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Warriors, heroes and companions: negotiating masculinity in Viking-Age England

Warriors, heroes and companions: negotiating masculinity in Viking-Age England

By D.M. Hadley

Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, Vol.15 (2008)

Abstract: Detailed analysis of the construction of gender identities has transformed our understanding of many aspects of early medieval society, yet the study of the Vikings in Britain has largely remained immune to this branch of scholarship. In responding to this lacuna, this paper examines the gendered dimension of the funerary record of the Scandinavians in England in the ninth and tenth centuries, and suggests that the emphasis on masculine display, in both the burial and the sculptural record, is not merely a quirk of survival, but rather it has much to reveal about the negotiation of lordship in the context of conquest and settlement.

Introduction: For a generation of scholars gender has been an important analytical category. It is, as a result, now widely recognised that femininity and masculinity were not immutable organic categories, but that they were socially constructed, historically contingent and diverse. The plurality and fluidity of gender identities are increasingly being elucidated, as are the multifarious contexts in which they were constructed and contested. Gender is now also understood as a primary signifier of power in society, and as a mechanism of social inclusion and exclusion. The study of gender has accordingly transformed our understanding of many aspects of early medieval society.

However, the study of Scandinavian settlement in Britain in the ninth and tenth centuries has largely failed to absorb the insights of this generation of scholarship. A chapter in Christine Fell’s volume Women in Anglo-Saxon England and Judith Jesch’s book Women in the Viking Age both offered invaluable wide-ranging, interdisciplinary surveys of the role of women during the period of Scandinavian raids and settlement, but they were written at a time when researchers were principally concerned with increasing the visibility of women in the past, rather than with engaging in the construction of gender identities.

In developing the work of these two pioneers, and in seeking to respond to subsequent advancements in gender studies, this paper explores aspects of masculine identity in the context of Scandinavian conquest and settlement in England.

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