Summary of Women in the Viking Age
Archaeological discoveries, medieval laws and literature, as well as runic inscriptions and various representations (amulets, tapestries, etc.) are the main sources available to sketch the role and status of women in Viking Age society.
In the Viking Age society, roles were clearly defined according to gender.
The Viking woman probably began in childhood by learning to do housework and agricultural practices, following the precepts of her family, knowing the laws of morality in force and serving the interests of the clan. In this sense, Régis Boyer notes that the woman was the soul of a society in which her husband was only the arm. Because she was the guardian of the family traditions that she in turn instilled in the children.
There is no trace of young women with tender hearts, nor of "Romeo and Juliet" stories in literary sources. Marriage was one of these institutions designed to preserve and increase the prosperity of the family. The girl who became a woman, proud and energetic matron, protected the honour of her clan with hardness and did not hesitate to encourage the men of her house to exercise their right of revenge in the event of contempt. Perhaps this was due to a more passive role of the woman, which prevented her from acting herself.
With the men who went on war or commercial expeditions, the daily management of the household or farm became the prerogative of the owner's wife, the húsfreyja ('mistress of the house'), who thus gained authority and independence and in return enjoyed a deep respect for it. Indeed, the Nordic wife thus participated in her husband's position and fortune. "The sagas of contemporaries, for example, prove that she was never considered an object of pleasure, that she was respected and that her opinions were always listened to," notes Régis Boyer.
The keys with which many of them were buried symbolize their influence on the household and their domestic responsibilities, especially in food distribution.
However, women obviously did not have the same status or prerogatives, depending on the social class to which they belonged.
The slave woman is called ambátt (ambáttir in the plural)
Although almost nothing is known about the lives of maids and slaves, it is easy to see that they were generally devoted to unskilled work, but also to the heaviest and most ungrateful tasks.
Female slaves moulded wheat and salt, a gruelling task requiring the use of a manual hand mill, and carried out milking, churning and laundering. Within a farm, they could also participate in activities such as spring grazing for livestock, ploughing, planting, harvesting, slaughtering and spinning.
Female slaves also often took care of children. Egil Skallagrimsson owned a slave who had been his fóstra (i.e.'nanny') as a child.
They could be the personal servants of the owners of the premises, and perform certain occasional services as bed slaves.
According to archaeological findings, some of them were sacrificed to accompany their master in death.
The lives of the vast majority of women were limited to the home, over which, however, they ruled as of right, with absolute authority.
Women had to marry, have children, raise them, take care of the elderly and take care of the household, i.e. most household tasks (cooking, cleaning, making fabrics and clothing) and, on farms, some agricultural tasks (in particular milking, haymaking and animal care).
The funeral mores and the many tools used to card wool, comb flax, spin, spin, weave and sew, discovered in women's graves, demonstrate the importance of their role in making clothing for the entire household, which included all stages of manufacture: sowing and harvesting flax for flax cloth and nettle and hemp for other types of fabric; raising sheep, lambs and goats to obtain wool. The fibres had to be spun, woven, cut and sewn to make clothes.
In addition to agriculture and the manufacture of textiles and clothing, women could earn a living in commerce, either as families or as sole managers. Merchant scales and weights found in women's graves in Scandinavia suggest a strong link between women and trade. The report of a Christian mission in the 9th century, in Birka, Sweden, one of the great Viking trading posts, reports the conversion of a rich widow, Frideburg, with her daughter Catla, who travelled for her trade to the Frisian port of Dorestad.
The women mentioned in the sagas or whose archaeology reveals graves often rich in funeral offerings, were mainly from the aristocracy, at the head of large households or farms.
They held the keys to the pantry and warehouses, controlled the provisions and had under their responsibility a large staff of servants and slaves. It is very likely that by supervising major projects, they were able to govern by example and get involved.
The domesticity they had at their service probably gave them more time to take care of themselves and their leisure time, a rare and exceptional thing in women's lives during the Viking era.
3D modeling of a Viking woman's face, by researchers at the University of Dundee, from a skull discovered in YorkWomen in the Viking Age had male features. The faces of women and men were more similar then than they are today, according to Lise Lock Harvig, archaeo-anthropologist in the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen: "It is more visually difficult to determine the sex of a skeleton from the Viking Age". She explains that Viking women often had pronounced jaws and eyebrow arches, while men's bones have less marked characteristics for their sex than nowadays, thus confusing archaeologists in charge of determining the sex of the skeletons of the time.
The average height of women, according to the work of Lise Lock Harvig, was 1.58m. Overall, they were more muscular than today's women because of the work they did. Osteoarthritis and dental problems were among the most common ailments.
