From traders to travellers, women in the Viking age led rich and adventurous lives, argues Judith Jesch…
Viking women as homemakers
As wife, host, teacher and storyteller, the mistress of the household was the fulcrum of Viking family life
There's no doubt about it: Viking women lived in a man's world. Viking men fought the wars, did most of the trading and were even, strictly speaking, the only true Vikings – the Old Norse word víkingar referred solely to men. For this point in history, however, Viking women enjoyed a high degree of social freedom. They could own property, ask for a divorce if not treated properly, and they shared responsibility for running farms and homesteads with their menfolk. They were also protected by law from a range of unwanted male attention.
Their chief sphere of influence was in the home, beginning when they married, often at an early age. By contemporary standards, Viking home life was noisy, dirty and smelly, but cosy and communal too. Most Vikings lived in a long, single-roomed structure, where seating and sleeping accommodation were arranged around a central hearth. Such ‘longhouses’ were the hubs of Viking domestic life, where people cooked, ate, socialised and slept.
As well as husband, wife and children, the Viking household was made up of elderly relatives and foster-children – and the role of caring for this extended family typically fell to women. The woman was also responsible for entertaining honoured guests, although it was primarily men who conducted practical, legal and political negotiations when the home was used for business.
Another important role played by women was handing on knowledge to the next generation in the home – in part by sharing poems and stories, including the famous myths and sagas that were later written down in medieval Iceland.
The mistress of the household also had responsibility for its valuables. As the Viking home was also the centre of a family business, this included any raw materials produced – products that could be sold if there was a surplus. The discovery of weighing scales in certain female graves – they are particularly common in Russia – suggest that women, especially those living in urban areas, sometimes took charge of the family’s finances and may have negotiated terms of sale or trade.
A married couple of húsbóndi (an Old Norse word which gives us English 'husband') and hýfreyja (wife) presided over the home as partners. The status accorded to the role of wife is clear from an inscription on the Hassmyra rune stone (Sweden), in which a bereaved húsbóndi claims that "no better hýfreyja will come to Hassmyra to run the estate" than his late wife, Odindisa. Common signs of wives' social status are the pairs of ornamental oval brooches, used as dress fasteners, found in large numbers of Viking-era female graves.
Viking women as artisans
The Viking home was powered by women’s skilled work
The top of a Viking woman's to-do list of domestic duties was feeding her family and guests. And in a time before mass production, the preparation of food and drink was tough work. To bake flatbread, women first had to make flour by grinding corn. Meat and fish had to be preserved, while labour-intensive dairy products such as cheese, skyr (a yoghurt-like cheese) and butter featured in their diet too.
Women also made clothes for the household. Wool, once shorn from the sheep, had to be spun using a hand spindle and then woven on an upright loom. Linen was made from beating flax that was then also spun into a thread for weaving. Smaller textile items such as socks were produced by nålbinding, a form of single-needle knitting. For more delicate work such as decorative borders on garments, tablet-weaving was an important skill.
Women also created tapestries to decorate the homes of wealthier households and important buildings. While few textiles survive from the time, the fragments of the Oseberg tapestry, excavated from a double-female ship burial in Norway (c830 AD), are intricate and sophisticated. More prosaically, women made the sails for Viking ships by stitching together woven strips of wool.
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Viking women and religion
The female head of the family often doubled up as its spiritual guide
With many gods and goddesses in the pantheon, and a host of other supernatural beings stalking the Earth, the matter of who you believed in, and how and where you contacted them, varied across the Viking world. Cult practices could take place outdoors or in religious buildings. But it seems it was common to worship one’s favoured deity in the home.
Evidence suggests such rites were the province of the female head of the household. In the early 11th century, the Icelandic poet Sigvatr came across women on a remote Swedish farm performing a sacrifice to the elves – although, as a Christian, he was not allowed to witness the ceremony.
