Viking Women – Part 1 by Rob Shackleford
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Viking women were strong!
Now, let’s not think they were like the glamoured vixens popularised in the media. They weren’t. But they didn’t fill the largely oppressed roles women of other peoples of the time were compelled to suffer. From traders to travellers, women in the male-dominated Viking age led rich and adventurous lives.
Viking society may have had relative gender equality a millennium ago when women across much of Europe were not so highly valued as men. This equality may have helped to contribute to the prosperity of Scandinavian nations today.
Researchers at the University of Tubingen analysed the teeth and skeletons of Scandinavian remains dating back thousands of years in order to compare the health of men and women. They found that the enamel in teeth, as well as the femur lengths, were relatively equal in males and females. If equality was lacking, undernourished or ill children would have displayed permanent damage to tooth enamel in a condition known as linear enamel hypoplasia.
Foreign observation of women in the early medieval Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall. Researchers argue that equality may have been linked to the type of work done. Growing crops was largely seen as a man’s task because it required “greater muscular strength,” but raising livestock allowed women to contribute to the family income, in turn raising their position in society.
Scandinavian women were generally more well off than women in other European regions, particularly the Mediterranean and Eastern European cities, and they have been able to hold their place in society for the last 1,000 years, into the Industrial era and beyond.
The status of Viking women is still under intense study. While many women no doubt had considerable power, even if women in general had a relatively strong social position, the consensus is still that they were officially inferior to men. They could not appear in court or receive a share of the man’s inheritance. Unlike what popular media likes to tell us, it was the man who had the political power.
The watershed in a Viking woman’s life was when she got married. Up until then she lived at home with her parents. In the sagas we can read that the woman “got married”, whilst a man “married”. But after they were married the husband and the wife “owned” each other.
There is believed to have been a hidden moral in the sagas in relation to a woman’s choice of husband. The family probably wanted to participate in the decision-making. When an attempt was made to woo a woman, the father did not need to ask his daughter’s opinion about the interested male. In cases in which the girl opposed the family’s wishes, the sagas describe how this often ended badly.
The woman’s reputation and place in society was connected to that of her husband. The sagas often describe how various women compete over who has the best husband. Young girls obviously knew what to look for in a prospective husband.
If the marriage did not work, then the wife and husband could divorce. When the Spanish-Arabic traveller al-Tartushi visited Hedeby in the 900s, he was surprised to hear that women had the right to divorce if they wished.
The sagas involve many divorced women and widows who marry again. The Icelandic sagas describe a large number of divorce rules, which are evidence of a quite advanced legal system.
The woman could, for example, demand a divorce if her husband settled in a new country whilst on his travels, but only if the man neglected to go to bed with her for three years. The aim of this was to secure the wife against a life of loneliness. The most typical grounds for divorce were, however, sudden poverty in the man’s family or violence on the part of the husband. If a man struck his wife three times she could demand a divorce.
Yet female infidelity was punished hard, whilst men were able to bring various mistresses into the home. However, the official housewife kept authority over the new women in the household.
We do not know how frequent divorces were in the Viking period, but the rights to divorce and inheritance indicate that women had an independent judicial status. After divorce, babies and small children generally went with their mothers, whilst older children were divided up amongst their parents’ families, depending upon their wealth and status.
Housewives as key carriers?
The literature tells us that all rich married Viking women carried keys amongst their personal items. The key symbolised the woman’s status as housewife.
This view can at least partially be attributed to the keys that have been found in rich Viking women’s graves, as well as the legal texts, which state that the medieval housewife had the right to the keys of the house. However, archaeologists find increasing numbers of keys, but these are not necessarily from graves. This indicates that the distribution and use of keys was relatively extensive.
A closer examination of all female burials from the Viking period shows that keys found as grave goods are a rarity, rather than commonplace. Keys have only been found in about 5 % of all women’s graves. Closer analyses show that keys are found in all types of burials, apart from those of the very wealthiest people. In addition, it should be noted that a number of the keys that have been found would not have been useable.
If the key cannot be interpreted as an expression of housewife status then what does it indicate? Keys can open and lock. If the meaning is transferred, then a key can also provide access from one phase to another, for example from childhood to adulthood. Should women with keys be seen as having special powers, which could be opened up and then locked away again, for example the power to see into the future? Therefore we should perhaps look upon women with keys as knowledgeable women rather than housewives.
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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