Outlaws, women and violence: In the social margins of saga literature
By Joonas Ahola
Saga and East Scandinavia : Proceedings of 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala. Ed. Ney Agneta, Henrik Williams, Fredrik Ljungqvist (Uppsala, 2009)
Introduction: In the society that the Icelandic family sagas depict, whose public sphere was ruled by men, violence was an extraordinary extent of action for women – but it takes place. The image of women in sagas responded to the ideas that prevailed in the context. Representations of the image were necessarily if not acceptable, at least conceivable but within the restrictions of the saga genre. In this paper, I will focus on social factors that would guide the interpretation of occurrences of female violence in the saga literature.
Since women’s possibilities to social influence were quite limited in the past as depicted in sagas, the final target of their actions often required an intermediate of the opposite sex. Their contribution to conflicts often was limited to arbitration or whetting.
Solidarity as a social act had wide consequences since every Icelander belonged to complicated social networks. In a state of emergency, like in a raving blood feud, solidarity towards a party was easily interpreted as hostility towards the other. Outlaw figures in saga literature often are described seeking and finding protection from women. If a person was condemned to outlawry he was not only an enemy of his prosecutor, the plaintiff, but simultaneously an enemy of the law: by outlawry, he was denied any protection from the law. This made any assistance of an outlaw a highly risky and morally questionable deed: one which required strong reasons.
It is remarkable to which extent the accounts of women taking violent acts in saga literature are connected to their expressions of solidarity towards an outlaw. Repetition of a narrative element such as this connection indicates its significance to the saga writers and their audiences. Repeated narrative elements cannot be considered as mere empty literary motifs, or clichés, without expressive power. They are meaningful expressions with a narrative function.