Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. Tor.com proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:

After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.

I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Cueto continues:

And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.

So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?

She’s right: doing thorough research is important; looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.

It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.

They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.

Photo: Jonathan Hession, The History Channel

Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel
NOT A REAL VIKING WOMAN!

The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.

Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.

The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.

Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?

Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.

Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).

So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.

So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:

Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.

They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.

Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.

In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.

Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:

Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:

[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:

Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,

The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.

*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.

ES

Sources:

Foss, Arild S. “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women.” ScienceNordic.

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries.” British Museum Blog.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.

Rundkvist, Martin. “Shield Maidens! True or False?Aardvarchaeology. ScienceBlogs.com.

Advertisements

17 Responses to Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

  1. Sean Manning says:

    I speculate that people are following the Hugo Award announcement to Kameron Hurley’s post, following her link to the “USA Today” article, then reposting it without bothering to read the original study. While there are serious problems with using grave goods to “sex” the deceased (eg.
    http://judithweingarten.blogspot.it/2013/10/how-prince-became-princess.html ), McLane’s article does not say anything about female warriors.

    You asked readers for an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past. While not an archaeologist, Martin van Creveld comes to mind as a historian who appeals to past societies to justify his opinion about whether women should be soldiers today. I am intrigued by Jona Lendering’s comment that when people with misconceptions about ancient history write to him, they usually got those misperceptions from an expert speaking outside their area of expertise.

  2. Sean Manning says:

    My apologies; that should be “McLeod’s article”

  3. […] Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings […]

  4. […] Humanities [18:51] – Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings. – Martin Rundkvist, Aardvarchaeology, “Shield Maidens! True or False?”. – […]

  5. Shay says:

    Speaking as a sort-of woman warrior (USMC 1979-2000), I find that both men and women who fall for the Xena Warrior Princess myth haven’t spent any time in the Armed Forces. It is not saying that there is no place in the military for women to admit that there are physical strength differences between the two sexes.

  6. Uyroks says:

    What are you trying to disprove? I think this has more to do that white male dominated society has a hard time accepting that female warriors actually existed.

    • Eve says:

      Well, first of all, I’m not talking about female warriors in general, only female warriors in Viking Age Norse culture. Secondly, I was addressing a specific set of Internet stories that completely misrepresented a scholarly article. This is indisputable. The article simply doesn’t say what the various online posts claim it does. Finally, there really isn’t strong evidence that there were a large number of female Norse warriors. What we have is one female grave with some weapons and one double grave with some weapons. Two graves. We don’t know why the women were buried with swords. They might have been warriors, but we can’t say that for sure. Even if they were, we can’t extrapolate from those two women to say that half the Vikings were female (as some of the articles claimed). As for literary evidence, the Valkyries and shield maidens were pretty much a fantasy of a male-dominated society.

      • Uyroks says:

        I think it should be painfully obvious that the women buried with swords/weapons were warriors and also I don’t think Shield Maidens and Valkyries were a fantasy made up in thin air by men which they might have originated from the basis of reality which were from actual female vikings and warriors, much like there’s warrior & hunter goddesses as well.

      • Annie mc says:

        Uyroks – you can’t just assume things are ‘painfully obvious’. That’s not how evidence-based historical or archaeological research works, I’m afraid.

  7. I am sorry but this article is horse apples, the facts are that pre -Christian Northern Europeans saw women as “equals” meaning that even though the Share different roles in day to day society and obviously different roles when it comes to gender , but battle technique I believe was something that every one learned, for the sake of the home .
    Maybe not all the time but for the most part it’s well known that the Norse were very family orientated , to die In Battle was the highest honor so death was seen different it wasn’t something to grieve. I don’t think this is a feminist thing because clearly men and women can never be equal unless the start popping out babies , ( then they can complain) but rather as a reminder of how Christianity changed how we view women as lesser and weak . Maybe we were used in battle the same way Odin used the Valknut against enemy’s ?

  8. tguven says:

    I don’t know, but I would think that given these were supposed to be warrior women according to the hypothesis they’ve come up with, at least some of the bodies should have evidence of battle wounds, both healed and fatal ones in some cases. If the pelvises are wide and the wounds are present, that should settle it.

  9. She Wolf says:

    Long ago, Clan life was tenuous because of a myriad of factors. Settlements of Clans laid claims to areas they thought would be the most advantageous to themselves and they would be willing to fight to keep it and took great measures to defend it, fortify it from would be invaders that would see it as a prize for sacking. Females were highly valued, and they were not only protected, but also taught from very young ages how defend themselves with every trick in the book that they knew. Each individual, like today, had their unique innate skills sets and abilities. Their training certainly be tailored to fit their best abilities. Every female could fight, defend and probably helped with watches along with the men. Women most likely went on hunts with the men. They also fished. They were probably highly involved in the makings of weaponry and well trained in the arts of wood crafting. They were not just baby makers, cooks, garment makers, basket weavers and livestock keepers. Teenagers certainly would have been given duties such as night watches and animal guardianship too. Kids were taught young on how to take of poultry, and other small livestock. Everyone, as soon as they could walk and talk, had chores. No one sat around doing nothing.Their educations came from doing and learning from their mistakes as well as constant training in the art of self defense and war tactic’s. It would be my belief, that if any female, say from the age of 14 and older, if confronted and attacked, would have be a force to be reckoned with. They weren’t cry baby wimps and helpless. They were fearless and for the most part would indeed fight to the death. As far as the advanced aged and elderly among them were concerned, I believe that if anyone made it to age of 50, they would be viewed as ancient in those days. Everyone, even the elderly, had tasks and continued to contribute to the welfare of the whole until they dropped dead. There was no such a thing as “retirement!” I also believe, that in those early clan cultures, that any child born deformed or handicapped, would be gotten rid of immediately. There were no Handicapped Only anythings. You worked, you fought, you protected, you contributed something of value, and enjoyed the rewards…if not, you were of no use and culled from the group. Too bad we don’t operate that way today!

  10. Leslie Ann Norrie says:

    Legends is history passed by the word of mouth and doesn’t need to be written done as it will always be spoke about.
    History HAS to be written down so that persons point of view hasn’t been forgotten.

  11. ron says:

    The writer’s for “Vikings” use a degree of creative latitude in depicting female warriors in Kattegat as a matriarchy ruled society in recent episodes. As the evidence suggests, this is not historically factual, nor probable given the obvious physical differences between genders, much to the behest of feminists.
    To write in as many kick-ass women into the story line merely depicts the current all pervasive gynocentric bias, to the extent that offence is taken by those with an obvious ideological agenda when the science contradicts their attempts at revisionist history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: