On June 8th 793ce foreign ships brought an unexpected surprise to the Lindisfarne monastery, the Northmen had arrived. This attack marked the beginning of the Viking Age, an era of raids that shook the western world until its end at the battle of Hastings in 1066. These Northmen arrived and promptly the “heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter. ” It is important to note that the Vikings had an oral tradition and no known sources exist depicting events from their perspective. “We see the attack through the eyes of the victims, who spread the word that the Vikings were bloody and violent.
In fact, they were violent, but no more than anyone else at the time. Compared to Charlemagne’s armies, the Vikings were amateurs. The Vikings were actually just looking for better places to live and preferred not to kill or be killed for it. ” There exists a less known side of the Viking Age and its society, one comprised of such aspects as the farmer, trader, craftsmen, and explorer. Just a few professions possible for any man or woman. The Norse society was rich and vibrant with many facets hidden behind a bloody axe. Their enemies saw them only as warriors, heathens, and bloodthirsty, a society of aggressive men with subservient women.
This was not the case, though until recently historians have not given full due to the women of the Norse. Even now archeological evidence is altering the way we perceive the Viking society and role women played within it. It has been 1,227 years since the beginning of the Viking age and throughout that time the view of women has changed, not much for the first 1,172 years, but fairly dramatically within the last 55 years as gender studies has gained more attention in connection with the feminist movement. It has provided a dramatic shift in viewpoint when compared to the early sources.
The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus circa 1204 is one of the earliest second hand sources available to us that speaks of the society and legends of the Norse people. By the time of the writing of this accounting the Viking Age had long ended and the formerly pagan people were converted to Christianity. The values of the Christian religion and those of the world at large influenced the author, a fact that can be seen within his work and is even commented upon by those that translated the work.
“That the persians the heathens worshipped as gods existed, and that they were men and women false and powerful, Saxo plainly believes. Within the concepts of the modern, at his time, world Saxo made his work of history fit within his sensibilities. He presents the abilities of women within Norse society partially correctly, but anything considered outside of normalcy in his mind is regulated to oddities within the society or aberrant individuals who act outside the norm and natural order of things. Saxo’s beliefs about the proper role of women can easily be seen within this selection. Instead of allowing women the ability to freely be both warrior and lover Saxo causes women to abandon all feminine aspects in order to gain the ability to go to war.
And while he grants them the ability to be competent warriors, they are still presented as unnatural in their choices. So while the accurate accounts of women’s capabilities exist within the work he perverts the nature of the information and causes its importance to be lost by regulating these possibilities to fringe, unnatural groups within Viking Society. This telling of the place of women within Viking Age Norse society continues through a good portion of the 20th century and William Morris’s translations of Snorri’s works.
William Morris was a designer, well known poet, novelist, translator, and social activist as well as a fluent in Latin, Greek, and French. After a trip to Iceland he was inspired by the stories he heard and, when the scarcity of English translations of Old Norse literature became known to him, decided to learn Old Norse as a means to open this realm of study further. His interest in the Norse works can be noted within his early works in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine circa 1856. It is his translations of three Sagas that are of interest in regards to this paper.
Between 1869 and 1870 Mr. Morris translated the Grettis Saga, The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Rafn the Skald, and The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with Certain Songs from the Elder Edda with Eirikr Magnusson. Within these works Morris paints a picture of equality between the sexes of Norse society. He stated that divorce was not uncommon, be it initiated by male or female, and that in the surviving literature, there are many instances of “women divorcing themselves for some insult or offence, a blow being considered enough excuse “.
Later in a lecture titled “The Early Literature of the North Iceland” Mr. Morris states that the idea of equality within the Viking Age in Norse society was not the Norm. Morris, it appears, was unable to rid himself of the cultural ideas and concepts of his era concerning the proper or natural role of women. Because of these prejudices in concern to gender roles his works suffered, becoming a skewed vision of history. This vision of the natural roles of women in society throughout history did not change until the mid-20th century in connection with the rise of the feminist movement and the focus placed on gender studies within the field of history.
Then in 1991 Judith Jesch produced “Women in the Viking Age” kick starting a major shift from the views of old and how we perceive the Norse society within the Viking Age today. The Viking Age, as presented by pre mid-20th century archeology, is predominately male oriented, with savage male warriors presented to the public as the norm, leaving the female aspect unknown to the majority. The view of gender roles within Norse society within this time frame was inaccurate due to the incomplete and inaccurate documentation and portrayal of women which resulted in a skewed, and gender biased history.
