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Real Women of the Viking Age

Page history last edited by Rick Fehrenbacher 10 years, 6 months ago

a norse couple

Very little is mentioned about women in the Viking sagas, though when they are women are often depicted as wise, sneaky, vengeful, or untrustworthy. Over the years popular culture has depicted Norse women as medieval English women, cone-breasted opera singers, or horned sex goddesses. Instead of these fantasies, Norse actually women took care of hearth and home and kept the farm while their men folk were away. These women were quite average medieval women, except they did possess some added power.

 

Since the information about Viking or Norse women is scattered all over the web, I have compiled many links onto this page. Each link is annotated, the general links are ranked in terms of which ones I think are best (the best on top).

 

 

Literature review and brief overview of this project, entitled "Brynhild, Gudrid, or Gudrun: Women of the Viking Age"

 

Be sure to visit these pages in The Viking World Wiki:


 

To find out how Norse women went from normal to super sexy:

Viking Women: Evolution through Literature into Current Culture

 

The Genealogy of the Volsung (featuring some women of the saga):

Saga of the Volsungs Genealogy

 

 A Comparison of Tolkien and the Volsung Saga (analyzes the female characters in both Tolkien and the Volsung):

Tolkien-Volsung Project Outline

 

And since a Norse woman had to cook, check out:

The Viking World Cookbook

 

Links about Viking Women


 

Hurstwic has a really good article on Norse women! It reviews almost everything associated with the daily lives of women as well as their role in society. The article clearly states that women’s duties were mostly domestic. Women did not raid with the men, nor did they participate in trade. However, other sites (such as Viking Women BBC) mention evidence of women taking over trade after the death of their husbands. Women did go to live in colonies with their men-folk. This article goes into a fair amount of detail concerning the rights of Norse women, from property to divorce and children custody. Also discusses what women were not allowed to do (such as cross-dressing or being involved in government). Witchcraft, violence, and slavery are briefly discussed as well. There are plenty of examples from Icelandic sagas and the Grágás (Medieval Icelandic law book) that emphasize the article’s arguments (sagas mentioned in the article are linked below). Also there are interesting images showing how an average Norse woman would appear.

 

Viking Answer Lady  This is the site that has a little bit of everything, but the articles are not easy to find, as there isn’t a search option. Sigríð the Proud uses parts from various sagas to demonstrate female rights, bride price and wedding ceremonies, and Viking-age pagan attitudes. The article on medical care is quite interesting; it talks about medical care in general as well as women healers, midwives, and childbirth. The article on the romantic aspect of the Vikings is great! This article goes into courtship rituals, the function of family in Norse culture, marriage negotiation, the wedding ceremony plus the preparations and the feast, and divorce. Slavery is discussed in a separate article and does not go overly much into female slaves, but it lists some of their duties and how they were to dress. Magic, as seen in the sagas, talks a little about cult practices. The article on magic mostly talks about the different type of magic practiced (including Rune Magic and healing). There are many, many more articles that involve women. I don’t think you can go wrong with this site. The Answer Lady usually has a nice long list of references that will guide any researcher.

 

Women in the Viking Age is a pretty cool site! It has many good images relevant to the article. This article discusses Scandinavian women’s position in society and evidence as put in Sagas, rune stones, archaeological evidence, art, laws, religion, and foreign accounts. Female traders and travelers are talked about. This site also discusses valkyries and female warriors in Norse literature. Did I mention there was archaeology and lots of it? Be sure and check out the articles on love (talks about freedom in marriage, adultery, divorce, and famous romances of the sagas) and society (this page could be a bit more informative about women, but see for yourself).

 

Valkyries and Housewives… (pdf) is much like Women in the Viking Age (linked above). Therefore, you can read the synopsis above. However, this is 53 pages of images and bullets that explain not only Scandinavian women’s position in society and evidence as put in Sagas, rune stones, archaeological evidence, art, laws, religion, foreign accounts, trade, valkyries, female warriors, and love, but also children, infanticide, graves, Frigg and Freyja, and sexuality. This is an easy to read document and a great introductory to the study of female Scandinavians of the Viking age.

