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Brynhild, Gudrid, or Gudrun: Women of the Viking Age

Page history last edited by Carmen 10 years, 9 months ago

 

Brynhild, Gudrid, or Gudrun:

Women of the Viking Age

                Norse women—they are mentioned in all the Viking sagas, but who are they? The female characters of the sagas are depicted as wise, sneaky, vengeful, or untrustworthy. The reader gets just enough taste of the characters to become curious about how women really were.  For this reason, this project will show what Norse women were like during the Viking Age.                                            

                Very little is mentioned about women in the Sagas. Not only would it be interesting to know more about them and their roles in society, it would also be helpful.  The sagas will take on more understanding when we have gained knowledge of these women.  Once we have an idea about how society saw women, we can understand the importance of certain roles throughout the sagas. 

                Were these women of the sagas made to poke fun of women, to strengthen reputation of the male characters? Or perhaps, the female listeners should hear a role model in these female characters, just like the male listeners would gain insight on how they should behave.  Perhaps the women were not like this at all, but this is how the Church depicted pagan and Christian women. 

For example, Brynhild is mentioned in The Saga of the Volsungs , Snorri Sturluson’s The Prose Edda , The Poetic Edda  as a warrior (sometimes a Valkyrie) who is wise and can sew beautiful tapestry. Does Brynhild depict a certain group of women in the Viking world?  Or are the typical women of the Viking world like Gudrun Osvifsdottir of the Laxdaela Saga, who is vain, proud, and a serial wife?  Did women travel around the Atlantic like Gudrid in the Vinland Sagas?

Using internet sites I will put together an annotated links page that will help the curious reader formulate answers to the above questions or questions of their own. I use online essays, online articles about archaeological finds, and other online news articles to gather knowledge of these women. These links will cover women who lived in Viking-ruled areas such as Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Greenland, Orkneys, Ireland, etc.  The information will cover from the eighth century up until the eleventh century.  The women will be of various class levels. Through this analysis the curious readers will discover the women behind the sagas.

All the websites mention how well-respected women in the Viking-ruled areas were. Clark’s Ten Great Religions explains that “they [women] were admired for their modesty, sense, and force of character, rather than for the fascinations which the nations of the South prefer.”[1] Women were admired such that Hurstwic and The Viking Answer Lady point out laws had been established to condemn hurting women. In Laxdaela Saga, Gudrun decides to divorce her husband after he slaps her[2].

Women even had some rights! Despite rights, women still had to submit to the authority of their husband or father (as suggested on the Hurstwic webpage).  If the husband was lazy or mistreated his wife, she could divorce her husband, the Viking Network webpage informs us. However, The Viking Answer Lady states that divorce could be for many reasons, not only mistreatment. Depending on the reason for the divorce and who wanted the divorce, the wife would have custody of some of the children and take back her dowry (The Viking Answer Lady).

Both Hurstwic and Viking Women explain that women’s rights increase if they are widowed. Widows would run the trading business of their husband’s, they would own their husband’s land, and have control over the family. A famous example of a widow rising to power is Aud the Deep Minded shown in Hurstwic, Viking Women, and Wikipedia[3].  Aud left Dublin after her husband was killed and then sailed to Scotland where her brothers and father were killed. After that she arranged a ship and sailed to Iceland where she owned property and led the rest of her family. She was buried in high honor befitting that of a man.

Rarely were men and women equal. Women worked at hearth and home, weaving and raising the children. While the men were away, the woman would work on the farm and take care of her husbands’ trade as the Viking Network states. Viking Women by Jesch suggests that women could not be Vikings and did not go plundering.  However, Women did go with the exploration ships to help settle Viking colonies. Gudrid and Freydis in the Vinland Sagas are a prime example of this—they went with their husbands across the Atlantic to Vinland. Also in the Vinland Sagas, Karlsefni hired “a crew of sixty men and five women,” [4] suggesting that women were hired on and sailed to be part of a farm and household.

