Discussion of Viking Women's Treatment by Scholars

Updated on January 25, 2017

Women were the key keepers of Viking homesteads

There is both a degree of unanimous agreement, as well as a broad range of differing interpretation regarding the status and position of women in Viking Age Scandinavia. A variety of secondary scholarship dating between the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century largely agrees in matters pertaining to women’s role in warfare and their access to divorce, but discrepancies in the interpretation thereof tend to complicate matters. Furthermore, there is a significant amount of scholarly opinion within this time frame that quite ostensibly disagrees regarding conceptions of women’s authority, influence, and agency.

It is clear that women were not directly involved in military participation. They were strictly prohibited from the Jomsborg stronghold [1] and Eric Oxenstierna suggests that in addition to having no obligation to engage in armed warfare, women were what men fought for. [2] However, while not directly involved in large scale combat, women are often portrayed in the sagas as prime instigators rousing their men to action when honour and vengeance are at stake. Historiographical ambiguity emerges when we consider how this influence has been interpreted by different scholars. Jacqueline Simpson reconciles women’s exclusion from legal activity by lauding their unyielding ability, according to the sagas, to keep “many a blood-feud alive when the men would gladly have ended it.” [3] Martin Arnold is in complete accord with Simpson in his assertion that “women had little say in the operation of the law, save that of lobbying,” [4] but rather than suggesting that this indicates a certain will and persistence in Viking women that is stronger than that of their menfolk, Arnold interprets this portrayal of women as one of unjust manipulators who shame their men into enacting damagingly impulsive vengeance. [5] Turning now to one of the sagas in which this portrayal of women arises, it becomes apparent that Arnold has the more accurate interpretation thereof. Consider Flosi’s reaction to Hildigunn’s attempt to shame him into taking revenge on the men who killed her husband in Njal’s Saga: “Flosi tore off the cloak and threw it in her face. ‘You are a real monster,’ he said. ‘You want us to do things that will turn out very badly for all of us. The counsels of women are cold.’” [6] We can see quite quickly how differently two scholars can interpret the same literary concept.

Another aspect of Viking women’s legal position was their ability to hold property, as well as their domestic authority: “Women enjoyed good status, both in legal theory and in everyday practice: they could own land and manage their own property, had complete authority in household matters, and must often have run farms single-handed while their husbands were abroad.” [7] It seems from this that women were the dominant force within the family unit, but Arnold’s outline of the specific duties of a Viking Age woman, which Simpson merely sums up as “household matters,” gives her instead the image of a busy housewife:

For the main part, women conducted the domestic business of the farms, such as weaving, spinning, cooking, baking and making dairy products. They also carried the main responsibility for the raising of children and for nursing the sick. When men were away on voyages or at war, it fell to the women to maintain the home front, including all aspects of animal husbandry and tillage. Women of high status were responsible for the running of estates, dealing with servants and supervising the rounds of feast days. [8]

Foote and Wilson’s outline of women’s domestic duty almost exactly mirrors that of Arnold’s, with perhaps less emphasis on their agricultural duties, but the most significant difference is their added mention of the housewife as the sole keeper of keys, and their interpretation thereof as “badges of her authority.” [9] Furthermore, Foote and Wilson make the point, much more clearly than Arnold and Simpson do, that this degree of female independence in the Viking world is primarily attributed to male absence: “The Viking Age took many men away from their homes, as merchants and fighters, some of them never to return. The initiative and independence of their womenfolk must have been fostered by the responsibilities they were left with.” [10] Foote and Wilson, more so than Arnold and Simpson, then allow us more accurately to interpret Viking society in a general sense as a world of strictly observed gender roles, rather than in a specific sense where women reign supreme (in the domestic realm).