In opposition to this Dr. Lisa Bitel of the University of Southern California stated, “Women participated more fully and freely in both the settling of Iceland and in its written history than in any other migration of peoples within medieval Europe. … Some Scandinavianists have argued that in Iceland Europeans had a chance to experiment with social and political organizations unencumbered by the customs of the homeland; other scholars believe, however, that the Icelanders brought with them to the new land the customs of the old, including gender relations. In 1990, a conference on gender and medieval society occurred at Fordham University which focused on feminist studies as a focal point from which the medieval idea of masculinity is approached. In 1994, Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages was published as a result of that conference. Numerous researchers contributed essays on the altered views of masculinity during the medieval period, and how using masculinity as a lens through which gender is viewed is to be approached.
The focus was on showing that the reign of male oriented history did not just lessen and occasionally ignore women but did the same thing to the experiences of men. Archaeology is a discipline which was greatly affected by a predominantly male sway, and the historical importance of men over women was accepted to such an extent that it was believed to be the natural order of things. In comparison to the works of mid-20th century to present gender historians the presence of women was limited within the scope of their predecessors works.
Initial works on gender roles within Viking societies set social norms based upon men, using these norms to compare with the lives of women. Manly activities such as warfare, owning a business, exploring, defense of home, and owning property were considered outside the realm of women’s lives within medieval society. The fields of gender and/or women’s studies gained in prominence starting in the 1970’s, this coincides with the feminist movement. Early gendered archaeology was essentially the search for women in history which is tied with the second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s.
The earliest practitioners of gender archaeology focused on women in an attempt to show that women not only existed in the past but were integral to the development of culture and their roles within their perspective societies were equal to those of men. This focus changed the view of Viking women and Norse society within the Viking Age as a whole, granting us a more accurate picture of the society and the people, both women and men, which inhabited it. The roles and rights of Viking women, when compared to their peers, were astoundingly progressive.
In the 1980’s historians worked to expand the ideas of female roles within Norse society. According to Margaret Shaus “Gender was a lens that could be turned on both the perceptions and self-perceptions of the feminine, or turned back onto masculinity, treating perceptions of men as gendered notions rather than as generic norms for the human condition. ” Megan McLaughlin’s work “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe” kick started a modern examination women’s roles within their societies.
In her work, McLaughlin states that studying perceived gender roles and actual human behavior is necessary to properly understand how the idea of gender roles affect and are affected by experience. These ideas were expanded upon by scholars such as Judith Jesch and Jenny Jochens. These two scholars showed that women are no longer to be thought of as auxiliary members of a society whose main responsibilities were, domestic in nature, such things as taking care of children, animals, and engaging in cooking or weaving. Instead they were integral figures within the whole of the society.
Just as important, and equal to, within the social structures of their society as men. Beyond the discussion of the female role within the household or looking at the various activities presented to women outside the home, within the last twenty years there has been an increased interest within the study of Norse women’s role within war, trade, as storytellers, and as leaders. Elsie Rosedahl, does not believe women played a direct role in trade , while Jeannine Davis-Kimball favors the opposite viewpoint, concluding some 25% of Viking women interred in the Volga region were the primary merchants of the community.
Judith Jesch agrees with the latter, in her book “women in the Viking Age” she states “historical and archaeological evidence, suggest that women could also be merchants or craftspeople, working alone or as partners of their husbands. ” It is likely that with new opportunities women found ways to expand their influence and possible roles. The surviving sagas and the tenth century chronicles of Ibn Fadlan who observed the social constructs within the Rus Viking merchants ucts within the Rus Viking merchants of the Ukraine has provided greater understanding of social norms which were progressive in comparison to other contemporary societies, an example of this is the apparent control of family wealth and finances in Viking society by women. Scales, locks and keys, and chests or caskets are often found as female grave goods. Ibn Fadlan tells us women competed against men in the sport of glima, a form of wrestling which is still practiced today in Iceland.