 

Women in the Viking Age: Burial Customs (pdf) despite this gruesome topic, this thesis is quite good. The thesis gives a review of the research that has been done, the Viking beliefs of what happens to women in death, and more importantly, the importance of women in the culture as seen in burials. During the discussion of death, the author explores the different realms of the afterlife that are open to women (even taking into account social status).  The paper also talks about memory stones and their uses, as well as archaeological evidence. Women’s part in religion, both Christianity and paganism, is explored as a means of trying to identify with burial rituals. Cults and their death beliefs are also discussed. Funeral ship symbolism is discussed in this article as well. The role of the woman in society is discussed throughout the thesis; the author points out that the influence social rather than political influence. Spatacean uses the Eddas, the Laxdaela Sagas, and other sagas, contemporary studies, and archaeological evidence to support her thesis (and yes, there are some pictures).   

  

Female Marriage Rights (pdf) this thesis uses the Icelandic sagas and Law Codes to look at marital consent and practices.  Fortney is arguing that marriage consent was in practice during pagan Iceland and was not a Christian thing (author Jochens claims that marriage consent was purely Christian and is not historically accurate when consent appears in the sagas). The paper goes over the importance (and troubles) of the sagas, including a really interesting explanation on the Laxdaela Sagas. Fortney also sets up the argument by giving a history of the relations between Norway and Iceland during the medieval period. About half-way through the paper, the marriage explanation comes in. Fortney talks about the Icelandic view on premarital relations, courting, arranged marriages, and divorce, all the time arguing that women would have had a say in these things. Fortney does a good job of incorporating her ideas and Jochens’s ideas to create a compelling argument. (Click here for Jenny Jochens’s book Women in Old Norse Society)

 

 Viking Women This article is written by Judith Jecsh, an author of many Viking related books and a “Reader in Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham” (BBC). The first part of the article talks about women as settlers in colonies as well as the ability for women to take over farm and trade after the death of their husbands. The second part of the article discusses the presence of Scandinavian women in England during ninth through eleventh centuries. The third section of the article furthers the Scandinavian settlement argument by briefly summarizing burial finds throughout Britain. The fourth section of the article talks about daily life as found in the Icelandic poem Rígsþula of the Poetic Edda (see the Saga Link section for different versions). This section also gives more archaeological evidence as well as the type of houses found in Britain. The final section discusses women in power such as the Oseberg “queen,” Aud the “deep-minded,” and Queen Emma. This article gives a trustworthy description of Nordic women in Britain.

   

The Viking Network The main article talks about women taking care of the domestic aspects of life such as women’s food production. This site also points out that women had knowledge of herbal remedies to nurse family members. The article briefly states that women took care of the farm in their husband’s absence. Marriage age is mentioned, as well as the dowry and ownership of dowry. Divorce is briefly discussed in this article, only stating that divorce was possible if the husband mistreated his family. The issue of children is mentioned. There are two very small sections on slavery and poor women that are not too helpful.  There are side articles briefly talking about clothing, women’s clothing in Dublin, and burials. For being a website on Vikings and “Supported by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs,” these articles could be more extensive. 

 

Daily life in the Viking Period As far as the explanations on women go, this is much of the same. This page talks about marriage age, dowry, and divorce. However, this page mentions that women could go to the Thing (though as other sources have told us, women could not take part in the Thing). This page also says that women were leaders during religious rites inside the house. Food and medicine are mentioned as being part of the lives of women. This page briefly mentions the “shield-girls”.  Scrolling down to the article, “the Thing,” this article mentions compensation to women, as well as to the woman’s family.

