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The Church and sexuality in medieval Iceland

Jenny M. Jochens

Journal of Medieval History, 6 (1999)377-39

Although the Church’s regulation of marriage and sex was felt by all Germanic tribes, this subject can be studied most closely in Iceland because of the richness of its source material. Four problems are examined here, from literary, legal, and historical sources, namely marriage, divorce, clerical celibacy and extramarital sex. All three categories of sour.,ss agree that marriage was a contractual arrangement between the families of the bride and the groom, as known elsewhere among Germanic tribes. They likewise concur that divorce was possible and easily obtainable. Clerical marriage, among both bishops and priests, was seen as acceptable in the legal and historical sources; the literary sagas do not deal with this issue. That extramarital sexual activities were common, is clear from the legal and historical sources but, in contrast, the literary material depicts Icelandic couples as largely monogamous and faithful.

This discrepancy between the historical and literary sagas, both products of the thirteenth century, can be explained by the growing influence of the Church, which by this time was attempting to introduce clerical celibacy and marital fidelity into Iceland. The thirteenth-century clerical authors of the literary sagas, set in ancient times, provided models intended to improve the sexual behavior of their audiences.

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