Lesson 13.a - Women in the Viking Age, Part I: Overview and Social Roles.

Komið þið sæl,

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Modern society has recently begun looking towards the Viking Age woman in order to find a historical place for strong, independent women. There is no fault in this, and there are many good reasons for this. Yet, women still did not have it easy, even in a society that made more effort to consider them. After all, Icelandic laws accorded women, both single and married, substantially more rights in property than other Scandinavian or continental codes. Iceland, as I have mentioned in my recent Icelandic History lesson, was a unique place. Many sagas depict women as troublesome when they disregard social normalities. 

We should not allow our modern desires to cloud the past. So, this lesson series aims to explore the topic with a bit more depth. We will definitely not cover everything, of course, but we will definitely be raising some important points and realities.

As for this lesson, it is simply a “warm-up” before we actually get deeply into anything. So, do not be too disappointed if nothing interesting is presented in this portion.

Contents:

  1. Overview
  2. Social Roles

Overview

History has long been told, but it has also been left with many gaps. History had long been a source for the victors, for the suppressors and the conquerers. However, there is much more to the human experience than those who win and those who are most favored. So far, in my studies, I have seen women struggling to be heroic, to help their family and their husbands. Women, along with many other groups of people, have been disregarded despite hard efforts. Luckily, modern historians have begun filling in such gaps. 

The women of the Viking Age had an interesting amount of freedoms and rights, yet they still struggled to fully participate. Still, in reality, women could claim a great deal of independence, if they worked the system in their favor. Let’s briefly bring up the freedoms and limitations of women during the Viking Age that we will be covering for the next few lessons:

Law:

In the Viking realm, most notably in Iceland, women had an impressive amount of inclusion in the eyes of the law. They could divorce, inherit chieftaincies, run the household in the husband’s absence (through, this was almost always the case), hire and fire servants without consulting the husband, and more. In fact, Icelanders did not have too much trouble with using a female ancestor in genealogies. 

However, despite all of this, women could not attend Things (meetings), needed a spokesman to represent her in cases of legal procedure, and were not always included in marriage arrangements. Still, women were able to attain a surprisingly high amount of independence and authority. Some cases of this will be elaborated upon in future lessons.

War:

Judging by the sheer amount of strong, warrior-type women in Old Norse literature, there may be some reality behind it. Yet, even so, it is quite possible that these representations were done in order to criticize the freedom women had prior to Christianity’s influence. 

In reality, not many women were warriors, if any were. Most women attained influence and power through other means, such as through wealth or the household. Women as warriors is a more elusive topic, but we will dedicate an entire lesson for this.


Social Roles

Although not as interesting as being a warrior, most women occupied domestic roles within society. However, these roles were extremely important for a medieval society. Women spun and weaved, they alone were in charge of textile production. This had a major economical function! They also managed household food supplies, ensuring that the household would have enough food for the winter. They prepared dairy products, raw materials, and meals. The majority of women did not work the fields, unless they were of the status of a slave.

In later lessons, once we have covered the legal representation, we will discuss the height that women could reach. By this, I do refer to the Oseburg ship burial. However, we have no need to rush, so I will cover it with some depth at a later time.


Wrap-up

“…women were more than mere title holders with managerial powers lodged solely with men; women of the bondi class managed farms in their husbands’ absence and managed the indoor activities when they were present. Sagas show married women with the power to hire and fire servants. And the significant unofficial power exercised by women in the feud and the disputing process is a frequent saga theme…” (Miller, 27)

We will be going into more depth, one area at a time, in the lessons following this overview lesson. I recommend reviewing out lesson about law before next week’s lesson!

Skál og ferð vel,
— Steven T. Dunn.

Next week’s lesson: Women in the Viking Age, Part II: In the Eyes of the Law. [multi-part lesson series]


Sources:

  1. Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Women,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015.
  2. William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
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