Note: this article describes only women’s position in pagan societies, mainly in the context of local laws. I skip here the situation of roman and greek women (’cause everybody learns about it in school. At least here in Poland…) and will focus on germanic, slavic and baltic people. Their laws were very similar, so there is no point in dividing this topic unto three different parts.
About celtic women you will read in an article describing the role of female element in celtic myths.
Mund (old germanic mundo, or latinized mundium) was a privilage of the head of the family. It litteraly means “protection”, and it belonged to the oldest male member of the family (understood as all persons related by blood). The men who had mund over the other person (children, wife etc.) had a right to decide for him about marriage, his political actions etc. This power wasn’t absolute (as many people think), but was of course limited by the law. Moreover, this privilige was also a kind of duty – to protect the family against all problems and dangers. It was indeed a matter of honor, but also the law.
The institution of munduol was inherited. So for example when a father of the family dies, his oldest son take care of it. When he also dies, and there is no adult heir, the brother of the father take care over the family. Et cetera.
There was also many kinds of mund. Other was mund under your own child, other under a wife and other under your mother-widow.
Now, when this typically barbarian law is known to you, let me describe the situation of women.
Woman of those times (and I mean something around VIII-XII century) was always under protection of man, whether they wanted it or not. The society was than very patrarcharne, which means that it was dominated by man. It was beginning since the girl’s birth day. The father were deciding if he accepts her as his daughter or not. And sometimes he actually didn’t – if he suspected that his wife was cheating him with another man. In such case the girl was left in a forest, and a wife was sent back to her father (or oldest brother/son).
The girl was raised only by mother (even with in those times father could spent quite many time with his children). Under her protection she was learning farm management, weaving, cooking. singing and of course how to influence men ;] Sometimes she was also learning how to fight, due to the fact that man (as a warrior) quite often was leaving his farm to raid some lands, or protect the tribal land. Eventually she could even became a shieldamaiden – a woman who decided to be a warrior (of course by a permission of her munduol). Altought it wasn’t very popular (as pagan men weren’t very happy to see women taking care of their traditional male activities) sometimes it happened – but only in the land of norse and russian people.
Most of the women became wifes. Icelandic family sagas show us clearly that very often a women were choosing husbands for their own. However sometimes father were urging them to get married with particular men. Just remember – the woman could refuse it. Forcing women to marriage was recognized as a big stain on the honor.
A marriage was a happy moment especially for the slavic fathers – because they were getting a big amount of wealth (or money, or land) for mund of his daughter. It is also important – a new husband was buying a mund from his wife’s father, and not a wife as a person! It means that he was becoming a new protector of a woman. And by the way – a woman was also receiving her bride price just for her, as her own property. It wasn’t a small thing – norsemen were able to give for example equivalent of annual profit of local forges. I don’t have to mention that blacksmiths were one of the richest persons in such societies?
The women hadn’t – of course – any political rights, but quite often they had a big influence on their husbands. Norse sagas describe many situations when men (like Sigurd) were taking advice of their wifes, or when woman had quite a big power and prestige in a whole scandinavian world (like Sigrid, a sister of polish prince Mieszko I).
But what happened when woman was abused in her home, she got raped by her husband or her spouse was insolvent? Well, she could ask her relatives to prosecute prepetrator of her misey on a local thing. She couldn’t do it for herself, but a family was supposed to defend her in such situations. If he won a trial, she was free to go under a mund of her father/brother/oldest son. As a widow/divorcee she was receiving a right of re-marriage – from this time she could got married with whoever she wanted to. SHE was a side who was negotiating marriage, and not her munduol.
So to conclude – the position of women in pagan societies was different than most of people think nowadays. In his work “Germania” Tacitus, a roman historian (56-117) was astonished how much freedom had germanic women (comaring to the situation of roman ones). The rights of pagan women were old, and well preserved through ages. Because pagan men, even if they were dominating in the society, understood very well how important to them were their daughters, wifes and lovers.
K. Modzelewski – “Barbaric Europe” (“Barbarzyńska Europa”)
Icelandic family sagas (click!)
Germania by Tacitus
Vladyka, written in the year 2013