In the sagas, female characters are praised for their beauty, but even more frequently for their wisdom. As a general rule, women always show a strong temperament. Many of the character traits considered positive for men, such as a sense of honour, courage and willingness, are also considered positive for women. On the other hand, old adoptive mothers, maidservants and gossips are among the weakest female characters in these same literary sources.
Women did not have the same legal status as men and there are indications that they were not as valuable as men in the social hierarchy. But women in the Viking Age enjoyed certain rights and legal provisions that were perfectly enviable at the time.
Girls were almost exclusively the only victims of infanticide, the murder of newborns. The sons were more valuable because they could increase land ownership, wealth and bring in honours, while the daughters had to be married and given dowry. In addition, having fewer women meant fewer births and fewer mouths to feed. This custom continued even after the arrival of Christianity.
Legally, a woman was placed under the authority of her husband or father. The medieval Icelandic law book Grágás states that women are prohibited from wearing men's clothing, cutting their hair short or carrying weapons (K 254).
In inheritance law, a woman could not inherit as much as her brothers. And in some areas, if she had brothers, she inherited nothing. However, if the husband died without a male heir or if the son died during the mother's lifetime, the mother would take possession of all the property.
He was prohibited from participating in most political or governmental activities. She could not therefore be a goði (chief), nor a judge, and could not bring a case before the Þing unless a man initiated the proceedings on his behalf.
Marriages were arranged by the father or other male family members (although the consent of the future wife was often sought), as marriages represented family and clan alliances before any sentimental consideration. It seems that widows enjoyed greater freedom of choice than unmarried women. For example, in the saga of Eirik the Red, Gudrid, who was a widow, had to obtain permission from her stepfather, Eirik the Red, to marry Thorfinn Karlsefni (in the saga of the Greenlanders, she had to obtain this permission from Leif).
9th century silver figurine discovered in Revninge, DenmarkA woman could ask for a divorce, but for specific reasons. And even more remarkable is the fact that in the case of a divorce, a woman would take over the dowry, called heiman fylgia, which she had brought with her at the time of the marriage and which was most of the time the only wealth she could claim to inherit from her family.
The laws specifically protected women against unwanted male attention to them but also against domestic violence. In this regard, Norway's Gulaþing even included special provisions depending on whether or not the violence took place in public, and on its degree of seriousness. Also, domestic violence is the most common reason given for a divorce in sagas. From time to time, a woman felt that divorce was not enough revenge for the insult of a slap: Hallgerd in Njal's saga was thus involved in the death of her two husbands who made the fatal mistake of slapping her.
It was a serious disgrace for a man to hurt a woman, even accidentally as in the attack on a home.
Note: The only exception is women captured during Viking raids as booty, to be sold as slaves. If the rape of women seems to be one of the common forms of violence perpetrated in the context of a battle or raid, it appears from chronicles of the time such as "Les Annales de Saint-Bertin" that the Vikings were less inclined to this practice than other invaders. Moreover, rape is practically non-existent in the stories of the sagas.
The majestic pagan burials of women, although more numerous among men, show that there were at least some women who exercised great influence, particularly in terms of religious beliefs and practices.
Women were highly regarded in religious affairs. In Scandinavian society, the völva, both priestess and prophetess, was generally an elderly woman who had broken away from family ties and was wandering across the country. Her services were used in serious situations, such as the woman who, with the help of Gudrid, led pagan rituals to end famine in the saga of Eirik the Red. Her authority was absolute and she was largely remunerated for her services.
According to mythology and historical accounts, the Völvur were supposed to possess powers such that Odin himself, the father of the gods, called upon their services to know the future of the gods: this is particularly what the Völuspá reports, whose title itself is translated as "the prophetess' song". Among the most famous völvas in Scandinavian literature are the Heidi de la Völuspá and the Gróa du lai de Svipdag (Svipdagsmál) witch.
The Völur among other traditional shamanic disciplines, practiced:
The spá, or prophecy, practiced by the spákona ( spámaðr for men).
The seiðr (literally "boiling, effervescence") is the enchantment, practiced by the seiðkona. Although there were also men, the seiðmaðr, the seiðr particularly required ergi (femininity) because according to Snorri Sturluson, in the Ynglingar Saga, its practice makes it weak and vulnerable, therefore not very masculine.
Reconstruction of the burial of the Fyrkat Völva, with a metal stem and henbane seeds, attributes sourced from a völva - Drawing: Thomas Hjejle BredsdorffThe seiðr was characterized by a trance and aimed to pierce the designs of the norns (goddesses of fate) in order to know fate (vyrð into old norse), or to change the shaman into an animal. The attribute of the seiðkona, a cattail called seiðstafr ("seydr's stick", or a magic wand), is one of the attributes of the goddess Freyja. Freyja is the one who would have taught the seiðr to the ases - although only Odin would have become its master.