 

The Vikings! This site is a re-enactor’s site based mainly on Anglo-Saxons. However, there are a few articles about female Vikings for example, Women Warriors in the Vikings article talks about some women from the sagas such as Freydis from the Saga of the Greenlanders. This article also marks Saxo Grammaticus, a historian, as the go to reference for female Vikings (pirates). Also on this site is an article clarifying women’s dress codes for the re-enactment group (complete with sketches). This site is an okay site and is one of the only sites admitting to Norse female pirates. This would not be my first page I would go to for research or answers.

 

Female Vikings: This article is very similar to the BBC article above in mentioning traveling women and giving examples using the normal famous females: Aud the Deep-minded and Queen Emma. This article also very briefly discusses the role of Christianity in affecting women. I prefer the BBC article to this, as this is only two small pages. This page in general is plain and has the appearance that it is a work in progress. I keep checking it to see if anything new has been added, but it hasn’t been updated since 2006. 

 

Dark Ages Society Yet another re-enactor's website! This page is more Anglo-Saxon based, but it still gives an idea about Norse women. The article on the class system discusses how women took their social position from their father and later husband. Also briefly reminds us that the female's social status was low (even if they were respected). The article on homesteads suggests that women would not only have been in the house working, but taking over the farm while the men-folk were off raiding or trading. In the food section, the article states that women would take care of the dairy and then sell the products in the village.  This is yet another website that could add so much more on the Vikings, let alone Anglo-Saxon aspects.

 

Woman’s Garb: for the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, INC.). This is a brief introduction to Viking women’s dress in the ninth and tenth centuries.  The author gives examples of both Western and Eastern Scandinavian attire. There are guidelines on cloth types and colors as well as the types of embellishments that were likely for that time. Pretty interesting and useful if you are going to join a re-enactment group.  There aren’t any pictures or sketches; therefore it is probably more for the person who has experience with sewing and making historical costumes. Like I said, this is interesting just the same.

 

Women in Norse Culture  (pdf) this is a short paper, giving an overview of the roles of women in Norse culture. It is nice to have a brief introduction along with images. However previous knowledge of Norse literature and culture is helpful. There is a PowerPoint slide and then an explanation underneath, which is nice. This presentation shows women as having some authority, according to archaeological evidence. One page talks about marriage, divorce and some punishments for adultery. There is a very interesting mention on the restrictions of marriage. Of course, widowhood is mentioned as well.  Another page compares the village house to a country house, which leads into women’s weaving and crafts. As with most sites, it is mentioned that women traveled with men to settle colonies. There is also a section on Frigg and Freyja (two major goddesses) and Gudrun and Brynhild (from the Saga of the Volsungs), but this section is not informative.

 

Viking Woman Quiz Just for fun, this is a quiz to see what type of Viking woman you would be. At the end of the quiz is a paragraph describing the life of the type of woman you match. Scroll down and you can read the descriptions of the roles you did not get. I will not give it away in case you try to cheat! It is a fun way to learn the classes of women. The images are some-what relevant and the explanations are short, somewhat comical, and very twenty first century based.

 

Social Character This particular article is on the "Sons of Norway" page and is from chapter nine of Clarke's Ten Great Religions, 1899. This chapter is not really useful, but has parts of the chapter that talks about women. Part seven of the chapter is on the Scandinavian respect for women, "They [women] were admired for their modesty, sense, and force of character, rather than for the fascinations which the nations of the South prefer." This part of chapter nine also mentions divorce. Part six discusses Scandinavian worship, mostly women's use of magic. I find this interesting because it is a nineteenth century view of the Vikings, especially women Vikings (which is rare in the nineteen century). This chapter nine is a bit hard to wade through.

 

Vikings This article is on Vikings in general. However, there is one paragraph briefly mention females. I have added this because that one paragraph makes a couple of good points that other articles have not been so plain in saying. The points are on women’s rights and the inheritance of trade. The paragraph also talks about the change in women’s bone structure after the introduction of Christianity. Otherwise, this site isn’t extraordinarily helpful. If you are interested, you can also visit the page about fiction books that Lars Walker writes.

