Saturday, January 20, 2018

Shadows in a Timeless Myth Presents Divorce Among The Vikings

A divorce was declared in the following manner. The wife had to declare the separation, and the reason of it, three times in three places in the presence of witnesses—first, in front of them on a bed; secondly, in front of the men’s door; and, thirdly, at the Thing; but separation did not prevent either party from marrying again afterwards.

Mörd gave advice to his daughter Unn how she should separate herself from her husband, Rut, when he was not at home.

“When thou art quite ready thou shalt go to thy bed, and with thee the men who are thy followers; thou shalt name witnesses at the bedside of thy husband, and declare that thou art separated from him by a lawful divorce, as fairly as is possible after the rules of the Althing and the laws of all the people. The same naming of witnesses thou shalt also have at the men’s door, and then thou shalt ride away” (Njala, c. 7).

The causes for divorce were numerous. A cause of divorce was that of wearing clothes belonging to the opposite sex, as when a man wore a shirt so open that you could see his breast; or when women wore breeches; and we find that sometimes these clothes were cunningly made on purpose to bring about a separation.

One day Thórd Ingunnarson asked Gudrún what a woman was liable to if she always wore breeches like men. She answered:

“‘They are to be punished for that just as a man is punished who has such a large opening in his clothes that his bare chest is displayed. Both are reasons for divorce....’ Thórd at once rushed to the law court and named witnesses, he declared himself divorced from Aud, because she wore closed breeches like men” (Laxdæla, c. 35).

“Gudrun, Usvifr’s daughter, was forced by her father to marry Thorvald Halldórsson, of Garpsdal. She always asked him to buy her the most costly things. Once, when she asked him for something, he said that she knew no moderation, and gave her a cheek-horse (box on the ear). She answered: ‘Now thou hast given me what we women think of great importance, and that is a good complexion, and thou hast cured me of importunate requests.’ The same evening Thórd (Ingunnarson, a good friend of hers) came in. Gudrun told him of this disgrace, and asked how she should take revenge for it. Thórd smiled, and replied: ‘I know a good way; make a shirt for him with an opening of divorce, and declare thyself separated from him for this reason.’ Gudrun said nothing against this, and they left off speaking, but that same spring Gudrun declared herself separated from Thorvald, and went home to her father at Laugar” (Laxdæla, ch. 34).

Divorce was easy to get, especially for the man, on the ground of the wife’s infidelity; while the wife could get it on the ground of repeated ill-treatment from her husband.

“If a man does not sleep in the same bed with his wife for six seasons on account of dislike, then her kinsmen can claim her property and also her rétt, but she shall herself keep her property” 

A man could separate from his wife without a lawful reason, but the separation was looked upon as a disgrace by her kinsmen, and revenge was sure to follow.

“If a man wants to separate from his wife, he shall declare himself separated so that each of them may hear the other’s voice, and have witnesses present” (Gulathing’s Law, 54).

 If a husband tried to take his wife out of the country against her will she could separate herself from him.

“If a man wants to take his wife against her will out of this land she shall declare herself separated if she likes, wherever they happen to be, if she can do it with reason; then he is liable to lose her and her property as if they had owned no property together, and he has no more right to that woman after they have separated than to any other woman with whom he has not lived” (Gragas, i. 331).

A wife could not separate without reason, and even if she left her husband with good reason on her side, he could keep her dower, and could force her to come back.

In case of a separation, the wife’s parents or kinsmen could claim the mund and the heimanfylgja.
A bondi, Thorkel, having heard that his wife Asgerd loved another man, was, on his remonstrating, told by his wife to choose one of two alternatives.

“Thou mayst choose one of two conditions. To stay with me as if nothing had happened; otherwise I will at once name witnesses, and declare myself separated from thee, and let my father claim my mund and heimanfylgja” (Gisli Sursson’s Saga, p. 16).

If a separation took place where neither party could be said to have been guilty of criminality, then the wife took the same amount of property as she would have at the death of her husband, or as she would take in case she left him on account of any unfaithfulness on his part. If she left him without any valid cause, or he separated from her on account of her repeated infidelity, then the husband had the right to retain all her property as long as she lived, and her heir had no claim to anything of the tilgjöf

But if she was unfaithful only once, she forfeited her tilgjöf, and kept the rest of her property. If the man drove her away against her will for that single offence, she came into all her rights.

“If a wife commits adultery, or separates from her husband without reason, she has forfeited her mund and her increase of a third (thridjungsauki). If her husband offers to take her back and she will not accept it he shall keep all her property while she is alive and then her next heir shall get her heimanfylgja but no increase of a third. If they are reconciled and he takes her back, their property shall remain as if there had been no breach between them. If she repeats the crime he shall keep her property while he is alive, and if he will not take her back, then it shall be as has already been said. If she does not and promises redress, and offers to live with her husband and he will not take her, then she shall get her heimanfylgja but not the increase of a third. If the husband wants to rob her of her heimanfylgja and says she has committed this crime before, and people have not before heard him accuse her of it, she shall take the einseidi (oath of one) and get her heimanfylgja, but not her increase of a third if he will not take her back. If a hindrance separates them according to God’s laws each of them shall have their respective property” (Frostathing’s Law, xi. 14).

It was a common provision in all the laws that a man was not allowed to beat his wife, under a penalty of paying the same indemnity as he had a right to receive if he himself were beaten. If he had beaten her three times and did it a fourth, then she could leave him, taking with her her heimanfylgja and tilgjöf.

“If a man beats his wife with keys or latches, then he is liable to pay three marks. Also if he takes another woman and puts her in the house; she is called hearth-rival. Thirdly, if a man beats his wife with a horn or with the fist on an ale-bench, then he is to pay three marks. If she three times gets rétt for these reasons, the fourth time she may separate from him, or not, as she likes” (Borgarthing Laws, ii. 8).

“When Börk had left his farm Helgafell Thordis went forward and named witnesses that she declared herself separated from her husband Börk, and pleaded as a reason that he had struck her, and she would not put up with his blows. Their property was divided, and Snorri (a son of her former marriage) took charge of it on behalf of his mother, for he was her heir” (Eyrbyggja, c. 14).
Restrictions were put upon the extravagance of women.

“The wife of a hauld (odal’s bondi) is allowed to buy to the extent of one eyrir, and not more. If she buys for more thebargain shall not be kept, except her husband wishes it so” (Earlier Frostathings Law, xi. 22).

“If a wife gives away her husband’s property he can claim it all, and prosecute the man who received it. If a man sends his wife to the Thing to pay debts or other expenses of theirs, her hand-shaking is valid, and also when she goes to a ship to make bargains with his consent, but no other transactions are valid unless he wishes them to be so. When she buys what is necessary for their household while he is at the Thing, that is also valid. The woman shall not sell half her land, a farm or more, or a godord (dignity of godi), or a seagoing ship, except with the will of her guardian” (Gragas, i. 333).

Compiled from sources in the public domain

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