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Gender equality and the Vikings

Modern-day Scandinavia is regarded as a model of equality between the sexes. A new study indicates that this may go back to the early Middle Ages.

Economic historians at the University of Tübingen have compared the health of men and women from the past thousand years, using data gathered from historical teeth and skeletons. The data from Scandinavia indicated that women in rural areas were in a comparatively favorable position as early as the Viking Age – in the late 8th to 11th centuries – and in the medieval period which followed. With the women having the same or even better health values than men, its suggests girls and boys had relatively equal access to food and other resources.

The study, conducted by Dr. Laura Maravall and Professor Jörg Baten, has been published in the latest edition of Economics and Human Biology. It was based on European data from the Global History of Health Project (GHHP) and incorporates data from studies on human skeletons from more than one hundred European sites from the past 2,000 years. The researchers looked especially closely at the information provided by teeth. If a person is undernourished or seriously ill in early childhood, their tooth enamel sustains permanent damage, known as linear enamel hypoplasia.

“We hypothesized that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage,” explains Laura Maravall. “The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population.” The close connection between the relative frequency of enamel damage and the general state of health was demonstrated by measurement of the corresponding thigh bones. The length of the femur provides information about height, which is relatively greater in individuals with good health and a good diet.

The detailed analysis of the dental data for Scandinavian men and women in the countryside suggested a high degree of equality even in Viking times. “Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” says Jörg Baten. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”

Equality outside of the cities appears to have been linked to specialization in raising livestock. “Raising crops was something primarily done by men because it required greater muscular strength; but raising animals enabled women to contribute a great deal to the family income. That probably raised their position in society,” says Baten. Scandinavian women were also well-off compared to other women in Europe. Women experienced significantly less equality in the Mediterranean region and in Eastern European cities.

The scholars also point to other research which great independence and equality in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. In the article they notes that:

Archaeological findings from graves dated between the third/ fourth and tenth/eleventh century in Denmark and Scandinavia show that females comprised many of the wealthiest burials and gained respect with age … Norse women were better positioned regarding cultural norms than in other regions. For instance, based on reports by Arab emissaries who visited Viking sites, women were relatively free in their marriages and had the right to divorce. Concerning hereditary norms, on some occasions they even had the right to inherit land after the death of their children and parents. 

“The research has provided us with a great deal of evidence on the relationship between gender equality and a country’s economic development. Gender equality not only increases women’s prosperity, it also has a positive impact on economic growth and development in general,” Baten notes. The researchers in the project speculate that Scandinavian women have been able to maintain their strong place in society up to the industrial era and beyond. Maravall and Baten say it may be one reason that Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are prosperous and economically stable nations.

The article “Valkyries: Was gender equality high in the Scandinavian periphery since Viking times? Evidence from enamel hypoplasia and height ratios” appears in Economics and Human Biology. Click here to access the article from Elsevier

Top Image: Christian Krogh: Illustration for Håkon jarls saga, Heimskringla 1899-edition.

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