Women in Viking Society
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Role of Women in Viking Society
Upon hearing the word “Viking”, a specific image is usually conjured in the mind’s eye. More often than not, it is of a group of big, burly men, pillaging helpless English villages and sailing across fjords, but there has always been more to the Viking people than wielding axes and braving treacherous water, especially when it comes to the women, who are commonly left out of this stereotypical picture entirely. Vikingar, the Old Norse word for viking, was solely in reference to the men, who were the ones who primarily participated in trips to Great Britain, Europe, and the East. According to most sources, the women within Viking society did not partake in those two activities and were delegated to more domestic tasks back home. It was known that many women participated on journeys to explore, though, and eventually settle in places such as Iceland, which was uninhabited and required that women travelled there to help create a permanent population, and Finland.
According to the Judith Jesch at BBC News, “Most journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements. Families heading for the North Atlantic colonies would also have to take all the livestock they would need to establish a new farm, and the journey cannot have been pleasant. The Viking colonists settled down to the farming life in their new home, or established themselves as traders and became town-dwellers.” There is also evidence that the women within Viking society could make a living in commerce. There have been merchants’ scales and weights discovered within the graves of women in Scandinavian countries, marking an association between women and trade. According to a ninth-century account of a Christian mission to Birky, a Swedish trading center, recounts the conversion of a rich woman by the name of Frideburg, as well as her daughter, Catla.
Though by law, Viking women were under the authority of the men in their lives, primarily their father or husband, and they did not enjoy the same legal status as the men within their society. These women could inherit as much as their brothers would or, depending on the region wherein they lived, would not inherit anything at all. At a Þingi -- meaning a “thing” which was an assembly of the free men of a province, country, or a hundred -- the women were unable to bring forth a case unless a man would take over the prosecution on her behalf. Girls were usually between the ages of twelve and fifteen when they were married and were expected to run the household. When entering a marriage, the bride would have a dowry which would consist of materials such as linen and cloth, as well as a spinning wheel and a bed. Girls from more affluent families could also bring silver and gold jewelry, animals, and sometimes even farms. While she brought all of these things as part of her dowry, they still remained her personal property and never became a full part of her husband’s estate and it would be her children who’d inherit it.
Once married, gender roles were even more clearly defined and the women were in charge of making sure that the family’s food would last throughout the long winter and they would make butter and cheese, as well as dried and smoked fish and meat for storage. Also, as a wife, a woman was expected to have knowledge of what herbs were good for taking care of the sick and wounded. In her husband’s absence, she was in charge of running the farm and even when her husband was not away, the animals were one of her responsibilities. Often, if she was from a rich family, she would have slaves and servants to help her and, as a sign of authority, she would wear the key to the food storage chests. She also would cook, clean, and make clothing for everyone. When it came to clothing for themselves, Viking women liked to dress as well as they could, in woollen dresses. Sometimes they would wear an article of clothing called an over-dress, material that was wrapped over their dress and around the woman and held up by shoulder straps, fastened with brooches. They would often wear leggings or socks and a scarf to cover their hair. When it came to jewelry, they wore pieces made of silver and gold with intricate designs.
Despite many obvious shortcomings that came with being a woman and a wife in Viking society, a woman could file for a divorce from her husband. If she became displeased with her husband in any way that the Vikings found substantial enough reason -- if her husband was lazy and did not work to provide for the family, if he treated her or their children poorly, or insulted the family that she came from -- she was allowed to divorce him. To achieve this, and in the presence of witnesses, she would declare herself divorced at the end of the bed her and her husband shared and as her front door. Upon divorcing him, she could reclaim her dowry and keep any younger children with her, while any older children would be divided between the two parents depending on the status and wealth of the parents’ families.
