Norman Sexuality, Norse Sexuality

It’s been a busy week here in Tübingen, not least on the blogging front, and that’s why this week you’re getting something a little more light-hearted. I’ve written before about the distinctiveness of Norman sexual culture in the context of Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s biography of the first Norman rulers, but I don’t think I talked about why it’s distinctive. Well, I’ve been doing a bit more research on this topic, and the results are quite interesting.

The first thing to say is that Dudo is not alone in his interest in sex, in the context of Norman literature. There’s a whole cluster of sexually-explicit poetry from basically the same time. For those who don’t know it, I recommend (for a given value of ‘recommend’) checking out the poem Moriuht, which is hair-raisingly explicit even by modern standards; it’s not every medieval source one can describe by using the phrase ‘Viking gang-bang’. Such work isn’t unparalleled from elsewhere in the Frankish world – the Ottonian author Liutprand of Cremona writes a lot of filthy jokes as a way of showing how bad Italian rulers are – but what’s striking is that, whereas for most Frankish authors explicit expression of sexuality is largely a tool of insult, in Norman literature it is neutral or even positive.

All this is simply to repeat that Norman sexual mores are different from those of their neighbours. So what made Normandy different? Well, obviously, its Norse background. Other scholars such as Elisabeth van Houts and Klaus van Eickels have already suggested Scandinavian roots for Norman ideas about sex and gender, but whilst they are very interesting and may well be true, they rest on reading back saga evidence from centuries later into early Norman evidence, and that makes me a little uncomfortable. What I’ve been doing this last week, then, is looking at contemporary Norse literature (which in practice means skaldic poetry) for parallels. And there are some!

“If it’s longer than it’s wide…” (source)

Take, for instance, the Hákonardrápa of Hallfreðr Óttarsson, written in the latter part of the tenth century in praise of Jarl Hákon the Powerful. Hákon’s conquest of Norway is described as follows: ‘[Hákon] draws under himself the foliage-haired waiting wife of Þriði [i.e. the land] by means of true words of swords’. This motif is actually a very direct parallel of one found in Dudo wherein Rollo makes a personified Francia pregnant, although I think that’s parallel evolution rather than direct influence.

There are other examples of this from elsewhere in Scandinavian writing, but I’ll skip past them for the general point. It seems as though Scandinavian sexual culture was more out there, and that in particular sex had a greater role to play in discourses supporting legitimate authority. Normandy’s Scandinavian background therefore makes sense as a reason why its sexual culture was different from its neighbours. This is not to say that randy, macho Vikings imported an alien plant into Frankish soil; rather than elements within Scandinavian culture went well with elements of a Frankish culture that had many points of similarity to it, and so some ideas which in the latter may have been secondary found a more fertile environment and could play a more prominent role.

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