Shieldmaidens in the Gesta Danorum (I-IX): The collective literary imaginary and history

Shieldmaidens in the Gesta Danorum (I-IX): The collective literary imaginary and history

By Francesca Zappatore

Thesis, University of Bologna, 2016

The Viking shieldmaiden Lagertha, depicted in The Northmen in Britain (1913) by Eleanor Means Hull

Abstract: In this thesis, I will investigate whether shieldmaidens’ symbolic meaning in the collective imaginary had originates in a timeless heritage (if, for instance, the maiden warrior can be defined as an archetype) or whether they are the re-elaboration of specific figures (and in this case, it is necessary to identify the historical characters, the way in which they are determined, etc.).

Introduction: The last three decades have seen a growing interest towards the understanding of the role of women in the Viking Age with peculiar attention to the Old Norse works of literature, which “[have] been explored from various interdisciplinary perspectives”. More precisely, medieval Scandinavian literature and myths are a multifaceted complex of textual sources, whose historical accuracy still remains a controversial topic in the academic field of Germanic philology.

The interpretation of maiden warriors both in history and in the collective imaginary is therefore a major area of interest within the field of Old Norse studies. Moreover, the articulated scholar debate about the actual existence of these emancipated women in the heathen North led me to the conclusion that firstly it appears essential to understand their scope beyond the historical facts, both for the society they lived in and for the one of those who conveyed their deeds. Undeniably, in the field of Old Norse studies we can find several scholars who deny Viking women’s active participation in warfare by adducing the simplistic motivation of these characters’ fictitiousness are not open to an objective and exhaustive analysis of the literary witnesses which convey the deeds of women warriors.

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