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The Vikings: Who They Were and How They Lived

written by: Bruno Kos • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 1/31/2013

During the last few centuries, several myths and misconceptions about the Viking culture and history appeared and still exist today. If unsure about some of these myths or if you simply have an interest in Viking culture, check this article to learn some facts on Vikings and how they lived.

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    A Few Words About Vikings

    Vikings were Scandinavian explorers, merchants, warriors and pirates who explored considerable areas of Europe, the Atlantic coastlines and the Mediterranean. They passed through the Straits of Gibraltar…in other words, they reached many parts of the contemporary world, either unknown or known.

    The period of their existence is usually referred to as the Viking Age, which spanned from the late eighth to the mid-eleventh century. Many scholars consider that the Viking Age started in 793 after the Vikings destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne. Further, many historical events are associated with Vikings, but these events aren't the main topic of this article. Here, the Viking's way of life will be examined more closely.

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    Kinship System and Inheritance

    The rune stones left from the Viking age show that the Vikings had a bilateral kinship system. Inscriptions on memorials erected by men (to their relatives) included the names of the wife or mother of a dead man. Sometimes a husband's name was included (when commemorating the husband's wife), etc.

    Women had a right to inherit, although the sons had a stronger claim on inheritance than their sisters. On the other hand, daughters had priority over their grandfathers and uncles. Women also inherited the land from any children who died without successors.

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    The predominant Viking domestic group comprised of a man and wife and their children. Extended families were not as common as nuclear families. This is mainly due to average life expectance, which was 40 years at most. On the other hand, it was not unusual to see a few nuclear families living within the same dwelling. The group of people living under the same dwelling was referred as a household. Due to a lack of sources, it is hard to estimate the number of people living under a typical Viking household, but some historians estimate that the number could have been between 10 and 13.

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    Marriage and Adultery

    When talking about marriage, love and emotions did not have any particular role within the Viking culture. Instead, marriage was nothing but a commercial contract between two people with a similar social status. The arrangement of the marriage had two steps: the betrothal and the wedding. The arrangement was initiated by either a man or his father. On the other hand, women's fathers could not initiate the arrangement, but had to wait for a suitor to appear instead.

    If a wife was caught in adultery, it was considered that she committed a serious crime and, as such, her husband had the “right" to kill her and her lover. Although Vikings considered a husband's adultery as a crime as well, it seems likely that this law usually did not apply to him.

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    Sexuality and Divorce

    Homosexual relations were recognized as a social phenomena. Since the Viking males were recognized for their masculinity, homosexuality was equated with cowardice.

    Historical sources suggest that divorce was very common and that it was very easy to obtain one. It is assumed that during the pre-Christian times, only a formal declaration in front of witnesses was required. On the other hand, during the Christian era, one could obtain a divorce only if granted by the Bishop. Once the divorce occurred, a woman would return to her family with all her personal belongings.

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    Kirsten Wolf : Daily life of the Vikings, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004

    James Graham-Campbell: The Viking world, Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2001

    Gwyn Jones: A history of the Vikings, Oxford University Press, 2001