Sex, Romance, and the Viking Woman


Detail from Njal’s Saga

Sex and romance have spiced up history.

There’s the tragic tale of Marc Antony and Cleopatra and the Middle Ages pairing of intellectual souls, Heloise and Peter Abelard. There’s the stormy romance of Napoleon and Josephine, and the saga of true love and frustrated sex with Hrutr and Unnr…


I had to drop in Hrutr and Unnr. They’re not exactly household names, but yes, sex played a role in their saga along with many others because Norse women embraced their pleasure just as much as the men.

What about romance?

That’s when I remind you men committed the sagas to paper. Sure, there’s a smidge of romance in the sagas. But, it’d be more accurate to say there was sex. Lots of it.

Even with male writers recording their history, Norse women defied diminishment. Their passion reached across the ages with thought-provoking differences:

The Pleasure of Beholding: Roman and most western European traditions lean toward the masculine viewpoint, placing women as erotic objects. Desire, and the joy of witnessing a fine form, are largely men ogling women. Women nowadays have turned that standard upside down with Jamie-Fraser-worship. But I digress…

Norse women were way ahead of Pinterest pics appreciating the male form. The Iceland sagas spread the visual wealth in words. It is often recorded how women took delight in viewing a handsome male body, and they weren’t afraid to say so.

Talk about equality.

Hair and Clothes: Poignant moments show up in the sagas. A popular love maneuver for Viking men was to lay their heads in a woman’s lap. Making your head vulnerable to someone is a sure sign of trust, but this was part of Viking love moves.


How Gunnar met Hallgerda. Henry J. Ford, 1905. The Red Romance Book.

The sagas tell of women washing their man’s hair…all in the name of love, courtship, and sex.

Another way women showed affection? Sewing shirts for their man. Of course, the task often turned to comical drudgery after the wedding. Leave it to men to write that into the sagas.

Enjoyable Sex: Admonishments of duty like “…lay back and think of England…” won’t be found in the sagas. Women liked sex. In fact, their extra-curricular activities caused as much trouble as the men’s.

The sagas are full of sex euphemisms:

*to amuse oneself (at skemmta ser)

*crowding together in bed (hviluprong)

*enjoy him (njota hans)

Norse women enjoyed their sexuality, reveling in an earthiness seldom seen in history.

I’ll close with a quick retelling of one Norse drama…

…a tale of two women and a man:

In Iceland, handsome Hrutr and headstrong Unnr fell in love. Business demanded that Hrutr sail to Norway. While there, he encountered the ageing, lusty Queen Gunnhildr. She provided beautiful clothes for Hrutr — probably didn’t sew them herself. Hrutr accepted these gifts and the queen informed him: “You shall lie with me in the upper chamber tonight; we two alone.” They went upstairs and the queen locked the door from the inside. (Nj 12.3:11-15)

They carried on for a year but Hrutr grew homesick. The queen asked him if there’s a woman waiting for him in Iceland. “No,” he lied. But, she didn’t believe him. As he was leaving, she placed a bracelet on him laden with a curse: he’ll be able to satisfy other women, but not his intended in Iceland.

Back in Iceland, Hrutr and Unnr got married, and the curse proved true. They experienced sexual frustration. They couldn’t “travel together” (samfor — another euphemism). After several years, Unnr told her father she wanted to divorce Hrutr because she cannot “enjoy him” (njota hans). They divorced and sadly went their separate ways, but not without additional drama.

It wouldn’t be a “saga” without it.

GinaConkle_ToFindAVikingTreasure_HRGina Conkle writes Viking and Georgian romance. She loves history, books and romance…the perfect recipe for historical romance writer. Her passion for castles and old places –the older and moldier the better– means fun family vacations. Good thing her husband and two sons share similar curiosities. When not visiting fascinating points of interest she can be found delving into the latest adventures in cooking and gardening.

