Viking-era women 'overshadowed too long' by testosterone-fuelled raiders and pillagers
The important role women played in the Viking age needs to stop being sidelined by the “testosterone-fuelled” raiding and pillaging story of the era, it has been claimed.
Professor Alexandra Sanmark, of the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of Highlands and Islands, said more credit should be given to women who took charge of the homestead – typically farms which demanded a high degree of physical work and organisation – as well as those who travelled far from home during the period.
Professor Sanmark said the tendency had been to treat Viking-era women as passive, maternal, and tender, while men were dynamic, dominant and violent.
Recent studies of the Norse population in present-day Scotland, who invaded and settled here between the 8th and 13th centuries, had given fresh insight into the role of women in Viking-age society with it suggested that some women enjoyed a high degree of status in their adopted home following their migration.
But Sanmark added there was “still a lot to learn” about women who had been “left behind” by the common Viking-era narrative given the emphasis on the masculine exploits of the time.
Prof Sanmark said: “Viking age research has to a great extent focused on men, the familiar raiding and pillage story and women’s lives have been side-lined.
"This is beginning to be redressed but we still have a long way to go. Women in the Viking age had crucial roles to play in society but this has not been stressed enough. We are talking about people who - to a great extent - were subsistence farmers. That is not an easy life.”
Prof Sanmark said linguistics underpinned some of the problem with women in Old Norse typically referred to as húsfreyja, which literally translates as women of the house, or housewife.
But the word belies the true nature of the role, Prof Sanmark said.
"They were farmers that needed to produce housing, food and clothing for everyone. This means working round the clock. A useful comparison is the Scottish crofters – the women did not sit still,” she added.
While much research had suggested Viking women were passive, there were a small number of accounts – often repeated and likely exaggerated – that focused on ‘remarkable’ women such as warriors and ritual specialists with a massive gulf in understanding of everyday lives and responsibilities of women now existing.
Study of graves and the goods buried alongside bodies had done much to influence the conclusions on women’s roles in Viking-era society but discrepancies in how these items were “sexed” existed.
An early study found that scales and balances found in male burials were assumed to show their role as traders, but when found in women’s graves, they were frequently interpreted to mean that those buried were merchants’ wives.
Prof Sanmark added: “We need to think about how women and men may have contributed to society. We need to stop seeing the larger body women as passive and without a will. We need to stop questioning the ability of women and stop taking the ability of men for granted.”
Female travellers of the period were usually regarded as wives of raiders, apart from exceptional examples such as Auðr the Deep-minded, a widow who left her native Norway and sailed across the North Atlantic, visiting various places such as Ireland, Orkney, and the Faroe Islands before finally settling in Iceland as head of the household.
A study of Scandinavian-style burials in Scotland by Dr Shane McLeod, formerly of Stirling University, found that women routinely travelled far from their home land.
Dr McLeod found that of 30 burials, the remains were 59 per cent were male and 41 per cent female.
Analysis of tooth enamel of 11 burials found that adults were very likely to have migrated since childhood. In this sample, the men were more likely to have grown up in Scandinavia, while the women seemingly arrived in Scotland from ‘other parts of Britain and Ireland’, but had still travelled ‘a considerable distance’ from their childhood homes.
Prof Sanmark said that the study, along with two others which looked at movements into Russia and England, “all suggest that a large proportion of the travellers were women".
She added: “This study has shown us for example that Viking age women were rather mobile, which goes against the traditional view of women as passive house wives who stayed at home while the men were out raiding. Having said that, running a farm was a big job on its own of course and we mustn’t downgrade that.”
Meanwhile, Dr Stephen Harrison of Glasgow University has suggested that women of the Viking-era played a significant part in Scotland, based on the high number of Scandinavian style female burials from the 9th and 10th centuries.
More Viking women were afforded high-status burials in Scotland when compared to other settlements in Britain and Ireland, he found.
Also, proportionately more women were laid to rest with grave goods, or burial objects, in Viking Scotland indicating that they had played a more “significant role” in society than first thought.
While analysis of burials gave some insight into the role of women in Viking-era society, Prof Sanmark added very little work had focused on suitable terminology, sex and gender.
She added: “This need for specific research on women in the Viking Age is driven by the fact that so much attention is still paid to raiding, pillaging, as well as sex slavery, all carried out by testosterone driven men. It should also be borne in mind that not all men were powerful and strong. There were also male slaves, ‘lone workers’, elderly and infirm men, who are regularly left out of the discussion.”
Prof Sanmark will deliver a seminar – Women and Men of the Viking Age – on Thursday, September 15, from 4 to 5pm. To reserve a free place, visit www.uhi.ac.uk/events
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