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Women in the Viking Age

Quite a lot of information can be found regarding women during the Viking Age but unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation or misinterpreted information that muddies the water per say of what exactly Women did indeed do regarding a lot of aspects during that time period in Scandinavia and beyond. So I wanted to bring to my readers the best of the best sources to show due respect to what roles women had during the Viking Age which is very important to me.

Introduction

The majority of women in the Viking period were housewives, who managed the housekeeping on the farm with a firm hand. It is also possible that there were female entrepreneurs, who worked in textile production in the towns. 

Just like today, women in the Viking period sought a suitable partner. The sagas are filled with stories of women competing over who has the best man. However, love did not always last. So it was good that Scandinavia was a pioneering region when it came to equal opportunities. The Viking woman could choose a husband and later decide not to marry him after all, if she so wished. However, there were limits to the extent of these equal opportunities. For example, only men could appear in court in the Viking Age.

There is believed to have been a hidden moral in the sagas in relation to a woman’s choice of husband. The family probably wanted to participate in the decision-making. When an attempt was made to woo a woman, the father did not need to ask his daughter’s opinion about the interested male.  In cases in which the girl opposed the family’s wishes, the sagas describe how this often ended badly.

The woman’s reputation and place in society was connected to that of her husband. The sagas often describe how various women compete over who has the best husband. Young girls obviously knew what to look for in a prospective husband.

The Icelandic sagas give examples of how a strong woman could overshadow her husband. It was a dangerous balancing act. Sometimes a wife’s drive and energy could make her husband respect her, whilst in other cases the man lost his reputation due to a powerful wife. The woman’s reputation, on the other hand, remained intact. Women could achieve a great reputation and wealth. We can see this at the most magnificent burial of them all: the Oseberg burial in Norway.

The literature tells us that all rich married Viking women carried keys amongst their personal items. The key symbolized the woman’s status as housewife. Or was this actually the case?

This view can at least partially be attributed to the keys that have been found in rich Viking women’s graves, as well as the legal texts, which state that the medieval housewife had the right to the keys of the house. However, archaeologists find increasing numbers of keys, but these are not necessarily from graves. This indicates that the distribution and use of keys was relatively extensive. SOURCE

One of four sleighs found in the elaborate ship burial at Oseberg, Norway, where in 834 CE two women were buried in an extremely rich setting with many grave goods such as this sleigh, an intricately carved wooden cart and various textiles including fine silks that would have been imported. This burial is classed as royal or at least as an upper-class Viking Age burial; at least one of the women must have been of very high status. The two women’s exact relation to each other is unknown. The ship itself and this sleigh are displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. / Photo by Helen Simonsson, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Elite

If some women were indeed involved in trade, this might conceivably have placed them in the upper rungs of society or least given them means and status. The Viking Age’s rich and powerful – a group which obviously was not exclusively male – peep through the gap of time and reach the modern world in a number of ways, such as the large runestones that were erected across Scandinavia, and burials ranging from just ‘rich’ to ones so over the top it leaves us no doubt as to the buried person’s importance.

Runestones – unsurprisingly, big stones covered in runes and ornamentation usually erected to commemorate the dead – were normally commissioned by wealthy families, the runes speaking of their endeavors in life. Not only can one imagine women being important within these families, some stones were actually commissioned by women themselves (either jointly or alone), leaving an “impression of high social standing of a very few women” (Jesch, 49-50). Runestones also illustrate how important the inheritance of a woman was to facilitate the transfer of wealth from one family to another. Furthermore, some richly furnished female graves (and even boat graves) found in rural settings hint at women possibly climbing to high social positions there. In this same setting, we have already seen that women might have ended up running the farm in their husbands’ absence.

Some 40 graves from Scandinavia and beyond have lent some credence to the idea, stemming from the texts and sagas related to the Viking Age, of the existence of female ‘sorceresses’. Seiðr is a type of shamanistic magic mainly connected to women in the sources, who could be vǫlva (singular: vǫlur): powerful sorceresses with the power to see into the future and mainly associated with a staff of sorcery. Similar objects have been discovered in Viking Age burials and have clear symbolic overtones, perhaps even – according to one interpretation – functioning as metaphorical staffs used to ‘spin out’ the user’s soul. These graves are often rich in terms of clothes and grave goods and include such things as amulets and charms, exotic jewellery, facial piercings, toe rings, and, in a handful of graves, even psychoactive drugs such as cannabis and henbane. How we might imagine these women’s roles in society remains mysterious. 

We also know of some royal female burials. Judith Jesch, mentioning the Oseberg boat burial (c. 834 CE) in which two women were buried in a lavishly decorated and furnished ship accompanied by lots of high-quality grave goods, explains how,

A few obviously royal burials that we have, such as Oseberg, cannot be mistaken for anything other than the monuments of persons with enormous status, wealth and power. Although they share characteristics with other Viking Age burials, they are really in a class of their own. (27)

Who exactly these women had been in life – queen and handmaiden, two aristocratic women related to each other, or otherwise – remains a puzzle but that at least one of them was of high status is beyond doubt.