The term gyðja for a female cult practitioner may refer to such women, whose social status required that they perform religious rites. There are parallels with the better-documented masculine role of the goði – someone who seems to have had both secular and supernatural power in the Viking age.
We also have evidence of more specialised, travelling cult practitioners, both male and female, although what they actually did is still obscure.
There were a number of Norse goddesses – such as Freyja, the goddess of love, sex and beauty, and Hel, the partly decomposed ruler of the netherworld – which we know about mainly through later Icelandic sources, although we can be sure about the Viking age origins of at least some of these figures.
From the evidence we can also deduce that Scandinavian women were drawn to Christianity, with devotion to the Virgin Mary confirmed in 11th-century Viking runic inscriptions from Sweden and Norway. An enormous rune stone from Dynna, Norway – on which a mother commemorates her dead daughter – depicts a nativity scene.
Viking women at war
Whether they fought in battle or not, conflict was a fact of life for many Viking women
War in the Viking age was fought at close quarters with swords, spears and axes. Women could not escape such violence, especially if they were part of a group or community under attack, or travelling with a group of merchants who had to defend their wares. However, conclusive evidence for female participation in war as trained and regular warriors is currently slight, despite the recent interpretation of a 10th-century ‘warrior’ burial at Birka in Sweden as being that of a woman. The significance of this burial is still under debate, while in other instances women found buried with ‘weapons’ had actually been laid to rest with everyday tools, such as axes for chopping firewood.
Recent research on the Great Heathen Army, a Scandinavian force that harried the kingdoms of England in the 860s and 870s, suggests this was less an army and more a large, mixed and mobile group of people. They engaged in crafts and trading as well as raiding, and certainly included women and children in their number, as evidenced by textile-making tools found at Torksey, Lincolnshire, and a children’s burial at Repton, Derbyshire.
When this group was encamped, no doubt everyone had to join in the defence if they were attacked. But as the Viking armies in England became more organised, there were other options. In the 890s, notes the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hæsten’s army put their women and children in a place of safety in East Anglia before embarking on raids.
The female role in war is also explored in Old Norse mythology, where valkyries – armed female spirits – assist Odin, the god of war. Their job is to select the warriors allowed into Valhalla, who will help Odin await Ragnarök – an apocalyptic series of events including a deadly battle between the gods and their enemies.
Viking women as explorers
Intrepid female travellers journeyed to destinations as far-flung as Jerusalem, Rome, Russia and North America
The Viking age was a time of exploration. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, those with roots in Scandinavia travelled to the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, and crossed the Atlantic to reach North America. Women participated in most of these voyages, and in the trading and settlement that were their main purpose. There is evidence for this in the Scandinavian-style female jewellery found extensively in present-day Russia, Ukraine and further afield, showing that the Viking traders and rulers known as the ‘Rus’ took their wives and families with them. The female jewellery discovered by metal detectorists in eastern England in the last few decades offers further evidence of female settlement in the Danelaw (the Viking-dominated parts of north and east England).
As for Iceland, an uninhabited island at the beginning of the Viking age, it would not exist as a nation today if its settlers had not included women, with some born in the British Isles rather than in Scandinavia. While most of the first settlers of Iceland recorded in the medieval Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) are men, 13 women are named as having made the journey in an open ship to claim land in Iceland. Most famous of these is Aud (also known as Unn) the Deep-Minded, who is celebrated in Laxdæla saga for her achievements in moving her whole household from Scotland to Iceland, via Orkney and the Faroes.
Further afield, both the archaeology of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where a spindle whorl and bone needle have been excavated, and the Icelandic sagas, suggest that women participated in the voyages to North America. And with the coming of Christianity, women were soon going on pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem, as in the case of the 11th-century Swedish woman Ingirun, who set up a rune stone in memory of herself. The inscription states that she intended to travel to Jerusalem – and she appears to have been uncertain as to whether she would come back!
Judith Jesch is professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham. Her books include The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015)
This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine