This is a musing on the Icelandic saga Grettir’s Saga. The two translations used will be noted below; events are from Chapter 17.
Grettir is a bad boy in a world of bad boys, and his exploits are bad even by those standards. At the same time, he often fights for a type of social justice. DOWN WITH THE MAN is always how it goes with him, often in considerable danger, and he occasionally doesn’t even get anything out of it except a big pile of street cred that goes on to this day.
At one point, Grettir takes work as a common sailor on a fishing vessel. The first mate of the vessel has brought his young wife aboard.
What would one woman be doing on a vessel that was intended as a season-long contract of work for a group of men? The world’s oldest profession is being winked at.
The financial situation could be that, at the end of the season, the sailors would have to pay their hooker tab as they exited the vessel, thus, working for nothing, in some cases, we think. I have yet to chase down the reference in Ancient Rome of a prostitute boarding a ship at one location, working nonstop, then departing at the next port. FIND IT.
Grettir notices this and immediately PLUNGES IN with the young wife, only not playing fair in an unfair world.
The complaint is leveled, “You find it more pleasant,” they said, “to stroke the belly of Bard’s wife than to do your duties onboard” (Fox and Palsson).
Now for the lurid yet scientific explication of this.
Prostitutes are known for their sterility. Some of this, no doubt, arises from what modern science calls SPERM COMPETITION: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperm_competition
Perhaps venereal disease contributes to infertility as well. Then there are the many contraceptive measures that a more experienced and knowledgeable woman might use in order to support her family and maintain the business, one of these being abortion.
It would be expected that she would work the entire fishing season and not bear a who knows whose child for her pimp husband to raise and support.
Now why do men involve themselves in so much day jobbing to support females when they could easily have more stuff if they didn’t bother? It is ALSO the glorious biological experience of reproduction. These poor fellows are stuck on a boat with no wife and only this available outlet, and, at the end of the season, there is no profit for them. The first mate walks away with much of their wealth by pimping out his wife.
Here Grettir is involving this couple in paying for their EXPENSES and making this prostitute have the baby. That is the bargain of this biology.
As for the sewing, there is the sense that prostitution is the job and that, when a woman has discharged her duties, she can rest. There is also the sense of style in prostitution, luxurious clothes, fittings, accoutrement, the whole RISA look. This is not a plain and homely woman but a sophisticated one with wealth who does not deign to pick up a needle or tend the mending basket.
“Bard’s young wife often sat beside Grettir and basted up his sleeves for him, and the sailors taunted him about it” (Fox and Palsson). Probably everyone’s sleeves. The ship’s captain was a requirement of COMPLAINING but not of effectiveness.
“Get out of your cozy corner/The ship keeps on ploughing/A deep furrow through the sea,/as you bray to the woman./Now she’s basted up your sleeves/for comfort, and she’d like you/to be brave, for once,/while there’s no land in sight.”
Grettir’s versical of retort went thus: “The ship pitches hard,/but I will stand up./I know the woman will grieve/if I lie here idle./She, chaste and fair,/Will take it badly,/if I let others/do my duty. (Fox and Palsson).
Morris & Magnusson’s verse reads thus:
From thy hands the linen-clad
Fill of sewing now has had,
Till we make the land will she
Deem that labour fitteth thee.”
Medieval sleeves were evidently prone to getting caught in the rigging if they were not secured. “Basting” is a temporary seam intended to be taken out. Even in today’s sewing parlance, sewers put in a temporary “basted” seam in to hold the garment in place while manipulating it in the final sewing; it is a step that makes all the difference in the outcome.
The support of a “wife” evidently requires no small cost, Grettir clearly concluded, and saw to it that the sailors got something for their year’s pay.
REFERENCES: Grettir’s Saga, trans. Denton Fox and Hermann Palsson, University of Toronto Press, 2001. Grettir’s Saga, William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson, 1900, (loc. sagadb.org).