Archaeology has uncovered about forty female graves in Denmark (Fyrkat), Norway (Oseberg, Flöksand) and Sweden (Birka) containing cattails, but it has not been possible to certify that they are all völvur.
The disappearance of the Völvur is linked to Christianisation.
When Christianity arrived in Scandinavia, again, it seems that women were more receptive than men. It is no coincidence that in Greenland, the first church was built by Thjodhild, wife of Eirik the Red and mother of Leif and Thorsten.
Christianization has given women new roles, which are reflected in the runic stones of this period. On the Dynna stone in Norway, Gunnvor commemorates his daughter Astrid with images of the Nativity, while the Stäket stone in Sweden commemorates Ingirun, who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
According to Judith Jesch, doctor and director of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, women could not strictly speaking be Vikings. But they played a fundamental role in the colonization of the lands explored by the Vikings.
The word in Old Norse Vikingar is applied exclusively to men, to designate those who sailed from Scandinavia and engaged in raids and trade activities in Great Britain, Europe and the East, or exploration in the North Atlantic (Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland). But Vikings remained in these areas and established Scandinavian colonies.
Women have probably played a role in this implementation process, according to Judith Jesch. In areas with an established indigenous population, Viking settlers were able to marry local women, while some travelling Vikings probably took companions along the way, but there is archaeological evidence that Scandinavian women reached most parts of the Viking world, from Russia in the east to Newfoundland in the west, as evidenced by the discovery of a whale at the time at Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland).
Iceland was uninhabited and a permanent population could only be established if women also made this trip.
Research published on 8 December 2014 in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B studied the genetic material extracted from 45 exploitable specimens of ancient bones exhumed in central and northern Norway and dated between the years 793 and 1066. Comparison of this mitochondrial DNA, which provides direct information on maternal genealogy, with that of the inhabitants of medieval Iceland and current populations in Europe, revealed that Viking women played a central role in the expansion and settlement in the North Atlantic.
According to Erika Hagelberg, from the Oslo Department of Biosciences, proof is provided that "Nordic women participated in the colonization process. A significant number of them have been involved in the colonization of small islands." And Jan Bill, an archaeology professor specializing in the Viking Age and curator at the Oslo Museum, who also participated in this work, goes even further: "We know they were carrying cattle, so why not take the children with them too? I think we are dealing with family groups, not just adult women and men." Viking colonization would therefore have been a real family business.
While the Northern Islands are completely Scandinavian in language and culture, the areas colonized by the Vikings in and around the Irish Sea had a more diverse population.
On the Isle of Man, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a rich woman, known as the "Pagan Lady of Peel", whose personal belongings, including a necklace of 52 pearls, were almost entirely of Scandinavian origin. The Isle of Man also includes some thirty runic stones mixing Celtic crosses, Scandinavian-style ornaments such as illustrations of mythological scenes and inscriptions composed of runes and old Norse. Although the names of individuals (both northern and Celtic) and the confusing grammar of the language suggest a very mixed community, at least a quarter of these monuments commemorate women, most as wives. A stone located in Kirk Michael seems to be dedicated to the memory of an adoptive mother with the inscription: "It is better to leave a good adoptive son than a bad son.
Whale bone plaque found in the Scar (Scotland) funeral boat In Scotland, pagan tombs provide abundant archaeological evidence of the first Scandinavian settlement in Scotland and the presence of female settlers. And in the Orkney Archipelago, two graves portray two very different women: the mother of newborn twins, young, rich and valiant in Westness, and an elderly woman of high status, buried in Scar, in a boat, with a younger man and a child.
In England, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle testifies that a Viking army operating in the years 892-895, was accompanied by women and children who had to be taken to a safe place while the warriors were fighting. In addition, recent archaeological discoveries of a large number of Nordic style women's jewellery, particularly in Lincolnshire, have demonstrated the presence of Scandinavian women in the 10th century.
There was a significant new influx of Scandinavians into England during Knut's reign in the 11th century. These new immigrants of a higher social class left their mark in London and the south, areas not previously subject to Scandinavian settlement. The runic stone of St Paul, London, with its parcel inscription indicating only the names of its sponsors, Ginna (a woman) and T-ki (a man), reveals the cultural affiliation of two Scandinavians in the heart of the English kingdom.
The independence and relative freedom of women in the Viking Age, as well as the authority and responsibilities they had to exercise during the long periods of absence of men on expeditions, logically required them to be able to defend themselves at a minimum, if not fight. Nevertheless, the debate rages when we talk about the existence of women warriors.
Valkyrie (1869), by Peter Nicolai ArboThe skjaldmö, who refers to a young warrior woman armed with a shield in northern mythology as Old Norse, founded the myth of Valkyria.