 

Viking Feminism This is an interesting article speaking out against the bra-burning feminist and somehow comparing traditional roles of Norse women with proper feminism. On the Norse side of things, this article explains the basic man/woman relationship and marriage that all these other sites have discussed. It appears that the writer really wants to go back to pre-Christian Denmark, start preserving fish, and order men to go on impossible tasks. This article is quite comical in my mind, but no doubt some people agree with this. Sorry if I offend, but I think this is a prime example how people take historic events, romanticize them, and mold them to fit their arguments.

 

The Life of Viking Women is an eight paragraph overview of Viking women saying much of the same. This article talks about the general domestic activities of cooking and weaving. There are a couple sentences of the appearance of the woman’s clothing before talking about marriage age and divorce rights brought on by mistreatment. There is a paragraph about female slaves, especially mentioning pregnant slaves and the ownership of the infant slave. There are no references or any statement which would give this article creditability. All-in-all, I would not recommend this article.

 

Plundering Vikings I have put this site just to say: do not trust it! This is a ranting article about Vikings, Viking women (pirates), and other randomness. This essay is on a site that focuses on fiction and not fact. Since there is a bibliography to this essay, there probably is some grain of truth in it. However, I would go with the bibliography and not the essay.

 

Artifacts found in a priestess's graveArchaeology Links (sites discussing Viking women):


Scottish Archaeology These are the search results for Norse women finds in Scotland.  Examples include: a find in the Shetlands, 1912 discovery in the highlands, and a sacrificial burial. This site as the title suggests, has a listing of the archaeological finds in Scotland. Each find has the Parish listed, a general overview of what the site entails (sometimes the archaeological notes go into great detail), and then there is a list of references on that find. A few of the finds even have photographs for public view! This is a pretty good website and fairly easy to use.

 

British Archaeology is an archaeological magazine. This site is easy to use, but the search results aren't as easy and handy has Scottish Archaeology. One article is on a Viking cemetery, complete with female graves! Another article reports of a Viking woman's burial in Yorkshire. Check in once in a while because new archives are added every so often.

 

Norse Viking-Age Grave…Islay: a ten page review of the female burial find in 1958 and artifacts found at the same site in 1978. There are images of artifacts found at the site. Interesting and straight forward, this short paper discusses how common the artifacts found in the grave in terms of Scottish and Norse tradition. Using the artifacts in the grave, the writer assumes that the grave is of the ninth or tenth century. 

 

Iron Age Dress: this article is only reporting part of a collection in the National Museum in Copenhagen. In this article, there is a picture of a very well preserved dress of the Iron Age, which was found in Denmark. It is quite interesting to look at the style and colors.

 

Archeology in the North is a blog written by an archaeologist. This particular post talks about Nordic burials in the Late Roman Period (180 to 350 AD.) and then studies some later burials. The focus is on female burials and is quite interesting. One problem, it is in Norwegian. Here’s what you do: go to Google Translate and paste the blog URL into the box; then of course say that you want to translate it from Norwegian to English. There are some problems with translation, but the main idea is comes through when reading the blog. 

  

Viking Women Dressed Provocatively: this article from LiveScience reports on the discovery of a tenth century grave in Russia. Among the grave finds was a woman’s wardrobe. This find has altered the view of traditional Viking dress. The assumption is that Christianity changed the dress code to more conservative attire. A reproduction of the dress found is shown in the article.

 

The Viking Rune: Norse Vikings and All Things Scandinavian has many short articles about "all things Scandinavian." The articles are well written and very informative. There is an interesting article on extracting DNA from burials in order to help determine migration patterns of Vikings.  An interesting article, Marriage Imperative, is about a paper published by Dr. James H. Barrett suggesting that Viking exploration was caused the shortage of marriageable women. This shortage of women was because of selective female infanticide. The paper by Dr. Barrett is available through a link in the article; however it is for subscribers of Antiquity magazine only. Another interesting article is on Oseberg Ship Burial, reporting on the finds inside the ship, of which two females were found. This article examines the possible identities of the females.

