Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Gimli talks about how people seem to think there are no dwarf women and that dwarves just spring up out of the ground? Sometimes that seems to apply to Viking women just as well (although I’m pretty sure it’s not about the beards).
There is a lot of curiosity, fantasy, and misinformation about the roles of Viking women and whether or not there really were female warriors in Old Norse societies. In this two-part link roundup, I will try to give you a broader view of the lives of Viking women, starting with everyday activities and expectations.
Women’s Roles: Overview
Historically, women’s roles have been restricted to the domestic sphere, so their contributions to the family and society are largely invisible. When women are well-known, it’s typically for doing something extraordinary outside of the home, with the result that they are often criticized—and sometimes condemned—for doing it. That means that if we’re going to try to understand the roles of Viking women, then we should start with a critique of how academics have typically approached the topic.
To fairly interpret historical and archaeological evidence, we need to be aware of our biases and potential blind spots to avoid imposing modern beliefs and practices on historical contexts. “The Lives of Women in the Viking Age” provides a brief, easy-to-read overview of a wide range of historical sources concerning the roles of Viking women as well as a critique of past interpretations of them.
This article provides insights into the seemingly contradictory world of Viking women, who were largely restricted to working in the home but could still be held in high regard for their domestic work. They were also respected for their honour and intelligence, but could not participate in political assemblies or speak as witnesses in trials.
In general, the Norse Mythology for Smart People website is one of the stronger non-academic resources, and I highly recommend it for those who want to learn more about the Vikings but don’t have a lot of time to do independent research.
Hurstwic started out as a historical re-enactment and martial arts group, and they tend to look at the sagas very closely. Their article on the role of women covers a wide array of issues, including marriage, adultery, and divorce as well as women’s responsibilities, restrictions, and legal protections. Their article on clothing includes information about and pictures of the tools and processes involved with making cloth and clothing, which was primarily a woman’s responsibility.
The National Museum of Denmark’s article on Viking women briefly introduces information on female entrepreneurs and other powerful women, and discusses the potential meaning of the keys found buried with women, which have typically been interpreted as symbols of a woman’s status in the household. Some of the differences in the museum’s interpretations of women’s roles in choosing a husband differ from those in the articles above, which may be partly due to interpretation, but may also be attributed to regional differences, as the Vikings were never a uniform society.
Tired of reading? Here—have a video.
Marriage, Divorce, and Domestic Power
This thesis paper takes an in-depth look at several Icelandic sagas for information about how Viking women influenced the family directly—and politics indirectly—through interpersonal relationships.
This paper considers the ways in which male dominance in the public and political sphere likely influenced marriage practices and may even have led to increased risks of spousal abuse and inequality within the household. However, the authors contrast this with ways in which women were able to exert their own agency and authority to push back on male interference.
Note that this article is intended for an academic audience, so it includes considerable information on the authors’ methodology and may at times presume that the reader already has a strong knowledge base in history or archaelogy.
Strict Gender Roles and Homosexuality
The way a society views homosexuality is related to how it views gender roles, and Viking man who assumed the “female” role in a sexual encounter would have been considered subservient and unmanly. The attitudes examined here clearly indicate that while Viking women enjoyed more freedoms and protections than women in other societies during this period, they were certainly not considered to be equal to men.
While the average woman was busy cooking and weaving, there were nonetheless women of tremendous renown, including queens, poets, runemasters, and explorers.
A devoted pagan and clever poet, Steinunn refused to convert to Christianity and reportedly told missionaries that Thor was the one who destroyed their ship.
In Link Roundup #3.2, I take a look at the fascinating topic of women’s use of magic and the controversy surrounding the debate around female Viking warriors.