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You can read a translation of Njal’s Saga online here


Riding Saint George: Regency Sex Terms You Won’t Find in Austen

I’m a big fan of profanity. Some people aren’t crazy about, but I fucking love it. I was one of those kids that makes other people’s parents uncomfortable; at age nine I had a vocabulary that wouldn’t have been too far out of place in the navy. It’s not that I had bad parents; my parents are great, they just had their priorities straight. Swearing was not at the top of their list of concerns, and they didn’t confuse it with lack of intelligence or disrespect. Profanity can’t be reduced to abuse or threatening language; it can also be used effectively for levity or, if you’re a writer, to inject some authenticity into your work (but we’ll get to that).

It’s important to know how to swear properly. Nothing’s going to make you sound more awkward than dropping an f-bomb in an unnatural place. Likewise, all Americans should know how to say ‘twat’ properly (rhymes with cat. Trust me). Unfortunately, American profanity is relatively limited when compared to the colorful vocabulary of the British.

As much as I’d like to use names like knob jockey or twat waffle in my books (I’m not being funny, I would LOVE to), these terms of endearment* are relatively new. Swearing, however, is not. It’s nice to imagine that people of bygone eras engaged in squeaky clean cap-doffing a la Mary Poppins and didn’t feel the need to use rude language (much less engage in rude activity), but that’s just not the case.

You want proof? Let’s look at Captain Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

While many of the words in here are not what we might consider profanity** and the phrases are largely bonkers, this book is a fantastic reference for any fan of history. 135 pages of cant and “vulgar language” cover everything from terms for flattery to fornication and include sixty-one words for prostitute.***

One common issue romance writers have in particular is finding historically appropriate euphemisms related to sex. If you’re writing a Regency or Georgian romance and you’re puzzling over another way to say throbbing member, the dictionary has you covered. Let’s take a look at some period terms for naughty bits.


Arbor Vitae
Gaying Instrument
Horn Colic (“temporary priapism”)
Lobcock (“a large, relaxed penis or a dull inanimate fellow”)
Matrimonial Peace-maker
Piss-proud (“a false erection”)
Plug Tail
Silent Flute
Sugar Stick
Tackle (also a mistress)
Whore Pipe


Carvel’s Ring (“The private parts of a woman. Ham Carvel, a jealous old doctor, being in bed with his wife, dreamed that the Devil gave him a ring, which, so long as he had it on his finger, would prevent his being made a cuckold: waking he found he had his finger the Lord knows where.”)
Cock Alley (or Lane)
Crinkum Crankum
Dumb Glutton
Eve’s Custom-House
Fruitful Vine
Man Trap
Mother of All Saints
Mother of All Souls
Mother of St. Patrick
Rum Goods (“a maidenhead, being a commodity never entered”)
Tu Quoque
Venerable Monosyllable


Apple Dumplin Shop
Cat Heads
Cupid’s Kettledrums
Chest and Bedding (sea term)


Wiffles (“a relaxation of the scrotum”)

St. George. Raphael, 1504


Basket Making
Beast With Two Backs (to make the, from Shakespeare)
to Blow the Grounsils (“to lie with a woman on the floor”)
to Dock
Dog’s Rig (“to copulate until you are tired, then turn tail to it”)
a Flyer (with clothes on)
to Give a Girl a Green Gown (sex in the grass)
to Grind
Hump (at this point an unfashionable term)
to Lay Cane Upon Abel (sex between men)
to Jock
Jockum Cloy
to Keep it Up (“to prolong a debauch, a metaphor drawn from the game of shuttle cock”)
to Knock
to Mow
to Occupy
to Relish
Riding St. George (“the woman uppermost in the amorous congress, that is, the dragon upon St. George. This is said to be the way to get a bishop.”)
to Roger
to Screw
State (“to lie in state; to be in bed with three harlots”)
Stroke (“to take a stroke”)
to Strum
to Swive
to Tup
Two Handed Put
to Wap


