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  • Property and Virginity: The Christianization of Marriage in Medieval Iceland, 1200–1600 by Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir
  • Frederik Pedersen
Property and Virginity: The Christianization of Marriage in Medieval Iceland, 1200–1600. By Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir. Århus, Denmark: Århus University Press, 2010. Pp. 533. $80.00 (cloth).

This is an ambitious book based on extensive reading of Icelandic sources. Arnórsdóttir breaks new ground investigating marriage contracts from late medieval Iceland and how marriage contracts dating from 1350 to 1600 demonstrate the reception of secular and ecclesiastical legislation. The contracts fall roughly into two halves: those originating before the Danish king Christian III’s Reformation decree of 1539, when he imposed a number of resented initiatives to implement the Reformation in Iceland, and those postdating it. The survival rates of these contracts show a roughly exponential curve (five from the period 1351–1400, eighteen from 1401–50, thirty-nine from 1451–1500, sixty-six from 1501–50, and sixty-five from 1551–1600).

Chapter 1 analyzes changes in Icelandic kinship structures. Chapter 2 investigates previous historiography and the source material. Chapter 3 traces the legal foundations of marriage in Iceland, arguing that the Icelandic church followed the rules contained in Roman canon law, which were fundamentally changed by the introduction of the Parisian model of marriage requiring only the expression of present consent by the contracting parties. Chapter 4 deals with definitions of marriage contracts, arguing that there was no clear distinction in Icelandic law between licit and illicit marriage. Chapter 5 describes legislation regarding sexuality within and outside marriage. Chapter 6 makes the claim that as Icelandic marriage rituals became more embedded in religious practice they were increasingly controlled by officialdom. Chapter 7 argues that written contracts became increasingly influenced by Christian marriage ideology. Chapter 8 investigates how Christian marriage affected social ties and adds the evidence of orations delivered at marriages. Chapters 9 and 10 deal with [End Page 295] marital property and dowers and dowry. Chapter 11 discusses the transfer of property in marriage. The final chapter draws conclusions.

Arnórsdóttir argues that there was a gradual acceptance of Christian ideals of marriage in Iceland from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century and convincingly shows that Icelandic normative texts agreed with canon law. She suggests that variations from the norm observed in the surviving marriage contracts are the consequence of two developments: the acceptance of new marriage rituals and legislation, and the internalization of a Christian anthropology of sexuality. She demonstrates the prominent position of parents in the marriage contracts as evidence that this process was slow, but she also claims that parental influence over marriage choices actually increased after the Reformation.

The main new contribution of this book is the analysis of the contents of 193 marriage contracts. In order to extend her argument to the period before 1350, Arnórsdóttir includes comments on the earliest Icelandic laws, such as the Grágás, the Christian law of Bishop Árni Þorláksson, and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, thirteenth-century Norwegian legislation (but not the Reformation decrees of Christian III).

At more than five hundred pages, this is a long book, but it rewards close reading. It was written for an academic audience and accepted by Århus University for public defense toward a Dr. Phil., the highest academic degree in Denmark. One might therefore expect the highest level of presentation and academic skill, but more work is needed on both counts. The English text is poorly proofread. In many places it lacks sufficient precision (when stating, for example, that the mutual consent of the parties was “one of the main criteria for a valid marriage” [428] or that “this case can be followed over time in many documents” [191]). Arnórsdóttir frequently presents lack of accordance between subject and verb and a number of Scandinavian idioms (“the outfall of the case” [199], for example, or “human mishandling” [198], which presumably refers to “violence” [Danish mishandling]). It is difficult to know where to place the responsibility for these errors, though contributory factors may be the limited copyediting undertaken by Danish academic publishers and the rule that a...


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