Another woman of plentiful means was the late-9th-century CE Aud the ‘deep-minded’. She is said to have been born to a Norwegian chieftain residing in the Hebrides and married a Viking who lived in Dublin. After the death of both her husband and son, she took over control of the family fortunes and arranged for a ship to take her and her granddaughters first to Orkney and the Faroes, to finally settle in Iceland. Here, she distributed land among her retinue, became an early Christian, as well as being remembered as one of Iceland’s four most important settlers. SOURCE

This is the first book-length study in English to investigate what women did in the Viking age, both at home in Scandinavia and in the Viking colonies from Greenland to Russia. Evidence for their lives is fragmentary, but Judith Jesch assembles the clues provided by archaeology, runic inscriptions, place names and personal names, foreign historical records and Old Norse literature and mythology. These sources illuminate different aspects of women’s lives in the Viking age, on the farms and in the trading centres of Scandinavia, abroad on Viking expeditions, and as settlers in places such as Iceland and the British Isles. Women in the Viking Age explores an unfamiliar aspect of medieval history and offers a new perspective on Viking society, very different from the traditional picture of a violent and male-dominated world.

Did Viking Age Warrior Women Exist?

Stories of Viking warrior women are found in a number of historical documents, but several come from factually unreliable heroic sagas, fornaldarsogurA good example is Hervor’s and Heidrek’s Saga. After the hero, Angantyr, falls in battle his daughter Hervor takes her father’s sword and uses it to avenge his death by killing his enemies. There are similar stories of Brynhilde and Freydis, in Sigurd’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders. But in each case the story is more about myth-making than fact. As well, these are tales of individual women who are highly skilled with swords and fight in battles, but give no evidence for a ‘community’ of women warriors, which the shieldmaidens are supposed to have been.

There are, however, more reliable historical resources. In the 1070s, for example, Adam of Bremen (chronicling the Hamburg-Bremen archdiocese) wrote that a northern region of Sweden near lake Malaren was inhabited by war-like women. But he doesn’t say how many women, nor does he clarify what “war-like” means. Were these women just zealously patriotic, bad-tempered, aggressive, or maybe even too independent for his Medieval Christian tastes? It’s hard to say.

Then we have the splendid references to ‘communities’ of shieldmaidens found in the works of 12th century Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, whose writing is sure to make every modern woman livid. Keep in mind, Saxo was likely the secretary of the Archbishop of Lund, and had specific Christian notions about appropriate female behavior. He wrote:

“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills. …They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill…” (Fisher 1979, p. 212). SOURCE

Read more about this subject at Viking Warrior-Women Existed?

Viking Age Women in Archaeological Material

The archaeological material contains more male than female burials. Female graves may, however, be just as large and as richly equipped as the male graves, but the burial gifts are different. Female graves are equipped for female purposes. Instead of tools, weapons and hunting dogs, the women get household tools, textile equipment, jewelry and small dogs on their journey to the next life.

And – the richest Viking burial we know of is for a woman: The Oseberg Queen

The sagas have little information about the first part of the Viking Age. It is first and foremost the burials that can give us information about gender roles in the Early Viking Age. The deceased is in many cases buried with burial gifts that indicate what the individual did while he or she was alive. Nevertheless, we must face the fact that archeology can also give us a picture that does not match reality.

Let us see if archeology can give us a hint about the development in women’s status:

In the Late Roman and Migration Period, some centuries before the Viking Age, the tendency is that we several places in Scandinavia have more and richer female burials than male burials.

Male burials. The quality of the burials gifts seems to be reduced the older the buried man is.

Female burials. The richest burials belong to women between 50 – 60 years old. Thus; the status of women seems to increase with their age.

In the Iron Age, including the Viking Age, young girls were given away in marriage to create alliances between families. The most prominent gift a chieftain could give way was his own daughter. But – when we then see that the richest burials belong to grown up women, this strongly indicate that these women had a different foundation for their high status and power than just being a ”gift”.

First part of the Viking Age: (9th Century) the distribution between male and female burials seems to be fifty-fifty.

Middle Viking Age (10th Century): Only every 4th grave can be certainly classified as a female burial.

To conclude,
There are indications that women in the Viking Age had to achieve a higher status than men to get the kind of burial that shows up in the archaeological record. This may indicate that there was a decline in the status of women during the Viking Age.

Others believe that this may be due to changes in fashion, it may be that the oval broches that you normally use to determine women’s graves, gradually went out of fashion during the 900’s. Some have also suggested that the burnt burials at this time may have been more common for men than for women. SOURCE

A look at the Norse idea of the women warrior or shieldmaiden (skjaldmær) in the sagas, and the recent discovery that a Viking-Age burial containing weapons also contained the bones of a woman.

Further Resources

The Vikings changed Europe forever, yet half of them have almost completely disappeared from collective memory: the viking women. Quite unjustly so, as they played an important role in the world of the Vikings and performed extraordinary deeds. Viking women commanded ships and settled colonies. The two-part documentary gives completely new insights into a fascinating culture, about which it seemed everything was already known. Based on characters of the Nordic sagas, the mini-series displays the life stories of two Viking women: those of Sigrun and Jova.

‘Women at the Thing’, Nordic women in the Viking age. Coleman, N. & Løkka, N. L. (eds.). Scandinavian academic press 2014, p. 85-100

Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá

Viking Age Women

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