Blind Cheeks
Blind Cupid
Ars Musica
Double Jugg (a man’s arse)
Round Mouth


To Box the Jesuit and Get Cockroaches (a sea term)
Toss Off


Mrs. Phillip’s Ware

Venereal Disease

Blue Boar (“a venereal bubo”)
Bube (see above)
Clapham House
Covent Garden Ague
Drury Lane Ague
Dumb Watch
Fire Ship (“a wench with venereal disease”)
Flap Dragon (clap or pox)
French disease
Frenchified (to be infected with venereal disease)
Job’s Dock (“laid up in Job’s Dock, after the ward for venereal patients in St. Bartholomew’s hospital”)
Pill or Peele Garlick (“someone whose skin or hair had fallen off from venereal disease”)
Pissing Pins and Needles
Poulain (French, a bubo)
Venus’ Curse

A Harlot’s Progress, detail. Hogarth


Petticoat Pensioner (a man, “one kept by a woman for secret services”)
One of Us
One of My Cousins
Barber’s Chair
Buttock and Twang
Buttock and File (a prostitute who is also a pickpocket)
Case Vrow
Convenient (usually a mistress or concubine)
Covent Garden Nun
Covey (plural prostitutes, a covey of harlots)
Dirty Puzzle (a loose woman)
Drury Lane Vestal
Easy Virtue
Family of Love (plural prostitutes or a religious sect)
Fancy Man (kept by a lady for secret services)
Hedge Whore (one who works outdoors)
Laced Mutton
Left-Handed Wife
Madam (also used for bawd)
Madam Ran
Merry Arse Christian
Miss Laycock
Proud Ledger
Queer Mort (“a strumpet with venereal disease”)
Receiver General
Room (“she lets out her front room”)
Short-Heeled Wench (“a girl apt to fall on her back”)
Stallion (a man kept by lady)
Star Gazer (see hedge whore)
Thorough Good-Natured Wench (“one who being asked to sit, will lie down”)
Three-Penny Upright (one who works standing up)
Town (a woman of)
Madam Van
Unfortunate Women (a termed by other “polite” women)
Wasp (“an infected prostitute, who like a wasp carries a sting in her tail.”)
Wife in Water Colors (a mistress or concubine)
Woman of Town
Woman of Pleasure


Pushing School
Buttocking Shop
Cavaulting School
Corinth (likewise Corinthians are people who frequent brothels)
Nanny House
Nugging House
School of Venus
Smuggling Ken
Snoozing Ken
Vaulting School

A few extra terms, just for fun:

Duck Fucker (“man who has care of poultry on a ship”)
Kiss Mine Arse (“An offer, as Fielding observes, very frequently made, but never, as he could learn, literally accepted.”)
Queer As Dick’s Hatband (“out of order, without knowing one’s disease”)
Smack (to kiss)
Urinal of the Planets (Ireland, due to its frequent rain*****)


*I’m totally shitting you, these are not terms of endearment. Don’t call your gran a twat waffle!
**Words we would consider profanity or at least rude such as fuck, arse, piss, whore, cock, etc are used by the author in definitions but he takes for granted the reader is familiar with these and he does not define them.
***It’s interesting to note that prostitutes are referred to affectionately and none of the terms used for them are really insults. The author’s contempt is reserved for celibate women, who are called Ape Leaders (an old maid; their punishment after death, for neglecting increase and multiply, will be, it is said, leading apes into hell) and may suffer from Green Sickness (the disease of maids occasioned by celibacy). Equally, “whore” is not presented as an especially strong insult. Bitch is far worse. He says this is “the worst appellation that can be given to an English woman.”
****Notice how many of these are related to schools. Likewise, “college” was used to refer to prison, college being a natural progression from a school or academy.
*****This book has an incredible number of derisory terms for the Irish…and Welsh, Scottish, Jewish, mixed-race, religious, and people from Boston.