at the beginning of this year i said that, since there are so many scandinavian readers of the blog (skål!), i would post about the historic mating patterns of scandinavians/nordic folks … aaaaaaand now it’s december and it never happened. (*^_^*) (did i mention that i come from a population that doesn’t have terrific future time orientation? as han solo said: “it’s not my fault!” (~_^) ) sorry!
i did have good intentions! i swear! back in april i picked up this article: “Norwegians and Europe: The Theme of Marriage and Consanguinity in Early Norwegian Law” from Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict, and Coexistence. so now, in order to assuage my guilt, and so that i might sleep well at night once again, i am finally going to take a look at that article! (^_^)
there were four legal areas in medieval norway (indicated on map below) — the borgartingslag (B), the eidsivatingslag (E), the frostatingslag (F), and the gulatingslag (G):
each of these regions had its own set of secular laws up until the 1270s when magnus the law-mender issued a common law for all of norway. they also each had their own set of ecclesiastical laws which, of course, included regulations on marriage. although there are a couple of differences between these law codes wrt marriage, the upshot is that marriage between sixth cousins or closer was banned in all four regions as well as marriage between affinal family members (i.e. in-laws) related to one another within five degrees (e.g. fourth cousins-in-law or closer). the regulations on blood relations are in line with canon law issued from rome at the time (the ones on in-laws are not) and appear to have been included in norwegian canonical legislation sometime after 1152 (when nicholas breakespear, papal legate in scandinavia and later pope adrian iv, introduced the sixth cousin bans to norway/scandinavia). the penalties in these four norwegian law codes ranged from fines and having to do penance to the splitting up of the couple and even to banishment (“outlawry”).
in the 1270s, when magnus was “mending” all the laws in the country, the cousin marriage bans in norway were scaled back to the fourth degree (i.e. third cousins). this was a bit later than the rest of western europe where the cousin marriage bans were changed in 1215. for this reason, the author of the article suggests that the ban out to sixth cousins probably wasn’t ever strongly enforced in norway, since the authorities didn’t bother to update this regulation right away — like it was a sleeping law or something. that certainly might’ve been the case, and i tend to favor this idea actually. the sixth cousin ban was difficult to enforce right across europe — who knew who their sixth cousins were?! — which is why it was dropped after only a couple of hundred years or so (although thomas aquinas offered other theoretical reasons for scaling back the bans as well) — and i can’t imagine why the situation should’ve been any different in rather remote norway/scandinavia. on the other hand, perhaps the norwegian authorities just decided to hang on to these stringent bans for longer for whatever reasons. that certainly happened in neighboring sweden at the time of the reformation — unlike many of the other newly minted protestant/lutheran churches (as in the german lands, for instance) which did away with cousin marriage bans altogether, the swedish authorities made it difficult for most people to marry cousins right up until 1844.
whatever the case, marriages to closer than third cousins were banned in norway after the 1270s. how well these bans were enforced is, of course, another question. in all likelihood, like elsewhere in europe, enforcement probably became more rigorous and consistent over the course of the medieval period as christianity and the church and its norms permeated norwegian society. remember the example of the franks in the early medieval period: cousin marriage was banned by the frankish kings in the mid-700s, but it wasn’t until sometime in the 800s that the people began thinking that marrying a cousin was unseemly — and that someone ought to tell the bishop if the neighbor had! presumably there was a similar delay with cousin marriage bans gaining traction in norway (and everywhere else, for that matter).
all of this is assuming that the pre-christian norwegians married their cousins to some degree or another in the first place. i don’t know for sure or not if that was the case — Further Research is RequiredTM — but it seems likely that the scandis would’ve behaved similarly to other germanic peoples who certainly did marry their cousins before conversion (see “mating patterns in europe series” below, esp. the posts on the germans and the anglo-saxons) — and they all shared similar kindred structures and feuding practices which seem to go along with cousin marriage, so….
there’s some evidence for a few norwegian christians here and there in the 900s, but the real push for conversion came with olaf ii who was king of norway in the early 1000s, so it’s more than likely that cousin marriage was present in norway right up until this point, although who knows what the frequency was.
one of the earliest — if not the earliest — introductions to norway of the crazy idea to ban cousin marriage at all probably happened in 1022 when the moster assembly (which looks to me to be in the gulatingslag) passed some ecclesiastical cousin marriage bans suggested by bishop grimketel (grimkell), english bishop of selsey. these were based on king æthelred‘s laws from the early eleventh century in which marriage to fourth cousins or closer was banned (this is news to me, btw!).
the arrival of christianity and cousin marriage bans, then, obviously occurred quite a bit later in norway than in the populations closer to the center of “core europe” — i.e. the franks (belgians and dutch) and the southeastern english — whose outbreeding projects were well underway by sometime in the 800s. the norwegians probably lagged behind in outbreeing by three or four hundred years, but, again, no idea exactly how much they’d been marrying their cousins beforehand. (similar case with the swedes.)
a couple of other notes from the article not directly related to norway:
– sometime between 1161 and 1172, pope alexander iii gave dispensation to a certain group of people who were a part of the archbishopric of niðarós and who were having difficulties obeying the canon law banning sixth or closer cousin marriage. these people lived on an island “twelve days’ journey from Norway” and are believed by historians today to have been the residents of greenland! they were granted permission to marry their fourth, fifth, and sixth cousins. whew!
– the author of the article notes that the cousin marriage bans in iceland were probably never higher than the fourth degree (i.e. third cousins). in other words, icelanders never experienced the crazy bans out to the sixth cousins.
(note: comments do not require an email. erroneous norwegian claim re. the paper clip!)