Despite the fact that Viking history is usually depicted as being fiercely male-centric, movies and television shows have often popularized (and even capitalized on) the image of the Viking female warrior who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her male counterpart in the thick of battle.
So, is this image of the proud and independent Viking “shield maiden” fact of fiction? Were Viking women actually warriors?
The veracity of the female Viking warrior is historically unclear and fraught with opinions on both sides of the question. There is some physical evidence that Viking women may have fought in battle alongside Viking men. But how that physical evidence is interpreted is a matter of some controversy.
Both the archaeological and documentary records from the period support the notion that women shared in many of the defining experiences of Viking culture. There is also little doubt that women accompanied Viking men during their military campaigns.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals written in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons, records that when the British were able to successfully ambush a Viking war camp in 893 AD at Benfleet, Essex, women and children were among those captured. The prisoners included the wife and two sons of the Viking leader.
This account of the British victory at Essex is not the only historical documentation of a woman traveling with a Viking army. Women of aristocratic or royal status like this were certainly the most likely to appear in documentary sources. One of the most remarkable examples of this is Aud the Deep-Minded. Several independent sources tell that Aud was the daughter of a Norwegian Viking who ruled the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland in the mid 800s. She married a Viking king of Dublin and they bore a son, who died years later. After the son’s death, she uprooted her own household as well as her husband’s other son and daughters and relocated to Iceland.
In another account, when Vinland was explored a century after the account of Aud, Leif Eriksson’s sister, Freydis, is reported to have joined the last of the voyages. But where there are multiple sources for Aud, we must rely upon only two for Freydis. This fact allows for the possibility that the specifics of the tale have been fabricated in favor of the saga’s narrative and of its deeper thematic meaning.
Archaeology supports the fact that some women were treated extravagantly, at least in death. The well-known ship burial at Oseberg, Norway, in 834 AD, was the final resting place of two Viking women and demonstrates a lavish disposal of wealth.
Other excavated Viking graves have also revealed women that were buried with impressive weapons of battle, such as swords and axes. But does this evidence prove that women also fought with male warriors on the field of battle?
Rushing to Conclusions?
Some scholars advise caution against coming too quickly to the conclusion that these graves are proof of the existence of female Viking warriors. They hold the position that the presence of these weapons could be as much symbols of status as they are evidence of military prowess. The skeptics also point out that in various cases the women were buried alongside Viking men. Consequently, the weapons could belong to either gender.
Moreover, recent archaeological excavations, having investigated these burial mounds with more precise methodology and accuracy than in years past, have shown that what many of us would call a “grave” is actually the result of a series of intricate funeral rituals, rather than a single burial event. It has been discovered in several cases that items have been laid in a burial mound sometime after the deceased person was buried. These objects could be offerings from the surviving friends and family members. Several examples also exist where chests or cases that would typically belong to women are placed in a man’s grave, and vice versa.
There is another example that scholars within the camp skeptical about the notion of Viking shield maidens use to demonstrate that there is no direct connection between active war status and grave weaponry. A famous grave in Åsnes, Norway, was discovered to belong to a teenage girl, just barely over five feet tall and weighing not much more than 88 lbs. It has been determined that a girl of that size would not have been able to adequately handle the large sword that was found buried next to her.
Viking Social Structure
Written and physical records of Viking society reveals a stratified culture. Social classes defined the culture and societal roles. Early impressions of Viking culture were that men assumed more important and more numerous roles than women. In the popular mentality and literature, Viking men were assigned various roles as chiefs, warriors, peasants, tradesmen, and craftsmen, while it was assumed that women could only occupy the role of a housewife.
However, archeological evidence, as well as the recent study into surviving written sources, show a more sophisticated picture of Viking social structure, where women and men shared involvement in the same activities and had overlapping roles and responsibilities within their culture.
Women and Men Participated in Trade
An example of shared roles within Viking society is in the area of trade. Written sources have given many the impression that trade was only conducted by men, but archaeological finds support that women were also engaged in trade. The graves of both women and men have been found buried with tools of commerce such as scales and weights.
Women and Men Could Have Positions of Power
Another common impression of the Viking era is that only men had positions of power and that women were always subject to men. In light of these conclusions, it is important to ask ourselves if it is our own social conventions that inform our understanding of how male-female relationships operated in the Viking era.
In Viking graves, we can clearly see that women could have significant positions of power. A notable example of this already mentioned is the Oseberg Grave in Vestfold from 834, the richest and most spectacular grave from the Viking age found in Norway. This grave did not belong to a man, but rather two women who must have had significant status and positions of influence among their society’s elite.
More attention has also been given in recent years to written sources that reveal instances of widows who, after their husband’s death, took over management of his roles and responsibilities.
Women Were Not Confined to Just Indoor Work
There is little doubt that the farm was central to Viking society. It was on the farm that most Viking families did their working and living. The position a person held on the farm also underpinned that person’s authority in the society.
A persistent assertion with regard to Viking society is that women and men of that time period were responsible for different types of farm work: specifically that women worked indoors and the men worked outdoors. Recent research has shown that this was not always the case.
There is significant evidence that women assumed the main responsibility for clothing and textile production, and that men usually did rougher work. But beyond this, it is often difficult to find evidence of gender differences in other responsibilities of labor. It is also likely that both men and women shared many of the same tasks on the farm.
Rank Seems to Be More Important Than Gender
A fundamental aspect of Viking society was the strong division of law. Social status was crucial to the role one played and the society was likely divided primarily by rank, rather than gender. Thus wealthy and powerful men and women are often found side by side in excavated grave sites.
Evidence suggests, therefore, that a housewife from a poorer social class had more in common with a male slave than with a housewife from a richer social class, despite these housewives being the same gender.
So did Viking female warriors exist? When looked at in its entirety, the documentary, historical, and archaeological evidence suggests that there were probably individual Viking women who cultivated warriors’ skills and, if the sagas can be trusted, some achieved great distinction in battle. Were there regiments of Viking women warriors marching with their male counterparts in the heat of battle? There may have been, but there just isn’t enough evidence to definitively say so… yet!
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