This suggests that the women of the Viking Ages were more than just pretty faces passive members of the society. The Arab anthropologist recorded that the torc had become a status symbol amongst eastern Viking women, and that gold and silver were the common materials, this again suggests considerable wealth. While Ibn Fadlan’s account of a funeral in which a woman throws herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband was thought to speak of the dominance of men it is an incomplete view.
The complete view must include accounts of men being sacrificed to accompany individual women, and that the ninth century Oseberg ship burial from southwestern Norway, one of the greatest burial finds to date, contained two female skeletons. It is worth noting that despite their worldly needs being taken care of for the afterlife, the burial contained no weapons or treasure, though the tomb was robbed at some point and so it is impossible to know what, if any, goods existed within the tomb at the time of the burial.
All this points to a greater variety of positions and status for women amongst the Norse of the Viking Age, perhaps even bringing truth to the stories of the shield maiden. Within “The Woman Warrior,” McLaughlin proclaims that active participation in combat is the “quintessential masculine activity,” but the way in which armies were organized granted women a unique access point, who’s expected roles were thought to be centered within domestic activities. Males were trained in weapon skills, strategy, and warfare in a home setting; within this system a female existed within the realm of military strategy and training.
Armies consisted of retainers and the warriors within the army resided under the command of the lord and were also in service to the lord’s wife who managed and defended the holdings in the lord’s absence. If women acted as defenders of domestic life in certain circumstances, the gender roles within the society may have allowed women to display altered norms as their assigned economic and political tasks granted them the task of mediators with the world outside of Viking culture.
There are a number of widows recorded as warriors, defending their interests and their children’s interests with a weapon in hand. In 1991 Judith Jesch wrote the first book in English to emphasize the lives of Scandinavian women between 800-1100, “Women in the Viking Age. ” The work takes a multidisciplinary approach to create a clearer picture of the varying roles and activities open to Viking women within their society. Jesch uses archaeological evidence, runic inscriptions, foreign chronicles, art of the time period, and various eddic and skaldic works.
The book appeared to have an orderly format at first in which Jesch presents her evidence, from the most reliable to least until she states that “there is certainly a continuum and the different sources give different types of information about the Viking Age, but I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that ‘only archaeology can reveal the truth. ” Jesch begins with an explanation as to how grave goods and burial sites are used to help determine the gender of the individual buried within in cases where the remains are incomplete, missing, or physical remains are degraded.
She states that it was common practice to determine the sex of the individual on the basis of their grave goods. Often designating graves “with weapons and certain tools as male and those buried with jewelry and domestic implements as female. ” In the rare cases where both the skeletal remains and grave goods are present it was determined that “about the only implements found exclusively in the graves of one sex are blacksmith’s tools in male graves. ” Weapons such as spears, axes and arrowheads, while often associated with a male grave, have been found in female graves.
This is not enough evidence to verify the presence of warrior women, as grave goods often served as practical tools to send with the individual to aid them in the next life. With this being the case, “even burial with a real weapon does not necessarily imply that the woman knew how to use it in real life. ” A common symbol of female identity within the Norse culture in the Viking Age, the paired oval or ‘tortoise shell ‘brooches, were at times preserved as heirlooms in and possibly held as emblems of homeland’ identity.
Jane Kershaw studied female displays of Scandinavian association in Scandinavian areas through common dress ornaments worn at the time. Gender distinctions as an expression of ethnic identity are observable in a wide range of modern contexts. She states that these brooches are an appropriate means of distinguishing female graves from male graves. In addition to these grave goods, there are also a number of iconographic images which display females carrying spears, swords and shields as well as wearing armor. Current debates believe such images are worthy of attention and investigation.
Representations of females holding weapons have been previously discovered on the fragments of the Oseberg tapestry. The textile fragments show human-esque figures that appear to be either standing in front of spears or holding them. These figures also appear to be wearing clothing that is typical of the long dresses which were worn by Viking Age Nordic women. Some of these female figures are also holding swords. The Oseberg tapestry is difficult to interpret with certainty, but it is believed its imagery represents a procession of some kind, perhaps one that occurred as part of a funeral.
