought into marriage was hers alone, and did not become the property of her husband's estate. This would include her entire dowry (gifts of money or valuables that were given by the bride's family to groom's family). If a divorce should occur years down the road, the dowry and her pre-marital assets would belong to her and her alone!
What might have been in the dowry? This would likely include linens and wool, a loom and spinning wheel, and...a bed. Thus, she could work hard all the day long, and be assured of a place to put her head at the end of the day.
It should be noted that what was included in the dowry varied considerably, depending on the wealth of the bride's family.
Ending a Marriage
There were three conditions under which a woman would be allowed to divorce her husband. One, in cases where he mistreated either her or the children; two, if he was lazy and failed to provide for his family; or three, if he insulted her family.
To obtain the divorce itself was a very simple matter. All she needed to do was call several witnesses to come to her home. Then, in front of them, she would declare herself divorced from her husband, twice – first at the front door of their home, and secondly at the bed she and her husband had shared.
Viking families were a tough lot, indeed. Survival depended upon it! These were the days before electricity, (no televisions, radios, video games, or computers). By our standards today, it is hard to imagine living the life of a Viking or his family. But all the most important elements that are a part of life today -- home, family and security -- form the common thread between society today and that of yesteryear.