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Viking Women

Viking Women

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  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-08-06 | 10:23 AM
  • The Vikings weren't just raiders, but farmers, traders and settlers - and they took their families with them when they moved from Scandinavia. Judith Jesch examines the role women played in the Viking world.
  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-08-06 | 10:24 AM
  • Could women be Vikings? Strictly speaking, they could not. The Old Norse word vikingar is exclusively applied to men, usually those who sailed from Scandinavia in groups to engage in the activities of raiding and trading in Britain, Europe and the East. But some Vikings stayed behind in these regions, and Scandinavian colonies were also established in the North Atlantic (Faroe, Iceland, Greenland).

    Women could and did play a part in this process of settlement. Iceland, for instance, was uninhabited, and a permanent population could only be established if women also made the journey there. In regions with an established indigenous population, Viking settlers may have married local women, while some far-roving Vikings picked up female companions en route, but there is evidence that Scandinavian women reached most parts of the Viking world, from Russia in the east to Newfoundland in the west.

    Most journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements. Families heading for the North Atlantic colonies would also have to take all the livestock they would need to establish a new farm, and the journey cannot have been pleasant. The Viking colonists settled down to the farming life in their new home, or established themselves as traders and became town-dwellers. Both farming and trading were family businesses, and women were often left in charge when their husbands were away or dead. There is also evidence that women could make a living in commerce in the Viking Age. Merchants' scales and weights found in female graves in Scandinavia suggest an association between women and trade, while an account of a ninth-century Christian mission to Birka, a Swedish trading centre, relates the conversion of a rich widow Frideburg and her daughter Catla, who travelled to the Frisian port of Dorestad.

  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-09-06 | 08:15 AM
  • The 'great Danish army' that criss-crossed and conquered much of England in the 860s and 870s probably had camp-followers, although these need not have been Scandinavian women. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that a Viking army operating in the years 892-5 was accompanied by women and children, who had to be put in a place of safety while the army fought and harried. But this army arrived in England after raiding on the continent and at least some of the women may have come from there. The first Viking settlers who turned their swords into ploughshares are unlikely to have had Scandinavian wives.

    However, place-names and language suggest that there was considerable Scandinavian immigration into those areas of England controlled by the Viking invaders, later known as the 'Danelaw'. Although the nature and extent of the Scandinavian immigration is contested by scholars, the most convincing explanation of the evidence is that there was a peaceful migration of Scandinavian families to parts of the north and east of England throughout the tenth century. Recent finds of large numbers of low-grade, Scandinavian-style female jewellery, particularly in Lincolnshire, have been taken to show the presence of Scandinavian women there in the tenth century. These finds correlate well with the distribution of Scandinavian place-names in the same region: taken together, the evidence does suggest a significant Scandinavian presence.

    There was a further significant influx of Scandinavians into England during the reign of Cnut in the 11th century. These new, higher-class immigrants left their mark in London and the south, areas not previously subject to Scandinavian settlement. The rune stone from St Paul's, London, with its fragmentary inscription which tells us only that it was commissioned by Ginna (a woman) and T-ki (a man), shows two Scandinavians asserting their cultural affiliations at the heart of the English kingdom.

  • TTUAlison TTUAlison's Avatar 06-10-06 | 08:08 AM
  • Scandinavian immigration had a greater impact on the more sparsely-populated areas of the British Isles, especially the Northern Isles and the Hebrides. In these rural and maritime regions, the settlement pattern is less like England and more like the Scandinavian colonies of the North Atlantic, with the difference that there were indigenous populations (such as the Picts) to contend with. Whether these were driven out or whether they reached some accommodation with the incomers, the place-name evidence is compatible with an almost total Scandinavian takeover of Orkney and Shetland.

    Pagan graves provide plentiful archaeological evidence for early Scandinavian settlement in Scotland, and for female settlers. Two graves from Orkney show us two very different women: the young, stout and wealthy mother of newborn twins from Westness, and the high-status, elderly woman from Scar, buried in a boat along with a younger man and a child, a matriarch, perhaps even a priestess of Freya.

    While the Northern Isles are completely Scandinavian in language and culture, the Viking-settled areas in and around the Irish Sea had a more varied population. The rich female grave from the Isle of Man, popularly known as the 'Pagan Lady of Peel', shows a woman with almost wholly Scandinavian affinities, but the 30 or so Christian runic monuments of that island reveal a much more mixed picture. These are basically Celtic crosses with some Scandinavian-style decoration, including mythological scenes. The inscriptions are in runes and Old Norse, but the personal names (both Norse and Celtic) and the grammatically-confused language suggest a thoroughly mixed community. At least a quarter of these monuments commemorate women, mostly as wives, though a stone from Kirk Michael appears to be in memory of a foster-mother, and the inscription notes that 'it is better to leave a good foster-son than a bad son'.


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