Jesch has also speculated that the female figures on the tapestry might be the Valkyrie “choosing the slain for the honour of Valhall”. Jesch notes the varying places in which female Nordic graves can be found, these range from Iceland to Russia, yet she is stops short of giving this information as evidence of female participation in Viking raids. She states that “In spite of the archaeological evidence that women from Scandinavia accompanied the men who went trading and adventuring in the east, we are never told this in the written sources. What written sources do contain is a picture of how medieval writers viewed the Norse of the Viking Age through a gendered biased lens. Jesch analyzes the History of the Danes, written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century, and how his work regards “warrior women” in the stories such as Lathgertha and Alvid. There is no doubt that Saxo treated the idea of women as warriors as unnatural in order to reinforce his time periods and cultures idea of proper gender behavioral models.
This reinforcement of social norms is due to the fact that they represent examples of heathen Demark, “before the church and a stable monarchy brought in a new order. ” Jesch notes that Saxo was influenced by the models of amazons, and his concept of warrior women is influenced greatly by that model. Saxo himself credits the Icelandic narratives as his main source, due to this Saxo’s “warrior women” “should not be seen as fiction brought to to Northern Europe” but “must be seen in the context of Old Norse traditions preserved in Icelandic literature. In these traditions, the roles of women generally follow the patterns of later European literature.
Often they are portrayed as weak or victims in need of saving, fierce warriors, or as love interests for the male heroes. What is unique to the Nordic sagas is the aggrandizement of the female “inciter. ” One commonality that many of the eddic females is that they are oftentimes the cause of a blood feud or at the root of it. This suggests that the idea of women leading men or actively participating in fighting may not be unusual at times, but within the general norms of the society the role of women in warfare was thought to be causal.
Jesch states that the role of female cer within the sagas may in fact reflect real situations which occurred in Nordic society within the Viking Age. And that through this role women were able to participate in Icelandic public life. Since there was no formal law enforcement entity social control was maintained by a feud system, which was designed to maintain a balance between competing kin groups. The role of inciter gave women access to a part of the public sphere of Viking life.
On one hand, proud, strong willed women were often marked as the catalysts, and occasionally the cause, of a lot of trouble. On the other hand, women were given the role as guardians of a family’s honor and “the voice of conscience that reminds men of their duty. ” While Judith Jensch’s book does not present any new “hard evidence” in regards to proving that a large number of women fought in the early Middle Ages than later centuries, it does open a discussion as to the extent of roles for women within Norse society in the Viking Age and possible roles for women in warfare.
Writings of the central and late Middle Ages (like Saxo’s) and the Eddas and Sagas contain hints in regards to social anxieties about women participating in war. Those beliefs stand in near opposition of each other as the sagas grant women the ability to fight but are reluctant when it comes to a women’s ability to influence and advise men. Some later writers praise women for their abilities as advisors and supporters of war, but are less accepting of their direct participation. The origins of this altered viewpoint finds its origins within the 11th to the 13th centuries as gender roles changed.
This shift may help explain the decline of women as warriors in the later middle ages according to McLaughlin. As Christianity took over as the origin of gender norms and women no longer found leeway within their society. Jo Ann McNamara wrote about what she dubbed the “Herrenfrage” of the early 12th century. McNamara stated that this “identity crisis” for men was brought about by wide ranging social changes which were complicated by “ideological struggle between celibate and married men for leadership of the Christian World. ” The rise of larger urban population and the creation of new professions meant that the society was restructured away from the household.
The structures that allowed women a window into military actions closed as military training moved from the home. We do not know to what degree the literature depicts the reality of life for Icelandic women within the home, at the settlement, or even within the Viking Age. As no literary parallel in Scandinavia exists, the Icelandic evidence exists as the sole evidence of its kind. Not only is it unsure whether saga women ere historical fact or fiction, but there is not even outside literature to compare with in an attempt to discern a difference in the treatment and depiction of women. Instead, we must try to draw conclusions through logical deduction and the study of what material is available until better evidence and source comparisons can be made. Icelandic women in early medieval literature are characterized as independent and vital to the survival of the nation as a whole.
Whether or not this belief presents an accurate historical reality, these figures emonstrate the thirteenth century Icelandic memory of female ancestors as strong, important, and influential parts of their society. Early medieval Icelandic identity included an admiration for strong-willed women and an awareness of their power in both conflicts and law, as evidenced by their representations in the sagas. Whether or not their contemporary women were as influential and active, the Icelandic saga authors recorded the antics of some strong and powerful women both as part of their national heritage and for posterity.