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By David Nikel
Women in the Viking Age enjoyed more equality and freedom than almost all other women of their time. From warriors to farmers, here’s the story of the roles of Viking women.
Some recent articles have highlighted gender equality in the Viking Age. But while women did hold a certain level of power, there were still great differences in the roles of men and women.
Women in the Viking Age
Legends of the valkyries and sagas telling of shield maidens have long been doubted by experts. In 2017 a DNA study of a Viking warrior grave claimed the deceased was actually female. Although the study has since been refuted, many still believe the sagas.
Today, Norwegian women enjoy positions of power in business and politics, but what exactly were things like during the time of the Vikings? Most people know the legend of the valkyries and have heard of supposed female Viking warriors known as shield maidens.
But what was life like for Viking women? Did they really join the raids? We’ve gathered together the latest research, plus the assumptions based on sagas and other records to pull together this guide. All set? Then let’s dive into the details.
The Birka warrior: male or female?
Known as Sweden’s first town, Birka has such strong historical and cultural importance that the settlement on Björkö island is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Nowhere can the Norsemen’s status as great traders be better seen than on Björkö. Merchants came here from across Europe–and possibly beyond–to trade valuables. Arabic silver, eastern European beads, ceramics, rare fabrics and a glass goblet are the among the items discovered here.
However, Birka became even more famous in 2017, when a DNA study into this 1889 grave excavation was published. Thought to be a male warrior since 1889, the human remains were proven to be female. The study concluded that the items buried with the woman prove she was a high-ranking warrior.
One of the items was a strategic board game related to chess. Researchers thought of this as evidence of her strategic thinking, as such games were usually only found in warrior graves. The Washington Post was among the global media to report on the study: “The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden, like the ancient Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones.”
However, criticism of the study came quickly. Viking studies professor Judith Jesch was a particularly vocal critic. Among other points, she argued that bones from other graves may have been mixed together, and the association of game pieces with warrior status was premature speculation.
She also claimed that researchers did not consider other reasons why the body of a female may have been placed in a warrior’s tomb.
Research reveals “remarkable” equality
Most scholars share Jesch’s view that the “Viking ethos” means there would have been no female warriors. However, women did share equal rights in many aspects of society. They could own land, initiate divorce proceedings, serve as clergy and run a business. However, their sphere of influence was domestic.
Modern Scandinavian society is known for its march towards gender equality. From laws on parental leave to a high proportion of women in parliaments, the Nordic countries are seen as a template to follow worldwide.
Yet recent research suggests that such a society may not be so modern after all. Viking society may well have promoted gender equality more than one thousand years ago, in a time when boys were “preferred” across much of Europe.
In the journal Economics & Human Biology, researchers argue that men and women of the Viking era experienced “remarkable” equality. They also suggest that this society may even have helped to contribute to the equality in Scandinavia today.
Archaeological discoveries helped University of Tubingen researchers trace health and nutritional equality between men and women during the Viking Age. They did this by analysing the teeth and skeletons of human remains dating back more than a millennium.
This data was then compared with others across the continent, using the Global History of Health Project. The Europe-wide dataset includes references to human skeletons from more than 100 sites from the last 2,000 years.
Scientists found that things like teeth enamel and femur lengths were relatively equal between men and women. In an unequal society, they would expect to have found permanent damage to tooth enamel in ill or malnourished children. The condition is known as linear enamel hypoplasia.
“We hypothesized that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage. The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population,” said researcher Laura Maravall.
What did Viking women wear?
One might think that Viking clothes were made just for practicality, dull and boring, to match the often gloomy and grey lands in which they lived. In fact, experts believe they were from that. It is believed that many of their clothes were bright and colourful.
Clothing was first and foremost functional. The most important factor was warmth. Likely clothing included a base layer of a linen under-dress that stretched from the shoulder down to ankle length. On top, a wool strap dress of a shorter length was most likely worn. The two layers would have been fastened together at the straps by iron or bronze brooches.
Viking women at home
The University of Tubingen study also suggests a link between rural equality in Viking times and a specialisation in raising animals. Professor Jörg Baten explained that men dealt with crops because of the need for greater physical strength, adding: “raising animals enabled women to contribute a great deal to the family income. That probably raised their position in society.”
Women were also just as responsible for their homesteads, often working for months at a time while a community’s men were away. The hub of everyday life was the longhouse, a long, single-roomed accommodation with benches for sleeping and seating set around a central fireplace.
Typically, the woman’s responsibility would have been to care for the house and its residents. This could include elderly relatives, visiting political or business guests, and in many cases, foster-children. Viking women were practised storytellers. In fact, this oral tradition carried on for centuries until the stories were captured in writing in the Icelandic sagas of the Early Middle Ages.
“Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” says Jörg Baten. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”
Women in Viking literature and Norse mythology
So, while women did have many equal rights to men, their influence was mainly domestic. They were unlikely to join men in battle. That being said, why is Norse literature and mythology full of legendary women doing just that?
The Icelandic sagas, especially the work of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)—an Icelandic writer who turned oral tales into written works—were not made until a few hundred years after the Viking Age. Historians consider them unreliable as they often relate to somewhat mystical events that have no archaeological or other evidence.
However, they do reflect the Norse admiration of strong women who go where they want and get things done.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk of Viking women without mentioning the valkyries.
Anyone with a passing interest in Norse mythology is sure to have come across these female figures that choose who makes it to Valhalla upon death.
They are Odin’s female helping spirits who are most often depicted as elegant maidens ferrying the slain to Valhalla. Their more sinister side is often overlooked, even though their name means choosers of the slain!
This article was posted in Life of Norway April 26, 2020