The Middle Ages are often depicted as a dark time in Europe's history where the sexual abuse of women, among other despicable acts, was commonplace. The Vikings - with their reputation for pillage and violent conquest - certainly form part of this narrative.

However, research published in the Journal of Family History suggests that in Viking society, rape was not as common as the legends may have lead us to believe.

"If we look at Scandinavia, there is no evidence that rape was more common in the Middle Ages than in the two centuries that followed," Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist from Stockholm University told ScienceNordic.

The evidence for this, according to the study, is that there would be far more mentions of rape in the extensive literature of Old Norse society if it had been common at the time.

In addition, the authors note that "Old Norse society was an honour culture, in which honour and dishonour were concepts of supreme social importance".

Rape was perceived as a violation of a woman's bodily integrity and was not only dishonourable to the victim, but was regarded as "highly defamatory" to her male relatives. They would be allowed to take vengeance against the rapist – including murder – without risk of punishment.

Ljungqvist said that rape was considered such a serious crime that it was unlikely to be common.

"We also have to remember that the Catholic Church had a strong grip on the Nordic region during most of the Middle Ages. The Church considered all extramarital activity as something criminal," he said.

Ljungqvist looked for evidence of sexual assaults in the Icelandic sagas, which offer a glimpse into Viking society in the Middle Ages.

"Sexual assault rarely occurs in the Icelandic Sagas," he said. "When it does, it is usually in the context of feuds and warfare. Sexual assault was committed against enemy women as a part of warfare, to dishonour other men."