Thursday, 12 March 2020

The search for women in the Viking Age (Thursday 26 March)

Vikings! Bewhiskered helmeted warriors brandishing swords. Fearsome energetic invaders arriving in magnificent longships. Men of the other side, our opponents. ... Few of us will not have been introduced as children to the Vikings. For many of us they entered our history as glamorous exciting figures: dangerous, effective, brave. And now we know more, how easy is it to throw off the mythology of those early encounters as archaeological and historical research reveal a more nuanced account of the lives and deeds of those men and women of the early Middle Ages?

From the late eighth century to the late eleventh people from Scandinavia travelled, raided and traded across much of Europe. Trade and military conquest established Vikings in increasing numbers in the British Isles, France, the Baltic, Kievan Rus (parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and Sicily. They traded throughout much of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the Levant. Their seafaring took them to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. They knew how to build sleek slender longships capable of travelling great distances at high speed. They possessed pre-eminent navigational and seafaring skills.

Viking men were clearly expected to be men of action. But what of Viking women? Historical research has shown that women could have property rights and the status of head of family. They were allowed authority in matters of religion. There were women poets and runecarvers. Women could be merchants and dispensers of medicine. In Scandinavian folklore and mythology there were shield-maidens - female warriors - but the historical evidence has been heavily debated.

In the tenth century a large ceremonial burial took place at Birka, near Stockholm. It was excavated in the 1970s and found to contain a human skeleton, a large number of weapons and the bones of two horses. Study of the human bones and recent DNA analysis (2017) confirmed that this was the grave of a woman. But what could be the conclusion? Was she necessarily a warrior? Some other Viking women were also buried with weapons. What does this tell us?

The great Viking era and the Viking empire ended almost a thousand years ago. Scholars who seek to understand and interpret the history of the Vikings face a unique set of challenges, Viking artefacts reflect a restless mobile people who spread widely and were accustomed to adapting to local circumstances. In their leisure time they appear to have been great tellers of stories. The stories add to the fictions that may distort later understanding of reality.

In our next lecture Dr Chris Callow of the University of Birmingham will endeavour to illuminate the lives of women in Viking society, sharing with us some of the challenges posed by the evidence and its interpretation.

Mike Short