Gender Ambiguity in Medieval Iceland: Legal Framework and Saga Dynamics

Gender Ambiguity in Medieval Iceland: Legal Framework and Saga Dynamics

By William Sayers

Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Volume 14, 2002-2003

Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript.

Abstract: Intentional or unintentional cross-dressing or participation in homosexual acts, failure to meet gender criteria or gross transgression of their limits, and other sexually marked aberrant behavior are reviewed under the rubric of gender ambiguity. In the judgmental genre of the Icelandic family saga, gender transgression is always central to plot dynamics and this is its only rationale for inclusion.

Women may be forced by circumstance to assume male roles when men prove inadequate to the tasks of honor, but this serves to reinforce the values of a viricentric society, and is not true female empowerment. Similarly, charges against men of effeminacy are often prompted by motives of honor and political advantage, but need have no counterpart in actual conduct. The purportedly realistic family sagas both idealize and masculinize Icelandic national history.

Introduction: One winter evening in 990 in western Iceland, seventeen-year-old Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir asked a male friend, Þórðr Ingunnarson, how she should repay her husband after he slapped her in response to her demand for finery. Þórðr smiled and said, Hér kan ek gott ráð til. Gerðu honum skyrtu ok brautgangs höfuðsmátt ok seg
skilit Við hann fyrir þessar sakar (‘I know just the thing. Make him a shirt with the neck so low-cut that it will give you grounds for divorcing him’).

By spring Guðrún was divorced and soon thereafter asked Dôrôr Hvárt er þar satt, Þórðr, at Auðr, konu þín, er jafnan i brókum, ok setgeiri i, en vat spjörrum mjök i skúa niðr? (‘whether the rumor is true[, Þórðr], that your wife Auô is often dressed in breeches, with a codpiece and long leggings?’). Þórðr said he hadn’t noticed, but one summer day at the general assembly he asked Guðrún what the penalty was for a woman who always wore breeches like a mans. Guðrún replied with legalistic precision, Slikt viti á konum at skapa fyrir þat ásitt hóf sem karlmanni, ef hann heñr höfuösmátt svá mikla, at sjái geirvörtur hans berar, brautgangssök hvártt veggja. (‘If women go about dressed as men, they invite the same treatment as do men who wear shirts cut so low that the nipples of their breasts can be seen – both are grounds for divorce’).

Click here to read this article from the University of Victoria


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!