A shortage of wives
Hello, Tahereh again, guest posting for Eleanor this week while she's recovering from being sick. The following story is a cut scene from Berserker Queen, but can be read alone without any other knowledge of the work.
Emmaline sat tangled in her skirts on the gravelly bank, aimless as the burning ship drifting slowly down the Loire. She'd never directed herself before. Her father Rollo shaped the world to his liking and his children went where they were told. Her mother Poupak ruled his camp like a queen, and her elder sister Merriam assumed control of what few decisions might remain.
All three were on the ship that now burned its way slowly to Valhalla.
Emmaline felt naked without them. Mourners staggered by in search of more meade, leaving her forgotten on the sand.
When Rollo was alive, she'd been a precious daughter of the Duc de Normandie. Competition for brides was intense among the Norse, as it was the girls who inherited the family land. A boy had to prove himself by both word and sword: being poet enough to win a girl’s heart, and raising enough silver to meet her price.
Few Norsemen could afford to marry, much less raise a daughter. It was an extravagant show of wealth for Rollo to raise multiple girl-children to adulthood, when he would be obliged to endow each one with enough land to feed all the grandchildren she might bear.
A family with only one farm could raise only one daughter. Many a weeping couple was forced to leave the infant girls they could not afford out to die of exposure, as keeping such a girl alive would damn her to a life of poverty and prostitution. Sometimes a desperate young father went a-viking in search of the means to raise a second girl he could not bear to kill, and returned to find his wife and farm had been commandeered by another less faint of heart.
But there were no such limitations for the mighty Rollo the Walker. Emmaline’s world was built upon this foundation. The continental Christian lords might call her a bastard, but the princes of Sweden, Denmark, and Bretagne knew her very existence was a declaration that the Duc de Normandie could afford to dower as many girls as he damn well pleased. She was an heiress more Danico, and the Norse princes treated her as such.
Until her father died, and the fleet left without them.
Emmaline was fiercely proud of her mother for making it back to his ship. To die on a Sea-King’s pyre, sent by his side to Valhalla, was the highest glory possible for a woman. Womankind were humanity’s sacred vessel, the source of life itself. Men spent their lives fighting that they might have something to offer before woman’s altar, the greatest among men fighting for the greatest among women. A warrior's deeds in life determined his place at Odin's table in Valhalla, so for Rollo to bring Poupak with him was to lay the sum of his life’s work at her feet in the sight of the Gods.
With a crackle and a whoosh, the mast collapsed on her father’s ship. Even drifting away down the Loire, the orange blaze filled the night sky. Smoke drifted back to where she knelt on the shore.
A sharp pain interrupted her grief as a warrior stubbed his toe on her shin. He caught himself and lurched onward as if she were a piece of driftwood on the beach. Was there no glory left for her, no purpose? Did no one wish to worship at her altar? She wanted to one day die like her mother did, the most revered, first among women, and was suddenly panicked that she wouldn’t.
“There you are.” Booted footfalls crunched over the gravel. All creaking leather and heavy breath, Incon lowered himself noisily to one knee by her side. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” He took one of her hands from where it lay limp and raised it to kiss. Relief rushed to her head at the familiar gesture.
He looked as destroyed as she felt. His matted copper hair hadn't been combed since before the battle, and deep purple smudges ringed his eyes so low they bled into where the freckles began. “My men have pitched camp. Come.”
His tent was a bachelor affair, nothing like the pavilion her father used to house a wife and four children. Still, it was almost tall enough to stand upright in the centre, more than a common man could afford. His princely status showed in little ways: thick furs piled on the ground against the cold, a good stock of meade and supplies in the corner. It was certainly more than she’d had a moment before.
Emmaline hesitated at the tent-flap. He lifted her off her feet, carrying her in and laying her on the furs.
“I’m sorry, I have no proper table.” He poured meade into a cup and sat beside her, as if he were her partner at a formal dinner. The last thing she wanted was more meade, but the familiarity of the courtly gesture shone through the haze. She drank.
Incon smiled. “There, that’s better, see?” There was something overly bright in his manner, like a freezing man at the end of winter who has begun to burn his furniture to stay alive. His father had died in the battle, too.
He rummaged until he found half of a loaf of bread. He broke off a bit and dunked it in a small pot of honey, bringing his meagre offering to her lips. “Please, my love. Eat.”
My love. The extravagant words echoed in her ears. His courtly posturing should have been reserved for her elder sister, to whom he was betrothed. But Merriam, she recalled dully, was dead. Emmaline knew the fact to be true, but it still didn’t feel right in her mind.
She accepted the bite. The honey coated her tongue, bright and sweet and clearer than anything she’d felt in days. Incon pressed another bite upon her, a bead of honey dripping down his fingers. She licked it, desperate to feel anything at all. The sweetness mingled with the salt of his sweat, and a disconcerted look came over him.