Women rarely could cross the gender barrier. They could not dress as men. Women could not get involved in political disputes as Sparacean (2006) suggests. As mentioned above, only temporarily could married women take over the farm or trade. Also, genealogy was mainly on the patrilineal side, rarely the matrilineal side. These made the identity of women a bit harder. Therefore, it is not surprising that women in the sagas use their influence to urge their husbands or sons to honor the family with revenge.

Poor women often worked outside on the farms as well as inside the house. All labor was needed when there were no servants or slaves to help out. Slaves had no rights. The Viking Answer Lady says female slaves were had to do about everything, from wet-nurse to bed-servant, to household to farm work. If a female slave gave birth to the child, the child would become property of the mother’s owner (The Viking Network).

The Vikings’ view of death also shows the role of women. Spatacean points out that class was also represented in religious cults in the pre-Christian Viking world. Female priests were representative of the higher class, while seeresses were representative of the moderate class. Upper class women, and not lower classed women, seemed to be welcomed by Freya in the afterlife. There were separate realms in the afterlife for the women, but some sagas also talk of women going to realms that were previously mentioned as men only realms.

The links page will cover women of different classes, different Viking areas, what women’s rights were, what their duties and jobs were, whether they traveled or not, and if they were pirates. The list of annotated links will be posted on the class webpage. These links should go under the “links” or “culture” sidebar.  This links page will fit into the study of Viking culture as part of the every day. The knowledge of women in the Viking areas will help the reader understand certain aspects of the sagas.

These links will give the information needed for the reader to realize that the women in the sagas sometimes were poked fun of, were made to be role models, and were Christian ideals of women. In the sagas, the women did their duty set about by their culture, and were punished for wrong doings. The sagas show that women exercised their rights in various ways, even if just threateningly.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women.” 2001. British Broadcasting Company. 20 Oct. 2009.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/women_01.shtml

This site talks about women’s duties of when the husband was at home or abroad. This site also points out that there were women who followed their settler husbands to colonies. This article gives a few examples of women of note. Really informative! The author has done several studies on Vikings and should be pretty accurate.

 Spatacean, Cristina. “Women in the Viking Age. Death, Life After Death and Burial Customs.” May 2006. 26 October. 2009.

http://www.duo.uio.no/publ/IAKH/2006/41226/Master_Thesis___f%5B1%5D..pdf

This thesis for the University of Oslo explains the burial practices of men and women in the Viking Age. It also gives background information of the views of women in their society. This thesis talks about various religious cults involving women. Spatacean also analyzes which afterlife realms were open to women

“Viking Age History.”  2009. Hurstwic. 21 Oct. 2009.

                http://www.hurstwic.org/history/text/history.htm#Society

The best article on women thus far! It covers nearly everything you could hope for about the daily lives of Viking women as well as the Sagas associated with the known actions. Also covers the Class Society of the Viking village. Articles about women’s clothing and clothing making techniques. Also there is a great article about family practices especially concerning women.

The Viking Answer Lady. 20 Oct. 2009.

http://www.vikinganswerlady.com

This site has a little bit of everything! In the female part of it, it has the story of Sigrid the Haughty, the hairstyles women wore and the games they played. This site talks about women as medical practitioners. Women’s wedding and divorce rights and slave articles were really useful! Homosexuality in the Viking world is also discussed on this page. All the articles are backed up with references!

 “Viking Women.”  The Viking Network. 2000. 20 Oct. 2009.

http://www.viking.no/e/life/ewomen.htm   

This site is “ Supported by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs.”.  You have to really search out different articles for women, but it is fairly easy. Again, talks about women’s roles in the house, marriage age and dowry, divorce, and  children’s custody. There is a little bit about slave women and poor women. Tells what women wore. There is some archeological evidence as well as life for women at a fort.

 



[1] Clark, James Freeman. Ten Great Religions. 1899. Chapter 9.7. Viking Age Club- Sons of Norway. 2009. http://www.vikingage.com/vac/religion.html

[2] The Laxdaela Saga. The Online Medieval and Classical Library. 1997. http://omacl.org/Laxdaela/  Ch. 34

[3] Aud the Deep Minded. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aud_the_Deep-Minded 2009.

[4] The Vinland Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1997. P. 15.

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