Viking women could divorce their husbands
Viking women may have had to put up with their spouse’s affairs. However, they didn’t have to put up with their husbands ‘until death‘. Although a Norse wife could not divorce her husband for being unfaithful, there were other circumstances where it was perfectly acceptable. If her husband hit her, a woman could fine him. If he abused her in front of witnesses, not only did the fine apply, but his wife could divorce him after the third blow.
There were also various sexual reasons why a wife could divorce a husband. Men who dressed in feminine clothing such as low cut shirts, for instance, could be cast off, as could those who were homosexual- even if they were the dominant partner. A wife could object to the lack of discretion in homosexual liaisons – or the attention they distracted from her relationship with her spouse. In each case, the now ex-wife could claim back her original dowry and any inheritances she received during the marriage.
Another, perhaps surprising reason for divorce was if a man did not satisfy his wife sexually. A man who had refused to have sex with his wife for three years could be set aside. Likewise, if he could not perform or was leaving his wife sexually unfulfilled, he was at risk of being divorced. For if a couple wasn’t having sex, they weren’t producing children. Also, an unhappy marriage bred bitterness and resentment that could boil over into violence and family feuds. So it was better for a sexually unsatisfied woman to look elsewhere for a partner.
Judging by the sagas, it was the women who generally instigated divorce. All that was required was for them to assemble witnesses, cite their reasons and declare themselves divorced. This had to occur three times: in their bedroom, in front of the house and before a public assembly. It was Norse women’s one significant freedom. For if they were to remain tied to one man, run his home and land and put up with his lovers, the least they could expect was satisfying sex life.