By Ingvild Øye
Collegium Medievale, Vol 15 (2002)
Introduction: In this paper I will focus on Norse women’s social and economic position in the high and late Middle Ages, with Ragnhild Simonsdatter and the Papa Stour document of 1299 as a point of departure. Other women with different backgrounds, but all connected with Shetland and Faeroe, will be used as examples. Shetland and the other Norse island communities of the North Atlantic were at that time closely connected with Norway and had a parallel legal structure, as Norway had sovereignty over them from Greenland to Orkney.
The first and only time we meet Ragnhild Simonsdatter is in the celebrated 1299 document. The information about her is scanty and partly ambiguous, but it is nevertheless possible to form an impression of her by interpreting the document contextually. In what way can the events described in the document illuminate gender roles and women’s position in Norse society?
It was in fact Ragnhild’s statements and allegations which gave occasion to the 1299 document. Her accusation of economic malpractice threatened the honour and dignity of the duke’s representative, herra Thorvald Thoresson, and his position in the eyes of his ducal lord. That the women behind the allegations was presumably of inferior rank does not seem to have made the situation less grave. At any rate, Thorvald would not let the insulting allegation, made in public, remain unchallenged. He therefore picked, among people present, the witnesses necessary to evidence Ragnhild’s statements, and had their testimony duly recorded at the lawthing together with a statement of land prices and land rents current in Papa Stour of old.