By Ingvild Øye
The Viking Age: Ireland and the West: Papers from the Proceedings of the Fifteenth Viking Congress, 18-27 August 2005 (Four Courts Press, 2010)
Introduction: The role of women in early towns has long been a rather neglected field of research. What do we know about women’s role in these societies? What did women do and how numerous were they? And did they pay the same role in Viking-Age proto-towns as in more developed medieval urban communities? In this paper, I will take a close look at these questions, focusing on Scandinavian early towns in the Viking Age and Early Middle Ages and on some of the archaeological finds that may reflect female crafts – textile-production equipment and textile production – and thus, indirectly, the presence of women. Shedding light on women may also shed light on the urban structure, demographically, economically and socially.
A common feature of the populations in both medieval and later towns is an imbalance between the sexes, often with a surplus of men. It has, however, been claimed that women formed a normal part of the population in Viking-Age urban communities, taking full part in manufacturing and commercial transactions, mainly as wives of merchants and craftsmen who ran small family businesses. The gender issue has not been analyzed on a broader basis or as a special topic, either for proto-towns or early medieval towns. By focusing on some archaeological finds that may reflect female crafts and their practitioners in early urban contexts, I will draw attention to the role of women in textile production, a function that may have been far more important in the early urban communities than has hitherto been taken into account. Here, Birka, Hedeby, Oslo and Trondheim will be used as examples.