Monthly Archives: March 2015

Viking marriage customs

Young people would have liked to know each other before they married, perhaps love each other, but in the day of the Viking, this was not considered desirable, since the girl’s virginity was supposed to be unquestionable. The main thing was to be married according to rank. The marriage had to be useful to the father of the bride; let love come later. That was the couple’s private business and concerned no one else.

Today we hold different views. Love is the decisive factor. But our times seem to be no happier for it. Perhaps we should see with less prejudiced eyes how the Vikings managed their arranged marriages; how man and wife lived together in those days.

Love was rarely mentioned. Love songs were punishable, and the law was strictly enforced. It was probably considered unwise to publicize a woman’s emotions in such a way. Not even her beauty was lauded unless it was a source of misfortune or threatening danger. The sober Nordic peasants valued energy, wealth, and lineage. With these attributes, a good marriage was assured. When Gisle Sursson’s brother died, he ashed for his sister-in-law, Ingeborg’s, hand in marriage, since “he did not want to see such a good woman leave the clan”. This is a typial attitude. Widows were masters of their own fortunes and future life. Ingeborg said yes, and through her Gisle Sursson “gained many possessions and became a respected man.” The social position of the husband could also be influenced by that of his wife. …

The woman was by nature exempt from armed warfare; the men fought for her. This, however, did not prevent her from taking up arms herself, usually in self-defense, though sometimes in a spirit of revenge, and also in times of war. …

However, bloody feuds, wars, and thing assemblies were on the whole onsidered the concern of the male; it was up to hm to resolve all unwomanly conflicts and protect his home; the female had a right to be free of such obligations. Yet living, for male or female, demanded a strong, independent personality and women often found themselves saddled with fates that demanded responsibility.

After settling on a new island, the women as well as the men could claim land for themselves; for this there was a special law. And women, of course, also had rune stones raised. A woman in Denmark called Ragnhild was apparently married twice, and had stones raised for both husbands. …

A man had to see to an increase of his estate, and this included his slaves. They were a part of his legitimte economic interests. Concubines were customary, but they were always of the lowest social class. A wife could tolerate them because they never endangered her marriage. …

Adam of Bremen says: “Every man has three or more wives, according to his means. But the rich and the chieftains have numberless wives.” This may have been true, and was probably the result of Arab contacts, Viking experiences in the slave trade, and the friendliness of the women in the occupied territories (fraternization a thousand years ago). In Shannon Bay, near Limerick, the Irish ravaged, in the year 977, “every site where the Normans kept women, children, and harems”. King Harald Fairhair had an unusually large number of wives. They are listed in the Heimskringla, and when he married Ragnhild of Jutland, he divorced nine wives. But these are purely Oriental customs found only in the higher social circles. On the peasant farms, the wife remained sole manager and at best may have tolerated a concubine or two.

— The Norsemen, Count Eric Oxenstierna

It’s not just food and music

The waitress came over. I had made up my mind to try meatloaf, which sounded very American to my ears, and a pale lager.

“What did you say?”

I repeated it.

She stared hesitantly, almost despondently, at me.

Peter intervened to help us out. The waitress gathered up the menus and disappeared.

The same thing happened nearly every time I had ordered something in the past week. The waiter or waitress would look questioningly at me and ask me to repeat myself. Every exchange of information was piecemeal, chopped into bits, full of misunderstandings and repetitions. It wasn’t that I didn’t speak English, it was that I stood on the outside of the flow that made things glide along easily and without friction, where everything said and done was as expected. I was in command of the content, but not of the form, and form is always the most important aspect of human communication. I experienced the same thing when I moved from Norway to Sweden, all those suddenly blank stares and silent nods, which meant either that someone didn’t understand what I was saying or that what I was saying was preposterous. In those early years, every time I met people from Norway, I felt relief. They only had to say a few sentences, and at once I could place them geographically and socially and address them accordingly. When I was still living in Norway, I wasn’t even aware that this kind of knowledge existed, it was entirely intuitive and obvious, just part of what being Norwegian entailed, and my easy access to this whole subconscious mountain of implicit knowledge and shared references was probably what it meant to have a national identity.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard (source)

A fleeting glimpse of the obvious in the pages of the New York Times. But what follows is weaker.

Once, I mentioned this to a Swedish woman. She looked indignantly at me. “But those are just prejudices!” she said. “You’re judging people before you’ve even spoken to them! It’s much better not to know all those things, so that you can make up your own opinion about them. We’re individuals, not representatives of a culture!”

That is the most Swedish thing anyone has ever said to me.

What is culture, if not a set of prejudices? A set of unformulated and unconscious rules and ways of behavior that every member of a given society nonetheless immediately recognizes and accepts?

Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.

Even though I grew up with American music and films and read about American politicians and celebrities practically all my life, I was still an outsider. I didn’t understand all these TV sets with their bright smiles.

Knausgaard didn’t see all of America; he drove from Maine to Minnesota, through small towns, suburbs, and Detroit, mostly avoiding the native population on his way. The differences he could have seen, whether on his route or elsewhere, might seem small to someone from a continent with dozens of different languages, but it must be remembered that America didn’t completely settle on English until after WW2.

The American culture of politics: a case study

Clone High

Main characters:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Joan of Arc
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • Cleopatra VII
  • John F. Kennedy

Supporting characters:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Catherine the Great
  • Genghis Khan
  • Marie Antoinette
  • George Washington Carver
  • Jesus Christ
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Marie Curie
  • Thomas Edison
  • Paul Revere
  • Nostradamus
  • Elvis Presley
  • Isaac Newton
  • Buddy Holly
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Juan Ponce de León
  • Moses
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Eva Perón


Main characters:

  • Oda Nobunaga
  • Jack the Ripper
  • [spoiler — go watch it and you’ll know who I mean]
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • Isaac Newton

Supporting characters:

  • Geronimo
  • Antoni Gaudi
  • François Vidocq
  • John Hunter
  • Galileo
  • the Count of St. Germain
  • Robert Capa

I don’t remember these people but Wikipedia says they were there:

  • Dai Zong
  • Georg Hackenschmidt
  • Cesare Borgia
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Alfred Nobel
  • Nostradamus
  • Babe Ruth
  • William Tell
  • Grigori Rasputin
  • Christopher Columbus

Clone High: 80% of main characters and 48% of supporting characters are political figures.

Nobunagun: 40% of main characters, 0% of supporting characters, and 18% of bit characters are political figures.

And that’s what’s wrong with America.

Note that Nobunagun’s percentage is higher than it would be if I grouped the characters myself: I don’t remember Newton or Gandhi being that much more important than Galileo, Gaudi, or Geronimo. If Newton and Gandhi aren’t main characters, it’s 33%; if those other three are main characters, it’s 25%.

Some categorizations can be disputed — maybe Nobel was political or Rasputin wasn’t, maybe Joan of Arc was or Paul Revere wasn’t — but the numbers are different enough that the point still stands.