Relations between people were always the basis of civilization. Inside those relations, there are many profound and less deep, but maybe the most important ties, in general, are those between men and women, which is why we are going to talk about Viking gender roles in today's article.
Believe it or not, Viking culture, like all others, had to deal with gender roles as well. We could think that because they were warrior civilization, their relation towards women was bad because men are physically stronger than women. We could think that, but we wouldn't be entirely right.
Even though Vikings were average medieval culture, there were a few things that made it different from others. That being said, many historians nowadays are trying to present Viking society to be based on absolute equality, which is really far from reality.
Let's dive in.
Basic Gender Roles
Viking man and woman
Regarding the division of labor, Vikings didn't have similar ideals to us today. They didn't believe that either a man or a woman should step out of their respective gender roles.
Men were higher in social status than women, but in their culture, people were respected if they managed to fulfill their gender role in the way it was expected from them. This meant that a man was supposed to be an honorable warrior or farmer and for a woman to keep her household in perfect condition and to take care of their clothing.
When it comes to the female part, the job of maintaining the household and sewing clothes wasn't looked down, and if done properly, it brought with it genuine respect from the community.
The main problem was that men could do a lot more jobs than women. Men were the only ones who could've been judges or hold any political position. Only men were expected to be warriors (more on that later); only men could inherit the land (women could do it only if she didn't have any male relative whatsoever).
Of course, as was everywhere, there were individuals of both genders who were working outside of their gender roles. Still, for the purpose of explaining everything in the best possible manner, we are going to stick here to the general ideas of gender roles in Viking society.
For women, the choice of jobs was very small. Usually, their main role, as in most medieval countries, was taking care of the family and maintaining the household.
Unlike other societies, however, women were given more responsibilities in that household. They were in charge of the family finances, they were managing the farm while the husband was away, and if they were widowed (which wasn't a rare case in Viking age), they could become important landowners.
Gender Roles in Times of War
We should probably start with this - warriors in the Viking age were men, period. There is no evidence to support the claim that famous shield maidens were anything other than mythical and folklore warriors.
Men were those who went on campaigns, men were responsible for defending the household and men were the ones who received military training.
Wait. Is this really true??
Stolpe excavations in Sweden in 1889 found a grave of which they concluded that since the skeleton was buried alongside game pieces, sword, and horses, it belonged to a high ranking soldier. New DNA testing decidedly proved that skeleton is female. Most of the scientific community jumped to the idea that there was finally proof of shieldmaiden existence.
On the other side, there is a lot of other evidence that could challenge that claim.
The first one is that a lot of bones during the initial excavation were mislabeled, so no one is absolutely sure that that skeleton belonged to that grave.
Second, there were no injuries to the bones, which meant that it was either a perfect warrior, or the skeleton was no warrior at all.
And, in the end, being buried with weapons didn't necessarily mean that a person buried that way was a warrior.
Shieldmaidens...Just a myth or fierce warriors?!
Like in modern times, people could've been buried with practically anything since that was usually a part of the "decoration''. Judith Jesch, a famous professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham, said that she always thought that the idea of female Viking warriors was mostly influenced by the 20th and 21st-century women. She added that modern women would like to see that some women throughout history were fierce warriors and influential leaders as they are today.
But, in our study of history, and every other science really, we should never let our personal wishes and beliefs cloud our judgment since it does no favor to either us or to the history that we study.
Some could think that valkyries were a reliable source of existence of Norse female warriors, but they could easier be connected with magic as sorceresses than as warriors.
Magic as a Gender Issue
Probably the only thing that we are going to talk about here that could've been done exclusively by women was magic.
If men wanted to practice seidr, and some cases of that were recorded, they were fiercely shunned by their communities and sometimes even killed.
This was mostly because magic was connected with the principle of femininity. If a man wanted to practice it, he was considered feminine, a quality which no Viking man could live with.
This could be further related to the problem of homosexuality. For example, Vikings tolerated homosexuality and considered it natural. But, since part of the Viking raids was a rape of both genders' defeated enemies, the passive position in sex was deemed to be weak, feminine, and humiliating. The same was thought for gay men who participated in submissive sex.
That being told, seidr was considered covert, secret, feminine, and passive. Therefore, it was strictly prohibited for men. Since women were already regarded as feminine and submissive, it was considered normal for them to practice magic.
Marriage in the Viking Era
Probably the only thing that was very different for Vikings than for the rest of the civilized world of that age was marriage.
Let's start with the similarities.
When it came to negotiating marriage, a man could negotiate for himself, while the bride-to-be's family negotiated on her behalf. She couldn't even choose if she wanted to marry someone or not. The decision was entirely made by her family.
Men were the only ones who could propose marriage. For women, such an option did not exist.
When it comes to adultery, for men, there was no punishment. It was considered normal, and some rulers even had several wives and concubines which resembled Ottoman harems. If a woman cheated on her husband, on the other hand, her husband was within the right to kill both her and her lover.
Now the things that were different.
One of the most remarkable things regarding the relations between men and women in Norse society was their divorce.
Divorce was easily accomplished and could've been initiated by both sides. If the man was the one whose fault was it for the termination of marriage, a woman was provided a substantial amount of money from him to support herself after the marriage, or, as we would call it today, alimony.
The second important thing regarding marriage was violence.
It was extremely prohibited and even considered shameful for a man to hit a woman or to physically hurt her in any way. This was, for example, seen in saga Brennu-Njals, where angry Gunnar slaps his wife Hallgerdur because she stole some food during the famine (theft was also strictly prohibited), and she makes a promise to him that she will remember that.
Some years later, he is attacked in his house, but he manages to hold off the attackers by arrows until his bowstrings snap. He asks her for a lock of hair to repair the string, but she refuses, reminding him of the slap she received years before that.
For Vikings, hurting women and children, even by accident, was considered extremely shameful, and it brought great dishonor.
Viking Gender Roles in Popular Culture
The most famous example of Viking's gender roles is a History Channel's TV show The Vikings, which shows semi-historical Viking figures during Vikings' golden age.
Even though a lot of things that are happening in the TV series are accurate and historical, full equality of men and women, mostly shown through Lagertha and her shield maidens isn't, and that is only one of many examples of popular culture's attempt to romanticize history and fierce relations that existed between people back in the day.
Even though Viking's gender roles weren't perfect (especially from 21st-century standpoint), they weren't horrible either, considering it was the medieval period.
As a matter of fact, Muslim writers and travelers who visited the Viking lands were shocked by how good the women were treated, especially when compared to the Muslim world and most of Europe.
All of this doesn't mean that things for them were good. It only means that somewhere out there, they were worse.
So, men, if you want to be kind to your women in this modern age, keep them close to you, and if someone tries to justify the violence against them, just tell them what Vikings thought of that, and no one can call them weak, right?
Until our next meeting,