A Step Closer to Shieldmaidens

A study making the rounds has gotten attention because it has confirmed, again, that Vikings sometimes buried women with what researchers had taken to be "male" grave goods. The study's authors are taking their findings a little further than the evidence suggests, and journalists are of course going even further than that.

The study holds:
Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men. Although, continuously reoccurring in art as well as in poetry, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena (Gardeła, 2013; Jesch, 1991; Jochens, 1996).... The existence of female warriors in Viking Age Scandinavia has been debated among scholars (Gardeła, 2013; Jesch, 1991; Jochens, 1996). Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons (Hernæs, 1984; Moen, 2011) (S1). The osteological analysis triggered questions concerning sex, gender and identity among Viking warriors.
The journalists got all the way here:
The remains of a powerful viking — long thought to be a man — was in fact a real-life Xena Warrior Princess, a study released Friday reveals.
So what this study does show is that high-ranking women in Viking society sometimes were buried with swords and other warrior-oriented grave goods. What it does not show, which both the study's authors and the journalists wish to show, is that the women in question fought in medieval battles. Like other later women of Northern extraction -- the Norman Philippa of Hainault, for example -- they may have commanded forces at a distance from the battle, in the manner of nobility or royalty. The Viking sagas and legends certainly seem to show that as well as the shieldmaidens we find sometimes, especially Lagertha from Saxo Grammaticus' mytho-history.

What you would want to show that someone was a fighter is archaological evidence similar to this from the grave of an English knight:
Four of the man's ribs showed healed fractures that may have occurred simultaneously, suggesting a single instance of trauma, researchers wrote in the pathology report. Another four ribs were in the process of healing, indicating that the man was still recovering from the injuries when he died. The other two damaged ribs also show evidence of trauma, and his left lower leg has an unusual twisting break, one that could have been caused by a direct blow or a rolled ankle, according to the report.
“This image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions. Hence, the biological sex of the individual was taken for granted,” the study authors wrote. Fair enough; let's not make the equal and opposite mistake by assuming that a person buried in a rich grave with warlike trappings was actually on the battlefield. This grave gives us a woman associated with war, but not necessarily a shieldmaiden.


Anonymous said...

ed in texas

Them again, the female warrior may have been the one left in charge of home defenses while the men went out on the attack. If you're in a battle while defending the home, you're more likely to just be overrun, so no hero's grave.

Grim said...

This particular grave is probably not that, although that is noncontroversial -- we have many instances of that in the sagas. This grave, though, shows the highest degree of martial trophies, so much so that it was long taken to be a leading example of how a Viking leader would be buried.

However, even today, we bury Presidents with the highest military honors we afford -- and almost none of them ever carried a gun in battle. Kings even today occupy the highest places in European orders of knighthood, and did even when European kings were more likely to command armies, but they were never at the forefront of battle (especially not while kings).

On the other hand, we might be missing some legitimate shieldmaidens by interpreting the evidence of their graves wrongly, too. We might be misinterpreting female bodies with wounds, for example, as having been injured in some other way.

So it's still possible, and I'm not trying to dismiss the possibility. Viking warrior women are occasionally attested in some accounts, although they tend to be the less solid histories and the more mythic ones. I'm just trying to point out that this doesn't get us there.

Grim said...

There's a parallel discussion later, too: there are occasional warrior women in the Arthurian stories, which become enormously popular among Norman (i.e., formerly Northmen) kings in England, Normandy, and Brittany. These stories also are wildly popular in the French language regions generally. Now these are clearly stories, and the warrior women aren't taken to be evidence for female warriors. On the other hand, Arabic language sources about the First Crusade report female women in armor riding among the French Crusaders -- though French language sources don't.

Now, in the Second Crusade, Eleanor of Aquitaine definitely did put on armor and go on Crusade. However, (a) we know that it was very controversial, which you wouldn't think it would have been if that had been common in the First Crusade, and (b) there's no evidence she fought -- she was there as I suspect this Viking female leader might have been, as the rightful commander by inheritance of blood but not as a warrior herself.

So, as yet, we can't be sure what to make of all this. But it's an interesting field of study.

Eric Blair said...

You have to get the pathology study, as you note.

There maybe all sorts of reason why.

Women with martial grave goods are found all over the steppes, which curiously enough, is where the Amazons were supposed to be, but no one still is sure just what was going on. But something was.

Ymar Sakar said...

The Japanese used the women of the samurai clans as home guard, when the warriors were deployed outside. This is more logical, since warriors come from women. Losing the women of the clan is actually a harder blow, long term, than losing an equal set of warriors. Although in the short term, losing warriors can mean annihilation.

Many women followed the crusades on the example of Jean De Arc. They were often treated as useless by the Orthodox or Vatican authorities, so they were sometimes abandoned and had to take on other less honorable work.

The Greek Orthodox and the Vatican were not supported nor approved by the triune godhead or divine counsel, thus the Holy Spirit did not enlighten them on how to use women crusaders.

In the age of muscle power, other than the Holy Spirit, no other training method had ever been found to produce women of superior caliber to men when it came to muscle power. The Eastern internal arts had not been transferred or known.

Jean De Arc was a notable anomaly because of how little time it took to educate her in siege works, open field battles, and personal combat using plate armor. It's not something even modern trainers can reproduce, especially not with illiterate peasant girls. Boadicea came from a Celtic warrior and noble family background.