Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Make Me a Match: Motifs of Betrothal in the Sagas of the Icelanders

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Make Me a Match: Motifs of Betrothal in the Sagas of the Icelanders

Article excerpt

In the sagas of the Icelanders, contracting for a good match (spouse) means not only finding an attractive partner, but also one of equal status. Therefore, descriptions of women and men abound; the characters, as well as the audience, must learn all about the family, the status, the wealth, the skills, and the qualities that make a woman or man a good match. This information, in the form of motifs, provides a certain structure for the saga narratives; for example, the motifs build the marriage scenes in the sagas, and develop into literary building blocks.

These building blocks in the sagas of the Icelanders invest women and the issues that involve them with a narrative potential that the legal narratives deny them. Writing about the convergences of law, literature, and feminism, Carolyn Heilbrun noted that men contrive law to establish and to codify behavior between men, who are assumed to have a certain equality of the possibility of action, and between men and "women, who are imagined by men to have only a limited range of action" (1921). Since men only grant women a limited range of action, it is not surprising that legal narratives, especially medieval ones, focus more on public issues and on men, relegating women to the private sphere and discussing them primarily in relation to men.

Gragas (1117-18), Jarnsida (1271), and Jonsbok (1281) are the three legal narratives of medieval Iceland. Each of these presents formulas and procedures for, among other things, arranging betrothals and marriages. According to these legal texts, marriages are formal and ritual, and certain elements must be observed in order for a marriage to be legally valid: the witnesses to the betrothal and wedding, the dowry, and the payment of the bride-price are all required in Icelandic law.(1) Socially, such rituals involve both men and women; legally, however, only men are relevant. These legal texts have codified the rituals that govern human sexuality, and only men may negotiate a betrothal.(2)

The sagas of the Icelanders, on the other hand, show these legal rituals in a fictional setting.(3) As a result, women are integrated more into the legal rituals that involve them. For instance, if we turn to descriptions that introduce the female saga characters, we can understand their roles and their importance for the saga narrative. These descriptions reveal that some women goad men to vengeance; and yet others play more passive roles as objects of desire, inevitably leading men into conflict over them and ultimately furthering feuds.

One such role is as an appropriate marriage choice; "appropriate" means that "[t]he partners had to be of equal social standing and comparable wealth for the match to be negotiated successfully" (Jochens, "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?" 37). Even though both the bride and the groom had to be equal in status for the marriage, the actual betrothal negotiation excluded the bride completely. Either the groom or one of his relatives approached the bride's father; usually, although not always, this relative had suggested the match. In ten of the nineteen examples studied, a relative of the suitor suggested the match; in seven of them, this relative actually made the proposal on behalf of his kinsman. If the bride's father approved of the suitor's qualifications as an appropriate match, then he accepted the proposal, and the wedding was arranged.

Once arranged, the marriage allows the newly joined families to end feuds, to increase political ties, to create new generations, to create affinities, and to join land and property. Marriage enables families to extend their support group, a necessary undertaking in societies that rely on blood feud as a means of vengeance.[4] Marriage also results in new family members, children, who may have to take up a feud upon their father's death. For all of these reasons, marriage is crucial for all members of society; rarely do the laws describe or discuss unmarried men or women. …

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