The Role of Women

A typical nineteenth-century depiction of a Valkyrie, painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1864. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

The role and status of women in the Viking Age has become the subject of increasing popular, as well as scholarly, interest in recent years. Viking Age Norse society was not in any way equal as we understand it. Power was primarily wielded by men, who occupied the most prominent roles in society and had the greatest social advantages. From the legal codes that survive, it is also apparent that men had more rights under the law. Finally, the named authors of the medieval world were almost all men: the portrayal of women in literature was therefore dictated by men. However, there is an increasing body of evidence which demonstrates that women could occupy prominent and influential positions in society, although we can’t be certain how common this was. Women appear to have occupied a series of distinct roles within society, which are explored below. Furthermore, the debate about whether female Viking warriors existed has been reignited by archaeological finds which may support a hypothesis that has circulated in popular culture for 150 years.

Most of our sources for prominent Norse women date from after the Viking Age itself. Very few contemporary sources mention women at all as they are preoccupied with the activities of kings and armies. The exceptions are the sources composed by those who travelled to Scandinavia or through other parts of the Norse world. As has been our practice throughout these pages, we must be cautious when it comes to assessing the validity of post-Viking Age sources. The most reliable are Scandinavian law codes which may contain laws dating as far back as the Viking Age itself, although the laws are invariably contained in manuscripts from much later. Beyond that, we are dependent on the Icelandic sagas, whose pages are full of powerful and intriguing female characters.

 
 

Women in Literature

It is widely accepted that women must have been largely responsible for the day-to-day management of the Viking Age farm. The wife and daughters of the head of the household were more permanent residents as they were less likely to depart for long periods on raiding or trading missions (although accounts of the Vikings in the East suggest that female traders did exist). Furthermore, it may have been quite common for women to become heads of households in their own right, particularly if their male family members never returned from these expeditions (which must have been a regular occurrence). This exact scenario is depicted in Landnamabok (compiled a century after the Viking Age), in which Aud (aka Unn) the Deep-Minded, whose husband and son had been killed in Ireland and Scotland respectively, becomes the head of her household and has absolute authority over it. She marries off her granddaughters to suitors, is able to uproot her household from the Hebrides and relocate to Iceland, where she claims land, parcels it off to her followers and frees her slaves. This reflects Icelandic law, which contained provisions for women who became the heads of households—although they also underline that the position did not convey equal status.

Women in Archaeology: Rulers and Warriors?

Except in very rare cases, archaeological evidence for the Viking Age cannot tell us about named individuals. Instead, it gives an indication of how different social roles were defined. When it comes to understanding Viking Age gender roles, most of the archaeological information we have comes from burial practices. The evidence is limited but suggests that women could occupy powerful positions within Norse society (although it is difficult to say how common this was). One of the best indications of this is the Oseberg ship burial from southern Norway. Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) tell us that the 20m-long ship was interred in 834. It contained the bodies of two women, along with a huge quantity of elaborate grave goods. One woman was around 80, the other was in her 50s. Their relationship to one another is unclear. However, strontium analysis of the younger woman suggested that she had come to Norway from the Middle East—possibly as a high-status slave. Both wore good quality woollen clothing with veils, although the older woman’s clothing was far more elaborate: it was decorated with strips of silk and had a linen, rather than woollen, veil. Both women had a diet high in meat (rather than fish), a sign of luxury in medieval Scandinavia, and the younger woman had used a metal toothpick in life, another indication of wealth. The evidence suggests that the two women belonged to the ruling class in their community. It is possible that one of them was a queen—whether the wife of a ruler or a ruler in her own right. It has also been suggested that the women might have been religious leaders for the local community. In either case, the Oseberg ship burial is one of a series of high-status ship graves in southern Norway which can only have belonged to members of the highest levels of society.

The well-preserved human remains of the Oseberg burial allow us to deduce a lot about its occupants. In the present day, forensic tests have developed to the point where sex can be determined without any reasonable doubt. Before such tests existed, determining sex could be a fraught process. If a grave contained a complete skeleton, sex could often only be hypothesised based on its proportions (such as height of the individual or the shape of the pelvis), but this was imprecise given the variety of body shapes seen in both sexes. Furthermore, graves often contain no trace of their human occupants at all or contain too little to be able to determine the deceased’s sex. In such cases, the traditional practice of archaeologists has been to attempt to determine the sex of a grave’s occupant(s) based on the items buried with them; however, this is challenging and increasingly controversial.

If you cannot be sure of the sex of a grave’s occupant, to reach a conclusion based on grave goods requires that you have already formed a hypothesis of Viking Age gender roles before even looking in the grave. If a grave contains weaving equipment, for example, we might conclude that the occupant was female, but only because we have assumed that weaving was an activity only undertaken by women. Similarly, if a grave contains weapons, most scholars have, in the past, been content to accept that the occupant must have been male, because it is assumed that only men could be warriors. These assumptions are not baseless and are even likely to be correct most of the time. For example, the female occupants of the Oseberg ship were accompanied by textiles and household items such as buckets, which are traditionally associated with female gender roles. Similarly, there is a clear association between female skeletons and burial goods such as jewellery: particularly necklaces made of beads and/or coins and pairs of brooches that were used to fasten woollen tunics.

Occasionally, however, archaeological finds contradict expected social roles, making it necessary for us to question the basis of our assumptions about them. The grave depicted has often been cited as a quintessential Viking warrior’s grave. It contained a full set of weapons and the corpse of a horse. In 2017, the bones that were found in this grave were DNA-tested and the occupant was proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be female. As a result, we must consider two possibilities: either the automatic assumption that a grave containing weapons is a warrior’s grave is wrong, or it was possible for Norse women to be regarded as warriors by their society. The grave in question is prominently located compared to the other graves at Birka. It looked out across the main bay of the trading site. Uniquely, it had a large stone placed over it as a grave marker. It was undoubtedly the grave of a very important member of the local community: possibly its leader. To be buried with so many weapons not only displays the wealth and power of the female occupant but also suggests that she was regarded as the protector of her community, whether symbolically or literally. In support of the latter interpretation, it has been revealed that the warrior’s skull bore signs of a significant wound to the forehead, although it seems the blow was not (instantly) fatal as it showed signs of healing. Although we cannot be certain how this wound was sustained, in any other ‘warrior grave’, such a finding would be accepted as a battle wound without comment. It is therefore reasonable to conclude (and consistent with other burials) that the occupant of the grave was regarded as a warrior and may even have fought in battle. Even if that latter point cannot yet be proven decisively, it is worth remembering that participation in battle is more relevant to our own definition of what constitutes a warrior than may have been the case for Viking Age communities. It is no less interesting a question, even if it cannot yet be definitively answered. What do you think?

 
The Viking Age

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