Women in Viking-Age Scandinavia, or, who were the ‘shieldmaidens’?
By Birgit Sawyer
Vinland Revisited; the Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. Shannon Lewis-Simpson (Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003)
Introduction: It has been generally supposed that in Viking-age Scandinavia women had a higher status, greater freedom and fewer restraints on their activity than later, i.e. after the conversion to Christianity. This view was already current in the nineteenth century and was closely related to the belief that the freedom and equality supposed to characterize Germanic society survived longer in Scandinavia than elsewhere. Few scholars still accept that interpretation of Germanic and Scandinavian society but belief in free Nordic women has lasted better and continues to influence discussions of the period. It is therefore necessary for modern students of women’s history to consider how this idea originated and on what basis.
Earlier discussions of the topic has made much use of twelfth- and thirteenth-century literature, Icelandic sagas and the work of the Danish history writer Saxo Grammaticus. Icelandic authors who describe their pagan past let us meet many active, strong-willed, and often war-like women, but such dominant women are conspicuously absent from the sagas written about contemporary Iceland. In them the women are pale shadows of their predecessors; passive, submissive, and completely subordinate to their husbands and kinsmen. The same contrast between pagan and Christian women is found in the major histories that cover both periods, Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla. The conclusion has been that this contrast reflects real changes in women’s conditions, mainly as a consequence of Christianization. According to this view an early – pagan – ideal of active and martial ‘shield-maidens’ was replaced by the passive and submissive ‘madonna’ ideal favoured by the church.
Few, if any, scholars nowadays believe that women warriors led war bands in Viking-age Scandinavia; they have either been relegated to the world of amazon myths or explained away in other ways. Even so, the shieldmaidens still figure prominently both in popular beliefs and scholarly discussions, and in this lecture I will address two questions: a) how are we to interpret the descriptions of these war-like women in the past, and b) does the contrast between active pagan and passive Christian women reflect real changes?