Since most women’s lives were centered around the home, they managed to have a great influence within that sphere and, as a result, many women were buried with things that symbolize the importance of those roles and influences, as well as their responsibility and control over the distribution of clothing and food within the household. Though this was the most common way women in Viking society obtained notoriety, some were well known for different reasons. The Oseberg “queen”, buried with an ornately-decorated ship and high-quality goods was one of the richest buriest of the Viking Age, showcasing her prestige. There was also the grave of the Pagan Lady of Peel Castle, which was discovered in a Christian cemetery on the Isle of Man. To this date, it is one of the richest Viking burials for a woman found outside of Scandinavia. The Pagan Lady of Peel’s grave is solid proof of powerful women and of a high status during the Viking Age. One of these women was the daughter of a Norwegian chieftain from the Hebrides, named Aud, who married a Viking based in Dublin. Upon the deaths of her husband and son, Aud took control of the fortune that the family held and had a ship bring her and hers remaining daughters to places such as Orkney, Iceland, and Faroe. Later, she settled in Iceland and distributed land to most of her followers.
While it can be difficult to find records about many actual women within Viking society, it is much easier to find them within legend and folklore, where they often took the role of shieldmaidens (women who fought as warriors). There are very few historical accounts that say that women took part in warfare, but according to a Byzantine historian named Johannes Skylitzes, women may have fought in battle when Sviatoslav I of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in 971 in Bulgaria. The Varangians were defeated, but the victors were surprised to discover women among the fallen, armed as warriors. Even Leif Erikson’s pregnant half-sister, named Freydís Eiríksdóttir, was said to have taken up a sword of her own and scared away Native Americans, according to the Greenland saga, though she is never explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden. Even with a couple accounts such as these, it is difficult to prove that these shieldmaidens existed outside of Norse mythology. Though there are many shieldmaidens of legend, including Brynhild, Hervor, and the princess Thornbjörg, but they were largely members of the aristocracy.
By the 11th century, Scandinavians began to be “Christianized.” With this mass conversion, the women were given the opportunity to take on new roles within society; these roles are often seen in the rune stones from that time. Through depictions of the Nativity, the Dynna stone, found in Norway, memorializes Astrid, the daughter of Gunnvor. Similarly, the Stäket stone, hailing from Sweden, commemorates a woman who went on a pilgrimage named Ingirun. In addition, Queen Emma of Normandy, daughter of Duke Richard of Normandy, descended from Normandy’s Viking founder Rollo. She married two kings of England and gave birth to two others, but it was during her married to the Danish Cnut that she was a notable patron of the Church. Upon the death of her husband, she had a record of the Danish kings who, in the 11th century, were in England written up. She called this work the Encomium Emmae and it had a portrait of Queen Emma within the manuscript. Women in the Norse world were far more open to Christianity than the men were and, in religious matters, women were highly regarded, as shown in the Edda, the main source of Medieval skaldic tradition and word itself maybe even meaning “great-grandmother”. It is no coincidence that the very first church built within Greenland was built by Thjodhild, the wife of Erik the Red and mother of Thorsten and Leif Erikson.
Though despite the advances that women were able to make through the Christianization of Viking society, practices such an infanticide, the killing of newborn babies, were still practiced nearly exclusively on female babies. In Viking society, sons were of much greater value for they could participate on raids and in trade, which would increase a family’s fortune and land, as well as their honor. Daughters were more of a burden to a family, having to be married off and provided with dowries and having to raise fewer females would also mean that even fewer babies would be born in the future, which would then save the household from having even more mouths to feed.
While we know only a small amount of the women in the Norse world, we know even less of the lives lead by any female servants and slaves, who were the ones that more frequently took care of the children. There is very little known about women who were raised and lived within smaller households. While life for women in Viking society was far better than for women throughout the rest of Europe, gender roles were still clearly defined. The role could shift depending on certain, specific circumstances, or in fictional sagas, but it remained a fact that the Norse world was a patriarchal one.
Jesch, Judith. "Viking Women." BBC News. BBC, 29 Mar. 2011. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007). Vikingaliv. Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo.
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda: Tales from Norse Mythology, translated by Jean I. Young (University of California Press, 1964)
Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (New York: The Boydell Press, 1996), 107-108.
Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote and Richard Perkins, trans., "Laws of Early Iceland, Grágás" (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1980), 51.
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