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Love and Marriage in Old Norse Literature

By Beth Rogers

Many proverbs throughout history illuminate an idea which forms a particular facet of Norse-Icelandic culture: Actions speak louder than words. Do not be wise in words, be wise in deeds. In the case of relationships, as Christian author Roy Goodwin has said, “Love is more than a word. Love is an action.”

Old Swedish runic inscriptions are straightforward glimpses into real respect and appreciation between husband and wife. This first is a runestone found on the estate of Hasvimyra, in Flackebo parish, Vastmanland, to the memory of his dead wife. In part, the inscription reads:

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Never will come
to Hasvimyra
a better mistress
to manage the house

On another two stones found in Vallentuna, Uppland, the runes tell us of Ulf in a poem of 14 lines. The last four lines are:

likewise Gyrið
loved her husband
So in an elegy
She aims to have it mentioned

In Germanic literature, and the smaller examples of runic inscriptions above, emotional expressions are rarer than those of say Continental Europe. The deep emotional expressions of the courtly romances so popular in medieval France and England make the measured, careful words here seem cold in comparison.

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Perhaps this is why, then, stanza 81 of Havamal, a 13th-century Old Norse poem presenting general advice for living, proper conduct, and wisdom, cautions that there is a proper time and place for praise:

At evening should the day be praised,
the woman where she is cremated,
the blade when it is tested, the girl when she is married,
the ice when it is crossed, the ale when it is drunk.

By that measure, the ale is far more deserving and likely to get praise than the wife. This section of the poem generally focuses on the negative aspects of disloyal women and bad romance, as evidenced just a few lines later in stanza 84:

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The words of a girl no one should trust,
nor what a woman says;
for on a whirling wheel their hearts are were made,
deceit lodged in their breasts.

When actions speak louder than words…

F. Regina Psaki notes in an article from the book Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology, that Norse-Icelandic culture values action rather than words of affection that are potentially empty this can be seen especially in translations of courtly romances that were created at the court of Hakon Hakonarsson (1217-1263).

In one example, comparing the French Perceval ou le conte du Graal (Perceval, or the Story of The Grail) and its Norse translation Parceval, the hero is informed that his actions have caused the death of his mother. In the French original, the character is told that his mother, “has died of grief.” In the Norse translation, this has been changed to the more active, “you killed your mother with grief when you ran away from her against her will.” The actions of Perceval are the explicit cause of his mother’s death; conversely, perhaps if he had acted differently, she would have not died. And thus, we have the idea that our actions allow us to control the world around us, making them very important. Similar changes to emotional expression throughout the Norse translation of this story, and other imported romances like it seem to say, action is much more important than words.

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Unseen emotions

There is also a tacit understanding in Norse material that one’s inner emotions are just that: inside, not to be seen by others. In the 2012 article “Ógæfa as an Emotion in Thirteenth-century Iceland,” K.T. Kanerva notes that “in saga culture, the face and body were directly connected to the person’s inner state. It was typical for the saga authors to describe only what could be seen, whereas emotions and other inner, mental states could not be easily described, if at all.”

Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttur, the protagonist of Laxdæla saga, has much experience with being the wife: throughout the course of the narrative, she has a total of four husbands, though she notably does not marry the one whom she had a great love for and was once betrothed to Kjartan. Armann Jakobsson’s 2008 article, “Laxdæla Dreaming: A Saga Heroine Invents Her Own Life,” notes the character’s “unseeable inner space” when he states, “For the most part Guðrún’s inner life is not shown in Laxdæla saga. She, like everyone else, reveals herself through her reactions, and, as she is a polite and sophisticated woman, these tell us little.”

Speaking to her son, Bolli, after a lifetime of manipulation and feud incitement as a result of Kjartan marrying another woman or feeling in some other way that she was not being given her proper due, Guðrún describes her husbands only in terms of their better qualities: her first husband was beneath mention, but her second husband was wise and skilled in law. Her third husband was valiant, and her fourth, and final partner, was a powerful man and great chieftain. When Bolli presses her about which of these men she loved, she says enigmatically, “Though I treated him worst, I loved him best.”

In Chatper 12 of Viglundar Saga, Víglundar and Ketilríðar have a secret romance:

“But then they were hotter with secret love, and they loved their love at first as they were growing up so that the roots of love and the growth of that love was never cut off from their hearts as nature is lost. … they loved all their lives so hot while they both lived that neither could be separated from the first time they saw each other and from that they did what their minds desired.”

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Though this pair eventually does marry, it seems that passion and deep love is generally reserved for illicit love rather than marriage. Víglunder and Ketilríðar’s love is strong and true, whereas Guðrún’s love is kept private after the feud is finished and years have passed.

Returning to the advice of Havamal, stanza 97 uses similar wordplay (radiant vs. hot) to describe Óðinn having spotted the beautiful daughter (or wife) of Billings, and desired her. Perhaps these emotions are therefore the purview of the lover, and not the wife, whose feelings are private in a matter of respect.

Billing’s girl I found on the bed,
sleeping, sun-radiant;
no nobleman’s pleasure could I imagine
except to live beside that body.

Fidelity

Jenny Jochen’s 1995 Women in Old Norse Society points out that in general, in the Sagas of Icelanders, the largest and most popular genre of Icelandic saga containing some two dozen stories, there are only a handful of mistresses and Illegitimate children, something which was normal and commonly in pre-Christian society in which these stories are supposedly is set. In Egils saga, the hero takes numerous trips abroad to Norway and England would you take him away from his wife Asgerdr, for long periods, even years. Yet he is explicitly said not to sire illegitimate children or take other lovers.

Other types of fidelity seem to be more typical for wives. In chapter 129 of Njáls saga, Flosi gives Bergthora, the wife of Njall, the option to leave the house as it is being burned in retaliation for a series of killings. Bergthora declines to leave her husband, saying, “I was young when I was given to Njall, and I promised him that one fate should await us both.” This scene is often considered by scholars to be one the greatest protestations of wifely devotion in the entire saga corpus.

These few scenes where a husband or wife remain devoted to each other appear to be rare. Instead, it seems that love in a romantic or emotional sort is not often expressed between a husband or wife in medieval Norse-Icelandic writings. Rather, it is understood through the execution of their duty, such as through being a dutiful wife, managing the house well or supporting your husband to any difficulties maintaining his social status or honor.

Beth Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Iceland, where she works on the cultural significance of dairy products in the Middle Ages. You can follow her on Twitter @BLRFoodHistory

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Runestone in Anundshög, Sweden. Photo by Christer Johansson / Wikimedia Commons

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