 

Freydis killing in Vinland

 Saga Links: 

 Encyclopedia Mythica an online encyclopedia for different cultural mythologies. Under Norse mythology, there are brief explanations of people, places, and things that are found in Norse Sagas. It is useful to be able to get an introduction to certain people or to refresh your memory about something that was perhaps mentioned in any of the articles on this page.

  

The Laxdaela Saga  (Online Medieval & Classical Library) an Icelandic saga translated by Muriel Press (1899). This saga is known for its unique focus on women. This saga is believed to be written by a woman, however the author is unknown. This saga was probably written around the thirteenth century. Gudrun’s various love affairs are some of the central focuses of the saga. Hurstwic's article on women uses this saga as an example of widow rights, revenge, and captivity. The Burial Customs thesis uses this saga as an example of the Icelandic view of the afterlife and proper burial rights. In fact, most of the links above refer to the Laxdaela Saga, because of its central focus on women.

 

The Laxdaela Saga (Icelandic Saga Database) translations in Icelandic and Norwegian. There are also two English translations, the Muriel Press (1880) and Robert Proctor (1903) translations. See above citation for the synopsis.

 

The Role of Sexual Themes in Njal’s Saga: (do I really have to say this contains adult content!) The author sets up the paper with various examples from Njal’s Saga. This paper focuses on the male perspective (as the main character of the saga is male). Naturally there has to be females involved as well! This paper lists example after example, but does not discuss the importance of these examples until the second to last page. It was interesting, but hard to understand the author's thesis until the end: making the old Icelandic sagas new and different.

 

Njal's Saga (also known as Burnt Njals's Saga or Brennu-Njáls Saga) is available on the Online Medieval & Classical Library. It is an Icelandic saga (circa thirteenth century) about a series of blood feuds. On the female aspect, as shown in the Hurstwic article on women, this saga contains divorce, adultery, and female revenge! Njal's Saga: same translation on (Icelandic Saga Database) with Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, German, and English translations. Both English translations are by Sir George W. DaSent (1861).

 

Grettir's Saga (Online Medieval and Classical Library) translation by G. H. Hight (1914) an Icelandic saga, written circa fourteenth century, about Grettir, a warrior turned outlaw. Grettir is a historical character, but this saga has fictionalized him quite a bit! Aud the Deep-minded makes an appearance to negotiate marriage for her a kinsman. Spes carries on an affair with Thorsteinn, as well as manages her own money. Hurstwic's essay uses this saga as an example of magic being used by females. Icelandic text and William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (1900) translation available on Icelandic Saga Database.

 

Kormak's Saga (Online Medieval & Classical Library) translation by W.G. Collingwood and J. Stefansson (1901). This another Icelandic saga written between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (one of the earliest sagas).This time the saga features a romance between Kormak, a poet, and his love, Steingerd. This saga is a good example of courtship, women's consent to marriage, divorce, female revenge, and female magic. Hurstwic uses this saga as an example of the Icelandic attitude towards forcing attentions on a female. Icelandic, Swedish, and English translations available on the Icelandic Saga Database.

 

Saga of Gisli  is yet another Icelandic saga. This saga was written between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The saga is about a Norwegian later turned Icelandic outlaw. The saga shows faithful and vengeful wives, for example, the marriage thesis uses this saga for an example of premarital relations and adultery. There is a little scene about a woman appearing in dreams and doing witchcraft. Icelandic and English translations are available on this site.

 

Saga of the Volsungs translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (1888). This saga was written down during the thirteenth century. The saga follows the Volsung family through many adventures and mishaps. The love of Sigurd and Brynhild is one of the most famous parts of the saga. This saga has the classic themes of female use of magic, adultery, and female revenge. The essay on death uses the Vosunga, mainly Brynhild, as an example of burial and funeral pyres. 

