We have a vivid image of Viking men – tall blond and pretty savage fighters and warriors, seagoing raiders who raided vulnerable neighbours and stole what they needed to live. But what were the lives of Viking women like?
The Norse word vikingar really only applies to men – it’s a description not of a race of people, but of the warriors of the Norse races. The Vikings settled not just in Scandinavia and as far east as Russia, but over the seas in Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, where their descendants live to this day, and of course, women and children went with the men to found these settlements.
So what were Viking women like? Well, women married to warriors who would be away for long periods at a time, and might not even return, and who were expected to move with their menfolk to settle in new countries would not have been shrinking violets. They must have been courageous, tough, skilled and resourceful.
The journey to settle new lands would have been made in small open boats, accompanied by all the farm animals and household possessions, as well as children and old folks to be cared for. When they arrived, there may have been rudimentary structures built, but it’s like that they had to start more or less from scratch to build shelter and to start to farm and fish in order to feed themselves and their families.
The idea of a woman looking after a home while men worked away from the home is a relatively recent one. Anyone who has been on a traditional working farm knows that women and children are in indispensable part of the work force, and Viking women would have been no different.
A lot of the evidence which we have about the lives of Viking women comes from graves. Some women clearly achieved very high status, and were buried with ornate jewellery and other possessions. One grave has been found in which a woman was buried with weighing scales – the tools of trade of a merchant. In a world were life was often short, women had t be able to take care of themselves and their families, and so it’s not surprising that they seem to have been able to take part in activities which enabled them to earn their living.
There were three classes of women. Slaves, yeomen and aristocrats, and their lives would have been somewhat different. The majority class was likely to have been yeomen – respectable, perhaps we could call them middle class, involved in activities such as spinning and weaving. Slaves were captives from other tribes, and would have done the heavy work, perhaps occasionally being able to marry into the yeomanry. Aristocrats would have been the wives of rules and the best wariors, and of course, priestesses.
Women’s grave goods often include keys, symbolising their control over the house and the all- important store rooms. They held sway over the home, and were often responsible for the dairy herds, which were an important contributor to the survival of the family in harsh Scandinavian and northern European winters.
The roles of women and men in settled communities were strictly defined. Women seemed to have been essentially the property of their husbands, with little say in community affairs. However as history is written largely by the men, it’s likely that there were some very powerful women around, especially widows, and there is evidence of such women becoming rich and powerful land owners.
Women did receive strong protection under the law, especially from the unwanted attentions of men. The attitude of the law was one of chivalry, so that women were able to move freely in society without fear of being pestered. This law would be beneficial to men, as they would want the reassurance of the community’s protection for their womenfolk when they were away on protracted raids.
Of course, a modern popular image of Viking womanhood is the beautiful, wise and strong Lagertha, in the TV series Vikings, who is shown as a Shieldmaiden – a woman warrior. Although scholars argue as to whether Shieldmaidens are simply mythological, the weight of evidence does seem to indicate that women did fight alongside men in battle. These would have been women specifically called or chosen for their courage and skill, and it’s unlikely that each and every woman would have fought – the job of reproducing is too important to an embattled people to risk the womenfolk without need.
It is likely that under attack, women would have fought alongside men, as they have in every society. Women used to hard and heavy work would certainly been prepared to defend their children and homes with whatever weapon came to hand.
Women also functioned as priestesses, and this would have given them power in the community. Graves reveal that they were amongst the first adherents of Christianity.
Looking back over eleven hundred years or more, we can’t get an exact picture of the lives of Viking women. There is undoubtedly much more to learn, and fascinating histories to be revealed of astonishing women.