“Yes,” he mumbled. “That’s it.” He dipped his finger in the honey pot directly and put it to her lips, posture begging. He was warm and alive, the opposite of everything cold and forgotten she had felt on the beach. She took the tip of his finger into her mouth and suckled. He groaned in satisfaction, as though he tasted the sweetness himself.
He kissed her. Emmaline had never been kissed on the mouth before. His breath tasted of meade and salty grief, his stubble scratching her face. She hadn’t known until then that she could feel so many things at once. Her father, mother, and sister dead in the same night, her whole world turnt upside down and drowning in an ocean of meade and horse blood and tears.
“I don’t know.” She pulled back, searching for air. “What I should do, where I should be. I don’t know anything at all.”
“Sail with me.” Incon pulled her from the sea of loss and grief. “I will keep you safe. We will rebuild. Bretagne, Normandie, everything.” His big arms were around her, enveloping her. He felt like the answer to everything.
“You promise?” she whispered.
“On my honour.” The desperate certainty in his manner flared, warm and bright. The freezing man had burnt through his furniture and begun to tear wood from the walls, and for a moment the resulting draft made the fire blaze all the more.
She kissed him back. If they were lost, at least they were lost together, and that was better than being alone. “All right.”
I mentioned on Monday how selective female infanticide and polygyny among the powerful may have led to a shortage of women and even caused the viking age itself. Excess bachelors fought each other for narrow prospects, and eventually burst out of Scandanavia in search of wives elsewhere.
This has hugely informed the world-building in Berserker Queen. Berserker Queen is an
#ownvoices costume drama, designed for joint tv/book release and written by me and another Iranian-American, Aida Moussavi. Think Vikings meets Ertuğrul, or if The Last Kingdom reached Asia and Africa. It’s historical fiction set in the real world, not fantasy, but I still call part of the process ‘world-building’ because there’s so much no one really knows about history. That gets even more true the further back you go.
An important thing to understand about any thousand-year-old record is that it’s always going to have gaps. Additionally, the Norse sagas are an oral history. They evolved for centuries before they were written down, and don’t match up nicely with other medieval chroniclers. Any reconstruction of history this old inherently involves a certain amount of guesswork.
Any time we had to guess, we always used something that was plausible based on archaeological evidence or other primary sources. We can’t pretend to have all the definitive answers—no one can—but Aida and I are meticulous about always presenting a possible answer. Every measure, from statistics to skeletal analysis, has major failings, but we can try to make the picture better a little bit at a time.
For those who want a general overview of the era, this map and this beautifully simple video explains the essence of the conflict on which Berserker Queen is based: Europe was divided into three parts and has been fighting amongst itself ever since, while at the same time, Vikings showed up.
Although we had to cut the above scene for pacing reasons (Emmaline is a supporting character we can’t afford the screen time to develop until season two) I’m thrilled to let it see the light of day again, because it was a rare opportunity to discuss the enormous social ramifications of selective female infanticide. Scandinavia has substantially less arable land than more southern parts of Europe, and population control was necessary to avoid starvation. A single farm was enough to feed one extended family, which was calculated by the average number of children a woman would bear.
Imperial units might seem bizarre today, but they’re pragmatic when you don’t have standardised measurement tools. A cup is divided into eight tablespoons because you can visually divide something like a pile of flour or a lump of butter in half and check the weight with your hands. Dividing by halves two more times gives a total of eight units. If you’re one of those history-scorners who can’t understand why tablespoons should exist, I challenge you to divide your next stick of butter into ten even units just by approximating with a knife. Cutting money worked the same way.
The acre-length ('arklengd' in Old Norse) is a similarly pragmatic unit: the amount one farmer can plow in one day. One farm of about 50-200 acres housed one extended family. This usually included several married couples, eg, siblings and their spouses. The family could therefore estimate the number of potential grandchildren based on the number of couples. On average, a woman bore about seven children during her lifetime. Accounting for childhood mortality and the gap between births, perhaps two or three would be alive at any time. Planning for potential grandchildren was critical when calculating if the family group could grow enough food to survive. If the number of mouths to feed shoots up unexpectedly, everyone will starve.
To keep food production capabilities in line with estimated children, farmland was tied to women. A family 'endowed' a girl by giving her land, and a man purchased both together in marriage. The dowered land belonged unequivocally to the woman, and in the case of divorce--which the Norse had uniquely extensive legal provisions for--she took possession of it immediately.
Therefore, parents could only raise as many daughters as they had productive farmland for. It’s heartbreaking and brutal, but the Norse saw it as necessary to let some girl children die in infancy to keep the numbers low enough to survive. Extra boys could serve as farm labour, but without a woman to marry, there was no need to plan for a sudden wave of grandchildren.
Of course, there were other consequences. Anyone who’s ever seen a couple dozen frat boys roll into a bar–the average Norse longship held a crew of thirty to fifty men–knows that polite celibacy is approximately the last thing on their minds. And that’s how scarce arable land in Scandinavia may have led to a surplus of aggressive young bachelors, and then to the Viking age itself.
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