Dating in the Viking Age

Today I was contacted, asked to answer some questions about dating in the Viking Age. It was an interesting opportunity to think that through. Although I've read books on the topic of love in the Viking Age, and taught a class on marriage, the specific liminal zone of dating is a bit different. The reporter was already keyed into the historic narrative that people used to date more for practical reasons, like the arranged marriage model, whereas the modern model is based more on dating for emotional reasons. I hope I complicated it a little bit by bringing up the idea of love at first site not as an emotional response, but as something fated, as something meant to be.

There are so many sagas that deal with love matches, famously of course Laxdæla saga and all the skald sagas, all of which have thunderbolt love, like Kormak becoming obsessed after seeing Steingerdur's feet, that ends in terrible tragedy, like Gudrun having Kjartan killed.

But I found myself talking a lot about Njal's saga, in the way the saga contrasts Gunnar and Hallgerda with Njál and Bergthora. We know Gunnar and Hallgerdur are a love match, based primarily on how physically attractive both of them are and how instantly they fall into mutual admiration. But Njáll and Bergthora seem to be a much more solid match, and although the saga doesn't say so, it seems to be an arranged, practical match, rather than a love match. I interpret it that way because the saga contrasts these two couples. Each couple is together inside their respective homes when they get attacked by their respective enemies, but the way the two couples react is so very different. Hallgerda uses it as a chance to deny Gunnar a strand of her hair, thereby sentencing him to death, whereas Bergthora lays down next to her husband, sentencing herself to death. So it isn't necessarily so that more level headed couples cannot be very truly and deeply committed to one another. In fact, it seems to be exactly the case that there is an inverse relationship between how kind and committed they are to one another, and how hotly they were attracted to one another initially. Njáll and Gunnar are of course also very different men, more so than Bergthora and Hallgerdur are different woman. Njall is so level-headed and wise, and he seems to take the edge off of Bergthora's temper through time. The sagas always complicate things for the reader like that.

After I finished the interview, I started thinking about Gudriður in the Vinland sagas. She turns down a practical match at the beginning of the saga, because it is below her status, and then proceeds to have two very worthy mates, Thorsteinn Eriksson followed by Thorfinnur Karlsefni. Karlsefni's mother initially dislikes Gudriður, because she finds her below him in status (she's the granddaughter of a slave, which is an ironic mirror on the beginning of the saga). But otherwise, it is rather hard to say if theirs is an arranged match or a love match: it just seems to be a good match. I'd never thought of the saga as a love story before, although I have argued that it is based on Gudridur and structured around her marriages. But to think of it also being the story of how these two people from different status and different districts of Iceland found each other in the far reaches of Greenland, only to have a child together in Vinland, is kind of cute.

No one every talks about Guðriður and Karlsefni as a couple though, not like Gunnar and Hallgerdur or even Njall and Bergthora. They are just two attractive, admirable people who each had interesting lives together and apart. We never get that touch of intimacy, a memorable scene of the two of them together. In fact, the most we see of Guðriður as a wife is when she has a conversation with her dead husband, Thorsteinn.

So, well, I am completely confused and I really have no idea what the sagas have to suggest in terms of Viking Age dating practices. A thirteenth century Icelandic woman, hearing all these sagas, would have had quite the choice on her hand, to be like Hallgerður, to be like Guðriður, or to be like Bergthora. I wonder which I would have chosen, had I been alive then. 

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