 

Erik the Red's Saga is about the discovery of Vinland. This saga features Freydis and Gudrid, two strong women representing the bad wife and good wife respectively. Aud the Deep-minded appears in the beginning of this saga, where she exercises her rights as a widow. This saga has a scene with a prophetess. This saga has good examples of courtship in the saga, the woman's right to consent to marriage, female courage, and of course, women traveling with men to help settle colonies. (Icelandic, Old Norse, Norwegian, and English translations)

 

Saga of the Greenlanders (Icelandic and Old Norse translations only) another telling of the discovery of Vinland featuring Gudrid and Freydis (very similar to Erik the Red's Saga).This saga shows the wickedness of Freydis. She also threatens to divorce her husband if he does not avenge her. This saga shows that women traveled with men to settle colonies.

 

Rígsþula: the Lay of Rig is from the Poetic Edda. This section of the Edda is from the Elder or Poetic Edda, Commonly Known as Sæmund's Edda, Part 1,The Mythological Poems, edited and translated by Olive Bray (London: The Viking Club, 1908). This is a simple translation to read. This discusses the birth of the main class systems: The Birth of Thrall, The Birth of Churl, The Birth of Earl, and The Birth of King

 

Poetic Edda (shown fully on here), by Henry Adams Bellows, [1936]. Has a different way of wording and translating so it is a little more difficult to read. HOWEVER, this translation has a good introduction and many notes to help explain text. Viking Women uses the Rigsthula as an example of the Nordic class system (see Rígsþula: the Lay of Rig citation for the poem synopsis). The Burial thesis uses The Short Lay of Sigurth (Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma) as an example of the belief of the rebirth of women and the afterlife and the Hundingsbane poems to also talk about rebirth, as well as valkyries. The Burial thesis also uses Baldr's Dreams (Baldrs Draumer) to explore the use of seeresses and the belief of females having a grave in Hel.

 

 the norns

 

Books


There are so many books on this subject that it would be impossbile to include all of them here. Therefore I have posted only the ones I am aware of and have been mentioned in articles above. If you know of any more books on Norse Women please post a comment!

  

Old Norse Images of Women by Jenny Jochen. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. From what I can gather from reviews, it is about real women of Norse culture as well as how women are pictured in the sagas as mythological as well as human. I want to go to my library and check this book out right now!

  

Woman in Old Norse Society by Jenny Jochen. I confess, I have not read this book. It is on my to-read-list. I included it on this list because of Female Marriage Rights listed in general links.  The reviews on amazon.com say that Jochen is writing about the Pagan-Christian conversion and how it affected women. As the Marriage thesis discusses, Jochen is arguing that Christianity brought the right of marital consent to the Norse women. All the reviews comment on how much information is in the book and how little it overwhelms the reader, as well as how fairly the author poses the information.

  

Norse Women Poets from Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: a Sourcebook by Carolyne Larrington. This book has a chapter that talks about two Norse women poets: Steinunn the Poetess and Jorunn Skaldmey. There is isn’t much information available, but it is still interesting to note that there were female writers of the Norse age.

  

Women in the Viking Age by Judith Jesch. This book talks about archaeological evidence that builds the idea of life in the Viking age, evidence from foreign sources, and evidence from sagas. Jesch avoids talking about the “legal position” of women as much as possible, since there is little evidence. The author also admits that this is a more interpretive survey. I find it very informative and a great companion to other books on the women of Norse culture.

  

Cold Counsel: The Women in Old Norse Literature and Myth by Sarah Anderson. Is a compilation of essays about Norse literature and culture. Some essays are historically based and some have more feminist themes. Of course, these essays all draw from the sagas. This has gotten rave reviews and it is on my to-read-list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (2)

Carmen said

at 1:24 pm on Dec 18, 2009

Thank you much!

James Arrick said

at 10:29 pm on Dec 17, 2009

I got through about half of your project and it looks great. There are a couple of links that don't open in a new page. I found that a difficult task with my project. This truly is a great reference point on the web.

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