In mythology, the valkyries, dressed in armor, flew over the battlefields, led the battles, distributed death among the warriors and took the souls of the heroes to the Valhöll, the great palace of Odin, so that they would become Einherjar. However, a common misconception about the valkyries is that they would have been female warriors. This is unfounded because there is not a single account of a valkyrie fighting and only rarely carrying a weapon.
Skjaldmös are the real warriors in written sources, such as Hervor (Hervor's saga and King Heidrekr's saga), Brynhild (Bósi and Herraud's saga), Thornbjörg (Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar) or Veborg in the Danish Gesture. According to Saxo Grammaticus, 300 skjaldmös fought alongside the Danes in the Battle of Brávellir in 750, and Lagertha, who fought alongside Ragnar Lodbrok and helped him to win the battle by personally leading a clever attack on the enemies' flanks.
However, again, the warrior women of the Viking Age are above all a myth created by authors such as Saxo Grammaticus who, as a Christian priest, was dismayed by the relative freedom and social power of Viking women in everyday life, so he wrote many stories of warrior women who relied much more on references in his classical education to Greek Amazon legends than to the mores of the Vikings. Saxo's goal was to introduce a warrior woman, then create a manly hero who would beat her with her virile aura and beauty alone.
A new study provides genetic confirmation of a Viking warrior woman in Birka - Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of the burial Bj 581mise au jo It is therefore quite naturally towards Archaeology that all hopes are turning to shed light on the emblematic but elusive Viking warrior.
The Bj 581 burial ground in Birka, Sweden, dating from the middle of the 10th century, was the subject of a new study in 2017. Osteological and genetic analyses revealed that this grave of an alleged warrior, including a sword, arrows, axe, battle knife, spear, two shields and two horses, was that of a woman. The presence of a complete set of game pieces with their board, a symbol of tactics and strategic analysis, tends to prove that this warrior could have held high positions on the battlefield. Moreover, isotope analyses confirm an itinerant lifestyle, choosen with the martial society that dominated Europe from the 8th to the 10th century.
A large number of women's graves with weapons and other warrior attributes have been discovered in Scandinavia and in most of the places where the Vikings have settled. When the funerary furniture is composed only of martial elements, very few skeletons - for apparent reasons of cost - have been subjected to genetic analysis, archaeologists immediately giving these graves to those of warriors.
Apart from Birka's tomb, therefore, at present only two Viking Age fighters exhumed in Norway in the early 1900s have been found, following the tests carried out, to be ultimately women.
Three documented graves certainly do not establish a generality about the role that women may have played in the field of martial activities. But surprisingly, this type of revelation is generally worth to the archaeologists an outcry, systematically accused of feeding a phantasmagorical incarnation of valkyria in this way.
Some women have left their mark by their exceptional status or success.
In 834, two women, one about 50 years old, and one older, between 70 and 80 years old, were buried in one of the richest graves of the Viking Age, the Oseberg Grave Boat in Norway, with a large number of richly decorated burial objects. Was it a wealthy merchant, a woman in charge of religion or politics, a queen and her neighbour?
Later in the same century, Auður djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir (Aude the Wise) experienced a real Viking odyssey. The daughter of a Norwegian chief in the Hebrides, she married a Viking based in Dublin and, when her husband and son died, she took over the family fortune, chartering a boat to take her and her granddaughters to Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. It was in Iceland that she settled, distributing the land to her followers. She is known as one of the four most important settlers and the first notable Christian.
Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Saga Museum of ReykjavikIn the 10th century, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, was "the terrible child" of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson's sister. As a member of the expedition led by Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland, facing the Amerindians, she tore off her clothing, exposing her chest and hitting it with her sword while screaming. The natives, frightened by this vision of an eight-month-old pregnant warrior with bare breasts, screaming warily, immediately fled, ending the battle. She ordered massacres during other expeditions that sentenced her to exile by her brother Leif. Nevertheless, she distinguished herself as a Vinland explorer and fearless fighter.
In the 11th century, Queen Emma was one of the last great female figures before the end of the Viking Age. His father was Duke Richard of Normandy, a descendant of the Viking founder Rollon, while his mother is said to have been Danish. Emma was married to two kings of England, the English Æthelred and the Danish Knut the Great and was the mother of two others. Together with Knut, she was a great protector of the Church and after her death, she commissioned the Emmae eulogy, a Latin apology of the Danish kings in England in the 11th century, thus ensuring that her portrait was included in the manuscript.
La Vie quotidienne des Vikings, by Régis Boyer, p.84 - 87
The Viking Saga, by Rudolph Pörtner, p.108- 122
Women in the Viking Age (1991) and Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (2001) by Judith Jesch
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