Women, Church and Cohabitation in medieval Norway

Markéta Ivánková introduces the changing interrelationship between female roles, cohabitation and Church’s expectations to these roles based on fiction and official documents from medieval Norway.

Samboerskap, or cohabitation, is often thought of as a peculiarly modern phenomenon, associated with female emancipation and the sexual revolution, but in Norway its roots are to be found in the medieval age. Cohabitation naturally broke the rules set by Christianity, as well as those of the pagan social order. However, the Church as an institution craved obedience in most aspects of family life, and exacted it more vigorously. Similarly, pagan society did not approve of extramarital relationships – as common as they were – but in pagan society, it was considered to be a matter of family honour, not a transgression against divine order.

Thus, it is only fitting to analyse cohabitation and the changing position of women from an interdisciplinary perspective, to establish closer links between demographic events and historical documents, and compare them with the literary texts that medieval Scandinavian society produced.

Female voice in Old Norse fiction and diplomas

The position of Norse women was, and somehow still is, considered unique. Strong independent female characters are said to be specific to Norse literature and society, with pre-Christian roots. Although laws and documents are the primary source of historical analyses, the literary perspective should not be overlooked. Fiction and popular literature had an indirect yet strong influence on creating identity and roles to follow. We should, therefore, ask what the literary landscape of Norway looked like. We can assume that there existed some legacy of realistic Old Norse family sagas, and that the Old Norse pagan mythology did not disappear entirely, rather was transformed into folklore. An overview of the strong appearance of women in Old Norse literature is given i.e. by Helga Kress.

In reality – during the Viking age as well as during the later Middle Ages – it was most common for men to represent female members of the family for legal purposes. This is attested both in medieval laws and diplomas (official correspondence and decrees). According to these, men acted on behalf of the wife as well as unmarried daughters, while the dowry was hers and only hers to handle. Some more public liberty was given to widows. However, the female position was weakened by the progress of Christianization, parallel to the process Kress observes in Old Norse literature. Therefore, we should not dismiss literary texts as pure fiction with minimal relation to reality. We must admit that this relation is two-sided. The texts reflect attitudes shared by the author and his audience and, at the same time, literature could be used as a tool to alter the opinion of the target audience. The latter is mostly the case with Biblical and chivalric literature.

Besides their own literary tradition, the most influential models of gender roles for medieval Norwegians were probably taken from the Biblical context. Additionally, after the first half of 13th century, another set of behavioural models came with the translations of continental chivalric literature. Yet it is doubtful that the courtly ladies from these new texts had any everyday influence on the life of the majority population, apart from being part of entertaining exotic adventures. The only exception was probably the aristocracy, because knightly epic was meant to represent their modish code of conduct, their etiquette.

Norwegian illuminated manuscript GKS 1154 2º

Norwegian illuminated manuscript GKS 1154 2º

Cohabitatio in diplomas

Some of the most reliable, though strongly selective, sources concerning the everyday reality of medieval Norway are its diplomas. The collection Diplomatarium Norvegicum (DN) gives some remarkable insights into cohabitation during the period of 1280 – 1320 – for which there are enough letters to draw information from.

From this material, it is clear that cohabitation was extremely common in pre-Reformation Scandinavia, just as Jenny Jochens comments: “Among the lower classes, men and women undoubtedly cohabited informally, disregarding both pagan and Christian ceremonies. Although churchmen laboured hard to induce the upper classes to accept the new rules, as late as the 13th century a Danish man was still reminded in law that if he lived with a woman openly for three years she was considered his wife”.

Cohabitation was a phenomenon also practiced by the clergy. There are attested diplomas ordering priests to stop living with their wives and lovers, and in some cases even to renounce their “mulier publica”, their prostitute. These cohabitations and sexual relationships were naturally not without consequences. There are papal dispensations for 241 Norwegian priests that were born to unmarried couples, 71 of them being sons of priests. Had it not been for these dispensations, they would not have been legally allowed to hold their offices. These numbers describe the situation only during 1280-1320. Given that it is estimated that there were around 1100 priests in the whole Norwegian population at that time, the percentage of priests with dispensations from “defectu natalium” is not insignificant. Moreover, the epithets prestsson and prestdatter (“son/daughter of priest”), attested in diplomatic material as well as in historiographical sagas of kings, only support the fact that priests were regularly breaking celibacy. Such excesses were also not unheard of in the rest of Europe, but the frequency gives an idea of a mismatch between the Norwegian private life and legislative expectations of the Church.

Bishop Arne’s inquiries

When we analyse all diplomas available for the period, we cannot fail to notice one name – bishop Arne of Bergen. He judged the “validity of marriage” (DN III 82, III 83, X 7, and X 8) – for example in DN III 83, where a certain Åsa was ordered to come back to live with her lawful husband, stressing that “her cohabitation with Þorkell was never legitimate matrimony”.

More importantly, Arne also sent questioning letters concerning private life and its excesses against the Church’s orders. Eight such letters are attested, all written in 1305 or 1306. Thus, we can read about an investigation that Arne ordered in Askevold and Holmedal into whether a man called Þorir truly had had sex with two close relatives of his (meaning Þorir’s) fiancé (IV 62 and VII 30). Another letter describes actions to be taken against Erlingr because of his shameful relationship with Brynhildr, wife of Azsurr (VIII 16). In letter VIII 17, Arne orders to hear testimonies concerning whether an unacceptable relationship existed between Eiríkr and his mother’s sister, or if it was only slander.

Clearly, these letters are in accordance with the policy necessary for the centralization of the power of the Church. Otherwise, Arne would not have had motivation and means to investigate and give penance for excesses far away – Askevold and Holmedal are about 120 kilometres from Bergen. Cohabitation was a local and private issue in pagan times, family honour was at stake and the head of the family was supposed to seek vengeance/retribution himself. At Arne’s time, however, the Church claimed cohabitation to be a form of adultery, a sin. The priests were meant to fight it – the ideology gave them right, and the centralized administration provided logistics.

Complex contexts

It was not only women whose lives were soon to be under the watchful eye of the slowly-but-steadily developing infrastructure of the Church. Their life was not influenced only by Biblical reading at masses, preaching on general principles etc. There were other, more subtle and everyday details, including the obligatory veil for married women, and even the banning of sex while breastfeeding.  Arne’s letters are a clear sign of the Church getting more power to enter the most private sphere (as Jón Viðar Sigurðsson observes).

The diplomas suggest that this process gave the clergy the necessary means and authority, and that this was happening over significant distances. Before Arne, there is barely any evidence about such questioning letters in Norway. Clearly, at least this bishop felt he had enough power to demand obedience to the Church’s rules and the authority to go about “setting things right”. And the sacrament of holy matrimony was one of the key concepts to secure, cohabitation had to be persecuted. Additionally, the developments of Scandinavian Middle Ages are to be seen in a broader perspective. The models of behaviour were becoming increasingly complex during this period, and it was hard to find the desirable code of conduct in a transitional age mixing traditional post-pagan, chastely-Christian and Christian-chivalric influence all at once.

Markéta Ivánková is a PhD student of philology at the Department of Germanic Studies, the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University in Prague.  Her specialisation is the reception of courtly epic in Scandinavia, mainly the changes in the female characters and their assessment. marketa.ivankova@email.cz.

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