The widest gap in historical interpretation of the period arises when we consider the terms of the personal agency and general freedom of Viking women, with particular emphasis on how this pertains to marriage. Brøndsted claims that Norse literature is a reliable testament to the “high esteem and full freedom” that women enjoyed. [11] A quick glance at Norse literature, however, will reveal that women sometimes had little or no say in the marriage arrangements between their fathers and suitors. Consider an instance in The Saga of the Volsungs whenKing Eylimi offers his daughter, Hjordis, the right to choose her husband: “So, the king spoke to his daughter. ‘You are a wise woman,’ said Eylimi, ‘and I have told you that you must choose whom you marry. Choose between these two kings; your decision will be mine.’” [12] The catch, of course, is that she may only choose between the two kings, Sigmund and Lyngvi, who had previously presented themselves before her father. This literary example brings the notion of women’s agency into question, and Foote and Wilson further assert that a woman was entirely under her husband’s authority “and had, at best, very limited freedom in the private disposal of anything that belonged to her or in buying or selling on her own account.” [13] Indeed, women’s say in who they marry, as well as their authority in a marriage, seems to be a subject left dutifully ambiguous by twentieth-century scholars. Simpson concedes that marriage was most often a nuanced business transaction, including detailed consideration of wealth and property, between father and suitor/suitor’s father, but she still asserts that it was unlikely for them to be married against their will. [14] Foote and Wilson also make the point that the bride-to-be was by and large excluded from marriage negotiations, but they differ from Simpson in their assertion that while the woman’s consent would be asked for after the fact, an affirmative response from her was not required. Furthermore, they claim that pagan Scandinavia offered women no bypass from such marriage agreements, and that it was only after the arrival of Christianity that the option to become a nun offered any sort of escape. [15] These are clearly two radically opposing historical interpretations, but one of Oxenstierna’s observations can help us to somewhat reconcile this divergence: “A young girl was well sheltered in the house of her parents until she married. A young man was free to do as he pleased, and after marriage was even freer.” [16] This sheds a different light on the condition of Viking women. Simpson may be correct that women were not forced into marriage, directly, anyway, but if Oxenstierna’s claim is accurate, then perhaps Foote and Wilson can also be correct in the sense that women were unable to escape the marriage sorted out by their fathers and suitors because their sheltered lives barred them from access to any reasonable alternatives. Furthermore, men’s freedom to roam would have been opportunity enough for their assertive role in marriage agreements. The idea that a woman’s will would be indirectly bent to the best interests of her father and suitor/suitor’s father resonates in the story of Olaf’s betrothal to Thorgerd in The Saga of the People of Laxdale. Thorgerd’s father does consult her about Olaf’s proposal, but he ostensibly expects her to accept rather than reject it:

[Olaf’s] father has brought up the question of marriage on his son’s behalf and has asked for your hand. I’ve put the whole business completely in your hands, and I want your answer now; I think an approach like this deserves a favourable response because it’s an excellent match. [17]

After rejecting Olaf’s proposal, Olaf himself pursues her personally and they engage in conversation. When his proposal is renewed, the language used to convey her acceptance deserves attention: “Olaf’s offer of marriage began afresh, for Thorgerd had come around to her father’s way of thinking. The negotiations were quickly concluded, and they were betrothed on the spot.” [18] While her acceptance is presented as optional, the suggestion is that she is conceding to her father’s wishes, rather than acting according to her own. With this notion of indirect denial of agency in mind, I assert that Arnold’s balanced approach to the condition of Viking women is the most fair and accurate

In general, Scandinavian women’s position in the Viking Age was better than most of their European counterparts, but their progress through life was rarely self-determined and was typically dependent on the success or otherwise of their menfolk, whether husband, father, brother, or son. [19]

While Viking women seem to have had a generally more liberated existence than the majority of their European contemporaries, it comes through most clearly in twenty-first-century scholarship that they were still by and large subject to the world as men defined it.

In addition to their official wives, it was also very common for men to take on multiple concubines. According to Adam of Bremen, a man could essentially have as many concubines as he was able to afford, meaning that nobles and leaders often had many. Furthermore, children borne of concubines were considered legitimate. [20] Simpson distinguishes the wife from the concubine by asserting that the wife was the one who held possession of the ‘bride-price’ paid to her by her husband, as well as the dowry paid by her father, in the event of divorce. [21] This suggests that they had a lower status than the official wife, which Oxenstierna confirms: “Concubines were customary, but they were always of the lowest social class. A wife could tolerate them because they never endangered her marriage; they went with the mixture of monogamy and polygamy which made up her husband’s character.” [22] Simpson and Oxenstierna offer clear insight into the differing positions of, and relationship between, wives and their husband’s respective concubines, but, unlike Foote and Wilson, they fail to comment on the ostensible double-standard at work here: “A wife’s adultery was a serious crime, so much so that some provincial laws gave a husband the right to kill her and her lover out of hand if they were caught together. A man, on the other hand, was not penalized if he kept a concubine or had children outside marriage.” [23]Arnold makes almost the exact same statement regarding this double-standard, but is clearer in interpreting it as a fundamental inequality between men and women for the tolerance allowed men who broke what was the theoretically fatal crime of adultery just because it was so prevalent. [24]

