Women in “Scandinavia in the Viking Age”


Widows had even greater responsibilities and remained in charge of their households as long as their children were under age. This is well illustrated by the many rune-stones that were sponsored by widows. These show that it was quite common for women to survive not only their husbands but also their children, so that they were left as independent property owners. This evidence is consistent with indications that after about AD 1000 the number of women who lived longer than men tended to increase, partly thanks to the increased cultivation of beans and other leguminous crops that were rich in iron. As the rate of infant mortality was high they also often survived their children. This, together with the fact that Church condemned infanticide—which affected girls more than boys—led to demographic changes, with a higher proportion of women in the population than earlier (Sawyer and Sawyer 1993, 40-42). On the other hand, many women often died when they were young, but this cannot be blamed on complications in pregnancy and childbirth, because high mortality connected with childbearing has been shown to be a modern phenomenon, largely due to infections and complications that were rare or unknown in Europe before the nineteenth century (Sellevold 1989, n.6). Instead, it seems more likely that girls were not as well cared for as boys in childhood and were ill prepared for the strain of childbirth. Those who survived their fertile period, however, now had better chances of outliving their male contemporaries (Sawyer and Sawyer 1993, 42).

Marriage And Other Forms Of Cohabitation

Sagas and runic inscriptions show that families were formed by monogamous marriages. A man may have had relationships, and children, with several women, but when he died, only one wife was acknowledged. We do not know how couples were married but there is no doubt that then, as later, marriage was based on a contract between families. Reciprocally binding agreements were needed, especially between wealthy families, for reverse inheritance could result in the transfer of large estates from one family to another.

Contracted marriages, however, were not the only form of cohabitation. Concubinage, or informal relationships without legal consequences, were very common later, and although the inscriptions do not provide evidence for this custom, many rulers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries had concubines and there is no doubt that it was a common practice, especially among wealthy landowners. Concubinage should not be confused with brief relationships; a concubine was a permanent, or at least long-term, partner of a man, and their children could inherit from him if he acknowledged them. In the higher levels of society a man could hope to ensure that he would have one or more sons to survive him by having a concubine as well as a legal wife; in lower levels such informal relationships may have been the normal form of partnership between men and women. There is nothing to suggest that these relationships were considered improper at any social level before the Church condemned them and only approved relationships that met its requirements for a Christian marriage.

The Family

A woman did not sever the links with her own family when she married. In the new family that she and her husband created, they both, together with their children, had property rights or expectations. There is no proof that wives owned a share of the household property at that time as they did later, but it does seem likely that they did. The fact that many rune-stones were sponsored by widows, either on their own or together with other members of the family, suggests that, as wives, they had a leading role in their families, most probably as co-owners. With some regional exceptions it seems to have been the widow's task to sponsor her husband's memorial if his sons, brothers or father did not survive him, or if his sons were too young. In such a situation the widow apparently took over the leadership of the household, the guardianship of minors and control of the property, suggesting that she had well-defined rights as co-owner when her husband was alive. The many memorials sponsored jointly by a widow and sons confirm the nuclear character of families and possibly imply that in those families the inheritance had not yet been divided among the heirs.

The Size Of Families

Runic inscriptions also provide some information about the size and composition of families in eastern Sweden where men and women jointly acted as sponsors. Inscriptions with more than three or four children are rare, but as a high rate of infant mortality can be assumed, many more children must have been born. Daughters are significantly fewer than sons. In Uppland inscriptions with both, the ratio of sons to daughters is 3:2. This cannot be explained by the exclusion of married daughters, for they are sometimes named. It was probably the result of a deliberate attempt to control the size of the population by limiting the number of girls who were allowed to survive.[…]


Sawyer. B. and Sawyer, P. 1993. Medieval Scandinavia: from Conversion to Reformation circa 800-1500, Minneapolis and London.

Sellevold. B.J. 1989. ‘Fødsel og død: kvinners dødelighet i forbindelse med svangerskap og fødsel i forhistorisk tid og mxkkiaitier. belyst ut fra studier av skjelettmaterialer', in Gunneng et al. 1989, 79-86.

Source: Birgit Sawyer, "[Women in] Scandinavia in the Viking Age" in Vínland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, Edited by Shannon Lewis-Simpson (St. John’s, NL: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc., 2000), 56-58.

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