Viking Women – Part 2 by Rob Shackleford
Here are more Viking Blogs for your research:
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|Viking Jarls||Viking Women Part 1|
There is still some discussion on the role and power of Viking Women. Keeping in mind the Viking Woman was not necessarily as displayed in popular media, their position was one that was liberated in comparison to most women of the day.
But my research suggests that these are common roles for women in Viking Society:
As wife, host, teacher and storyteller, the mistress of the household was the fulcrum of Viking family life
Viking men fought the wars, did most of the trading and were even, strictly speaking, the only true Vikings – the Old Norse word víkingar referred solely to men. But Viking women enjoyed a high degree of social freedom. They could own property, ask for a divorce if not treated properly, and they shared responsibility for running farms and homesteads with their menfolk. They were also protected by law from a range of unwanted male attention.
A woman’s chief sphere of influence was in the home, beginning when they married, often at an early age. By contemporary standards, Viking home life was noisy, dirty and smelly, but cosy and communal too. Most Vikings lived in a long, single-roomed structure, where seating and sleeping accommodation were arranged around a central hearth. Such ‘longhouses’ were the hubs of Viking domestic life, where people cooked, ate, socialised and slept.
As well as husband, wife and children, the Viking household was made up of elderly relatives and foster-children – and the role of caring for this extended family typically fell to women. The woman was also responsible for entertaining honoured guests, although it was primarily men who conducted practical, legal and political negotiations when the home was used for business.
All members of the household, regardless of sex and age, probably helped with the daily tasks.
Another important role played by women was handing on knowledge to the next generation in the home – in part by sharing poems and stories, including the famous myths and sagas that were later written down in medieval Iceland.
The mistress of the household also had responsibility for its valuables. As the Viking home was also the centre of a family business, this included any raw materials produced – products that could be sold if there was a surplus. The discovery of weighing scales in certain female graves – they are particularly common in Russia – suggest that women, especially those living in urban areas, sometimes took charge of the family’s finances and may have negotiated terms of sale or trade.
A married couple of húsbóndi (an Old Norse word which gives us English ‘husband’) and hýfreyja (wife) presided over the home as partners. The status accorded to the role of wife is clear from an inscription on the Hassmyra rune stone (Sweden), in which a bereaved húsbóndi claims that “no better hýfreyja will come to Hassmyra to run the estate” than his late wife, Odindisa.
Common signs of wives’ social status are the pairs of ornamental oval brooches, used as dress fasteners, found in large numbers of Viking-era female graves.
The artisan – The Viking home was powered by women’s skilled work
The top of a Viking woman’s to-do list of domestic duties was feeding her family and guests. And in a time before mass production, the preparation of food and drink was tough work. To bake flatbread, women first had to make flour by grinding wheat and barley. Meat and fish had to be preserved, while labour-intensive dairy products such as cheese, skyr (a yoghurt-like cheese) and butter featured in their diet too.
Women also made clothes for the household. Wool, once shorn from the sheep, had to be spun using a hand spindle and then woven on an upright loom. Linen was made from beating flax that was then also spun into a thread for weaving. Smaller textile items such as socks were produced by nålbinding, a form of single-needle knitting. For more delicate work such as decorative borders on garments, tablet-weaving was an important skill.
Women also created tapestries to decorate the homes of wealthier households and important buildings. While few textiles survive from the time, the fragments of the Oseberg tapestry, excavated from a double-female ship burial in Norway (c830 AD), are intricate and sophisticated. More prosaically, women made the sails for Viking ships by stitching together woven strips of wool.
It is also possible that there were female entrepreneurs, who worked in textile production in the towns.
Just like today, women in the Viking period sought a suitable partner. The sagas are filled with stories of women competing over who has the best man. However, love did not always last. So it was good that Scandinavia was a pioneering region when it came to equal opportunities. The Viking woman could choose a husband and later decide not to marry him after all, if she so wished. However, there were limits to the extent of these equal opportunities. For example, only men could appear in court in the Viking Age.
In the towns women worked with crafts. Archaeological finds show that the production of textiles was reserved for women, whilst metalwork and carpentry were undertaken by men.
Complicated production techniques indicate that certain women probably specialized in textile work. They may have participated in this trade for the sake of their families.
The believer – The female head of the family often doubled up as its spiritual guide
With many gods and goddesses in the pantheon, and a host of other supernatural beings stalking the Earth, the matter of who you believed in, and how and where you contacted them, varied across the Viking world. Cult practices could take place outdoors or in religious buildings. But it seems it was common to worship one’s favoured deity in the home.
Such rites were the province of the female head of the household. In the early 11th century, the Icelandic poet Sigvatr came across women on a remote Swedish farm performing a sacrifice to the elves – although, as a Christian, he was not allowed to witness the ceremony.
The term gyðja for a female cult practitioner may refer to such women, whose social status required that they perform religious rites. There are parallels with the better-documented masculine role of the goði – someone who seems to have had both secular and supernatural power in the Viking age.
We also have evidence of more specialised, travelling cult practitioners, both male and female, although what they actually did is still obscure.
There were a number of Norse goddesses – such as Freyja, the goddess of love, sex and beauty, and Hel, the partly decomposed ruler of the netherworld – which we know about mainly through later Icelandic sources, although we can be sure about the Viking age origins of at least some of these figures.
From the evidence we can also deduce that Scandinavian women were drawn to Christianity, with devotion to the Virgin Mary confirmed in 11th-century Viking runic inscriptions from Sweden and Norway. An enormous rune stone from Dynna, Norway – on which a mother commemorates her dead daughter – depicts a nativity scene.
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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