The general consensus regarding divorce in Viking Age Scandinavia is that it was both fairly easy to carry out and equally accessible for both sexes. Simpson is the most straightforward on the subject in her assertion that “divorce was easy, carrying no stigma for the party who demanded it, whether wife or husband; all that was needed was a declaration before witnesses of the grounds of complaint and of the intention to divorce.” [25] Arnold makes a similar statement regarding women’s access to divorce, but he words his assertion in a way that exclusively comments on the wife’s right to divorce her husband, rather than as an equal right they both reserve. [26] In any case, both Simpson and Arnold agree that divorce was a simple, accessible, and smooth affair. The same does not quite hold true for the interpretation of Viking divorce offered up by Foote & Wilson. They also claim that the enactment of divorce was a simple matter of public declaration by either spouse, but then go on to assert that the process in practice was likely complicated by the interwoven finances of husband and wife, and that, in any case, “the ideal was undoubtedly the faithful wife who stood by her husband to the end.” [27]

By and large, the interpretation of women’s status and position in Viking Age Scandinavia seems dependent on what details are considered for any given issue such as military/judicial participation, marriage, adultery, and divorce. In general, opinions of Viking women’s existence in the earliest scholarship I have considered is mostly optimistic, then fairly pessimistic into the 1980s, and then more balanced and considered once we arrive in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Adam of Bremen. “The Viking Way of Life: Adam of Bremen’s Account.” In Johannes

Brønsted, The Vikings, 223–270. London: Penguin Books, 1965. Originally published in H. B. Schmeidler, ed., Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Hannover-Leipzig, 1917).

Anonymous. “The Goading of Hildigunn.” In The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A.

Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 144–145. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Anonymous. “Sigmund, Sigurd, and the Sword of Gram.” In The Viking Age: A Reader, edited

by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 179-190. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Anonymous. “The Betrothal of Olaf Hoskuldsson.” In The Viking Age: A Reader, edited

by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 146-148. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Arnold, Martin. The Vikings: Culture and Conquest. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006.

Brøndsted, Johannes. The Vikings. Translated by Kalle Skov.London: Penguin Books, 1965.

Foote, Peter and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement: The society and culture of early

medieval Scandinavia. London:Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980.

Mawer, Allen. The Vikings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Oxenstierna, Eric. The Norsemen. Translated by Catherine Hutter. Greenwich: New York

Graphic Society Publishers, 1959.

Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. London: B.T. Batsford, 1967.


[1] Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings, trans. Kalle Skov (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 178.

[2] Eric Oxenstierna, The Norsemen, trans. ed. Catherine Hutter (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society Publishers, 1959), 207.

[3] Jacqueline Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1967), 138.

[4] Martin Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest (New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006), 36.

[5] Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest, 37.

[6] Anonymous, “The Goading of Hildigunn,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A.

Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 145.

[7] Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, 138.

[8] Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest, 36.

[9] Peter Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia (London: Sigwick & Jackson, 1980), 108.

[10] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 111.

[11] Brøndsted, The Vikings, 242.

[12]Anonymous, “Sigmund, Sigurd, and the Sword of Gram,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A.

Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 180.

[13] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 110.

[14] Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, 138.

[15] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 113.

[16] Oxenstierna, The Norsemen, 210.

[17] Anonymous, “The Betrothal of Olaf Hoskuldsson,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A.

Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 147.

[18] Anonymous, “The Betrothal of Olaf Hoskuldsson,” 148.

[19] Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest, 37.

[20] Adam of Bremen, “The Viking Way of Life: Adam of Bremen’s Account,” in The Vikings, auth. Johannes Brøndsted

(London: Penguin Books, 1965), 224.

[21] Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, 140.

[22] Oxenstierna, The Norsemen, 211.

[23] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 114.

[24] Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest, 36.

[25] Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, 140.

[26] Arnold, The Vikings: Culture and Conquest, 36.

[27] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, 114.

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    • minikitten profile image

      Kirsten 

      5 years ago from England

      Excellent summary of women's role in Viking society, I wasn't familiar with any of the scholars you mentioned but you managed to provide a lot of insight (which even someone knowing nothing of the subject could understand). Voted up.

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