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Since the vikings have a reputation for their "rape and pillage" tactics, I thought it interesting to look in depth at their legal system and learn a bit more for myself. However, viking-era legal information is difficult to come by except the knowledge that they had Things, which were essentially early courts. Prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, it doesn't seem like any of the laws were written down and everything was rule of thumb.

Saying that, can we make any reasonable approximation regarding the legality of rape both in viking culture and when done abroad? They certainly seemed progressive in their enabling of women to own property.

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    I wouldn't call it progressive. It's simply being protective of their mate or offspring. – John Dee Sep 14 '17 at 1:54
  • If I remember correctly, English laws on rape were not introduced till 13th century -- not a comment on whose backward or progressive but I think laws on sexual offences is not necessarily the ideal choice to evaluate the type of society (or level of progress). Something more basic -- property, murder, statehood -- would probably be a better proxy. – J Asia Sep 14 '17 at 19:48
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    The word rape in the original rape and pillage expression doesn't mean raging warriors running around with erection, but refers to a broader concept of killing things and stealing sh*t. – Greg Sep 15 '17 at 8:35
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As far as I'm aware, the law codes of Norse communities in the Viking-Age weren't written down, but were rather memorised by "law-givers". These gradually became more-or-less standardised by the end of the period when they were written down by Christian monks.

As a result, we have to rely on the sagas. The 2015 thesis, Justice Done: Outlawry Crimes in Medieval Iceland by Sarah Stapleton may give some guidance. It appears that even kissing a woman without her consent could be punishable by outlawry. Since outlaws could be killed with impunity, this might have amounted to a death sentence.

On page 25 of her thesis Stapleton also observes:

There is also a law against wrongful intercourse, which states that a male principle in a case may kill another man if “a man arrives to find another man forcing a woman to lie with him there...,” or if “... the man has forced her down and lowered himself down upon her.

She quotes her source here as:

Dennis, Andrew, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins, trans., Vol. III of Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I, the Codex Regius of Grágás, with Material from Other Manuscripts. Edited by Haraldur Bessason and Robert J. Glendinning. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006, p154

  • Great answer! Thanks. Do you know if this also applies to rape committed away from home? IE in Britain? – Charlie Sep 13 '17 at 18:12
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    @Charlie Strictly speaking only the Norsemen who went raiding (usually in the summer months) were "vikings"/"víkingar". (I've sometimes seen the term translated as "pirate" in old English.) When raiding the normal rules did not apply. These vikings also frequently captured slaves (both male and female). As "property", I presume the law would allow a viking to do whatever he wanted to his slaves... – sempaiscuba Sep 13 '17 at 18:24
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My thesis is the one sempaiscuba♦ suggested. Your question is far more complex than one might think on first glance. In the short, it varies from place to place and it depends on where the crime was committed.

First, one must understand that the raping and pillaging actions of the Vikings were commonplace in most areas and of most people in Europe, especially during wartime, but the Vikings became particularly noticeable because they were not Christians and Christians provide most of the non-Viking sources of Viking behavior. It is like the enemy writing the history of a defeated foe, while conveniently disregarding their own actions.

Second, one must understand that raiding was part of Viking culture which developed out of scarce resources. Lack of primary sector industrial goods, such as ores, wood, and food stuff made pillaging a good way to get necessary goods and create wealth.

Within the context of this understanding, sexual misconduct in any fashion within Iceland had direct repercussions to the instigator, and occasionally the victim, by means of outlawry. Outside Iceland, the laws of those lands dictated the repercussions, though it is widely believed that Icelandic law was a modified version of Norwegian law so anywhere that spoke Norse had some basis in those laws. For example, in the English Danelaw, it is likely the people living there were subject to laws similar to Icelandic lawsbecause they were developed out of Norwegian ones, with a bit of Anglo-Saxon law to keep the peace with the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the what is today southern England. The same is likely true of the Shetlands and much of Scotland.

Normandy was subject to French authority so it would have followed French law, but only if the perpetrator was caught. Oftentimes, they were not due to their ability to raid quickly and move on before reinforcements could arrive. Beyond that, the Vikings traveled all over Europe and it is difficult to say with any certainty what the laws in those places where because there are few, if any, written sources. This is especially true of eastern Europe.

I hope this helps!

  • Welcome to History:SE. May I say that I enjoyed reading your thesis. I look forward to seeing more of your insights in the future. – sempaiscuba Dec 23 '17 at 3:31
  • "Normandy was subject to French authority, so it would have followed French law" (my emphasis) seems unlikely to me - Do you have a reference for this claim? – Pieter Geerkens Dec 23 '17 at 5:31
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    Thank you sempaiscuba for reading my thesis! I have a hard time believing anyone read it at all!! As far a the French authority goes, Pieter, I really should have called it Frankish law. But you may want to check out Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy. He was a Viking raider who exchanged land in Frankish lands in return for protecting the Franks from Viking raiders. – Sarah Stapleton Dec 24 '17 at 4:04
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Most countries' laws distinguished between "citizens" and "others," such as foreigners, or domestically held slaves. So what the Vikings considered "legal" when perpetrated against foreigners abroad would (probably) not be a "reasonable approximation" of what was acceptable at home. If anything, their "progressivity" at home would probably give "citizen" women strong rights against male citizens. Even today, I know "Viking" (Swedish and Danish) men who prefer to date foreign women because "their own" are relatively inaccessible to them. This may have been true in medieval times as well.

"Universal," or global laws are a relatively recent phenomenon. For instance, the Geneva (and similar) conventions regarding captured prisoners of war and conquered civilians were signed only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most relevant universal legislation is German statutory rape laws; a German citizen can be arrested anywhere in the world for sleeping with a woman under the age of 16 (the German age of consent), even in Thailand or other Asian countries, where the age of consent is lower. Medieval Vikings would not have had such laws regulating "foreign" rape.

  • It was also customary at the time to plunder a place after conquering it as a means of paying troops - the Vikings were by no means an exception, they were just pretty good at targeting isolated villages and monasteries near the coast. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 13 '17 at 15:46

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